Monday, November 1, 2010
The Restless Emptiness of Alan Watts
I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that for tens of thousands of my generation Alan Watts (1915-1973) was another of many luminous figures who helped transition multitudes away from Christianity into the formlessness of a Westernized---and therefore a bastardized---Zen Buddhism. The appeal of his teaching was a faith without belief, and a commandment-free life.
'If it feels good do it,' was the mantra we heard from so many in those heady days. And for Watts, British author, former Episcopalian minister and then reputed Zen adept, the mantra was sadly and tragically real enough.
He was a chronic womanizer, married three times, and, like Jack Kerouac and so many other famous disasters who were rewarded by an increasingly decadent culture, a very serious alcoholic and drug user. It's what killed him at age 58. Gia Fu Feng, who was with Watts at the famous New Age Esalen Institute said that even when lecturing Watts would drink Vodka straight, "by the bottle". He said it facilitated his thought and writing.
The truth is, though, Alan Watts experienced clear anxiety over his own self-crafted image as guru to so many, when he knew himself to be a plain sinner, something of a tragic fake; but one who had formally and repeatedly rejected the Christ of Christianity; who then could concede no reason to ask forgiveness, not even for the shattered lives left littered behind him. He once said that religion is like a 'bad parent' keeping people restricted, forbidding the natural impulse of the passions. But as even Plato knew, the untamed passions will kill us if they are followed to the logical end.
Watts once told Feng, "I'm an entertainer, I'm no Buddhist philosopher." It could be that that was the closest Alan Watts ever came to Enlightenment, if not to serenity, which eluded him. He would not acknowledge a "Higher Power" which the humblest practictioner of Alcoholics Anonymous attains, clean and sober ---and honest.
Would that Watts had taught deep-breathing excerises as a simple, mere form of relaxation ---nothing wrong with that in itself---rather than as a point of departure for becoming metaphysically and spiritually lost, a Prodigal Son who never returned to the Father's house, except in pieces.
--->See also Ram Dass has a son...
--->And The Seductions of Beautiful Nothings...
--->Mary Daly, the Witch of Boston College...