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Alan Wilson Watts
Full name Alan Wilson Watts
Born January 6, 1915(1915-01-06)
Chislehurst, Kent, England
Died November 16, 1973 (aged 58)
Mt. Tamalpais, California
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Eastern Philosophy
School Buddhism · Hinduism · Pantheism · Religious naturalism · Taoism
Main interests Personal identity · Higher consciousness · Aesthetics  · Public Ethics

Alan Wilson Watts (January 6, 1915 – November 16, 1973) was a British philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and popularizer of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.

He wrote more than 25 books and numerous articles on subjects such as personal identity, the true nature of reality, higher consciousness, meaning of life, concepts and images of God and the non-material pursuit of happiness. In his books he relates his experience to scientific knowledge and to the teachings of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy.


Early years

Watts was born to middle class parents in the village of Chislehurst, Kent, England in the year 1915, living at 3 (now 5) Holbrook Lane. His father was a representative for the London office of the Michelin Tyre Company, his mother a housewife whose father had been a missionary. With modest financial means, they chose to live in pastoral surroundings and Alan, an only child, grew up playing at brookside, learning the names of wildflowers and butterflies.[1]

Probably because of the influence of his mother’s religious family [2] the Buchans, an interest in "ultimate things" seeped in. But it mixed with Alan’s own interests in storybook fables and romantic tales of the mysterious Far East. [3]

Watts also later wrote of a mystical sort of vision he experienced while ill with a fever as a child. During this time he was influenced by Far Eastern landscape paintings and embroideries that had been given to his mother by missionaries returning from China. The few Chinese paintings Watts was able to see in England riveted him, and he wrote "I was aesthetically fascinated with a certain clarity, transparency, and spaciousness in Chinese and Japanese art. It seemed to float..." [4]. These works of art emphasized the participative relationship of man in nature, a theme that stood fast throughout his life.


Seated Great Buddha (Daibutsu), Kamakura, Japan

By his own assessment, Watts was imaginative, headstrong, and talkative. He was sent to boarding schools (which included both academic and religious training of the Muscular Christianity sort) from early years. Of this religious training, he remarked “Throughout my schooling my religious indoctrination was grim and maudlin…”[5] During holidays in his teen years, Francis Croshaw, a wealthy epicurean with strong interests in both Buddhism and the exotic little-known aspects of European culture, took Watts on a trip through France. It was not long afterward that Watts felt forced to decide between the Anglican Christianity he had been exposed to and the Buddhism he had read about in various libraries, including Croshaw’s. He chose Buddhism, and sought membership in the London Buddhist Lodge which had been established by Theosophists, and was now run by the barrister Christmas Humphreys. Watts became the organization’s secretary at 16 (1931). The young Watts explored several styles of meditation during these years.


Watts attended King's School next door to Canterbury Cathedral. Though he was frequently at the top of his classes scholastically, and was given responsibilities at school, he botched an opportunity for a scholarship to Oxford by styling a crucial examination essay in a way that was read as presumptuous and capricious. [6]

Hence, when he graduated from secondary school, Watts was thrust into the world of employment, working in a printing house and later a bank. He spent his spare time involved with the Buddhist Lodge and also under the tutelage of a "rascal guru" named Dimitrije Mitrinović. (Mitrinović was himself influenced by Peter Demianovich Ouspensky, G. I. Gurdjieff, and the varied psychoanalytical schools of Freud, Jung and Adler.) Watts also read widely in philosophy, history, psychology, psychiatry and Eastern wisdom.

Influences and first publication

London afforded him a considerable number of other opportunities for personal growth. Through Humphreys, he contacted eminent spiritual authors (e.g., Nicholas Roerich, Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan) and prominent theosophists like Alice Bailey. In 1936, aged 21, he attended the World Congress of Faiths at the University of London, heard D.T. Suzuki read a paper, and afterwards was able to meet this esteemed scholar of Zen Buddhism. Beyond these discussions and personal encounters, he absorbed, by studying the available scholarly literature, the fundamental concepts and terminology of the main philosophies of India and East Asia. In 1936, Watts' first book was published, The Spirit of Zen, which he later acknowledged to be mainly digested from the writings of Suzuki.

In 1938 he and his bride left England to live in America. He had married Eleanor Everett, whose mother Ruth Fuller Everett was involved with a traditional Zen Buddhist circle in New York. A few years later, Ruth Fuller married the Zen master (or "roshi"), Sokei-an Sasaki, and this Japanese gentleman served as a sort of model and mentor to Alan, though Watts chose not to enter into a formal Zen training relationship with Sasaki.

During these years, according to his later writings, Watts had another mystical experience while on a walk with his wife.

Priesthood and after

Watts had left formal Zen training in New York because the method of the teacher didn't suit him. He was not ordained as a Zen monk, but he felt a need to find a professional outlet for his philosophical inclinations. He entered an Anglican (Episcopalian) school (Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, in Evanston, Illinois), where he studied Christian scriptures, theology, and Church history. He attempted to work out a blend of contemporary Christian worship, mystical Christianity, and Asian philosophy. Watts was awarded a master's degree in theology in response to his thesis, which he published as a popular edition under the title Behold the Spirit. The pattern was set, in that Watts did not hide his dislike for religious outlooks that he decided were dour, guilt-ridden, or militantly proselytizing—no matter if they were found within Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, or Buddhism.

All seemed to go reasonably well in his next role, as Episcopalian priest (beginning in 1945, aged 30), until an extramarital affair resulted in his young wife having their marriage annulled. It also resulted in Watts leaving the ministry by 1950. He spent the New Year getting to know Joseph Campbell; his wife, Jean Erdman; and John Cage.

In the spring of 1951, Watts moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco. Here he taught alongside Saburō Hasegawa, Frederick Spiegelberg, Haridas Chaudhuri, lama Tokwan Tada, and various visiting experts and professors. Hasegawa, in particular, served as a teacher to Watts in the areas of Japanese customs, arts, primitivism, and perceptions of nature.

Watts also studied written Chinese and practiced Chinese brush calligraphy with Hasegawa as well as with some of the Chinese students who enrolled at the Academy. While Watts was noted for an interest in Zen Buddhism, with its origins in China, his reading and discussions delved into Vedanta, "the new physics," cybernetics, semantics, process philosophy, natural history, and the anthropology of sexuality.

Middle years

After heading up the Academy for a few years, Watts left the faculty for a freelance career in the mid 1950s. In 1953, he began what became a long-running weekly radio program at Pacifica Radio station KPFA in Berkeley, which continued until his death in 1973. Like other volunteer programmers at the listener-sponsored station, Watts was not paid for his broadcasts; they did, however, gain him a large following in the San Francisco Bay Area. These programs were later carried by additional Pacifica stations, and were re-broadcast many times over in the decades following his death. The original tapes are currently held by the Pacifica Radio Archives, based at KPFK in Los Angeles, and at the Electronic University archive founded by his son, Mark Watts (

In 1957 when 42, Watts published one of his best known books, The Way of Zen, which focused on philosophical explication and history. Besides drawing on the lifestyle and philosophical background of Zen, in India and China, Watts introduced ideas drawn from general semantics (directly from the writings of Alfred Korzybski and also from Norbert Wiener's early work on cybernetics, which had recently been published). Watts offered analogies from cybernetic principles possibly applicable to the Zen life. The book sold well, eventually becoming a modern classic, and helped widen his lecture circuit.

Around this time, Watts toured parts of Europe with his father, meeting the renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung. In relation to modern psychology, Watts's instincts were closer to Jung's or Abraham Maslow's than to those of Freud.


When he returned to the United States, he began to dabble in psychedelic drug experiences, initially with mescaline given to him by Dr. Oscar Janiger. He tried LSD several times with various research teams led by Drs. Keith Ditman, Sterling Bunnell, and Michael Agron. He also tried marijuana and concluded that it was a useful and interesting psychoactive drug that gave the impression of time slowing down. Watts’ books of the 60s reveal the influence of these chemical adventures on his outlook. He would later comment about psychedelic drug use, "When you get the message, hang up the phone." [7]

For a time, Watts came to prefer writing in the language of modern science and psychology (Psychotherapy East and West is a good example), finding a parallel between mystical experiences and the theories of the material universe proposed by 20th-century physicists. He later equated mystical experience with ecological awareness, and typically emphasized whichever approach seemed best suited to the audience he was addressing.

Supporters and critics

Watts's explorations and teaching brought him into contact with many noted intellectuals, artists, and American teachers in the human potential movement. His friendship with poet Gary Snyder nurtured his sympathies with the budding environmental movement, to which Watts gave philosophical support. He also encountered Robert Anton Wilson, who credited Watts with being one of his 'Light[s] along the Way' in the opening appreciation of Cosmic Trigger.

Though never affiliated for long with any one academic institution, he did have a fellowship for several years at Harvard University. He also lectured to many college and university students. His lectures and books gave Watts far-reaching influence on the American intelligentsia of the 1950s-1970s, but Watts was often seen as an outsider in academia. When questioned sharply by students during his talk at U.C. Santa Cruz in 1970, Watts responded that he was not an academic philosopher, but rather "a philosophical entertainer."

Watts has been criticized by Buddhists such as Roshi Philip Kapleau, John Daido Loori, and D. T. Suzuki for allegedly misinterpreting several key concepts of Zen Buddhism. Kapleau wrote that Watts dismissed zazen on the basis of only half a koan.[8] In regard to aforementioned koan, Robert Aitken reports that Suzuki told him "I regret to say that Mr. Watts did not understand that story."[9] In Loori's translation of Dogen's The True Dharma Eye, the author also mentions this and expands further to suggest that Zen in its essence is zazen, and cannot be grasped without the practice.

He did however have his supporters in the Zen community, including Shunryu Suzuki, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. As David Chadwick recounted in his biography of Suzuki, when a student of Suzuki's disparaged Watts, by saying “we used to think he was profound until we found the real thing", Suzuki 'fumed with a sudden intensity' "You completely miss the point about Alan Watts! You should notice what he has done. He is a great bodhisattva"[10]

Applied aesthetics

Watts often wrote about, or sometimes alluded to, a group of neighbors in Druid Heights (near Mill Valley, California), who had endeavored to combine architecture, gardening, and carpentry skills to make a beautiful and comfortable life for themselves. These neighbors accomplished this by relying on their own talents and using their own hands, as they lived in what has been called "shared bohemian poverty."[11] Druid Heights was founded by the writer Elsa Gidlow.[12]

Regarding his intentions, Watts attempted to lessen the alienation that accompanies the experience of being human that he felt plagued the modern Westerner, and (like his fellow British expatriate and friend, Aldous Huxley) to lessen the ill will that was an unintentional by-product of alienation from the natural world. He felt such teaching could improve the world, at least to a degree. He also articulated the possibilities for greater incorporation of aesthetics (for example: better architecture, more art, more fine cuisine) in American life. In his autobiography he wrote, "… cultural renewal comes about when highly differentiated cultures mix".[13]

In his last novel Island (1962), Aldous Huxley mentions the religious practice of maithuna as being something like what Roman Catholics call "coitus reservatus". A few years before, Alan Watts had discussed the theme in his own book Nature, Man and Woman. There, he discusses the possibility of the practice being known to early Christians and of it being kept secretly by the Church.

Later years

In his writings of the 1950s, he conveyed his admiration for the practicality in the historical achievements of Chán (Zen) in the Far East, for it had fostered farmers, architects, builders, folk physicians, artists, and administrators among the monks who had lived in the monasteries of its lineages.

In his mature work, he presents himself as "Zennist" in spirit as he wrote in his last book, Tao: The Watercourse Way. Child rearing, the arts, cuisine, education, law and freedom, architecture, sexuality, and the uses and abuses of technology were all of great interest to him.

On the personal level, Watts sought to resolve his feelings of alienation from the institutions of marriage and the values of American society, as revealed in his classic comments on love relationships in "Divine Madness" and on perception of the organism-environment in "The Philosophy of Nature".

In looking at social issues he was quite concerned with the necessity for international peace, for tolerance and understanding among disparate cultures. He also came to feel acutely conscious of a growing ecological predicament; as one instance, in the early 1960s he wrote: “Can any melting or burning imaginable get rid of these ever-rising mountains of ruin – especially when the things we make and build are beginning to look more and more like rubbish even before they are thrown away?"[14] These concerns were later expressed in a television pilot made for NET filmed at his mountain retreat in 1971 in which he noted that the single track of conscious attention was wholly inadequate for interactions with a multi-tracked world.

Political stance

In his writings; Watts alluded to his own political shift from Republican conservatism to a more libertarian legal and political outlook.[15] Distrusting both the established political left and right, he found inspiration in the Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu. He disliked much in the conventional idea of "progress". He hoped for change, but personally he preferred amiable, semi-isolated rural social enclaves, and also believed in tolerance for urban tenderloins, social misfits, and eccentric artists. Watts decried the suburbanization of the countryside and the way of life that went with it.

In one campus lecture tour, which Watts titled "The End to the Put-Down of Man", Watts presented positive images for both nature and humanity, spoke in favor of the various stages of human growth (including the teenage years), reproached excessive cynicism and rivalry, and extolled intelligent creativity, good architecture and food.

On spiritual and social identity

Watts felt that absolute morality had nothing to do with the fundamental realization of one’s deep spiritual identity. He advocated social rather than personal ethics. In his writings, Watts was increasingly concerned with ethics applied to relations between humanity and the natural environment and between governments and citizens. He wrote out of an appreciation of a racially and culturally diverse social landscape.

He often said that he wished to act as a bridge between the ancient and the modern, between East and West, and between culture and nature.

Watts led some tours for Westerners to the Buddhist temples of Japan. He also studied some movements from the traditional Chinese martial art T'ai Chi Ch'uan, with an Asian colleague, Al Chung-liang Huang.


In several of his later publications, especially Beyond Theology and The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Watts put forward a worldview, drawing on Hinduism, Chinese philosophy, pantheism, and modern science; in which he maintains that the whole universe consists of a cosmic self playing hide-and-seek (Lila), hiding from itself (Maya) by becoming all the living and non-living things in the universe, forgetting what it really is; the upshot being that we are all IT in disguise. In this worldview, Watts asserts that our conception of ourself as an "ego in a bag of skin" is a myth; the entities we call the separate "things" are merely processes of the whole.

Personal life

Alan Watts was married three times and had seven children, five daughters and two sons. His oldest son, Mark Watts, currently serves as curator of his father's work.

He met Eleanor Everett in 1936, when her mother, Ruth Fuller Everett, brought her to London to study piano. They met at the Buddhist Lodge, were engaged the following year, and married in April 1938. A daughter, Joan, was born November 1938, and another, Anne, was born in 1943. Their marriage ended eleven years later, but Watts continued after that to correspond with his ex-mother-in-law.[16]

Watts lived with his wife Mary Jane in Sausalito, California in the mid-60s.[17] He lived his later years at times on a houseboat in Sausalito and at times in a secluded cabin on Mount Tamalpais. Laden with social and financial responsibilities, he struggled increasingly with alcohol addiction, which probably shortened his life.[18]

In October 1973, Watts returned from an exhausting European lecture tour. He died of heart failure in his sleep at his home on Mt. Tamalpais the following month, at the age of 58.


  • 1936 The Spirit of Zen, Paperback. 1969 ISBN 0-8021-3056-9 Read preview
  • 1937 The Legacy of Asia and Western Man
  • 1940 The Meaning of Happiness, Paperback. 1970, ISBN 0-06-080178-6
  • 1944 Theologica Mystica of St. Dionysius, (translation from Greek of pseudo-Dionysius, now available online)
  • 1948 Behold the Spirit:A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion, Vintage ed. 1972, ISBN 0-394-71761-9
  • 1950 Easter - Its Story and Meaning
  • 1950 The Supreme Identity, Vintage ed. 1972, ISBN 0-394-71835-6
  • 1951 The Wisdom of Insecurity, Vintage ed. 1968, ISBN 0-394-70468-1
  • 1953 Myth and Ritual in Christianity, Beacon Press 1971, ISBN 0-8070-1375-7
  • 1957 The Way of Zen, Vintage Spiritual Classics 1999, ISBN 0-375-70510-4
  • 1958 Nature, Man, and Woman, Vintage reissue 1991, ISBN 0-679-73233-0
  • 1959 Beat Zen Square Zen and Zen, Paperback, ASIN B000F2RQL4
  • 1960 "This Is It" and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience, Vintage reprint 1973, ISBN 0-394-71904-2
  • 1961 Psychotherapy East and West, Vintage ed. 1975, ISBN 0-394-71609-4 (excerpt here)
  • 1962 The Joyous Cosmology - Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness
  • 1963 The Two Hands of God - The Myths of Polarity
  • 1964 Beyond Theology - The Art of Godmanship, Vintage 1973, ISBN 0-394-71923-9
  • 1966 The Book - On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Vintage reissue 1989, ISBN 0-679-72300-5 (excerpt here)
  • 1967 Nonsense, ISBN 0-525-47463-3. This book is an interesting spiritual application of literary nonsense.
  • 1970 Does It Matter?: Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality, Vintage ed. 1971, ISBN 0-394-71665-5
  • 1971 Erotic Spirituality - The Vision of Konarak
  • 1972 The Art of Contemplation
  • 1972 In My Own Way - An Autobiography 1915-1965, Vintage 1973, ISBN 0-394-71951-4 Read preview
  • 1973 Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal, Vintage 1974, ISBN 0-394-71999-9

Posthumous publications

  • 1974 The Essence of Alan Watts, Celestial Arts 1977, ISBN 0-89087-210-4
  • 1975 Tao: The Watercourse Way, with Al Chung-liang Huang, Pantheon 1977, ISBN 0-394-73311-8
  • 1976 Essential Alan Watts
  • 1978 Uncarved Block, Unbleached Silk: The Mystery of Life
  • 1979 Om: Creative Meditations
  • 1982 Play to Live
  • 1983 Way of Liberation: Essays and Lectures on the Transformation of the Self
  • 1985 Out of the Trap
  • 1986 Diamond Web
  • 1987 The Early Writings of Alan Watts, Paperback. 1995, ISBN 0-89087-794-7
  • 1990 The Modern Mystic: A New Collection of Early Writings
  • 1994 Talking Zen
  • 1995 Become What You Are, Shambhala Expanded ed. 2003, ISBN 1-57062-940-4
  • 1995 Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion Read preview
  • 1995 The Philosophies of Asia
  • 1995 The Tao of Philosophy, edited transcripts, Tuttle Publishing 1999, ISBN 0-8048-3204-8
  • 1996 Myth and Religion
  • 1997 Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking
  • 1997 Zen and the Beat Way
  • 1998 Culture of Counterculture
  • 1999 Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion, edited transcripts, Tuttle Publishing, ISBN 0-8048-3203-X
  • 2000 What Is Zen?, editor: Mark Watts, New World Library, ISBN 0-394-71951-4 Read preview
  • 2000 What Is Tao?, ed. Mark Watts, New World Library, ISBN 1-57731-168-X
  • 2000 Still the Mind: An Introduction to Meditation, ed. Mark Watts, New World Library, ISBN 1-57731-214-7
  • 2000 Eastern Wisdom, ed. Mark Watts, MJF Books, ISBN 1-56731-491-0, three books in one volume: What is Zen?, What is Tao?, and An Introduction to Meditation (Still the Mind). These were assembled from transcriptions of audio tape recordings made by his son Mark, of lectures and seminars given by Alan Watts during the last decade of his life. They constitute simplified introductions to the philosophies he taught.

Audio and video works, essays

Including recordings of lectures at major universities and multi-session seminars:

  • 1960 Eastern Wisdom in Modern Life, television series, (here)
  • 1960 Essential Lectures, audio recordings, (here)
  • 1960 Nature of Consciousness, essay, (here)
  • 1960 The Value of Psychotic Experience
  • 1960 The World As Emptiness
  • 1960 From Time to Eternity
  • 1960 Lecture On Zen
  • 1960 The Cross of Cards
  • 1960 Taoism
  • 1962 This Is IT
  • 1968 "Psychedelics & Religious Experience", in California Law Review (here)
  • 1969 Why Not Now: The Art of Meditation
  • 1994 Zen: The Best of Alan Watts (VHS)
  • 2005 Do You Do It, or Does It Do You?: how to let the universe meditate you (CD)
  • 2007 Zen Meditations with Alan Watts, DVD, (here)

Other Books

  • Genuine Fake: a Biography of Alan Watts, by Monica Furlong, Published by Heinemann, 1986

Academic Connections

Saybrook University Saybrook Graduate School offers the only course on Alan Watts in the United States, and perhaps the world (HTP 3075: The Life of Alan Watts). Saybrook also has the only Alan Watts academic chair in the world, which is held by Stanley Krippner, PhD, Executive Faculty Member.


  • The math rock Giraffes? Giraffes! band features an Alan Watts speech in their song, "I Am S/h(im)e[r] As You Am S/h(im)e[r] As You Are Me and We Am I and I Are All Our Together: Our Collective Consciousness' Psychogenic Fugue"


  1. ^ Watts, Alan W. 1973 In My Own Way: An Autobiography 1915-1965, New York: Pantheon
  2. ^ Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts,by Monica Furlong, p.12
  3. ^ Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts,by Monica Furlong, p.22
  4. ^ Watts, Alan W. 1973, pp.71-72
  5. ^ Watts, Alan W. 1973, p. 60
  6. ^ Watts, Alan W. 1973, p. 102
  7. ^ The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (the quote is new to the 1965/1970 edition (page 26), and not contained in the original 1962 edition of the book).
  8. ^ Kapleau 1967, pp. 21-22
  9. ^ Aitken 1997, p.30. [1]
  10. ^ Chadwick, D: Crooked Cucumer: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki, Broadway Books,2000
  11. ^ ^ Davis, Erik (May 2005). Druids and Ferries "Druids and Ferries". Arthur (Brooklyn: Arthur Publishing Corp.) (16). Druids and Ferries.
  12. ^ Davis, Erik (May 2005). Druids and Ferries "Druids and Ferries". Arthur (Brooklyn: Arthur Publishing Corp.) (16). Druids and Ferries. 
  13. ^ Watts, In My Own Way
  14. ^ The Joyous Cosmology, p.63
  15. ^ Watts, Alan. "Psychedelics and Religious Experience", California Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 1, January 1968, pp. 74-85.
  16. ^ Stirling 2006, pg. 27
  17. ^ The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)
  18. ^ Zen Effects, p. 188–189


  • Aitken, Robert. Original Dwelling Place. Counterpoint. Washington, D.C. 1997. ISBN 1-887178-41-4 (paperback)
  • Charters, Ann (ed.). The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-670-83885-3 (hard cover); ISBN 0-14-015102-8 (paperback)
  • Furlong, Monica, Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts Houghton Mifflin. New York. 1986 ISBN 0-395-45392-5, Skylight Paths 2001 edition of the biography, with new foreword by author: ISBN 1-89336132-2
  • Kapleau, Philip. Three Pillars of Zen (1967) Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-5975-7
  • Stirling, Isabel. "Zen Pioneer: The Life & Works of Ruth Fuller Sasaki" Shoemaker & Hoard. 2006. ISBN 978-1-59376-110-3
  • Watts, Alan, In My Own Way New York. Random House Pantheon. 1973 ISBN 0-394-46911-9 (his autobiography)

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Alan Wilson Watts (6 January 191516 November 1973) was an English philosopher, writer, speaker, and expert in comparative religion.




  • The only real crime is that you won't admit that you are God.
  • Camus said there is only really one serious philosophical question, which is whether or not to commit suicide. I think there are four or five serious philosophical questions:
    The first one is: Who started it?
    The second is: Are we going to make it?
    The third is: Where are we going to put it?
    The fourth is: Who's going to clean up?
    And the fifth: Is it serious?
    • Audio lecture "Out Of Your Mind, 1: The Nature of Consciousness: A Game That's Worth The Candle"
  • Life is a game, the first rule of which is that IT IS NOT A GAME.
    • on Hinduism
  • There is obviously a place in life for a religious attitude for awe and astonishment at existence. That is also a basis for respect for existence. We don’t have much of it in this culture, even though we call it materialistic. In this culture we call materialistic, today we are of course bent on the total destruction of material and its conversion into junk and poisonous gases. This is of course not a materialistic culture because it has no respect for material. And respect is in turn based on wonder.
    • Images of God
  • Zen ... does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.
    • The Way of Zen, pt. 2, ch. 2 (1957)
  • Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.
    • Life magazine (April 21, 1961)
  • 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
  • It must be obvious... that there is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity.
    • The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951)
  • For the greater part of human, activity is designed to make permanent those experiences and joys which are only lovable because they are changing.
    • The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951)
  • I am amazed that Congressmen can pass a bill imposing severe penalties on anyone who burns the American flag, whereas they are responsible for burning that for which the flag stands: the United States as a territory, as a people, and as a biological manifestation. That is an example of our perennial confusion of symbols with realities.
    • Audio lecture "Individual and Society"
  • Running away from fear is fear; fighting pain is pain; trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain. The thinker has no other form than his thought.
    • The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951)
  • There is no formula for generating the authentic warmth of love. It cannot be copied. You cannot talk yourself into it or rouse it by straining at the emotions or by dedicating yourself solemnly to the service of mankind. Everyone has love, but it can only come out when he is convinced of the impossibility and the frustration of trying to love himself. This conviction will not come through condemnations, through hating oneself, through calling self love bad names in the universe. It comes only in the awareness that one has no self to love.
    • The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951)
  • Now, you see, if you understand what I'm saying, with your intelligence, and then take the next step and say "But I understood it now, but I didn't feel it." Then, next I raise the question: Why do you want to feel it? You say: "I want something more", because that's again that spiritual greed. And you could only say that because you didn't understand it.
    • Intellectual Yoga
  • You see, many of the troubles going on in the world right now are being supervised by people with very good intentions whose attempts are to keep things in order, to clean things up, to forbid this, and to prevent that. The more we try to put everything to rights, the more we make fantastic messes. Maybe that is the way it has got to be. Maybe I should not say anything at all about the folly of trying to put things to right but simply, on the principle of Blake, let the fool persist in his folly so that he will become wise.
    • On Helping Others
  • The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.
    • The Book on the Taboo against knowing who you are
  • Nothing fails like success.
    • The Book on the Taboo against knowing who you are, p. 75
  • But what we've got going wrong is we've got a kind of bifurcation [in cultural development]:
    You take your classified telephone directory, and open up "Churches", and have a ruler in your hand. And you will find that the longest space is occupied by authoritarian, Bible-banging churches. And these people are barbarians, who take the written word of the Bible literally. Because they need terribly, they have a personal need, for something to depend on.
    [...] The government realizes that there is a very large number of people like that; and therefore, to keep their votes, they have to pander to those kind of people. And these are the boys who never grew up; they always need Papa.
    [...] The trouble is that the boys who need Papa, are violent. They have the guns. And they are the types of people who like to be soldiers, policemen–tough guys. And therefore they have a great deal of power.
    • interviewed on Les Hixon's show "In The Spirit" on WBAI New York, November 1972
  • The pity of all this is, you know, a man like that [ Sri Ramakrishna ] has to have disciples, or no one would ever hear about him. But somehow, as the generations pass, the flame dies out. And eventually the disciples kill him.
    I wish that there was a way of putting a time-bomb into scriptures and records– not a time-bomb, but some kind of invisible ink, so that all scriptures would un-print themselves about fifty years after the master's death. And just dissolve.
    • Audio lecture Ramakrishna, Ramana, and Krishnamurti (in part three of four)
  • Nowadays, of course, progressive theologians are all for sex; they say it's a good thing, the biblical position was not that sex was evil, but that it was good, and that it's alright.
       But now, look here, what is the real point here? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. What can you get kicked out of the church for? Any church– Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, and the synagogue I think too. What's the real thing for which people get kicked out, excommunicated?
       For "envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness"? "Pride, vainglory, and hardness of heart"? Owning shares in munitions factories? Profiting off slums? No sir. You can be a bishop and live in all those sins openly. But if you go to bed with the wrong person, you're out.
       So one has to conclude that, for all practical purposes, the church is a sexual regulation society; and it really isn't interested in anything else. Christianity is more preoccupied with sex than even Priapism or Tantric Yoga [are]. Because that's the thing that counts, that's the sin, the really important sin.
    • Audio lecture "Beyond Theology"
  • Archimedes said, "Give me a fulcrum and I will move the Earth"; but there isn't one. It is like betting on the future of the human race — I might wish to lay a bet that the human race would destroy itself by the year 2,000, but there is nowhere to place the bet. On the contrary, I am involved in the world and must try to see that it does not blow itself to pieces. I once had a terrible argument with Margaret Mead. She was holding forth one evening on the absolute horror of the atomic bomb, and how everybody should spring into action and abolish it, but she was getting so furious about it that I said to her: "You scare me because I think you are the kind of person who will push the button in order to get rid of the other people who were going to push it first." So she told me that I had no love for my future generations, that I had no responsibility for my children, and that I was a phony swami who believed in retreating from facts. But I maintained my position. As Robert Oppenheimer said a short while before he died, "It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. The only possible chance that it might not is that we do not attempt to prevent it from doing so." You see, many of the troubles going on in the world right now are being supervised by people with very good intentions whose attempts are to keep things in order, to clean things up, to forbid this, and to prevent that. The more we try to put everything to rights, the more we make fantastic messes. Maybe that is the way it has got to be. Maybe I should not say anything at all about the folly of trying to put things to right but simply, on the principle of Blake, let the fool persist in his folly so that he will become wise.
    • Play to Live : Lectures of Alan Watts (1982)
  • "Wars based on principle are far more destructive...the attacker will not destroy that which he is after."
    • The Way of Zen

Teaches meditation

  • A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts. So he loses touch with reality, and lives in a world of illusion.
  • The transformation of human consciousness though meditation is frustrated, as long as we think of it in terms as something that I, my self can bring about. because it leads to endless games of spiritual oneupmanship, and Guru competitions.
(On Deep meditation and enlightenment)
  • That we are no longer this poor little stranger and afraid in a world it never made. But that YOU ARE THIS UNIVERSE and you are creating it in every moment...Because you see it starts now, it didn't begin in the past, there was no past. See, if the universe began in the past when that happened it was now, see, but it still now. and the universe is still beginning now, and it's trailing off like the wake of a ship from now, and that wake fades out so does the past. You can look back there to explain things, but the explanation disappears. You'll never find it there... Things are not explained by the past, they are explained by what Happens Now. That Creates the past, and it begins here... That's the birth of responsibility...
  • If you know that "I", in the sense of the person, the front, the ego, it really doesn't exist. won't go to your head too badly, if you wake up and discover that you're God."

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