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Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Alan Watts 1915 - 1973

I have started a study and discussion group to study the life and work of Alan Watts. It is surprising how few people are familiar with his work or even recognize his name because he and D.T. Suzuki were among the few the pioneers in brining eastern philosophy and practice to the west, preceding all the Gurus that came to the west and literally spawning in the 1960’s the huge public interest in what came to be called the “New Age” movement.

Alan Watts was first of all a scholar of eastern religion who came from the UK and taught at Berkley in the U.S. But secondly he was a renegade and a self-proclaimed “rascal” of the beatnik era (1950’s) hanging out with the likes of Alan Ginsburg and Timothy Leary. He soon began to move beyond the hallowed halls of Berkley to give impromptu talks to small groups on board his houseboat moored in San Francisco bay. No doubt though, the material in these talks, that is available still today in the form of books and audiotapes, was indeed the material that inspired the “hippy” era and transformed a generation. It was this renegade attitude that had Watts escape the stogy university environment and have a profound impact on a whole generation.

To get an inkling of what Watts and a few others accomplished we must take into account that even though the religious beliefs and practices of the east enjoy a history predating Christianity, that previous to the 1950’s, in the west, eastern religion was considered for the most part to have little or no relevance outside scholarly and historic interest. Even such practices as daily sitting meditation that has exploded right into the 21st century were at one time considered esoteric in the west and often down right weird. As part of this explosion there was a myriad of “spiritual” weekend workshops, retreats, books and videos that followed.

Allan Watts, throughout his talks emphasizes that Buddhism does not fit the westerner’s definition of religion but is instead more accurately likened to, of all things, psychotherapy. This will come as a surprise to most people. As such, the impact of this marriage of eastern and western thought is has been felt most significantly in the areas of mental health. Buddhism traditionally addresses human suffering through creating a direct experience of well being. Western psychology has primarily focused on dissecting the ego and “working through” the barriers the ego constructs to prevent access to this experience of well being that certain sects of Buddhism promise us through “sudden enlightenment”. Alan Watts provides amusing insights into this interesting and tenuous marriage.

So who was Alan Watts in his own words? Over and over Alan Watts contends he is not a psychotherapist, guru or a preacher. Instead, in his talks and lectures he makes no claims to being anything other than an entertainer. But do we listen to Alan Watts simply to be entertained? All I can say is that I hope not because hidden among his entertaining stories, metaphors, amusing anecdotes and impeccable logic are the teachings of the Tao revealing how to be in life with grace and ease.

In the west, typically our experience of life is that it is complicated or obscure. Maybe that is why the 2,500-year-old message in Buddhism is seen as too simple to have any credibility. Alan Watts tells us that as self aware and imaginative creatures we have gotten out of touch with the experience of being part of the Tao, the natural order and unfolding of all that is. But self-awareness and imagination are the gifts with which we have been that make us human. These are the gifts that set us apart from the other animals. But is this a boon or a curse? Because with the same eyes with which we discriminate the light from the dark we have been given the ability to see ourselves as separate. We have been given access to the experience of I and thou, the experience of a world separate from ourselves. Inherently in this experience what lurks at the depths of our imagination is the unmitigated terror of the possibility of complete, utter and eternal separation.

In the story given to us in the Book of Genesis we are told that once we lived in harmony with nature, ignorant of good and evil, oblivious to life and death, without fears of past events or expectations of the future. But upon eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, a world of discrimination and judgment was revealed to human kind, a view of reality which was at once as fascinating and alluring as it was alienating, a world of desires, a world of preferences and choices, a world of polarities, a world of opposites and dualities, a world of life and death.

But although nothing had really changed we became trapped in this illusion of finite mortality cutting ourselves off from the infinite and the eternal, experiencing instead separation, limitation and desperation, haunted in every moment of our apparently brief and perilous existence with the specter of our death.

Can we escape this prison of the mind? This is the suffering that The Buddha sought to dispel in every sentient being, the suffering resulting from the illusion of separateness. Einstein is quoted as having told us “Reality is an allusion, albeit a persistent one.” Great minds like Alan Watts have always challenged us to look behind the curtain and investigate the evidence that brings the realization that things are not at all what they seem or what we have been led to believe.


Blogger The Rambling Taoist said...

Alan Watts is one of my favorite writers and thinkers. I have several of his books. I reread them frequently because it helps me climb outside myself and look at things anew.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Celestial Elf said...

Alan Watts is a wonderful inspiration, thank you.
Here's my animation of his' account of Nirvana,
Watts' Nirvana

9:22 AM  

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