Christopher Ryan Ph.D.

Sex at Dawn

Fascinating Figures: Alan Watts

Alan Watts: priest, scholar, monk, author, trickster guru.

Posted Jul 02, 2009

I was recently asked to write a series of profiles of fascinating people and events from the 60s and 70s for a Spanish magzine called Cañamo. Because the various cultural revolutions that swept through the U.S. and the rest of Europe never made it past the dictatorship in control of Spain, the editors asked me to write about some worthy figures the Spanish might not know of. Here's the first article, about Alan Watts.

Parapsychologists have long noted that people who appear to have authentic supernatural abilities are often also gifted illusionists. The assumed explanation is that they began to use these abilities when very young to impress and/or offer assistance to friends and family – but sometimes the abilities fail. So, in a predictable compensatory maneuver, they resorted to using tricks and illusions when the real magic wouldn’t come. This makes it difficult to study these people, of course, because you sometimes can catch them in their tricks, which makes you doubt the authenticity of what appears to be truly mysterious.

It could be said that Alan Watts was in some ways similar to these psychic/magicians. The first essay you will see in a collection called “The Essential Alan Watts” is “The Trickster Guru.” The beauty of Alan Watts is that his tricks were of such sophistication and charm that they approached the level of magic, and therefore there was no need to pretend they were anything but tricks.  Let me explain.

Alan Watts was one of the best-known interpreters of Eastern philosophies for the West. He published his first essay on Buddhism when he was just 20 years old, in 1935. By the time he died on his famous house-boat in the San Francisco Bay, in 1973, he had published more than 25 books and hundreds of essays, articles, lectures and seminars. His life was an adventure: he was an Anglican priest, Buddhist scholar, professor of philosophy, consultant at psychiatric hospitals, and entertainer. He was a gifted and prolific writer, but he was not a man who spent his life sitting alone in a room with a typewriter.  His life drove his writing much more than his writing drove his life.

When I wrote earlier that Watts was a bit of a “trickster guru,” what I meant was that he really understood the essence of Eastern philosophies – particularly Zen Buddhism – so well that he saw the illusion underlying everything, including his own brilliance and fame. So his teachings on the big questions: the nature of life and death, of love, of transcendence, of reality, of consciousness, and so on – were all infused with humor and self-deprecating irony. He was, above all, a guru who didn’t take himself, or his teachings, too seriously.  For example, he wrote that, “a person who truly believes in God would never try and thrust the idea on anyone else, just as when you understand mathematics, you are not a fanatical proponent of the idea that two and two are four.”

Let’s end with Alan Watt’s own words concerning the self-importance of humans: “The point is that rapport with the marvelously purposeless world of nature gives us new eyes for ourselves – eyes in which our very self-importance is not condemned, but seen as something quite other than what it imagines itself to be. In this light, all the weirdly abstract and pompous pursuits of men are suddenly transformed into natural marvels of the same order as the immense beaks of the toucans and hornbills, the fabulous tails of the birds of paradise, the towering necks of the giraffes, and the vividly polychromed posteriors of the baboons… Seen thus, the self-importance of man dissolves in laughter.”