A Guru for Those Who Don't Trust Gurus
Lott, Tim, New Statesman (1996)
He hates new-age nonsense, so why does Tim Lott want us to read a bearded, bongo-playing Zen Buddhist?
I am about to confess a shameful secret. Despite being a fervent rationalist, I possess, and in fact treasure, a fair number of books that feature flying doves, setting suns and luminescent clouds on their covers, published by the new-age publisher Arkana.
The fact that all of these books are by the same author, the half-forgotten Alan Watts, ameliorates my embarrassment only somewhat. Watts, after all, was a bongo-playing proto-beatnik who sported a Jesus beard and showed up to lecture his classes in California dressed as a Tibetan monk.
This kind of behaviour - beard-wearing, robe-sporting and bongo-playing - would usually induce nausea in me. In fact, in my latest novel, White City Blue, there is a scene in which a drunken young man head-butts a Californian guru lecturing on some version or other of new-age philosophy.
Writing this scene gave me a good deal of vicarious pleasure, which says something about my general attitude to crystal-brandishing, stargazing, tree-hugging new-age messengers, be they Deepak Chopra, M Scott Peck, Lyn Franks, Timothy Leary or any of the plethora of people peddling optimism and wishful thinking as a coherent philosophy.
Alan Watts, though, bongos and all, has changed my life. Or, at least, he has changed the way I look at my life. But Watts remains, in intellectual circles as well as mystical ones, a joke or a non-event.
First, his name: Alan Watts. A guru called Alan Watts is simply a non-starter. Fine for a sub-postmaster. But a guru? No.
Second, Watts was a rationalist whose distrusts of magical thinking led him to leave the Catholic church (where he had trained as a priest). He had a strong respect for western science and the scientific method - an insuperable stumbling block for any guru trying to peddle spiritual snake oil. He believed that sitting cross-legged on a mountain would just give you a bad back. Alone among interpreters of Zen and eastern philosophy - and he was among the first to popularise eastern thought in the west- he did not consider meditation necessary or even desirable.
Finally, he was not born in Tibet, or even Silicon Valley, but in Chislehurst, Kent, a public schoolboy and son of a car dealer.
So much for why he was never taken seriously as a guru. The reasons he was never taken seriously as a thinker are equally transparent. He writes too well, for a start - intellectual respectability tends to require impenetrability to give it kudos, whereas Watts's writing is concise, clear, accessible and blatantly funny. He had fun with the idea of people queuing up to hear his thoughts, growing a Jesus beard and lecturing in a black cloak. He described himself as a "trickster guru" or "showman shaman", slept around, drank too much and got taken up by the counter-culture (although he did not return the compliment).
Jack Kerouac and the beats considered him a hero, Kerouac depicting him as Arthur Whale in Dharma Bums (although Watts thought the beats were ridiculous). He was a contemporary and associate of Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Joseph Campbell, Henry Miller, Allen Ginsberg and John Cage. He was associated with hippies and flakes generally, although he largely stayed clear of their psychedelic shenanigans, teaching as the episcopal chaplain of Northwestern University, in Chicago, the American Academy of Asian Studies, in California, and, finally, at Harvard University.
Watts, then, though a popular cultural figure in his time and to this day still a cult (Van Morrison has written a song about him), has never achieved the intellectual respectability of many of his less-gifted peers. In fact his very popularity and notoriety undoubtedly worked against him.
Born in 1915, he was a weedy boy with buck teeth. He published his first work on Buddhism at the age of 16, the year he was head boy at King's School, Canterbury, and published his first book, Myth and Ritual in Christianity, the following year. …