Favorite Authors: Alan Watts

I was first introduced to Buddhism by a counselor at Georgia Tech in 1972. I forget how the conversation led up to this, but he recommended I read “Siddharta” by Hermann Hesse, a novelized version of the life of Gautama Buddha.

Within a short time, my interest in Buddhism focused on Zen Buddhism, which led me to Alan Watts. His interest in Eastern Religions began early and was influenced by many well-known philosophers and authors, not the least of which was D. T. Suzuki, esteemed scholar of Zen Buddhism, who Watts first encountered in 1936, the same year Watts published his first book, “The Spirit of Zen”.

His earlier books were not exactly easy reads, but over time his style became more that of a “popularizer” than a “scholar”. That does not detract at all from his later writings; they are fascinating and rich, but just easier to read than his earliest tomes.

As I read more of his books, I came to feel that this man had the clearest vision of life and existence that I had ever known, and that definitely shaped my way of thinking. I have long said that next to my father, Alan Watts had the most influence on shaping my worldview and thus my character.

I’ve chosen a few quotes from his books, lectures, and interviews that spoke most directly to me.

On faith:

"To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float."
The Essence of Alan Watts (1977)

On the illusion of self:

"Ego is a social institution with no physical reality. The ego is simply your symbol of yourself. Just as the word "water" is a noise that symbolizes a certain liquid without being it, so too the idea of ego symbolizes the role you play, who you are, but it is not the same as your living organism."
Buddhism : The Religion of No-Religion

"The prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East — in particular the central and germinal Vedanta philosophy of Hinduism. This hallucination underlies the misuse of technology for the violent subjugation of man's natural environment and, consequently, its eventual destruction.

We are therefore in urgent need of a sense of our own existence which is in accord with the physical facts and which overcomes our feeling of alienation from the universe."
The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

On the "dance" that is existence:

"Listen intently to a voice singing without words. It may charm you into crying, force you to dance, fill you with rage, or make you jump for joy. You can't tell where the music ends and the emotions begin, for the whole thing is a kind of music—the voice playing on your nerves as the breath plays on a flute. All experience is just that, except that its music has many more dimensions than sound. It vibrates in the dimensions of sight, touch, taste, and smell, and in the intellectual dimension of symbols and words—all evoking and playing upon each other."
The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

On the illusion of being separate from others and the world:

"We do not "come into" this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean "waves," the universe "peoples." Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated "egos" inside bags of skin."
The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)

On being present for life:

"In music, though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest; and there would be composers who only wrote finales. People go to concerts only to hear one crashing chord - because that’s the end. Same way in dancing—you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room; that’s where you should arrive. The whole point of the dancing is the dance.

Now, but we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling which gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded—and what we do is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system, with a kind of "c’mon kitty kitty kitty…". And yeah, you go to kindergarten, and that’s a great thing, because when you finish that, you’ll get into first grade. And then c’mon, first grade leads to second grade, and so on… And then you get out of grade school you go to high school—and it’s revving up, the thing is coming… Then you’re going to go to college, and by jove then you get into graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school, you’ll go out to join the world. And then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And they’ve got that quota to make. And you’re going to make that. And all the time, this thing is coming, it’s coming, it’s coming—that great thing, the success you’re working for.
Then when you wake up one day about forty years old, you say "My God! I’ve arrived! I’m there!" And you don’t feel very different from what you always felt. And there's a slight letdown, because you feel there's a hoax.

And there was a hoax.

A dreadful hoax.

They made you miss everything. By expectation.

Look at the people who live to retire, and put those savings away. And then when they’re sixty-five, and they don’t have any energy left, they’re more or less impotent, they go and rot in an old people’s “senior citizens” community. Because we’ve simply cheated ourselves, the whole way down the line. We thought of life by analogy as a journey, as a pilgrimage, which had a serious purpose at the end. And the thing was to get to that end. Success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after you’re dead.

But we missed the point the whole way along.

It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music was being played."
Audio Lecture The Human Game

"This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play."
The Essence of Alan Watts (1977)

I will close with two quotes from his autobiography, In My Own Way.

First, from the forward written by his father, Laurence W. Watts:
"... he has done more perhaps than any other writer to open the eyes of the West to the spiritual significance of Eastern religions and philosophies and to show that the Truth is not the monopoly of any one school of religious or philosophic thought."

And finally, his own words from the final paragraph of the book:
"Trying to catch the meaning of the universe in terms of some religious, philosophical, or moral system is really like asking Bach or Ali Akbar to explain their music in words. They can explain it only by continuing to play, and you must listen until you understand, get with it, and go with it ..."

Alan Watts (6 January 1915 - 16 November 1973)