Alan Watts

The life & work of Alan Watts

Who was Alan Watts?

Born in January 1915, Alan Watts was a philosopher and writer who had a significant impact on the West's view of Eastern spirituality and philosophical thinking in the mid-twentieth century. As a writer, he produced over two dozen books with some notable titles such as, 'The Way of Zen' becoming a best-seller after it was first published in 1957. One of the key points of his writing was to interpret Buddhism in a way that had more in common with psychotherapies than a religion, the way that many Western thinkers continued to regard it at the time. Alongside Buddhism, Alan Watts wrote extensively on the subjects of pantheism, Hinduism and traditional Chinese philosophy.

 What is Alan Watts' philosophy?

 It is not simple to pin down the philosophy of Alan Watts in a single sentence. Not least because his life's work was working towards an all-encompassing world view of thought and because his ideas developed over time. That said, the main themes in his thinking included a critique of individualism, personal identity, higher consciousness, aesthetics and ethics. In a famous phrase, Watts described individual identity as 'a game of hide-and-seek', or divine play, between the self and the universe, asserting that people's egotistic perception of themselves is a myth that ignores the fact that everyone – and, indeed, all things – are aspects of a greater whole.

Where did Alan Watts live?

Born in Chislehurst, situated in south-east London, Watts moved to the United States in 1938. After studying Zen philosophy in New York, he went on to gain a master's degree in theology at the Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Illinois. In 1945, he began a career as an Episcopal priest but abandoned this vocation in search of more knowledge of Eastern traditions. By 1950, he had relocated to California to attend the American Academy of Asian Studies. He would remain in the state by and large until his death in 1973.

Which Alan Watts book should you read first?

There is no best book by Alan Watts to read first that make the rest of his published works fall into place more easily. 'Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion', of 1947 and 'The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are' of 1966 are both excellent starting points as is 'The Way of Zen'. His autobiography, which first came out in 1972, is also a good jumping-off point. Alan Watts made numerous video recordings which are worth seeking out, too. 'A Conversation With Myself' is available in four parts on YouTube, for example.

Was Alan Watts religious?

Alan Watts was a religious man who used aspects of Christian thinking, such as concepts like God and Satan, in his writing. However, he also drew on the wisdom of other religious traditions, such as Hinduism, to try and gain a deeper understanding of the self and the universe, so he defied the label of 'religious writer' in all but the broadest sense of the term.

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Any body of text is really a form of literature. If you collected all your old shopping lists, then you could consider this to be literary to some, small extent, for instance. More commonly, however, the term literature refers to the written word as an art form. As such, certain texts tend to be excluded in this tighter definition. Instruction manuals, phone books and newspapers tend not to be considered to have much literary value. Therefore, novels, poetry anthologies and even biographies are more often thought of as genuine literature. In some cases, notable non-fiction works count as literature, too, such as history books. That said, the main literary works that are best-known around the world are normally works of fiction.
In the past, any definition of spirituality would have been very tightly correlated with certain religious beliefs that focus on the godliness or spirit within people. In other words, spiritual people would have been seen as devout, pious and concentrated more on sacred or metaphysical matters than earthly ones. These days, however, a more extensive definition of spirituality is accepted, which includes broader traditions that lead to personal growth. Examples of this could be, the sort of inner journey that many people take from meditative practices and non-religious activities like transcendentalism and perennial philosophy.
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