Philosopher Alan Watts: A Cult Figure or a Great Bodhisattva?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Way of Zen" by Alan Watts. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the legacy of Alan Watts? How do people view his life and contribution?

Critics, monks, and philosopher Alan Watts himself have used colorful words to describe him and his work. His books have taught many people in the West about Eastern philosophies and practices, but some contend that they lacked depth and that he didn’t always practice what he preached.

Read more to learn how Alan Watts has been regarded over the last few decades.

Philosopher Alan Watts

English philosopher Alan Watts died in 1973. In the years since his death, much has been said about the way he lived his life and talked about the principles of Zen Buddhism and other Eastern schools of philosophical and religious thought. Watts lived a flawed private life, and, according to a biography written by Monica Furlong, he referred to himself as “a philosophical entertainer, a genuine fake and an irreducible rascal.” His obituary in The New York Times characterized him as “virtually a cult figure,” and he’s often called a pop philosopher.

In a column published in 1994, writer David Guy notes that Watts has been accused of learning Buddhism from books, promoting facile interpretations of Zen ideas, and failing to acknowledge the work involved in practicing Zen. Guy writes that it’s true that Watts never underwent rigorous Zen training and acknowledges as fair the criticism that The Way of Zen is biased toward the idea of sudden enlightenment and places too little emphasis on discipline.

Guy notes that the central idea of all of Watts’s books is that we aren’t separate from the rest of the universe and identifies his books are a touchstone for readers undergoing a shift in consciousness away from seeing themselves as isolated individuals. Guy thinks that some of Watts’s critics have wanted him to have all the answers, though Watts never intended or promised to provide them with all the answers. He’s credited with popularizing major ideas like mindfulness in the West, and Maria Popova characterizes The Wisdom of Insecurity as an “existentially necessary” book that stays with the reader for a lifetime. 

Gus Carter writes that Watts “hints at the something of Buddhism” but doesn’t fully commit to it. Carter explains that, for Watts, the appeal of Buddhism lay in its promise of liberation from Western individualism, anxiety, and alienation from the universe, things that many other people feel and want to change in their own lives. Through divorces and affairs, psychedelic use, and alcohol abuse, Watts was a flawed human being. Poet Gary Snyder said that Watts “sowed trouble wherever he went.” 

Yet David Chadwick writes that Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen monk and teacher who helped popularize Zen in the United States and built the first Zen monastery outside of Asia, referred to Watts as “a great Bodhisattva.” Chadwick explains that, though people can speculate about Watts’s own practice and depth of understanding and personal life, Watts taught a version of Zen that is “authentic yet contemporary and accessible” and succeeded in bringing Zen Buddhism to countless people in the Western world.

Philosopher Alan Watts: A Cult Figure or a Great Bodhisattva?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Way of Zen summary:

  • The major principles and history of Zen Buddhism
  • How to experience Zen in everyday life—without a strict meditation practice
  • Why calling Zen a "practice" is a mistake

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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