Alan Watts (1915–1973) was a British philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Born in England, he moved to the United States in 1938 and began Zen training in New York, before attending Seabird-Western Theological Seminary, where he received a master’s degree in theology. Watts became an Episcopal priest in 1945, but left the ministry in 1950 and moved to California, where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Zen Studies.
Watts gained a large following in the San Francisco Bay Area and wrote more than 25 books and articles on subjects important to Eastern and Western religion, including The Way of Zen (1957), one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism, and Psychotherapy East and West (1961), in which he proposed that Buddhism should be thought of as a form of psychotherapy rather than a religion.
According to Watts, the aim of religion is a mystical experience of unity with the active, creative, eternal energy of the cosmos (being, Brahman, God). But Watts argued that this experience of identity is not an “attainment” of ego-directed ascetic discipline, but rather a “realization” of a pre-existing identity; one awakens to the fact that one always already was God, a fact hidden by our identification with our egos and their projects, secular or ascetic. Indeed, Watts argued that this oblivion of our true nature is actually reinforced by ego-directed ascetic religion, and the only way in which asceticism can lead to authentic spiritual realization is by exhausting the ego to the point when one lets go of striving for attainment . . . and realizes that one was already what one aspired to be, that one was already where one wanted to go.
In The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Watts therefore put forward a worldview in which he maintains that the whole universe consists of a cosmic Self playing hide-and-seek (Lila); hiding from itself (Maya) by becoming all the living and non-living things in the universe and forgetting what it really is – the upshot being that we are all IT in disguise. In this worldview, Watts asserts that our conception of ourselves as an “ego in a bag of skin,” or “skin-encapsulated ego” is a myth; the entities we call the separate “things” are merely aspects or features of the whole.
Religions, Watts observed, work to reinforce rather than liberate us from this sense of separateness, for at their heart lies a basic intolerance for uncertainty — the very state embracing which is fundamental to our happiness, and crucial to the creative process. Watts writes:
Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the “saved” from the “damned,” the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the out-group. All belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty.
Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness — an act of trust in the unknown … Our whole knowledge of the world is, in one sense, self-knowledge. For knowing is a translation of external events into bodily processes, and especially into states of the nervous system and the brain: we know the world in terms of the body, and in accordance with its structure.
Some of Watts’s early writings mentioned his views on the use of psychedelic drugs for mystical insight. Watts had begun to experiment with psychedelics, initially with mescaline given to him by Oscar Janiger. He tried LSD several times in 1958, with various research teams led by Keith S. Ditman, Sterling Bunnell, Jr., and Michael Agron. He also tried marijuana and concluded that it was a useful and interesting psychoactive drug that gave the impression of time slowing down. Watts’s books in the 1960s reveal the influence of these chemical adventures on his outlook. He later said about psychedelic drug use, “If you get the message, hang up the phone.”