Nearly forty years after his death, the words of Alan Watts still generate excitement. Fans trade them, in the form of texts, radio broadcasts, recorded talks, and television programs, both online and off. The British-born interpreter and popularizer of East Asian Buddhist thought generated most of his media in the San Francisco of the 1950s and 1960s, and his televised lectures, produced for local public station KQED, must have offered many a San Franciscan their very first glimpse of Zen. Now that episodes of his series Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life have made it to YouTube (season one, season two), you can see for yourself that Watts’ then-cutting-edge delivery of this ancient wisdom remains entertaining, informative, and striking in its clarity. Begin with the introductory episode above, “Man and Nature,” in which Watts calmly lays out his observations of the ill effects of Westerners’ having grown to distrust their human instincts.
We waste our energy fighting nature, rather than working with it; we compulsively chatter to ourselves when we should let new things into our minds; we pursue pleasure, forgetting that we can’t recognize it in the absence of pain; we divide reality into miniscule chunks to make science and engineering possible, but then get unfortunately locked into that mode of thinking. These are some of the many disadvantageous habits Watts points out over the course of these lectures. But he also tells stories, cracks dry jokes, and takes advantage of the visual medium with illustrations from Eastern art, aesthetics, and even language. Whenever I feel I’ve lapsed into the vacillating, ineffectual psychological state he called “the quaking mess” — and it happens often — I call up a shot of Watts with broadcasts like these, and I’m back living in reality in no time.
All available episodes of Eastern Wisdom and Modern Thought: Man and Nature, Things and Thinks, Time, The Void, The Silent Mind, Death, Recollection, Pain, On Being Vague, Law and Order, Omnipotence, The Discipline of Zen, Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhism and Science, Buddhism and Christianity, The Life of Zen