Since his death in 1973, the popular British philosopher, writer, speaker, and onetime-Episcopal-priest-turned-student-of-Zen-and-wildly-eclectic-countercultural-spiritual-thinker Alan Watts has become a cottage industry of sorts. And if you were unfamiliar with his work, you might think—given this description and the mention of the word “industry”—that Watts founded some sort of self-help seminar series, the kind in which people make a considerable investment of time and money.
In a sense, he did: the Alan Watts Organization (previously known as the Alan Watts Electronic University, the Alan Watts Center, or the Alan Watts Project) maintains Watts’ prolific audio and video archives. Founded in the last year of his life by Watts and his son Mark, the Organization charges for access to most of his work. The collections are pricey. Albums of talks on such subjects as Buddhism and Comparative Philosophy and Religion are extensive, but come at a cost.
Though the organization offers free content, you could find yourself spending several hundred dollars to hear the collected Watts lectures. It’s money the Mark Watts suggests covers the “substantial undertaking” of digitizing hundreds of hours of recordings on lacquered disks and magnetic reels. These are noble and necessary efforts, but fans of Watts will know that hundreds of selections from his deeply engaging talks are also freely available on YouTube, many of them with nifty animations and musical accompaniment, like the videos here from After Skool.
Watts would likely have been pleased with this situation—he loved to give out wisdom widely and kept no esoteric trade secrets. But he was also, by his own admission, “a spiritual/philosophical entertainer,” who made a living telling people some of the most unsettling, counterintuitive metaphysical truths there are. He did it with humor, erudition and compassion, with intellectual clarity and rhetorical aplomb.
So what did he have to tell us? That we should join the church of Alan Watts? Attend his next lecture and buy his book? Shape our lives into an emulation of Alan Watts? Though he wore the trappings of a Western expositor of Eastern thought, and embraced all kinds of non-traditional beliefs and practices, Watts was too ironical and detached to be a guru. He couldn’t take himself seriously enough for that.
If there’s any one thread that runs through the incredibly broad range of subjects he covered, it’s that we should never take ourselves too seriously either. We buy into stories and ideas and think of them as concrete entities that form the boundaries of identity and existence: stories like thinking of life as a “journey” on the way to some specific denouement. Not so, as Watts says in the animated video at the top. Life is an art, a form of play: “the whole point of the dancing is the dance.”
But what about the meaning of life? Is Alan Watts going to reveal it in the last course of his ten-week session (payable in installments)? Will we discover it in a series of self-improvement packages? No. The meaning of life he says, is life. “The situation of life is optimal.” But how is anyone supposed to judge what’s good without unchanging external standards? A classic Zen story about a Chinese farmer offers a concise illustration of why we may have no need—and no real ability—to make any judgments at all.
You’ll find many more free excerpts of Watts’ lectures—of varying lengths and with or without animations, on YouTube. To get a further taste of his spiritual and philosophical distillations, see the links below.
The Wisdom of Alan Watts in Four Thought-Provoking Animations
Zen Master Alan Watts Explains What Made Carl Jung Such an Influential Thinker
Take a Break from Your Frantic Day & Let Alan Watts Introduce You to the Calming Ways of Zen
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
I’m very confused about the meaning of life ….
My understanding is that the meaning of life is simply to live it. Take things as they come with great openness. Easier said than done. I found meditation to have helped.
What others find true I often find absurd. They hold their belief so dearly. I might be wrong. I can’t be as sure as they seem to be. No revealed truth for me. It’s lonely.