Alan Watts Explains Why Death is an Art, Adventure and Creative Act

Many of us in the West live in some of the most frag­ment­ed reli­gious land­scapes in the world, but in the midst of deep­en­ing lev­els of con­flict over poli­cies of birth and death, these two issues that divide us also join us togeth­er. More than at any time in his­to­ry, peo­ple live in expec­ta­tion of sim­i­lar spans of life; we all lament the loss of loved ones who die at any age; and most of us live with some fear of death, or at least vio­lent, untime­ly death like the kind Alan Watts describes above.

Watts, Eng­lish Zen guru of sorts (though he would not like the label) lec­tured more on death than per­haps any oth­er philo­soph­i­cal or reli­gious teacher since the Bud­dha, but he did so in a way that illu­mi­nates our ideas about the inevitable end, even if it should come upon us all of the sud­den.

You heard a bomb com­ing at you, you could hear it whis­tle and you knew it was right above you and head­ing straight at you, and that you were fin­ished. 

This is no abstract thought exper­i­ment, of course, but the his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ence of mil­lions of peo­ple, from Dres­den to Iraq. But despite the ter­ri­fy­ing exam­ple, Watts describes achiev­ing in that moment absolute clar­i­ty and uni­ver­sal­i­ty. The dread­ed bomb whis­tles toward you, “and you accept­ed it,” he says.

How exact­ly does one achieve that accep­tance? With­out dog­ma­tiz­ing or mys­ti­cism, Watts offers some wis­dom in anoth­er excerpt from a lec­ture above. This video’s use of melo­dra­mat­ic film clips and cin­e­mat­ic music may be a lit­tle schmaltzy, but his mat­ter of fact talk isn’t less­ened by it. Though not every­one pass­es on their genes to a next gen­er­a­tion, an exam­ple he dis­cuss­es in both excerpts, we do all leave the plan­et to make room for new peo­ple, wher­ev­er they come from, and this, he says, “is an hon­or­able thing…. It’s a far more amus­ing arrange­ment for nature to con­tin­ue the process of life through dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als than it is through the same indi­vid­ual.”

Watts was not at all doc­tri­naire about death, par­tic­u­lar­ly in his lat­er years. In a con­ver­sa­tion with Aldous Huxley’s wife Lau­ra in 1968, he called dying “an art,” though not quite like Sylvia Plath did: “It is also,” he said, “an adven­ture.” He con­sid­ered Aldous Hux­ley’s unortho­dox death—on an LSD trip while Lau­ra read to him from the Tibetan Bar­do Thodol—a “high­ly intel­li­gent form of dying.” Nonethe­less, Watts, an Epis­co­pal priest become an explain­er of Zen Bud­dhism in Amer­i­ca, also had a great deal to say about more for­mal reli­gious ideas of death.

In the lec­ture above, from a 1959 Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion pro­gram, Watts explains a par­tic­u­lar Bud­dhist con­cept of rein­car­na­tion and rebirth through var­i­ous realms. It’s a pic­ture as fan­tas­tic and pic­turesque as Dante’s, and like his cre­ative act, one that can be read with some lit­er­al and much pro­found­ly philo­soph­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. These con­cep­tions help demon­strate that far from fear­ful, our puz­zling over the inevitabil­i­ty and mys­tery of death can be, as it was for Watts, “one of the most cre­ative thoughts I ever thought in my life.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

The Wis­dom of Alan Watts in Four Thought-Pro­vok­ing Ani­ma­tions

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

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

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