Edited by Joan Watts & Anne Watts
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About the Author
Editors Joan Watts and Anne Watts are Alan Watts’s eldest children.
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PART I Early Letters 1928–37
JW: Incredibly, Alan's parents, Laurie and Emily Mary, saved most of the letters that he wrote them during his lifetime. The earliest date is from Saint Hugh's in Bickley, Kent, when he was just thirteen. From there, he was sent to King's School, Canterbury, where he entered in the fall of 1928 and remained until 1932. As was, we believe, traditional among boarding schools, one was required to write a weekly letter home to one's parents. (We both attended Farringtons Girls School in Chislehurst when we lived in England, and writing home weekly was required.) We have included a few of the more interesting letters he wrote during this time. Unfortunately, there are none for 1930–31.
The first section of Alan's letters are from this period — the time when he was sent off to boarding schools until his early twenties, at which time he became acquainted with D. T. Suzuki, Sokei-an Sasaki, Ruth Fuller Everett, and her young daughter, Eleanor, our mother. These introductions would determine the future course of his life.
Letters home always seemed to follow a basic format: thanking Mummy and Daddy for their letters and for sending things he'd asked for; a synopsis of the academic and sports activities for the week and what was coming up in the week ahead; asking for things he needed or for money; and, as closure, asking how they were, how the rabbits were, and similar things. Alan was very fond of rabbits, and they figured in much of his storytelling and artwork, even as an adult. He apparently had a special rabbit named Oberon ("Ob"). He always asked after Oberon and was very concerned when a new home had to be found for him.
St. Hugh's School, Kent | June 21, 1928
When this letter reaches you it will be your birthday, and I am sending it to you to wish you many happy returns. [...]
I don't think it's fair that you shouldn't have a birthday procession:
I have no chance to get you anything for your birthday yet, but I will get something as soon as possible.
With much love and best wishes from,
Grange House | King's School, Canterbury | October 7, 1928
Dear Mummy & Daddy,
Thank you so much for your last letter, I have not written before because I find that Sunday evening is the proper time.
I have been assigned to the Gryphon's Tutor set.
Auntie and Miss Bentinck came down this afternoon, and I showed them round the cathedral and the other interesting places in the town and school.
I have played no rugger yet, but have only been for runs, my feet are tired and blistered, and I find physical drill etc. rather difficult.
I shall soon be wanting more money, it fairly flashes away.
The archbishop was in the cathedral at morning service today, and the Bishop of Dover preached. I don't know what the sermon was about for I didn't hear a word!
I have written to Alf — have you seen him lately?
I hear that you have no more embroidery to show! Rather a catastrophe, if you have done really well over the exhibition, you have got plenty of money behind you to go on with. How are the rabbits? Are the mills taking wool? How is "Ob"? Just the same I expect, give him my love.
All is well here, I hope all is well at home. Well, I must stop now.
Your loving son, Alan
JW: In the letter above, Alan is referring to his mother's embroidery. She was an incredibly talented needleworker and was commissioned by Queen Mary to embroider a jewel box, beautifully done in silk with a flower garden on all sides. She was also commissioned to do altarpieces for various churches. When I lived with her in Chislehurst, she taught me featherstitching, cross-stitch, smocking, French knots, and hemstitching. Even though her hands were crippled with arthritis, she managed to produce beautiful pieces. I have a few lovely pieces she did — needle cases with delphiniums and daisies, English robins, red squirrels, and a charming sampler piece on linen with rabbits, flowers, birds, trees, fruit, and caterpillars.
One of his more remarkable letters (below) involved the enthronement of a new Archbishop of Canterbury on December 5, 1928. Alan was selected to be one of His Eminence's two trainbearers for the event, which was reported on the front page of the London Daily Express with the headline "New Primate Enthroned in St. Augustine's Chair in the Presence of Nearly 5,000 People."
Grange House | King's School, Canterbury | December 2, 1928
Dear Mummy & Daddy,
Thank you for your last letter. I have got crowds of news for you this week. I shall see the enthronement of the Archbishop all right, another boy and myself have GOT TO CARRY HIS TRAIN!!! We have got to dress up in all sorts of complicated affairs, we have got to wear ruffs! — and red cassocks! I have been to several rehearsals for the service and it is going to be a very pompous affair. The Premier and the Lord Chancellor are going to be there and the Lord Mayor of London. We have got to go to the Arch B's Palace and wait in the Hall till he comes, and then pick up his train and follow him!
On Thursday I played for the "Colts B XV" in a match against the Junior School. We won easily because most of their good men had left and were playing for us.
On Thursday evening a Mr. Edmonds gave us a lantern lecture called the "Road to Endor." It was all about some prisoners who tried to escape from Asia Minor in the Great War. It was exciting.
Do rats come out in wintertime? I want to do some trapping in the hols [holidays].
How is everything at home? Rabbits, studio, "Ob," etc.?
Well I must stop now, from your loving son, Alan
The Grange | King's School, Canterbury | May 12, 1929
Dear Mummy & Daddy,
My chief news this week is about Ascension Day. Well, first of all, I must thank you for your letters and for sending me the map; it arrived in time. After Cathedral we were given our lunch, we changed and set out. I went with a boy called Forrester. As soon as we were outside Canterbury we came into glorious country, big hills of pastureland and plots on either side of the road. We saw some lambs, comic creatures, they looked at us like this:
The first town we came to was Chartham, but the road led past it. Then we passed through a few little villages and we turned onto the road to Charing at Chillam. Through more pastureland and some lovely primrose woods then when the Ashford road met us we got off and went to an old farm tearoom and had a 2d [pence] glass of ginger beer, the best I have ever tasted. I think it must have been homemade. Then we went on through more country till we came to the top of Charing Hill, near the house we once proposed to buy. Here we branched off and had our lunch in some woods. After that we got to Charing by some winding lanes and fair shot along the big main road. Halfway down a gradual slope I stopped outside a tea shop. Forrester, who was behind me, not looking where he was going, crashed into me. He was flung off but received no hurt. Our bikes only got minor scratches. Well we went into the tea shop, had another drink, and then walked up Charing Hill. Then we returned to Canterbury. Having plenty of time we went on to Herne Bay — the most dreary seaside place I have ever seen. I can't think how anyone ever goes there. I shan't go again in a hurry. We had tea there and then come home. I had a supper of fish and chips, went to bed — and slept.
Well how are you? Have you found a decent home for "Ob" yet? I can't see why he would be so much trouble at Shaftesbury House. Well how is the School?
By the way, I am getting all the numbers of L'Illustration this term. I have got two already. They are fine.
From your loving son, Alan
The Grange | King's School, Canterbury | May 26, 1929
Dear Mummy & Daddy,
I suppose Daddy has told you all about the Field Day. Today, I went up to the scene of battle and found five dummy cartridges in a clip. I went to that pond we passed but there were no water hens there.
I went to the baths on Saturday afternoon, it was fairly warm.
I have written to thank Mrs. Macfarlane for the toffies.
How did you enjoy the drive in Lady Wadia's car?
Can you possibly move that bench from upstairs into the room you have thought of giving me? Please don't put a bulky chest of drawers in there. Put in the small ones out of the spare room if there must be some in there. I would rather there weren't any.
Have you been up to St. Hugh's?
Have you found anything for me to read? Preferably small editions of RLS [Robert Louis Stevenson], Dickens is too ponderous for private reading.
Do you know when Ivan is trying for a "School"? How is Fausset getting on?
Well, I am afraid I must stop now, from your loving son, Alan
PS. Love to "Ob." What have you done with him?
The Grange | King's School, Canterbury | June 9, 1929
Dear Mummy & Daddy,
Thank you so much for your letter. After thinking it over I have wondered whether I might go in for the Senior Scholarship just to get experience in the papers and to know what standard I must aim at in order to get one. I should like to know what you think as soon as possible, in any case before the 22nd.
Will infection spread in letters? If I want to write to Ivan or Ronald would mumps or anything go in the letter? Please answer this soon.
It is rather a pity I can't go home for half term. Still a good many people are staying behind and I shall go to Canter[bury] for one day.
I suppose there is no chance of your coming down at half term? I suppose you are too busy.
How are things getting on? Have you been up to St. Hugh's? I have written to Auntie.
Is my design for a programme cover good enough to exhibit?
How is Oberon in his new home?
Well, I'm afraid I must stop now, from your loving son, Alan
JW: According to Alan's autobiography, In My Own Way, it appears that he went to France in the summer of 1929 via the Isle of Jersey, with Francis Croshaw and his son Ivan, one of Alan's good school friends. This is where he got his first taste of a more cosmopolitan way of life: elegant hotels with restaurants serving sumptuous gourmet foods, fine wines and fancy cigars in cafés, horse races and bullfights. He returned from this adventure to King's School, feeling that he had become an adult, and found the curriculum at King's boring and irrelevant. It was shortly after this that he discovered Lafcadio Hearn's Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan in a bookshop. He became fascinated with Oriental culture and with Chinese and Japanese art, which led him further into the exploration of mysticism and Oriental philosophy.
In this next section of letters written from school, we start, interestingly, with a letter written to Sokei-an Sasaki. Little did he know at the time that this Zen priest would eventually become his stepfather-in-law.
Sokei-an Sasaki was of the Rinzai Zen lineage and was sent by his Zen master to teach Zen in America. Sokei-an's father was a Shinto priest; his mother was a concubine taken by his father because his wife was unable to bear children. Sokei-an was sent to art schools, where he learned woodcarving as a young man prior to studying Zen. When he arrived in America, he traveled extensively through the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco. He was briefly an art student at the San Francisco Art Institute. Eventually, after several trips back to Japan, at age forty-eight he was ordained a Zen master and went to New York City in 1928. There he started teaching Zen to a handful of followers. In May 1931, Sokei-an and others signed the incorporation papers for the Buddhist Society of America, which eventually became the First Zen Institute of America. He met our grandmother, Ruth Fuller Everett, in 1933, and they became friends. She became a formal student of his in 1938. He was interned during World War II but was released in 1944 because of ill health. Ruth and Sokei-an were married shortly after that, but the marriage was brief: he died in 1945.
I'm not sure how Alan initially came to communicate with Sokei-an Sasaki. Perhaps the Buddhist Lodge in London had published Sasaki's writing. His communication in 1932 with Alan, then aged seventeen, showed respect for his interest in Zen. In answer to Alan's letter below, he cautioned that "it is very hard to judge the ultimate attainment of Zen without observing the daily life and establishing a close contact between teacher and disciple in order to make certain whether attainment is one of mere conception or that of really standing in its center." He ended his response saying, "I am quite sure you are on the way of Zen and I hope some day in the future we will meet each other." They met in person in 1938, when Alan and his young wife, Eleanor Everett, arrived in America under the wing of Eleanor's mother, Ruth.
Bromley, Kent | February 18, 1932
Dear Mr. Sokei-an Sasaki,
Many thanks for your most interesting letter of the 1st.
From what you say there and from what I have read elsewhere the essence of Zen is to regard Existence universally or impersonally, or so I understand. Instead of thinking "I walk," you think, "There is a walking," until you begin to see yourself as a part of the Universe not separate from other parts while the "I" is as the whole. I have tried this and the result is that there comes a feeling calm, of indifference to circumstance.
In the Sutra of Wei-Lang (Hui-neng) 6th Patriarch, I read that one should get rid of the pairs of opposites — good and evil, joy and pain, life and death. Surely it is by the personal attitude to Existence that these opposites arise; by thinking "I do," instead of "There is a doing." By regarding oneself objectively in this manner one becomes detached and an idea of "oneness" prevails. Is this what you mean when you say, "The master regulates his cognizance of the body of relativity (i.e., the pairs of opposites?). Ceasing to follow its movement (ceasing to think 'I like' or 'I do' or 'I hate'?), he realizes serenity"? Surely this is seeing Existence from the standpoint of Tathata, which is the very basis of Existence and yet is undisturbed by it? It is really rather hard to explain! But I somehow feel that as soon as I start looking at things impersonally, the "I" which thinks about opposites vanishes, while a sort of calm, "universal" feeling takes its place. Am I on the right track?
Yours sincerely, A. W. Watts
JW: Around the years of 1930–31, Alan's friend Francis Croshaw began lending him books from his vast library. One book in particular caught Alan's interest: The Creed of Buddha by Edmond Holmes. Inserted in the book was a pamphlet written by Christmas Humphreys regarding the work of the Buddhist Lodge in London. This prompted Alan to write the lodge forthwith, become a member, and subscribe to the lodge's journal, The Middle Way. He apparently submitted a pamphlet he wrote entitled Zen, and was asked to lecture to members of the lodge, who upon meeting him, were shocked that he was a mere lad! Christmas Humphreys ("Toby"), a prominent London barrister, and his wife Aileen ("Puck"), ran the lodge out of their London flat and took in the young scholar as if he were their son.
The Humphreys were Theosophists, followers of H. P. Blavatsky, and members of the Cambridge branch of the Theosophical Society. Together they founded an independent "Buddhist Lodge" of the Society. They introduced young Alan, still in his teens, to an incredible assemblage of scholars and artists from around the world involved in the lodge's activities. This is where Alan met D. T. Suzuki.
Alan began writing articles for The Middle Way, and by 1932 he was editing the publication.
In the following letters I note his appreciation for the donation for a typewriter. Alan was an amazing typist. He made very few mistakes, and I was fascinated watching him rapidly type using only three digits of each hand — thumb, index, and middle finger (as I was taught in typing class to use all fingers and thumbs!).
Referring to "lunch with the Ashton-Gwatkin" — this was Canon Trelawney Ashton-Gwatkin, rector of Bishopsbourne and his son, Frank Ashton-Gwatkin, who had been attached to the British Embassy in Japan. Alan would frequently lunch with them. "John P." refers to Frank's pseudonym "John Paris," under which he wrote realistic novels about Japanese life.
The reference to Wesak is apparently an event put on by the lodge celebrating the traditional festival honoring the Buddha on the full moon in May.
Alan did not finish his final term at King's School, Cambridge. Although, at the age of seventeen, he was a senior prefect and member of the sixth form (roughly equivalent to a high-school senior in the United States), and in his words "I had had enough of this juvenile atmosphere." After all, he was adult enough to be a contributing writer and editor for the journal of the Buddhist Lodge and had published a booklet on Zen, and he had no use for going on to university. He had created his own study plan, which launched him into an environment that he obviously enjoyed immensely.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Collected Letters of Alan Watts"
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Table of ContentsPart 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