Alan Watts? You know it’s an important name in spiritual circles but you can’t quite place him. Let us fill in some blanks. Foremost, he may be the guy most responsible for turning the West on to Zen Buddhism and the gamut of Eastern philosophy—an irony because he was an Episcopal priest early in his life. But the church was too stiff and constraining, so he eventually left to pursue other, better ways to God. Which eventually led him to the spiritual practices of Asia, as well as experimentation with LSD and other hallucinogens. Believe it or not, we’re only touching on his extraordinary life.
Watts is on our mind because we recently discovered The Collected Letters of Alan Watts, an outstanding new book by Watts’ daughters Anne and Joan. One of our best reviewers, Joe Taylor, gave the book a glowing review in the November/December issue of Foreword Reviews, so we asked him to do some follow up.
Your father’s letters often mention the many guests—students, intellectuals, poets, and religious leaders—that visited your home for discussions, dinners, and parties. We learn that Alan Watts was a congenial and playful host. How do you remember the atmosphere at these events? Was your father the life of the party, as it seems? Did you have favorites among his (often) elite guests?
Joan Watts: It is hard to limit my list of favorites! As a youngster I enjoyed Alan’s friends John Gouldin and Dick Adams, Rose McGee. Later as a teen, I enjoyed being in the presence of Krishnamurti. As a young adult, Gordon Onslow-Ford and his wife Jacqueline, Jack Staufaucher and his wife. Later, I enjoyed his friends Roger Somers, Margo St. James, John Lilly, and his wife Toni Oshman (loved her—she was special), Al Huang, Ruth Costello, Virginia Denison. Poet James Broughton, Varda, Elsa Gidlow. I wouldn’t say Alan was the only life of the party! Many of these individuals certainly held their own in dialogue and energy. Parties were never dull or flat.
Anne Watts: Our homes were, indeed, often filled with interesting people. In the early years I adored Carlton Gamer (who became our stepfather). Dick Adams and John Gouldin were fun and interesting. When we we moved to California, some of my favorites were: Gert and Dave Davenport, who took me under their wings and often hosted me for overnight stays; Elena Greene (wife of Felix Greene), who let me speak in gibberish to see if I came up with any Spanish words; and Jacqueline and Gordon Onslow-Ford. Jacqueline had a magical quality and I loved being with her. As an adult, when I returned from boarding school in England, Jean Varda, the folks from Druid Heights, Roger Somers, Margo St. James, Barbara Somers, and Elsa Gidlow were all good friends. Toni Oshman (John Lily’s wife) was a favorite of mine. Al Huang, whom I loved dancing with – we once danced together in the streets of New York!. Ruth Costello was a dear friend. Poet James Broughton was another dear friend. He and my then husband, Joel Andrews, gave performances of James’s playful poetry accompanied by Joel’s beautiful harp music. Another favorite of mine among Alan’s friends was Gary Snyder, who was, perhaps, the most truly authentic, grounded person I knew. The parties in California had a very international flavor to them with primarily, Chinese, East Indian, and Japanese guests. Alan was a popular, vivacious host and was able to encourage his guests to shine. I could go on, but this is already a lengthy response!
At the end of the “Coming to America: 1938-41” chapter, you comment, Joan, that your father strove to “combine” eastern and western spiritual philosophies to make the human condition “more understandable” in the West. Most would agree that Alan was a pioneer in this quest. Do you feel he succeeded in advancing a spirituality that encompassed essences of Christianity and Buddhism? And how well did he internalize and exemplify these ideas?
Joan Watts: This is a really big question. In many ways I think he did succeed. Still, to this day, I read comments from his followers that show that he had tremendous influence on people’s lives. I think he continued to interpret Christianity in a way that Christians found palatable. As one sees in his letters he continued a dialogue with Christian leaders all through his life. While his life was not without complications and challenges, I feel he attempted to exemplify the qualities of the ideals held, particularly in eastern religions. Going with the flow, and compassion especially were part of his makeup.
Anne: Given the responses of his readers far and wide over the years, I would say that he was very successful in sharing his thoughts on Christianity and Eastern spiritual philosophies in ways that were both understandable and relatable. I think his manifestation of these ideas had mixed results, making him very human. He was a deeply kind and compassionate man, and very conflicted in many ways, as becomes clear in the book.
Your father wrote many letters to his parents in England. These are often chatty about business and family matters while also charting Alan’s spiritual and religious development. And here, his candid critique of Christian churchmen as dull and stodgy is unwavering. Was the Episcopal Church a “social club” in which your father’s wit and energy was a bad fit?
Joan Watts: Alan was definitely a rebel in the Church. He had strong feelings about the mystery of the sacrament as having been neglected so badly that mass became boring to the point of not involving parishioners satisfactorily. His mass was popular and he was invited to participate in an ecumenical way in other church faiths. I think, basically, that the hierarchy of the Church actually felt he was pumping much needed blood into his parish. It was more his lifestyle that became a bad fit.
Anne: I actually think that the Episcopal Church admired him, even when baffled by him. I think they felt stimulated by him and clearly saw how well received he was by parishioners. People flocked to his services. I think he really struggled to make the Christian life a fit for himself. In the end, his personal life was not a fit.
Did the process of editing and providing commentary on these letters help you make meaning out of your father’s life and your relationship with him?
Joan Watts: The process of editing his letters was huge. He wrote so many letters and I’m sure there are many more out there that we don’t know about. It was an amazing legacy. For us, the letters to his parents which included snippets about me and my sister were particularly poignant. His thoughts about us often came as a surprise. His inner turmoil about Christian doctrine and how he could justify his espousing of it compared to Buddhism was so evident in his “priesthood” letters to the point that I felt he was trying hard to convince himself of something he was unable to wholeheartedly own. My relationship—though sparse—was always special. He was very dear to me even though he felt he was a “bad” father. I am so glad that I got to spend the last few years of his life near him.
Anne: This was an enormous project! Alan loved to write! Many of these letters are very personal. All of them offer deep insights into the man and his development. I found them fascinating to read. I was awed by his brilliance and artistry with words from a very young age. The letters confirmed my own life experience while giving me a fuller view of my father. Knowing how much he knew of my experiences with my mother and stepmother, I am disappointed that he never stood up for me. As Joan and I discussed the letters and our experiences, I discovered how much she did her best to stand up for me. I felt we bonded deeply through this process. While Alan was mostly immersed in his work and not very available, when he was, he was a delight to be with. He was playful, he loved to sing and dance and draw amazing caricatures for us. I loved him very much.
After Alan’s divorce from your mother, Eleanor, your father often writes of his need to provide for his (and thus the family’s) economic security. How did this concern or the tension over finances affect the family as a whole? Did the family ever have financial trouble?
Joan Watts: My mother came from a wealthy family and she had money in stocks and bonds from her deceased father. When she and Alan divorced, he signed over any community property rights he might have had in her estate back to her. This money had significantly helped with his rather paltry income as a priest. When he left the Church, divorced and remarried and had custody of me and my sister, he was suddenly faced with how to financially survive. He was fortunate that he had royalties from his books, but that was small change compared to what was then needed. Luckily, he was able to continue his writing and was able to secure grants to cover, minimally, the slack. He was a master at living on less but still having comfort and beauty in his home. Our mother, Eleanor, and her mother, our Granny Ruth, had to bail him out occasionally with our schooling expenses and care. The main tension felt by us was with Alan and Dorothy, especially as they had an additional five children.
Anne: It seemed that we were always living on the edge. Money was clearly tight and Alan was working constantly. In addition to his writing, he traveled extensively to give lectures as well as his radio and television shows. However, I always felt that he knew how to live well with meager financial resources. Our homes always had a warm, colorful atmosphere. We had wonderful picnics on beaches with wine, cheese, and bread. When I went to boarding school in England, Alan’s parents were helped financially by my mother, Eleanor, and her mother, Ruth.
How did your father’s spiritual and intellectual journey affect your own? How have you felt influenced by his writings and ideas?
Joan Watts: I feel fortunate to have been exposed to different religions and beliefs. I think his philosophies have molded my understanding of what I believe to be true. While I’m not sure I would consider myself an intellectual, an academic or scholar, I’ve absorbed much from around me, especially in my travels abroad. My interpretation of the world was definitely influenced by my upbringing.
Anne: I was never a reader of Alan’s books; I could never get past the first few pages! However, I listened to his lectures and informal talks a great deal from a very early age. I think I took in much of his philosophy by osmosis. Given what I do in the world today, I think I inherited his kindness and compassionate nature. My love of different cultures, ethnicities, and foods was greatly influenced by my upbringing. My love of music, art, dancing, and the beauty of nature was also nurtured by my father. I am grateful for so much, including the hardships of my life, which I believe make me a more compassionate human being.
The coeditor of The Collected Letters of Alan Watts (available now from New World Library) Anne Watts’s philosophies were strongly shaped by her experience as the daughter of Alan Watts. Anne is a certified hypnotherapist and an educator and counselor in the areas of human sexuality, sexual abuse, family stress, self-esteem, healing the inner child, and financial and aging issues. Since 1985, she has facilitated hundreds of workshops in the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, England, and Germany with the Human Awareness Institute, work she is deeply passionate about. Since 2008, she has also been a regular faculty member at Esalen Institute. Anne is the proud mother of two children, Myra Krien and Michael Andrews, and three grandsons, Max Krien, Oliver Andrews, and Eli Andrews. She lives in Santa Rosa, California, in a deeply loving relationship with her husband, Mark Kupke, who has been her partner since 1984. Find her work online at www.annewatts.com.