Alan Watts – Scoundrel or ‘Spiritual Entertainer’?

‘There was a young man who said Dan, for it certainly seems I am, a creature that moves in determinate grooves, I’m not even a bus I’m a tram.’ 

Alan Watts is a man who has taught me much, giving me insight and inspiration and always a good laugh.  Although he died in the early ’70’s his legacy lives on in his many books, recordings and the seemingly endless clips on Youtube.

Alan’s words deeply resonate with me, he was a man who didn’t seem to take himself or life too seriously.  I am always heartened by his mischievous belly laugh, which for me, was an integral part of his appeal (and teachings!).

Under a Thai Sun, Prachuap Kiri Khan, Thailand

By his own admission, Alan was a ‘spiritual entertainer’; but he was surely being modest, he was much more than that to so many folk.  He was a scholar who had an incredibly diverse knowledge and first hand experience of many of the worlds religious and philosophical teachings/doctrines, renowned as an expert in his field.  He made a large impact in the early days of the west ‘waking up’ to the influence of Eastern spirituality, especially in the U.S., and always shunned the patriarchal religious systems in favour of free and individual thought and expression, leading us towards our own truth and understanding.

Alan was a great spiritual philanderer, a charismatic chap who wooed audiences worldwide with his charm and wit.  Some of his stuff is fairly controversial now, especially for the puritanical Christian sorts, but imagine in the early ’50’s!  Alan’s teachings must have been both controversial and revelatory in equal measure.  In many ways things were more innocent at the time, you were born into religions and did not question why?  Alan posed many new whys?  And what whys they were!

Having said all of this, I am now faced with a regular dilemma with the people I come to respect in life.  Was he a rascal?  And more importantly, do I care?

His critics say this:

Alan Watts was an alcoholic who got married one too may times (three wives in total).  He also potentially mis-interpreted some of the Zen scriptures (but I am sure we can forgive anybody this).  He was a heavy smoker (who wasn’t back then!) 

We seem to reach a stage in every relationship, when we are drawn closer and cracks inevitably appear.  The imperfections of personality, each flaw completely unique.  There are as many ways to dislike a person as to like a person.

Alan was of course no saint, he did not profess to be one, so are his life indiscretions relevant to how we view his teachings and legacy?  I have read of many who say that a man who teaches of Buddha or Jesus should follow to the letter their religious rhetoric.  This would surely carry more credibility if either of the aforementioned chaps had actually led a pure existence.  Even in the tainted words of their subsequent disciples and worshippers, what is written has remained a reflection of full lives lived, ups and downs and yes, indiscretions along the way.  Jesus liked a glass of wine and Buddha was a real party animal as a young man.  We only know what has been through the people who have recorded and generally manipulated the truth, but these indiscretions remain for a reason.

I would not compare Alan’s teachings with either Jesus or Buddha, Alan’s words are far more effecting than either of them.  The main difference being that I actually hear Alan, not just in a physical sense.  I can feel what he is saying, he speaks sense in a very humane way, making complex philosophy accessible to a layman like myself.

I believe Alan to be one of the few people (especially those in the field of spirituality) who spoke from the heart and of his own life experience.  He only read some of it in books, he lived and breathed the rest.  He went through the ringer, had his addictions and demons, but this is all part of the glorious dance.

I have heard many a Buddhist monk council on marriage issues.  I would say that this is not wise.  Wisdom matures with experience, is eventuated by suffering.  Alan was taking most of his teachings and knowledge directly from the source, the tumult of his own human experience, of living a full life.

Alan differs in so many ways from your average spiritual ‘guru’. He was an ordained Christian minister and was a big fan of Jesus. But as they say ‘there was only one true Christian, and they crucified him!’  Alan had a huge intellect, but was he a scoundrel?  Was he living a life at odds to his teachings?

The very reason that Alan spoke with such clarity and conviction is because he led a full life. Full of both good and bad. He was an alcoholic in later life, a heavy smoker and some may say a ladies man, but these were different times. He was married to three women, which would certainly be classed as more ‘ordinary’ nowadays.  Marriage had very different connotations in the 50’s/60’s, this could be interpreted as three deep and meaningful relationships.

Alan never said he was a guru, prophet, saint or any of the nonsense that you hear from some of the charlatans who tread the spiritual circus boards. The only person who we can really judge is ourselves and even then we should be very, very forgiving and compassionate.

I didn’t have the chance to meet Alan and I would not pass judgement anyway.  I know that his words inspire me and help to explain this human condition, the way we are, in a manner that makes sense.  He tried to uncover the truth behind the ‘great’ religions and spread it to the masses.  In this way, he was a prophet.  He had no doctrine except his own experience and in living a full life, I believe, came closer to the truth than most ever will.

There are boundaries of behavior that should not be crossed by any person, but our teachers are no different than us.  We are all floating in this soup, trying to understand the madness in perfection that is all around.  Sometimes we are up, sometimes we are down.  Those who choose to share their wisdom are great beings and the most important people in any culture.  Our teachers define our societies.

Alan was a pioneer, sweeping away the grey post-industrial hangover created by lingering Victorian values.  He wedged open the door for the 60’s to come rolling in.   He was a maverick, a rebel, he was one true voice amongst a sea of dulled mediocrity.  He planted seeds of freedom from the woes of the Western mindset.

What do you think of our Alan?  I am obviously slightly biased and would appreciate your opinion.

If you have a little spare time, I have attached two of my current favourite Alan Watts lectures or here are a collection of wise quotes:

PS – I hope not to offend any religious people here, but an element of perspective must be applied to a doctored vision of reality.  Is there one truth, or many?  Are we simply all living and being our own truth?  Are we all just God!?  Alan would say YES.  I’m with Alan here.


27 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Thank you for this view of an important pioneer of Western spirituality. Watts was quite an inspiration for me when I was much younger.

  2. 3

    pakiwanda said,

    Watts that rascal of a sage he was a very funny guy in my books and a very smart guy. I came across Alan at a very critical stage of my life when i was wrestling with my faith and his works helped put so much into perspective and to also learn the best way to be enlightened especially about oneself is to actually forget about enlightenment…

    As he says “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.”

    I really couldn’t care if he was an alcoholic or any crazy thing because what interests me is not himself (physical self) but rather his teachings fullstop.

  3. 5

    ybertaud9 said,

    An excellent find… a lot of interesting titles I’ll be looking into. Looking forward to sharing. Be well 🙂

  4. 7

    […] Alan Watts – Scoundrel or ‘Spiritual Entertainer’? ( Rate this: Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailMoreRedditDiggStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  5. 8

    bneal817 said,

    I must agree that whatever his personal story, Alan is one of the greatest philosophers of the last century. He had an incredible insight into the nature of reality, and human experience – and an incredible gift at communicating that insight with wit and humor, in a way that could be appreciated by both the scholar and the average Joe.

    Two of his books “The Way of Zen” and “Nature, Man and Woman” had a tremendous impact on my life, my thought, and my spiritual journey.

    So, teacher, philosopher, spiritual entertainer – absolutely!

    Rascal? Maybe. But (at the risk of offending the “religious”) I think that God loves a rascal, and that the Divine has quite a penchant for playfulness and mischief Itself…

    • 9

      leroywatson4 said,

      Hoorah! This is the case. Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tzu etcetc all had a good dose of mischief about them. The divine is beautiful in all its forms. I am very thankful that I have the teachings of Alan Watts in my life, he was a true maverick. Thanks for the getting involved with the turtle Ben. Great to have you here….

  6. 10

    […] Alan Watts – Scoundrel or ‘Spiritual Entertainer’? ( […]

  7. 11

    […] Alan Watts – Scoundrel or ‘Spiritual Entertainer’? ( […]

  8. 12

    Don Thomann said,

    Alan Watts is a Rorschach blot, don’t you know?
    What one sees is intrinsic to oneself.
    See and learn!

  9. 14

    Denise Kodi said,

    I enjoyed finding this post. I’m with you! Alan Watts has changed my life in many ways. He was so original and so colorful… and I think it’s because of this that he appealed to many people (like me), whereas other, less-rascally people did not. 🙂

  10. 15

    leroywatson4 said,

    Reblogged this on Riding effortlessly on a large green turtle and commented:

    I’ve been listening to more Alan Watts recently and stumbled across this old post that you may enjoy. Does it matter that our spiritual guru’s are rascals? Or does it just make them more endearing and human. More real?

  11. 16

    Mike said,

    Jean Burden( the poet), Alan’s lover in the late fifties, said of him, “he is to women what catnip is to a mouse….” Alan said of Jean that she was ,” a profound influence on his life.” Few know of this relationship because they kept it on the down low… Alan was married at the time you see:) What a scoundrel he was!
    He wrote to Jean that they ,” saw things the same.” Perhaps they did , but Jean refused to marry him and so he found Jano. You see, Jean would not drink to excess or do other intoxicating substances with Alan. “Nature, Man and Woman “is written for and about Jean Burden. he dedicated it to her.

  12. 17

    Dumitru said,

    Critics should not look at his personal life, but strictly at what he wrote. All real intellectuals know that different substances like alcohol, tobacco, and others give huge concentration power and imagination.
    Trying to find flaws in his personal life to belittle him is not the way…

  13. 18

    Vanel said,

    “He had no doctrine except his own experience and in living a full life, I believe, came closer to the truth than most ever will.” you say yourself. If you are truly inspired, I think you should let go of Alan Watts as well, and his doctrines… ???

  14. 20

    Lovingdear said,

    That was a beautiful piece my dear, well done. Since I am so amazed and as so to some degree biased where Alan is concerned I wouldn’t be able to write a single contradicting word against the wonder known as Alan Watts.

  15. 22

    Jose Herrera said,

    The Irreducible Rascality within us all would say he was no rascal at all.

    I’m going to give that video a go, thanks for the information brother

  16. 24

    Mark Styles said,

    I think he was a totally brilliant man.. I remember him in the 70’s.. but really discovered his tapes in 2000.. It resonates with me so much.. With his delivery and humor, you don’t feel like your being preached to, or someone is shoving their stuff down your throat.. He was perfectly ok with you picking and using what he said, and disregarding what didn’t seem to apply. But everything he said resonated with me.. His humor and modesty was totally refreshing.. and I found it totally intriguing.. He entertained he didn’t preach.. That’ why I love him..

    Being Catholic, I loved how he wove that in with the easter philosophies. made total sense to me..

  17. 26

    WhiteStar said,

    if you understand what he is saying then what he was means nothing because his words stand on their own and one can then decide if they have any value or not.

    Imagine the greatest piece on wisdom you ever heard coming out of the mouth of a miscreant…….would that make the words carry less wisdom?

    to me what is being talked about here in a coded way is “does he have credibility or not?” this is the kind of question only the poser of it can answer.

    • 27

      leroy watson said,

      All true! Thanks for the comment. But in practice? Very difficult. Anyway, I prefer scoundrel or spiritual entertainer much more than ‘guru’. I’m sure Alan wouldn’t give a hoot either way;)

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