The only thinker whose popularity on YouTube comes close to Jordan Peterson is Alan Watts, the British popularizer of Eastern wisdom. Watts’ talks from the 50s, 60s and early 70s have millions of views on YouTube. He’s become a guiding voice for the internet age — indeed, in Spike Jonze’s film Her, Watts is resurrected as a hyper-intelligent operating system.
Watts was a teenage prodigy, one of the earliest British converts to Buddhism. He published his first book on Zen aged 20, in 1932. He then moved to the US in the 1930s, and surprised everyone by becoming an Episcopalian priest (his daughter suggests he may have done this to avoid the draft). He foresaw that Western society needed a contemplative and mystical revival, but left the church when facing ejection for his unconventional lifestyle — he lived in a threesome, preached free love, and was finally divorced by his wife for being a ‘sexual pervert’ (British boarding school had apparently given him a taste for flogging).
He moved to California, and helped to set up the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, which introduced Zen to the 50s beats and the 60s hippies. But eventually he left there too, and became a freelance ‘philosopher-entertainer’, living in the Bay area, writing books and giving talks to rapt college audiences. He could talk non-stop, without notes, all delivered with a slightly-plummy musicality and skilful use of the dramatic pause. You can watch his talks on YouTube for hours, lulled into a peaceful stupor by the voice and the ambient, going on and on and on. He’s become a background soundtrack for stoners.
But what does Watts actually have to say? What is the What, Watts?
Watts was a prophet of the idea that we can seek our spiritual fulfilment outside of traditional religious commitments and communities. He preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ — not clinging to any particular religion. He was a nomad-prophet for our uprooted age. He preached the wisdom of the body, the spirituality of sex, the validity of psychedelics as a spiritual technique, the superiority of Asian wisdom to Christianity, and the possibility of escaping history by focusing on ‘the Eternal Now’.
But his main message, which he repeated over and over throughout his career, was that there is no separate self, that there is just IT, the Tao, the Brahman, and you are inescapably part of it, so relax and let go, rather than trying to pull yourself up by your spiritual boot-straps. Over-strenuous spiritual practice will actually just reinforce your ego. You are already perfect, already enlightened, you don’t need to do or change anything. There is no ‘you’, just IT.
What is the value of this idea?
It’s true that Buddhism, and particularly Zen Buddhism, teaches that we are perfect just as we are, we have merely forgotten our true nature. We find this joyful teaching in many mystical traditions, as in the Zen song of Hakuin:
From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land!
And this very body, the body of Buddha.
The intuition that we are IT, the All, and we should relax and accept it, can be incredibly inspiring and healing, particularly if we’re prone to anxiety and low self-esteem. It can shift us from the sense of being a separate tiny ego in a hostile and alien universe. Suddenly we relax, get over ourselves and our dramas, and feel one with the flow of all things.
But the risk of Watts’ philosophy is it leads to a lazy and complacent egotism: ‘I am what I am, I’m part of the Brahman, we’re all perfect, so why bother trying to change?’
every wilful effort to improve the world or oneself is futile…self-improvement is a dangerous form of vanity. By the age of thirty-five one’s character is firmly formed, and has to be regarded as an instrument to be used rather than changed… I am aware of the futility of myself trying not to be selfish, of the contradiction of myself even desiring or asking not to be selfish…
The problem is, you can be a perfect Buddha on the ultimate level, and still suffer a lot and cause a lot of suffering to others on the relative plain, where most of us are most of the time. And this is what happened to Watts. His friend, the Zen poet Gary Snyder, remarked: ‘He was one who sowed trouble wherever he went.’
He failed as a husband, marrying three times, and driving his third wife to the bottle with his philandering — he would pick up a different college girl after most talks (‘I don’t like to sleep alone’). He failed as a father to his seven children: ‘By all the standards of this society I have been a terrible father’, although some of his children still remember him fondly as a kind man, who initiated each of his children into LSD on their 18th birthday. He was vain and boastful, ‘immoderately infatuated with the sound of my own voice’, although he didn’t try and hide his failings.
By the end of his life he was having to do several talks a week to make enough money to pay his alimony and child support. And he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day to be able to do that. He died, exhausted, at 58. Snyder remembers:
he had to keep working, and as you keep working, you know, you got to play these roles, and you also keep drinking ’cause there’s always these parties and so forth, so that doesn’t help you slow it down. So he just wore himself out. It was out of his control, that was my feeling. The dynamics of his life had gotten beyond his control, and he didn’t know what to do about it.
One of his lovers, the therapist June Singer, visited him in hospital when he was admitted with delirium tremens. Why didn’t he stop drinking, she asked. ‘That’s how I am,’ he said to her sadly. ‘I can’t change.’
Ultimately, Watts seems to have worked incredibly hard at his career, at his public profile, at the endless talks he gave on campuses, on radio and on TV. In other words, on the external self. And he worked very little on the inner man — psychotherapy bored him, while he felt too much meditation ‘is apt to turn one into a stone Buddha’.
Still, you could hardly call his life a tragedy. It sounds incredibly interesting, and often incredibly fun. And the consequence of his egoistical drive to self-promote was the flowering of Asian wisdom in western culture, albeit in a rather bastardized form. He sounds like a likeable and friendly man, without the tendency to greed, malice or domination that one sees in some spiritual teachers. And his books genuinely helped thousands of people, giving them a holistic vision that consoles them in dark times. Does it matter that he had such a messy life himself?