I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Zen and the Art of Alan Watts

by Casey Dewey
March 6, 2013

Ommmmmmmmmmm.......this is the sound you are hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting. Look at yourself, look inside yourself, get down with yourself. Dr. Timothy Leary once asked “How do you turn on?” For some, it was a Dionysian trip with drugs and sex. For others, it was shedding the trappings of the status quo and hitting the road, discovering America while trying to discover themselves. Then there were the ones who looked inward, who either put down the pipe or didn’t need it to begin with. They looked to the East and delved into mystical philosophies hoping to expand their minds and raise consciousness, personal and otherwise. These acolytes had a teacher broadcasting messages of enlightenment across the San Francisco Bay, up in the Berkeley hills, nestled in a cozy little radio station called Pacifica. His name was Alan Watts.

Alan Wilson Watts was born in England, 1915. At a young age he was already mystified by oracles of the Orient, throwing himself into books on Fu Manchu and other shadowy Chinese figures. At college he majored in creative writing and spent time devouring books on ideas by the usual gang of thought: Jung, Nietzsche, Shaw. He joined various mystic social clubs and found himself drawn to the solemn tranquility of Buddhism. In 1936 he published his first of many books, The Art of Zen.

1939 was the year Watts immigrated to America, becoming a full-fledged citizen a few years later. While in New York City, he began flirting with the Episcopal church, finding mystic wisdom in Christianity, or at least trying to. After getting a degree in theology and ordainment as a priest, Watts walked away from the church, famously saying “not because it doesn’t practice what it preaches, but because it preaches.”

After penning a few more books, Watts once again found himself enthralled by Eastern thought. Like so many other bohemians of the time, Watts went west to San Francisco. Reading Aldous Huxley turned him on to spelunking the human consciousness. Dabbling in academia left him as bored and unfilled as the church had, so Watts devoted himself full time to writing, doing the lecture circuit, and exploring the vast openness of the mind.

The Way of Zenwas published in 1957, and the subject matter gained huge popularity among the Beats. Kerouac and Ginsberg especially found oodles of inspiration. Soon enough young restless types were espousing theories on reaching Nirvana and the way of the Dharma. Watts was celebrated in pop culture, the counterculture had found a new hero. His style of writing, and specifically his way of speaking was seductive and enthralling. It made perfect sense to hop on the airwaves in Berkeley, at the time (and still is, in some quarters) known as “Moscow on the Sea.”

Watts joined the Pacifica station in 1953, hosting a weekly show up until his death 20 years later. Pacifica radio was one of the first, if not the officially recognized first, non-profit radio stations to crop up in the mid-to-late 1940s. Staffed not by paid employees but by dedicated volunteers, Pacifica is the model of almost every community radio station still on the airwaves today. On the air, Nazis rubbed shoulders with Commies. Delta blues were played between John Cage and Gamelan music. Anybody who wanted to talk about whatever it was that was on their minds was allowed to do so, under only a few arbitrary rules. Watts’ show was extremely popular, and archives of the show are available at alanwatts.org

Watts, like many other counterculture gurus, wasn’t exactly a stickler for the rules. He was no monk. He dabbled in hallucinogenics, wore fashionable threads, liked fine wine and was a fan of the ladies. As was par for the course for any leader of peaceful thought and advocate of mind expansion living in the Bay area at the time, he had a groovy houseboat in Marin County. Marin was a beacon for hippie professor types in those heady days, and living there was a way of “getting back to the land” without moving to suburbia.

In 1973 Watts passed away in his sleep, due to heart failure. His third wife had him cremated by local Buddhist monks on the beach immediately. Watts lives on, his recordings are still widely listened to, and generation after generation soon stumbles upon his teachings. For those seeking enlightenment, he’s the perfect gateway. I’ll let him have the last words:

“I would like to say something for all Zen fussers, beat or square. Fuss is all right, too. If you are hung on Zen, there's no need to try to pretend that you are not. If you really want to spend some years in a Japanese monastery, there is no earthly reason why you shouldn't. Or if you want to spend your time hopping freight cars and digging Charlie Parker, it's a free country.”

"Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen." American Decades Primary Sources. Ed. Cynthia Rose. Vol. 6: 1950-1959. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 529-533. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

"Alan Wilson Watts." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Vol. 16. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 144-145. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

"Watts, Alan 1915-1973." American Decades. Ed. Judith S. Baughman, et al. Vol. 6: 1950-1959. Detroit: Gale, 2001. 394-395. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Casey Dewey resides in Tucson, Arizona. He's a film writer for the Tucson Weekly and host of "Deep Red Radio" , a radio show dedicated to film soundtracks on 91.3 KXCI FM. He enjoys tacos, cervezas and garlic in everything. He wakes up every morning to a fresh pot of black coffee and at least two hours of Dragnet on TV.