The Collected Letters of Alan Watts

The Collected Letters of Alan Watts


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Philosopher, author, and lecturer Alan Watts (1915–1973) popularized Zen Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies for the counterculture of the 1960s. Today, new generations are finding his writings and lectures online, while faithful followers worldwide continue to be enlightened by his teachings. The Collected Letters of Alan Watts reveals the remarkable arc of Watts’s colorful and controversial life, from his school days in England to his priesthood in the Anglican Church as chaplain of Northwestern University to his alternative lifestyle and experimentation with LSD in the heyday of the late sixties. His engaging letters cover a vast range of subject matter, with recipients ranging from High Church clergy to high priests of psychedelics, government officials, publishers, critics, family, and fans. They include C. G. Jung, Henry Miller, Gary Snyder, Aldous Huxley, Reinhold Niebuhr, Timothy Leary, Joseph Campbell, and James Hillman. Watts’s letters were curated by two of his daughters, Joan Watts and Anne Watts, who have added rich, behind-the-scenes biographical commentary.

Edited by Joan Watts & Anne Watts

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608684151
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 12/12/2017
Pages: 616
Sales rank: 763,781
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Alan Watts is best known as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism in particular and of Indian and Chinese philosophy in general. He earned the reputation of being one of the most original and unfettered philosophers of the twentieth century. He was the author of more than twenty books, including The Way of Zen , The Wisdom of Insecurity , The Meaning of Happiness , Psychotherapy East and West , The Book , This Is It , The Joyous Cosmology , In My Own Way , and Tao, the Watercourse Way (with Chungliang Al Huang). He died in 1973.

Editors Joan Watts and Anne Watts are Alan Watts’s eldest children.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpts of Letters

To Playboy Magazine:

“. . . in an entirely friendly spirit, I would like to take issue with Alan Harrington’s fascinating article “The Immortalist” (May 1969), on the desirability of abolishing death, and the possibility of doing so through medical techniques.

The immortalization of any biological individual runs into the same logistic problems as building indefinitely high skyscrapers: the lower floors are increasingly taken up with channels for elevators. It’s called “the law of diminishing returns.’’ A brain that continues intact for 100, 500, or 1000 years is increasingly clogged with memories, and becomes like a sheet of paper so covered with writing that no space is left for any visible or intelligible form. Thus a human being 500 years old would be as inert as a turtle of the same age.

Consider the following points: (a) death is not a sickness or disease; it is an event as natural and as healthy as childbirth or as the falling of leaves in the autumn. (b) As the “natural childbirth” obstetricians are training women to experience the pains of labor as erotic tensions, there is no reason why the “pangs of death” should not be reinterpreted as the ecstasies of liberation from anxiety and overloads of memory and responsibility. (c) Suppose that medical science achieves a method of getting rid of the overload of memories and anxieties: isn’t this what death accomplishes already? (d) The funk about death is the illusion that you are going to experience everlasting darkness and nothingness as if being buried alive. (e) The “nothingness” after death is the same as the “nothingness” before you were born, and because anything that has happened once can happen again you will happen again as you did before, mercifully freed from the boredom of an overloaded memory.

Along with most of us, Alan Harrington doesn’t see that this “nothingness” before birth and after death is simply the temporal equivalent of, say, the space between stars. Where would stars be without spatial intervals between them? The problem is simply that civilized and brainwashed human beings lack the perception that we are all one Self, marvellously varied and indefinitely extended through time and space with restful intervals. As St. Thomas Aquinas said, “It is the silent pause which gives sweetness to the chant.”

Instead of trying to turn us into living mummies, the medical profession would be better advised to reform the present morbid rituals of dying in hospitals and turn them into celebrations in which the patient is encouraged to let go of himself by cooperating with death. You only die once, and why not make the best of it?

Alan Watts

To Harper’s Magazine

“…our police forces are being corrupted and diverted from their proper tasks of protecting life and property by being required to serve as armed clergymen enforcing sumptuary laws against “crimes” without complaining victims. It is no business of the government to interfere in matters of gambling, sexual morals, and the use of natural substances arbitrarily defined as “drugs” or “narcotics.” The work of our courts is clogged and our prisons overcrowded because of this ridiculous inquisition of private morals and tastes.

The second is that medical knowledge and expertise should be as freely available to the general public as the art of cooking. There are not enough qualified physicians and surgeons to serve our needs, with the result that doctors’ offices and hospitals are as overburdened as the courts of justice.

There are serious risks in adopting such a policy, but without risk there is no freedom, and the United States of America is supposed, above all things, to represent the principle of liberty—the dangerous and splendid task of taking responsibility for your own life.”

To Hugh T. Kerr, Princeton, New Jersey

“I am not uptight about the Jesus freaks. I am simply and honestly angry. To be uptight about something is to pish-tush in a standoffish way. But my emotions seem to go naturally angry when people take on wallowing in guilt and anti-sexuality as a way of life and, furthermore, obscure the gospel by insisting that Jesus alone was the son of God. Biblical fundamentalism is, to me, the nastiest religion on earth (whether in its Protestant form or as Catholic Jansenism) because it underlies white racism and colonialism, prohibition, prudery, and, equally, leering pornography.

I am not afraid of tangling with fundamentalists. I am very used to it, since all my mother’s brothers were of this persuasion, though she herself was more liberal and had the good sense to belong to the Anglican Communion.

At the same time, I can see Billy Graham or a Southern Baptist deaconess as very far-out manifestations of God playing not God, as performing the function of making sex fascinating by forbidding it, but—for my taste—this is an ugly trip. It ends up with requiring the police to be armed clergymen, and filling the jails with people who have committed “crimes” without victims, and my anger is one and the same process as their suffering.”

To the Editor, Gourmet Magazine

If I were to have been told three or four years ago that I was to become a vegetarian, a fruitarian, and a nuts-and-cheese freak, I would have been horrified. For in those days I prided myself in preparing boeuf tartare , pate de veau en croute , poupetons de dindon , and a steak-and-kidney pie better than anything to be found in London.

But something has happened to our meat and poultry. The meat has become mere chewing stuff, and the poultry (in particular the breasts) has come to taste like papier mache. Some of my friends who are health-food aficionados say that this is because I have ruined my palate by smoking too many cigars and imbibing too much spiritous liquor. This is not true. Several years ago I imagined that this was the cause of my finding American potatoes (even the little new ones) entirely tasteless. But when, after twenty years absence, I returned to my father’s garden in England, the potatoes were as delicious as when I had been a child.

So I have not destroyed my palate. The truth of the matter is that our edible animals are being raised in vast cellblocks under the superstition that almost anything fed, say, to a chicken will turn into chicken. Why, they are even scheming to breed featherless chickens to eliminate the plucking process!

The reason is simply that the food industries are owned by syndicates composed of barbarians who are interested in nothing more than making money. Being barbarians, they do not understand that huge sums of money become increasingly worthless when there is no food on the market except the fraudulent plasticities produced by themselves and their equally uncivilized competitors.

You may not, perhaps, realize that your magazine (which I have been reading for years) is no mere slick and frivolous publication for affluent-gluttons. You have been performing the almost religious and spiritual task of teaching people how to reverence food and drink, and thereby to arouse the rather scarce virtue of conviviality. I am thinking of the true holy communion of sitting around a scrubbed wooden table in a big kitchen with Louis Martini’s incredible 39-year-old Tawny Port, the hard Monterey Jack cheese of California, and San Francisco’s extra sour French bread—with strings of onions and garlic and bottles of chianti hanging from the beams.

I therefore urge upon you most strongly to give your readers more information about the actual raising and growing of foodstuffs: how to test out what is offered in the markets, where to go for high quality materials and even how to raise your own. You give wonderful advice about cooking but the whole process depends ultimately on the farming.

Table of Contents

Part One: Early Letters 1928 – 1932

Part Two: 1936 – 1938

Part Three: Coming to America 1938 – 1941

Part Four: On Becoming a Priest—The Seminary Years 1941 – 1944

Part Five: As Chaplain of Northwestern University 1944 – 1950

Part Six: Interlude 1950 – 1951

Part Seven: California & The American Academy of Asian Studies 1951 - 1956

Part Eight: Further Writing and Lecturing 1956 – 1958

Part Nine: Travel, Falling in Love, Divorce 1958 – 1962

Part Ten: Becoming a Guru 1962 - 1973

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