Today we have a guest post by our good friend Daniele Bolelli. He presents us with his take on our featured Datsusara Hero, Alan Watts. If you enjoy this post I urge you to listen to the works of Alan Watts when you have time, much of it is available for free, online. Enjoy.
-Chris Odell Datsusara, President
Those who can't resist the urge to take popular heroes down a notch will tell you that Alan Watts was an alcoholic and was addicted to nicotine. They will tell you that he was a victim of his own excesses. They will tell you that he sometimes mischaracterized Buddhism and Taoism, and turned them into hippie fantasies. In saying this, they wouldn't be entirely wrong, but at the same time they would be completely missing the point. Nobody says Alan Watts was a saint. Watts himself never claimed it, nor would he have been interested in it. What he craved was an intense life, not a perfect one. And those who can't appreciate his philosophical genius, just because the good man had some issues, miss out on the contributions of one of the most brilliant and influential minds of the 20th century.
Odds are that if you have any remote interest in Taoism or Zen Buddhism, you owe a debt of gratitude to Alan Watts. No Westerner, in fact, has done more to popularize these philosophies in the English language. People with no previous exposure usually hit a stumbling block the second they try to read one of the many translations of Taoist and Zen classics. Allusions, paradoxes, the foreignness of some concepts, an unorthodox sense of humor, the many things left unsaid... lots of factors contribute to discourage prospective readers and make them give up. And this is where Alan Watts' talent came to the rescue. In his own unique fashion, he managed to explain Taoist and Buddhist ideas without losing their poetry and subtlety along the way. He communicated Taoist and Buddhist insights in ways more easily understandable for Westerners without killing the wonder of it all in the process. He guided adventurous readers through unknown lands, lighting the path along the way. His radio lectures for the Pacifica Station, and his many excellent books cracked the door open introducing Taoist and Buddhist ideas to mainstream Western consciousness. His influence reached hundreds of thousands, among them the great Bruce Lee, whose own philosophy sprouted in large part thanks to Watts' ideas.
But Alan Watts was much more than a brilliant Western interpreter of Eastern philosophy. In his hands, Taoism and Zen Buddhism were but tools serving him in the quest to create one's own way of life. The wide range of his interests had a "Renaissance Man" ring to it. Art and philosophy to him were not important for their own sake, but for how they could enrich everyday living. As much as he loved Taoism and Zen Buddhism, he was interested in any field of human experience that could offer him anything capable of elevating the quality of existence. It was in this spirit that he experimented quite a bit with psychedelics (he even wrote a book about the intersection of spirituality and psychedelics long before Terence McKenna, or even Timothy Leary did).
Not surprisingly academic philosophers looked down upon him. Ditto for quite a bit of the zen establishment. "What we are doing is serious business, they screamed. This guy looks like he's having way too much fun! He is frivolous. He is superficial. He is a pop philosopher. He doesn't have a stick up his ass like the rest of us. There's clearly something wrong with him." Most of all they resented that someone like Watts, someone that they considered little more than an amateur in the field, could reach and touch many more people around the world than they could ever dream of. The establishment, it doesn't matter whether it's the scholarly establishment or the spiritual establishment, or any other kind of establishment, is always outraged when outsiders can capture and communicate the essence of their chosen fields better than any insider. Watts had never formally studied for too long under anybody. For the most part, he was self-taught. He never received their rubber-stamped certificate of approval, and for this he could never be forgiven. He had forged his own path, rather than submit to their teachings, and the public loved him for it!
But Watts was having too much of a good time to pay attention to them. He was at war with all those philosophies, attitudes and religions encouraging guilt, cynicism, a negative attitude toward sex. What he helped midwife into Western consciousness is the idea that spirituality doesn't have to be penitential and ascetic, but can be joyous, and that sensuality and mysticism should be free to dance cheek to cheek.
Before we close this celebration of another Datsusara hero, let's have a taste of what the man himself had to say, "Physical education is the fundamental discipline of life, but it is actually despised, neglected, and taught intellectually, because the true intent of our schools is to inculcate the virtues of cunning and calculation which will make money, not so much for the students themselves as for those who employ and govern them, and who, in turn (because they were educated in the same system), do not know how to transform money into physical enjoyment. They were never taught how to husband plants and animals for food, how to cook, how to make clothes and build houses, how to dance and breathe, how to do yoga for finding one's true center, or how to make love. The establishment is a class of physical barbarians."
Daniele is a university professor, writer and martial artist. He has written books such as On The Warriors Path, 50 Things You're Not Supposed To Know: Religion, and Create Your Own Religion. He also hosts a popular podcast called The Drunken Taoist which we sponsor, and he's an awesome human being that you should know.