Alan Watts' classic book, The Way of Zen, first published in 1957, is cited by many scholars as a hallmark text that first introduced Western spiritual seekers to Eastern spiritual disciplines. By the 1960s and 1970s, American Buddhism had blossomed into a distinct entity, perhaps more tied to psychology and philosophy than its Eastern cousins, but still true to the Dharma, the Sangha, and the Buddha.
Watts on Nature, Art, and Experience
Watt's became fascinated with Zen as a boy growing up in England. Attracted as a child to Chinese Cha'an (Zen) painting, Watts was impressed by the sense of space and natural beauty this art form conveyed. To Watts, Zen Chinese paintings seemed to 'open up' into a view of nature as both spiritual and ordinary at the same time. He was drawn to an aesthetic that valued the balance between nature, experience, and ordinary life, and he found this aesthetic perfectly expressed in Zen Buddhism.
Self-Realization and Ecumenical Connections
Watts saw nature as the connecting thread that joined the enlightenment of Zen with personal awakening central to Buddhist philosophy in general. He stressed experiential insight over theological dogma in all his writings. Watts studied and wrote prolifically not just about Zen, but also about Pantanjali's yoga, the archetypal symbols central to the theories psychologist Carl Jung, Humanist psychological theories of self-realization and consciousness, and the spiritual possibilities of psychedelic drug movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Watts looked for, and found, connections between all of these topics and more.
Watts despised any religious doctrine that pushed shame or harshness on its followers and became a popular speaker during the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. He lived in San Francisco and was drawn to that era's search for a seamless connection between the beauty in nature, the commitment to community, and the dawn of a New Earth.
Beyond Religion Into Awakening
For Watts, Buddhism and every other tradition to which he was drawn could never be a set of creeds or a doctrinal philosophy in order to be alive, but rather a way into finding the Self, and with the Self, the realization of oneness with the Divine in all things and beyond all things.
Departing from the doctrinal atheism of Buddhist thought (that is, the lack of one over-arching deity) Alan Watts believed that to know oneself deeply was to know God, a theme which is common in Hinduism.
In his open embrace of psychedelics and sexual desire as tools for awakening, Watts departed from traditional Buddhism, but the spirit and energy of his questing was contagious. In his life and work he was everywhere and nowhere, a true pantheist.
The impact of Alan Watts on American Buddhism and the introduction of Eastern religious traditions to the modern West was, and still remains, immense. To this day he remains a seminal figure of an American era, along with the Beats, Carl Jung, R.D. Lang, and Baba Ram Dass.
- The Way of Zen, Alan Watts, Knopf Doubleday, 1999.