Alan Watts was a gloriously pixilated man, born in an era when pixilated meant “meddled with by elves” and no one could associate the term with dots on a screen. His autobiography, In My Own Way, recently reissued, hints at this trickster quality right from the title’s double entendre. The book is charming, delightful, mordantly witty, utterly clear. If you need a full rendering of Watts’s life, consult other sources, but read his autobiography anyway.
Few meditation instructions can top Watts’s attempt to meditate, at age seventeen:
I annihilated and bawled out every theory and concept of what should be my properly spiritual state of mind, or what should be meant by ME. And instantly my weight vanished. I owned nothing. All my hang-ups disappeared. I walked on air. Thereupon I composed a haiku.
He had a gift for conveying Buddhist ideas to a Western audience. With typical slyness, Watts called it a “big gift of the gab.” No reason to disbelieve his claim to have written The Spirit of Zen in “one month of evenings when I was twenty years old.” His legacy endures—of his forty-six books, nearly half were published posthumously; many of his hundreds of lectures are available on the Web.
Yet Watts’s life was as messy as he was brilliant. He had three wives, seven children and many lovers. He liked painfully kinky sex, according to an anguished letter his first wife, Eleanor, wrote to a bishop as their marriage was breaking up (quoted in Monica Furlong’s Zen Effects, a biography of Watts). His productivity was partly driven by alimony payments. And by the end of his short life he was drinking a bottle of vodka daily. Much of this you’d never guess, though he does admit that he finds “pleasure in gently smacking the bottom of a comely girl.”
He also freely admits that his passion lay not in the responsibilities of family life but in the philosophical adventure he wanted to live. Therein lies the tragic rub. For Watts, spirituality was an exotic adventure, an escape from the humdrum. How could it have been otherwise, in his cultural moment? “[B]y the time I was twelve it was precisely the fantastic and outlandish that appealed to me.” This is not only a description of his temperament but also of his times. Buddhism was outlandish back then. A footnote boasts of the existence of “at least six mixed-sex Zen Centers” in the United States. Now that there are thousands, it’s difficult to recall when the options were that sparse.
Which makes his life story all the more impressive. Watts dropped out of a traditional British education to carve out his own idiosyncratic Asian studies curriculum, first following a shadowy Yugoslavian guru who was “very probably a high initiate into the mysteries of the universe,” then later reading voraciously and befriending assorted Zen masters. This was before Zen masters and Asian studies programs were thick upon the ground; before the language of “high initiates” began to sound fusty; and long, long before Western practitioners had been admonished by the Dalai Lama to pick and choose carefully among spiritual teachers. In the late 1950s Watts helped to found the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, one of the first programs of its kind.
Watts couldn’t reap the benefits of a deepening and maturing Western Buddhist culture, the one he sowed and we inherited. A true pioneer, his suffering is like the suffering of one who thrashes a trail through a wilderness, not knowing exactly where he is going but loving the adventure and not caring if he dies of it. How I wish he hadn’t drunk himself to death at age fifty-eight! Had this gifted sage lived longer, surely he would have continued to grow, perhaps even attaining a global voice. It’s debatable whether he actually ever meditated much, and it shows. He never quite became a grown-up in the Dharma, never discovered that it is a daily-life practice, rewarding the end of self-deception with a subtle bliss that goes beyond exotic fascination and Houdini-like escapes.