The Greatest Hits of Alan Watts: Stream a Carefully-Curated Collection of Alan Watts Wisdom

“My name, ‘Alan,’ means ‘har­mo­ny’ in Celtic and ‘hound’ in Anglo-Sax­on. Accord­ing­ly, my exis­tence is, and has been, a para­dox, or bet­ter, a coin­ci­dence of oppo­sites.”

Zen Bud­dhism is full of para­dox­es: prac­ti­cal, yet mys­ti­cal; seri­ous­ly for­mal, yet shot through with jokes and plays on words; stress­ing intri­cate cer­e­mo­ni­al rules and com­mu­nal prac­tices, yet just as often brought to life by “wild fox” mas­ters who flout all con­ven­tion. Such a Zen mas­ter was Alan Watts, the teacher, writer, philoso­pher, priest, and cal­lig­ra­ph­er who embraced con­tra­dic­tion and para­dox in all its forms.

Watts was a nat­ur­al con­trar­i­an, becom­ing a Bud­dhist at 15 — at least part­ly in oppo­si­tion to the fun­da­men­tal­ist Protes­tantism of his moth­er — then, in the 1940s, ordain­ing as an Epis­co­pal priest. Though he left the priest­hood in 1950, he would con­tin­ue to write and teach on both Bud­dhism and Chris­tian­i­ty, seek­ing to rec­on­cile the tra­di­tions and suc­ceed­ing in ways that offend­ed lead­ers of nei­ther reli­gion. His book of the­ol­o­gy, Behold the Spir­it, “was wide­ly hailed in Chris­t­ian cir­cles,” David Guy writes at Tri­cy­cle mag­a­zine. “One Epis­co­pal review­er said it would ‘prove to be one of the half dozen most sig­nif­i­cant books on reli­gion in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.’ ”

As a Bud­dhist, Watts has come in for crit­i­cism for his use of psy­che­delics, addic­tion to alco­hol, and unortho­dox prac­tices. Yet his wis­dom received the stamp of approval from Shun­ryu Suzu­ki, the Japan­ese Zen teacher often cred­it­ed with bring­ing for­mal Japan­ese Zen prac­tice to Amer­i­can stu­dents. Suzu­ki called Watts “a great bod­hisatt­va” and died with a staff Watts had giv­en him in hand. Watts did­n’t stay long in any insti­tu­tion because he “just did­n’t want his prac­tice to be about jump­ing through oth­er peo­ple’s hoops or being put in their box­es,” writes a friend, David Chad­wick, in a recent trib­ute. Nonethe­less, he remained a pow­er­ful cat­a­lyst for oth­ers who dis­cov­ered spir­i­tu­al prac­tices that spoke to them more authen­ti­cal­ly than any­thing they’d known.

Watts, a self-described trick­ster, “saw the true empti­ness of all things,” said Suzuk­i’s Amer­i­can suc­ces­sor Richard Bak­er in a eulo­gy — “the mul­ti­plic­i­ties and absur­di­ties to the Great Uni­ver­sal Per­son­al­i­ty and Play.” It was his con­trar­i­an streak that made him the ide­al inter­preter of eso­teric Indi­an, Chi­nese, and Japan­ese reli­gious ideas for young Amer­i­cans in the 1950s and 60s who were ques­tion­ing the dog­mas of their par­ents but lacked the lan­guage with which to do so. Watts was a seri­ous schol­ar, though he nev­er fin­ished a uni­ver­si­ty degree, and he built bridges between East and West with wit, eru­di­tion, irrev­er­ence, and awe.

Many of Watts’ first devo­tees got their intro­duc­tion to him through his vol­un­teer radio broad­casts on Berke­ley’s KPFA. You can hear sev­er­al of those talks at KPFA’s site, which cur­rent­ly hosts a “Great­est Hits Col­lec­tion” of Watts’ talks. In addi­tion to his 1957 book The Way of Zen, these won­der­ful­ly mean­der­ing lec­tures helped intro­duce the emerg­ing coun­ter­cul­ture to Bud­dhism, Tao­ism, Hin­duism, for­got­ten mys­ti­cal aspects of Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Jun­gian ideas that often tied them all togeth­er.

No mat­ter the tra­di­tion Watts found him­self dis­cussing on his broad­casts, lis­ten­ers found him turn­ing back to para­dox. Hear him do so in talks on the “Fun­da­men­tals of Bud­dhism” (top), and oth­er talks like the “Spir­i­tu­al Odyssey of Aldous Hux­ley,” the “Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of Oppo­sites” and a talk enti­tled “Way Beyond the West,” also the name of his lec­ture series, more of which you can find at KPFA’s “Great­est Hits” col­lec­tion here.

via Metafil­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Alan Watts Presents a 15-Minute Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tion: A Time-Test­ed Way to Stop Think­ing About Think­ing

Alan Watts Dis­pens­es Wit & Wis­dom on the Mean­ing of Life in Three Ani­mat­ed Videos

Alan Watts Reads “One of the Great­est Things Carl Jung Ever Wrote”

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

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