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  1. Long reads
30 August 1999

A guru for those who don’t trust gurus

He hates new-age nonsense, so why does Tim Lottwant us to read a bearded, bongo-playing Zen Buddhist

By Tim Lott

I am about to confess a shameful secret. Despite being a fervent rationalist, I possess, and in fact treasure, a fair number of books that feature flying doves, setting suns and luminescent clouds on their covers, published by the new-age publisher Arkana.

The fact that all of these books are by the same author, the half-forgotten Alan Watts, ameliorates my embarrassment only somewhat. Watts, after all, was a bongo-playing proto-beatnik who sported a Jesus beard and showed up to lecture his classes in California dressed as a Tibetan monk.

This kind of behaviour – beard-wearing, robe-sporting and bongo-playing – would usually induce nausea in me. In fact, in my latest novel, White City Blue, there is a scene in which a drunken young man head-butts a Californian guru lecturing on some version or other of new-age philosophy.

Writing this scene gave me a good deal of vicarious pleasure, which says something about my general attitude to crystal-brandishing, stargazing, tree-hugging new-age messengers, be they Deepak Chopra, M Scott Peck, Lyn Franks, Timothy Leary or any of the plethora of people peddling optimism and wishful thinking as a coherent philosophy.

Alan Watts, though, bongos and all, has changed my life. Or, at least, he has changed the way I look at my life. But Watts remains, in intellectual circles as well as mystical ones, a joke or a non-event.

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First, his name: Alan Watts. A guru called Alan Watts is simply a non-starter. Fine for a sub-postmaster. But a guru? No.

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Second, Watts was a rationalist whose distrusts of magical thinking led him to leave the Catholic church (where he had trained as a priest). He had a strong respect for western science and the scientific method – an insuperable stumbling block for any guru trying to peddle spiritual snake oil. He believed that sitting cross-legged on a mountain would just give you a bad back. Alone among interpreters of Zen and eastern philosophy – and he was among the first to popularise eastern thought in the west – he did not consider meditation necessary or even desirable.

Finally, he was not born in Tibet, or even Silicon Valley, but in Chislehurst, Kent, a public schoolboy and son of a car dealer.

So much for why he was never taken seriously as a guru. The reasons he was never taken seriously as a thinker are equally transparent. He writes too well, for a start – intellectual respectability tends to require impenetrability to give it kudos, whereas Watts’s writing is concise, clear, accessible and blatantly funny. He had fun with the idea of people queuing up to hear his thoughts, growing a Jesus beard and lecturing in a black cloak. He described himself as a “trickster guru” or “showman shaman”, slept around, drank too much and got taken up by the counter-culture (although he did not return the compliment).

Jack Kerouac and the beats considered him a hero, Kerouac depicting him as Arthur Whale in Dharma Bums (although Watts thought the beats were ridiculous). He was a contemporary and associate of Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Joseph Campbell, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg and John Cage. He was associated with hippies and flakes generally, although he largely stayed clear of their psychedelic shenanigans, teaching as the episcopal chaplain of Northwestern University, in Chicago, the American Academy of Asian Studies, in California, and, finally, at Harvard University.

Watts, then, though a popular cultural figure in his time and to this day still a cult (Van Morrison has written a song about him), has never achieved the intellectual respectability of many of his less-gifted peers. In fact his very popularity and notoriety undoubtedly worked against him.

Born in 1915, he was a weedy boy with buck teeth. He published his first work on Buddhism at the age of 16, the year he was head boy at King’s School, Canterbury, and published his first book, Myth and Ritual in Christianity, the following year. After meeting and marrying a 16-year-old American heiress, he moved to the United States in 1938, where his first American book, The Meaning of Happiness, became an immediate best-seller. This was the beginning of his unorthodox attempt to communicate Zen Buddhist and Taoist ideas to the west.

In the 1950s he published the book that was his biggest success, The Wisdom of Insecurity. By 1956 the beat generation was established, and Watts, who had divorced and remarried (he was a serial adulterer) was finishing The Way of Zen, the book that would make him one of the leaders of the counter-culture. With rave reviews in the New York Times, it sold tens of thousands of copies. By now he had his own television and radio programme. He denied being a Buddhist or even a guru and described himself as simply an interpreter of eastern thought in the west.

In 1958, adopted by the beats, he wrote an essay called “Beat Zen Square Zen”, which attacked the use of Zen ideas by feckless teenagers. He was living in the suburbs, was clean-shaven and sported a crew-cut. By 1962, with five children, he married again and went to live on a disused ferryboat.

By the middle of the sixties, now a research fellow at Harvard’s Department of Social Relations, he was the high priest of Zen in America. Unlike contemporaries such as Leary and Ginsberg, he still had an enormous amount of respectability in America and came to represent the “sane” side of the counter-culture to middle America. He had the sense, unlike Leary, to keep quiet about his use of and approval of recreational drugs.

By 1969, having published more than 20 books, he started a never-to-be-published novel and in 1973 he died, by all accounts a rather pathetic drunk. This also provoked prejudice in those who assume that the job of wisdom is to put you out of the reach of pain.

So much for the man. What of his ideas? Watts was the living refutation of the Zen philosophy that “those who speak don’t know; those who know don’t speak”. He loved to communicate and he communicated brilliantly. To understand his thoughts you have to read his books, particularly The Wisdom of Insecurity and The Book (on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are): what follows is a necessarily brief summary.

Unlike other western interpreters of Zen, Watts believed in enjoying life. Eastern asceticism had no appeal for him. He believed strongly in science and reason and had no time for magical thinking.

He was very good at framing an overall picture of the world that actually made some sort of coherent sense, more today than ever. This is a remarkable achievement, since for a long time we have given up trying to describe the world, our lives and their meaning – Freud and Marx really being the last notables to have made the attempt (with hindsight, almost entirely unsuccessfully). It would be a brave man who put Watts on a pedestal with these two icons, but his beliefs have proved more durable.

Central to Watts’s philosophy was that our main struggle as human beings is to come to terms with uncertainty, which is our deepest fear. We turn to religion or science or atheism, but these do not satisfy us. We have to see the world as it is: unseeable. We have to sniff our way through it by a combination of instinct, guesswork and reason, while accepting that we are condemned to get things “wrong”.

We in the west have got ourselves into a tangle because we have envisaged the world not as the unpredictable organism it is, but as a machine. This is built into Christianity, with its idea of God as creating mankind as an “artefact” out of clay (Watts calls this “the ceramic model”) and into industrial society, with its strict laws of cause and effect.

We are obsessed by controlling what cannot be controlled and we lack the humility to recognise our helplessness. We tend to see ourselves not as part of a great, mutable organism, but as isolated selves – “an ego in a bag of skin” – threatened by “nature”, which we therefore perpetually seek to tame or dominate.

This illusion is reflected in our very language, which is heavy on subject and object, the idea that nothing will move unless it is given a push, that there are “things” and “processes”. In Watts’s reading of Zen, everything, even a sofa or a mountain, is a process. Everything is in movement and will not stay still long enough to be defined. This is what we should face and affirm, just as we should face and affirm the fact that there is no “higher power” other than ourselves. We, like everything else in creation, are particles of “god” or, if you prefer, “nature”.

We are neither free nor unfree, and we are both. Free will and destiny exist simultaneously. These paradoxes are not the result of failures of Aristotelian reasoning. Paradox is at the heart of things. Logical opposites coexist and can never be disentangled. Things are both true and untrue, chaotic and ordered, knowable and unknowable, trivial and profound. It is a frustrating philosophy for those who believe in common sense. But life is not common sense, however much we wish it were.

Watts was happy to assert that life was meaningless but did not interpret this as being a negative thing, rather as something to be embraced and loved. He thought the idea that death needed to be resisted and “conquered” was absurd, and that death made life meaningful. Our fear of death makes us lead lives of anxiety and gives us a distorted relationship with time (ie, that life is a race against it).

Life, Watts believed, must be lived in the present – we have fetishised both past and future to the extent where we occupy all our mental space with one or the other, hardly possessing the present at all. The present, in our world, has shrunk to a tiny blip between an infinite past and an infinite future. In Watts’s thinking, the present is infinite and past and future merely constructs.

His moral system is typically eastern – that good and bad are not the way the west thinks of them – one to be asserted, the other wiped out – but a mutually dependent system in which the conflict between the two provides the dynamic for the world to move forward. Evil, for Watts, was inevitable, and more than that, healthy, for without it we would not know what good was. Good and evil were not opposites but polar extremes of the same phenomenon.

At the heart of Watts’s writing is an interpretation of Zen that makes sense to the sceptical, pleasure-seeking, ironic, sexual, scientific mind – the modern English mind, that is. To love Watts, you do not have to throw away reason or shave your head and wander the streets in orange robes. You do not have to “do” anything. You have to learn to stop “doing” and “thinking” and simply be aware – however unnerving that may be.

Reading Watts, you can have a great deal of fun finding out how, since he committed the greatest crime for a serious thinker: he wrote in a way that suggested he did not take himself, or the world at large, altogether seriously.

To me, this is a wonderful recommendation. For how can life be understood without its most central fact being acknowledged: that of absurdity?

Tim Lott’s latest novel, “White City Blue”, is published by Penguin, £9.99