The Wisdom of Alan Watts in Four Thought-Provoking Animations

Per­haps no sin­gle per­son did more to pop­u­lar­ize Zen Bud­dhism in the West than Alan Watts. In a sense, Watts pre­pared U.S. cul­ture for more tra­di­tion­al­ly Zen teach­ers like Soto priest Suzu­ki Roshi, whose lin­eage con­tin­ues today, but Watts did not con­sid­er him­self a Zen Bud­dhist. Or at least that’s what he tells us in the talk above, ani­mat­ed by Trey Park­er and Matt Stone, the cre­ators of South Park. “I am not a Zen Bud­dhist,” he says, “I am not advo­cat­ing Zen Bud­dhism, I am not try­ing to con­vert any­one to it. I have noth­ing to sell.” Instead, he calls him­self “an enter­tain­er.” Is he pulling our leg?

After all, Watts was the author of such books as The Spir­it of Zen (1936—his first), The Way of Zen (1957), and ”This Is It” and Oth­er Essays on Zen and Spir­i­tu­al Expe­ri­ence (1960). Then again, he also wrote books on Chris­tian­i­ty, on “Erot­ic Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty,” and on all man­ner of mys­ti­cism from near­ly every major world reli­gion.

And he was ordained an Epis­co­pal priest in 1945 and served as such until 1950. Watts was a tricky character—a strict anti-dog­ma­tist who found all rigid doc­trine irri­tat­ing at best, deeply oppres­sive and dehu­man­iz­ing at worst.

While Watts may not have been any sort of doc­tri­naire Zen priest, he learned—and taught—a great deal from Japan­ese Bud­dhist con­cepts, which he dis­tills in the video at the top. He gleaned very sim­i­lar insights—about the uni­ty and inter­con­nect­ed­ness of all things—from Dao­ism. Just above, see a very short ani­ma­tion cre­at­ed by Eddie Rosas, from The Simp­sons, in which Watts uses a sim­ple para­ble to illus­trate “Dao­ism in per­fec­tion.”

The con­cepts Watts elu­ci­dates from var­i­ous tra­di­tions are instant­ly applic­a­ble to eco­log­i­cal con­cerns and to our rela­tion­ship to the nat­ur­al world. “The whole process of nature,” he says above in a para­ble ani­mat­ed by Steve Agnos, “is an inte­grat­ed process of immense com­plex­i­ty.” In this case, how­ev­er, rather than offer­ing a les­son in uni­ty, he sug­gests that nature, and real­i­ty, is ulti­mate­ly unknow­able, that “it is real­ly impos­si­ble to tell whether any­thing that hap­pens in it is good or bad.” The most rea­son­able atti­tude then, it seems, is to refrain from mak­ing judg­ments either way.

It’s that ten­den­cy of the human mind to make hasty, erro­neous judg­ments based on mis­ap­pre­hen­sions that comes in for cri­tique in the Watts talk above, ani­mat­ed by Tim McCourt and Wes­ley Louis of West­min­ster Arts & Film Lon­don. Here, he reach­es even deep­er, inves­ti­gat­ing ideas of per­son­al iden­ti­ty and the exis­tence of the ego as an enti­ty sep­a­rate from the rest of real­i­ty. Return­ing to his grand theme of inter­con­nect­ed­ness, Watts assures us it’s “impos­si­ble to cut our­selves off from the social envi­ron­ment, and also fur­ther­more from the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment. We are that; there’s no clear way of draw­ing the bound­ary between this organ­ism and every­thing that sur­rounds it.” But in order to dis­cov­er this essen­tial truth, says Watts, we must become “deep lis­ten­ers” and let go of embar­rass­ment, shy­ness, and anx­i­ety.

If you enjoy these excerpts from Alan Watts’ lec­tures, you can find many hours of his talks online. The offi­cial Alan Watts site, man­aged by his son Mark, has exten­sive col­lec­tions of his talks and cours­es, though these are offered at con­sid­er­able cost. What Watts would have thought of this, I do not know, but I’m cer­tain he’d be glad that so much of his work—hours of lec­tures, in fact—is avail­able free of charge on Youtube.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Zen Teach­ings of Alan Watts: A Free Audio Archive of His Enlight­en­ing Lec­tures

What If Mon­ey Was No Object?: Thoughts on the Art of Liv­ing from East­ern Philoso­pher Alan Watts

Zen Mas­ter Alan Watts Dis­cov­ers the Secrets of Aldous Hux­ley and His Art of Dying

Alan Watts On Why Our Minds And Tech­nol­o­gy Can’t Grasp Real­i­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (10)
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  • George Burgess says:

    Mag­nif­i­cent… Gone from us much too soon.

  • Kyle McLaughlin says:

    @George. Maybe

  • Rachel says:

    Great job

  • Maria Browning says:

    Nev­er tire of lis­ten­ing to Watts. Great post, Josh.

  • Antony toole says:

    a great thinker,what a love­ly mind, he sort­ed my head right out when I was his way with words,opening peo­ple minds is what he still doing ‚wish I had meet him in my life

  • Elmar Bartel says:

    Dear Peo­ple,

    just found your great site by coin­ci­dence.

    As a Ger­man jour­nal­ist I’ love to do a doc­u­men­tary on Alan Watts for Ger­man tele­vi­sion (zdf/arte tv), since next year it would be Mr. Watts’ 100th birth­day.

    After hav­ing reached Mark Watts, his son by phone 4 werks ago, I can’t ger in touch with him any more.

    Please would you gave any advice for me, in order to get telev­sion rights for mate­r­i­al like the ani­ma­tion clips you have post­ed here or on those nature videos with his voice on youtube…?

    Thank you very much for any help­ful and con­struc­tive reply!

    Best wish­es from Frankfurt/ Ger­many,

    Elmar Bar­tel

    ZDF TV

  • Dan Weisman says:

    I became a devot­ed fan of Alan Watts some 25years ago when I lis­tened to a cas­sette tape on a road trip played by a friend.… His love of wis­dom is so enjoy­able and I think deeply enrich­ing.

  • Tony Nelson says:

    It is his book “The Wiz­dom of Inse­cu­ri­ty ” which guid­ed me,I realised there are no guarantees,so accept the fact that risk is expected,embrace uncertainty,live dangerously,however realise that one needs to be aware of the dan­gers and how to avoid the con­se­quences of a mis­take.
    Yes & Bob Dylan added ” How many roads does a bloke have to go,before you call me FAIR DINKUM”?
    Well I have trav­elled those ‘roads less trav­eled ’ as an obscure individual,an’ Invis­i­ble man,shunning fame,observing,trying to understand,seeking that Wiz­dom.
    If I ever find security,will com­pla­cen­cy dull the great adven­ture that is life.
    Now 3/4 of a cen­tu­ry on Earth,once again fac­ing a home­less existence,it gives me great
    plea­sure hav­ing a roof for a few more weeks,but even that is not guar­an­teed.
    All of us now realise that we’ve messed up the Plan­et & sur­vival isn’t assured.
    I’ve been haunt­ing old book shops look­ing for “The Wiz­dom of Inse­cu­ri­ty ” soon I’ll go to Amazon,sure to find it there!
    I’m a well worn ‘shag­gy dag­gy dog’,when peo­ple farewell me they often say “Take Care ” my reply is usu­al­ly “”& You take a risk,live dan­ger­ous­ly “”
    Yes,with that I now go,leaving you with a promise that you may be reward­ed!
    Of course cat­a­stro­phe may occur!

  • Alex S. Gabor says:

    I love lis­ten­ing to Alan Watts and his ver­sions of Infini­tol­ogy. I’ve been study­ing his works for more than a decade now and find his per­cep­tions of the uni­verse to be more truth­ful and accu­rate than L.Ron Hub­bard, Joseph Smith and Aleis­ter Crow­ley et al.

  • Johnny c says:

    In 1987 in high school in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia I lis­ten to KPFK 90.7 FM every night at mid­night they played Alan Watts and every morn­ing I wake up and go to school with the spring in my step

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