In this brand-new, never-before-published collection, we get to take a deep, personal dive into the thoughts and feelings of one of the Western world’s most beloved philosophers, Alan Watts. His daughters Joan and Anne Watts put together this fascinating archive of letters, newsletters, and other correspondence that covers everything from his early years in a British boarding school to the last months of his life living in Northern California.
In the following excerpt, we get an early look at the fascinating interfaith connections Alan Watts was already making in his thoughts and ideas. In 1939, he was just twenty-four years old with a baby daughter (Joan Watts, one of the coeditors of this collection) and had freshly arrived in America after the rumblings of war in Europe became too loud to ignore. Joan Watts writes of this time in one of the book’s commentary sections: “Alan’s arrival in the United States to live was a nearly mystical experience for him. It was exhilarating to come from the small island of Great Britain to the vast lands and open skies of the American landscape.” As his environment opened up, his philosophy and spiritual practices began to open up as well, and he began discussing and sharing his ideas with interested people through local gatherings and mailing out newsletter missives. It’s very exciting to see the seeds of what would become one of Alan Watts’s lifelong passions — bringing culture-shifting perspectives to Western audiences with philosophies based in Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and Hinduism.
We hope you’ll enjoy this newsletter he wrote during this expansive time, excerpted from The Collected Letters of Alan Watts.
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These letters are now being sent out twice every month to various people who are interested in the study and practice of the philosophy of the ancient East from our modern, Occidental point of view. As I said in the ﬁrst letter, there are a number of us already meeting regularly at my apartment to discuss these matters on the basis of informal lectures, and those who would like to join us will always be welcome if they will let me know in advance when they would like to come. Further details of our meetings are at the end of this letter.
A question, which we often discuss, is the relationship of modern, civilized man to nature. For, seemingly, those of us who are city dwellers are in rather a different position from the great philosophers of the Orient who never had to live in our “artiﬁcial” world of steel, concrete, automobiles, telephones, and canned food. Our life and circumstances are almost purely man-made (or so we think), and there are many people who believe that we can never achieve any great degree of spirituality until we return to a closer contact with nature. For the laws of the spirit are the laws of nature, and it is thought that while our lives are ordered on a purely human basis, while every advance of our science is directed to the conquest of nature and while we try to solve all our problems by the exercise of unaided human reason, in such conditions we shall always be lonely, unhappy orphans (or prodigals), shut off from the true source of life. But this idea is both true and false, false because the idea that we are independent of nature is a tremendous conceit, and true because we are, relatively speaking, divorced from nature by that very attitude. Strictly speaking, New York City is no more artiﬁcial than a bird’s nest, for man is just as much an aspect of nature as a bird and the difference between man and bird is chieﬂy that man is somewhat more complicated. A secondary difference is that man is self-conscious; he believes himself to have an ego, a separate, self-contained, self-directing entity which has to ﬁgure things out for itself, whereas the bird just lets nature or instinct take care of its problems. But nature is powerful and when man disagrees with it he feels his loneliness and impotence; this is the great unhappiness. The Buddhists call it sakayaditthi, or the “heresy of separateness,” which is another name for being “taken in” or fooled by the sense of selfhood.
While we are thus fooled we are caught in the conceit that we are very peculiar people, having a secret pride in our loneliness and isolation and an open pride in the wonderful achievements of our unaided reason and intellect. But are we so lonely? Might it not be that our self-conscious ego and its power of reason is a device, a trick (maya), employed by nature to achieve certain results? Nature arranges for us to feel that we are separate selves in order to manifest aspects of natural power for which the animal is not equipped. Thus, it is most important that we should have this feeling, provided we are not fooled by it. Two things are therefore involved. On the one hand, if we are to be true to nature, we have to behave whole-heartedly as if we were separate selves; on the other hand we have to recognize that self-consciousness and rationality are devices making it appear that we live our lives, whereas in fact nature lives them under this disguise. Selfhood means that nature is playing at being lots of different, separate, and self-ruling beings.
In truth, however, there is no absolute division between the self and nature. Nature plays at being a self, but without this play, without this universe of countless separate objects, there would be nothing to be called nature; there would only be a void. Selves and nature are essential to each other, and in truth neither one is master, for when the self acts, nature acts, and when nature acts, the self acts. The initiative appears to come sometimes from one, sometimes from the other, but this is appearance. If you ask, “Which of the two comes ﬁrst? Which is master?” the answer is a very old conundrum, “Which came the ﬁrst, egg or hen?”
When this absolute and unavoidable interdependence is known and felt in the very depths of one’s being, then you have what Oriental philosophy calls the realization of unity with Tao or Brahman, which it describes as understanding that the self and the not-self are two appearances of one fact which cannot be known apart from its appearances.
This and other aspects of Oriental philosophy are the subjects of informal lectures and discussions at my apartment to which all are welcome provided they let me know beforehand when they would like to come. There is no ﬁxed charge for admission to those lectures as they are supported by purely voluntary contributions. We are now meeting every Monday at 8:30 p.m., every Thursday at 3:15 p.m., while on Monday, November 13th, we shall start another regular meeting at 3:15 p.m., and another on Wednesday, November 15th, at 8:30 p.m. In the meantime I shall gladly welcome and answer any comments on these letters if those who write would be so kind to enclose a stamped return envelope.
~ Alan W. Watts, New York City, November 10th, 1939
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Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) was a British-born American philosopher, writer, speaker, and counterculture hero, best known as an interpreter of Asian philosophies for a Western audience. He wrote over twenty-five books applying the teachings of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy to everyday life, including Psychotherapy East and West, What is Tao? and What is Zen?.
Excerpted from the book The Collected Letters of Alan Watts. Copyright © 2017 by Joan Watts and Anne Watts.