Explore Zen Philosophy – 10 best books of Allan Watts
Updated: May 3
What is typical between the Bible, Alice in Wonderland and the dictionary?
At one glance, they are all different genres without any common theme. But for a Zen philosopher, there is a running commonality in these books and all books. It is more apparent when we explore Zen philosophy and the way of Zen with the best Alan Watts books.
In one of the conversations, Allan Watts remarked, "I had a discussion with a great master in Japan, and we were talking about the various people who are working on translating Zen books into English, and he said, 'That's a waste of time. If you understand Zen, you can use any book. You could use the Bible. You could use Alice in Wonderland. You could use the dictionary because the sound of rain needs no translation".
In his own way, Allan Watts felt that Zen is a way of liberation concerned not with discovering what is good or bad but what is. In the spiritual practices of Zen Buddhism, if you are peeling potatoes, just focus on the peeling and not think of God or other philosophical aspects. Zen is about living in the present moment.
Who was Alan Watts?
Alan Wilson Watts, the British philosopher, was a sophophile. His thirst for knowledge was so vast that he dabbled in every major religious philosophy, including earning a master's degree in theology and Doctorate of Divinity from Seabury Western Theological Seminary. He was a radical thinker and a well-known author and speaker in Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, and an Episcopal priest. Even as a child, he exhibited his curiosity for learning, and his parents had to keep him supplied with materials to satisfy his curiosity. His creative juices made him imagine an imaginary island in the Pacific Ocean and the life of its people.
In a foreword to Allan Watts's autobiography, In My Own Way, his father, Laurence Watts, talks of Alan's rational way of explaining complex religious philosophies and how Alan Watts explained the spiritual significance of the Eastern philosophy and religion to the Western audience. He emphasized that the Truth is not the monopoly of anyone religious school or philosophical thought.
Joan Watts, his daughter, writes about an exciting incident in her book, The Collected Letters of Alan Watts. While studying at the Kings' School in Canterbury, he became a member of the Buddhist Lodge in London and wrote his first article on Zen. Based on this writing, the Lodge members invited Alan to speak to the members, who were shocked to realize that he was just fifteen years!
Books of Alan Watts
Alan Watts wrote more than 25 books and many articles and speeches on religion and philosophy. Many of the books are available as audio book too. He is one of the foremost authors who explained Eastern wisdom in a simple and understanding manner to western culture. There are many similar authors of the time who wrote about cosmic humor, mental health and comparative religion, but none match the eloquence of Alan Watts.
His in-depth knowledge of the religions of East Asia and his command of the English language helped him write with clarity. Also, his language and style were easy to grasp, even for the layperson. Here is a summary of ten best books of Alan W. Watts worth reading, which explore Zen philosophy.
1.The Spirit of Zen:
Published in 1935, it was the first book on Zen that became popular in Western society. Though there are some references that the book was published in 1957 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Way_of_Zen), this is not true. Alan Watts wrote the book in 1935 is evident from the preface to the first edition. He wrote the preface in December 1935 in Bromley, Kent.
The western world did not know much about the eastern thought of Zen till the publication of a book, Essays in Zen Buddhism by Professor D T Suzuki of Kyoto, in 1927. Alan Watts's book The Spirit of Zen was the one that bridged the gap between eastern thought and western philosophy.
The book is essentially a primer to Zen Buddhism and traces its history. The origins, secrets and techniques of Zen are discussed in detail. It talks about how Bodhidharma brought the concept to China in the sixth century AD and how Buddhism split into the two main branches – Mahayana (the greater vehicle) and Hinayana (the lesser vehicle). He writes about life in a Zen community, including the Sanghas (order) and the viharas (community).
Concept of Zen
In the foreword of the book, Alan Watts discussed the concept of Zen at length. Zen is founded on practice and on an intimate, personal experience of the reality to which most forms of religion and philosophy do not come anywhere near. He admits that Zen may not be the only true path to Enlightenment, and other faiths or thoughts also lead to it. But Zen is "like a Roman road, thrusts all obstacles aside and moves in a direct line to the Goal".
The growth in the spiritual path is evident in the preface Alan Watts wrote in 1954 in San Francisco, nearly twenty years after he wrote the book. Zen, Chinese philosophy, the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta became more popular and familiar in the western world. The number of books written on these subjects also increased. Alan Watts himself had many conversations with the exponents of the Zen philosophy.
He admits that as a result of all this, he does not know what Zen is. Because Zen is not a "what" and not a "thing". It is nonverbal, non-symbolic and an indefinable world of the concrete as distinct from the abstract.
The book is still one of the easy read books available on Zen philosophy.
2. Zen – a Short Introduction
This book was initially published in England in 1947 under the title Zen Buddhism: A new Outline and Introduction. In the foreword to this book Alan Watts writes, "Since writing The Spirit of Zen, many valuable sources of information on the general nature of Zen have been available to me". In this new short book, he hopes to provide a corrective to the former volume.
The influence of Alan Watts association with Professor D T Suzuki and Zen master Sokei-an Shigetsu Sasaki and his wife Ruth Everett Sasaki, to whom this book was dedicated, is quite evident in this book.
Alan Watts was not only a prolific writer but also a good artist, especially Asian art. The illustrations in this book, published in 1948, were by him. It is one of the early books by Alan Watts to "intrigue spiritual seekers". The book was, for him, a personal viewpoint of the shortcomings of Western metaphysics. He was preparing for ordination in the Episcopal Church and worked as a Chaplain while writing this book.
The book clearly shows his vast knowledge and interest in the spiritual experience. He writes in this book, "There is nothing than men desire more than life – the fullness of life, Reality itself….But one this certain: the harder you try to possess life, the faster it slips away from you and the less you understand of its mystery."
The book was republished in 2019 by his daughters, Joan and Anne Watts.
3. The Way of Zen
Published by Pantheon Books in 1957, this book continues Alan Watts's spiritual practices in the eastern religion. He writes, "I am not in favour of importing Zen from the Far East, for it has become deeply involved with cultural institutions which quite foreign to us. But there is no doubt that there are things which we can learn, or unlearn, from it and apply in our own way".
He wrote the book addressing both the general reader and the more experienced and philosophically inclined serious readers. In the preface to this book, Alan Watts does take a lot of pain to explain why he has written this book. He lists various books by different authors, including his "guru" Professor Suzuki and feels that none of the books gives a comprehensive account of the subject and the historical background and its relation to the Chinese and Indian way of thought. Some of the writings are "enormously useful for the advanced student but quite baffling to the general reader without understanding the general principles".
Alan Watts is equally critical about his book Spirit of Zen. “...besides being very unscholarly, it is in many respects out of date and misleading, whatever merits it may have in the way of lucidity and simplicity". He felt the time was ripe for a book by a Zen master who understands the philosophy and has sufficient command over the English language. He stops short of recommending himself for this noble task.
He admits that he cannot be called Zenist or a Buddhist but only studied its literature and observed its art forms since a young age.
In the first part of the book, he deals with the origin and history of Zen. And in the second, the principles and practices of Zen. He writes that he depended on all the studies of Zen in European languages, including the works of Professor D T Suzuki. But instead of presenting a summarization of these authors' thoughts, he tries to bring a fresh perspective to the reader.
The book also has several Chinese passages translated by Alan Watts himself.
4. Behold the Spirit – A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion
Behold the Spirit was first published in 1947 by Pantheon Books. This book expanded the thesis Alan W. Watts submitted for his master's degree in Theology from Seabury Western Theological Seminary. While this book is not entirely about Zen philosophy, a reading of this will undoubtedly help us understand Alan Watts leaning towards the religious philosophies of East Asia. It will also be evident that he is critical of the Western religion.
After getting his degree, he became an Episcopal priest as a young man of 30. However, very soon, he resigned from the Church partly because of his personal reasons and mainly because he could not reconcile his Buddhist beliefs with the Church's doctrines.
In this book, he is critical of the practice of Christianity at that time. According to Alan Watts, he wrote the book to "introduce a strangely and disastrously neglected subject – the meaning of Christian doctrine". He felt the Christian religion did not satisfy the "vast hunger and impoverishment of the spirit" of the people.
He argues that with some rare exceptions of the Jesuit scholars, the study of the comparative religion has been a difficult task for most Christian writers. The studies have been superficial and dilute the spiritual insights of other faiths. They have a fundamental misunderstanding of other religions leading to branding Taoism as a mere lazy quietism by translating the term wu-wei (which denotes the psychological character of the mystical state) as "doing nothing". They call the Advaita philosophy of the Upanishads and Zen Buddhism pantheism.
The book goes on to explain the way Zen Buddhism and the Eastern religions have impacted understanding the meaning of life. He tried to promote a blend of Christian mysticism fused into Eastern philosophy.
5. Tao – the Watercourse Way
Tao – the Watercourse Way was the last book written by Alan Watts. It is also the most profound one in terms of reaching the goal of his spiritual journey. His quest for Zen Buddhism and Zen philosophy reaches a crescendo with this book. The focus of this book is contemplative Taoism. It explains the Buddhist Way of Wisdom (prajna) rather than the Way of Powers (siddhi).
Alan Watts wrote the book in collaboration with Al Chung-Liang Huang. The book had extensive Chinese calligraphy and Chinese words. Though he planned the entire book, unfortunately, he could not complete it. When he died, he left behind two empty chapters, intended to be full of "fun and surprises". According to his friends, Alan Watts planned these two chapters to discuss Chinese wisdom as a cure to the ills of the West.
His friend, Al Chung-Liang Huang, then completed the two chapters. He wrote about his association with Alan Watts and the profound influence he had on him.
Alan Watts describes that his objective in writing this book was to establish what the "far-off" philosophies mean to him and the impact on the historical situation. And to make use of the user of the history in the present context. The book aims to be an accurate reflection of the writings of Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu and Lieh-tzu. He tries to show how the principle of the Tao reconciles sociability with individuality, order with spontaneity and unity with diversity.
6. This is It - and other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience
This book is a collection of writings over the years. All the essays have a common point of focus of addressing the spiritual or mystical experience and its relation to the material life. Alan Watts writes to show that the spiritual world cannot be separated from the material world. Both are the sides of the same coin. It is a fallacy to believe that spirituality means something which is higher and lofty, while the material life is simple, practical and commonplace.
First published in 1958, the book has six essays. The lead article, This is It, describes that the word “It” when we use to denote the superlative, or the exact point, or intense reality, or what we were always looking for. It is not the neuter sense of the mere object. It is some still alive and far wider than the personal. We use this simplest of words because we have no word for it.
In another essay, Zen and the problem of control, he writes about how the humans are setting up a trap to catch themselves. The development of science and technology meant new way of controlling himself and the environment. According to Alan Watts, man is self-conscious and a self-controlling organism, but how is he to control the aspect of himself which does the controlling? Who is to monitor the inner world? This could be the root of human conflict we experience in the modern world and ground of the universe.
According to him there are no Zen masters because Zen has nothing to teach. The experience of awakening (satori) is not to be found by seeking and is not in any case something that can be acquired or cultivated. The problem of man is that we refuse to take this “No” for an answer and continue to seek the mysteries of Zen. Zen is beyond the basic philosophy of meditation.
7. The Wisdom of Insecurity – A Message for an Age of Anxiety
In the introduction written in 2011, Deepak Chopra writes about this book, “I found in Watts the perfect guide for a course correction in life, away from materialism and its empty promises”. Alan Watts wrote Wisdom of Insecurity in 1951 when he was undergoing a tumultuous phase in his life. He had quit his job as an Episcopal priest and his wife had divorced him. He was perhaps in a personal identity crisis. All his life he tried to fuse the Eastern and Western philosophy and experimented extensively on this after his coming to the United States.
It was amidst this crisis that he realized the real secret of life and discovered his true self. He declared that there was no self to find. Authentic happiness can only be achieved by giving up the ego-self, which itself is an illusion. He called himself a spiritual entertainer.
Alan Watts calls this book “an exploration of man’s quest for psychological security, and to his efforts to find spiritual and intellectual certainty in religion and philosophy”. He talks of the law of reversed effort or “backwards law”.
When you try to stay on the surface of the water you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. This book is in the spirit of the master of the law of reversed effort, who in his own path, declared that those who justify themselves do not convince. To know truth, one must get rid of knowledge.
The book has nine essays with the first one, Age of Anxiety being the lead essay. In this he writes that human beings are happy as long as they have a future to look forward to. Whether that future is a good time tomorrow or an everlasting life beyond the grave. Insecurity always plagued the ordinary life of humans. Poverty, disease, war, change and death have always been there.
8. Does It Matter – Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality
This book is a series of essays focusing on man’s relationship to the material world. In the preface to the book written in 1971, Alan Watts writes that he is not an anti-intellectual since he makes his living by “various feats of verbalization”. His argument is that words are nonlinear and has multiple meanings in terms of languages. The word rock might sound as a lifeless and physical structure. But the very word comes to life in “rock-a-bye baby” or “rock and roll”. “Evil” read backwards is “Live”
Alan Watts finds fault with the current intellectual and philosophical discourses and finds them absurd. This is because they attempt to translate a non-linear and multidimensional system into a linear system of symbols. It is like trying to transport the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific with a beer mug.
It is interesting to note that two of the essays in this book were originally written for the popular men’s magazine Playboy. Alan Watts justifies this by saying, “..that remarkable journal which posing as a high-class girlie magazine, publishes some of the most exciting philosophical thinking in America. And thus at least exposes some six million readers to the intellectual life”.
Alan Watts tries his prophetical skills in the essay “Wealth Versus Money” (this was one of the essays published in Playboy),with his opening sentence, “In the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ 2000, the United States of America will no longer exist”. His argument is that the USA with the geographical features of lakes, mountains and rivers will not exist by the year 2000. This is because of catastrophic methods of nuclear and biological warfare. Added by a combination of population, pollution, erosion of natural soil and misuse of technology.
Writing about the need to kill to survive, in the essay, “Murder in the Kitchen” he writes that we are creatures rearranged, for biological existence continuing only through mutual slaughter and ingestion of its various species. To exist we need to “chew each other up”. Man is systematically destroying the rest of the universe by devouring, destroying, and fouling the whole planet. He feels that vegetarianism is not the answer either, since plants also feel the pain of being chopped up.
One of the best ways to resolve this dilemma is to admit that deciding to live is deciding to kill. The second is that every form life killed for food must be cherished. Critical of the modern animal farming resulting in tasteless chicken or beef, Alan Watts remarks, “Whatever is unlovable on the plate was unloved in the kitchen and on the farm”.
The third one is to cook everything to perfection, so that the death of the life is “not in vain”. “Any animal that becomes should enjoy itself as me”.
9. The Book – On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
This book has been termed as a revelatory primer on what it means to be human. It explores “an unrecognised but mighty taboo – our tacit conspiracy to ignore who, or what, we really are”. Alan Watts continues to talk about the misuse of technology to satisfy the human ego and the hostile subjugation of the natural world and its eventual destruction.
The Book is not about religion in the usual sense but discusses many things with which religions have been concerned with. Man’s relationship with himself and the rest of the universe, the central mystery of existence, the problems of love, pain and death.
At the root of human conflict is our fundamental misunderstanding of who we are. Humanity has evolved one-sidedly, growing in technical power without any comparable growth in moral integrity, or education and rational thinking.
The illusion that we are isolated beings, unconnected to the rest of the universe, has led us to view the “outside” world with hostility, and has fuelled our misuse of technology and our violent and hostile subjugation of the natural world. We reached our limits of the rational mind and suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our existence as a living being.
The book draws extensively from the insights of the Hindu philosophy of Vedanta but narrated in a modern and Western style. It does not claim to be a textbook on or introduction to Vedanta in the ordinary sense. It is rather a cross fertilization of Western science with an Eastern intuition. The book is considered to be mind-opening manual of initiation.
10. Talking Zen
This is a collection of unpublished essays and talks given in the 1960s from the Alan Watts audio archives edited by his son Mark Watts. It also has the famous lecture, “Zen Bones” published for the first time in this book. Following Alan Watts books one can easily trace the growth of the person in the spiritual realm.
He wrote over twenty-five books and was an equally prolific speaker. He rarely used written notes while speaking and recorded hundreds of hours of public lectures and seminars. Many of his lectures are still head on public radios across the United States and form an essential listening for the audience with interest in philosophy and comparative religion.
This book is not an account of how Zen evolved but is instead of story of Zen in life and experiences as they were told to live audience. It has a total of nine essays selected emphasizing on the spontaneous and uncontrolled aspect of Zen.
In the essay Time and Convention, he discusses about the concept of time and how it can standstill in moments of concentration and involvement. It is important to discover that being alive does not lie in some future destination, some far-off ideal yet to be attained, but in the present moment. These lectures were delivered in 1954 and early 1955. It was a time when the popularity of Zen was at its peak and Beat intellectuals were celebrating the nirvana in San Francisco and New York. The movement culminated in what is now called as counterculture mystic of the 1960s.
The essay Zen Tales mostly consists of anecdotes about the encounters of Zen masters with their students. Zen tales are similar in nature to jokes. A joke is told to make you laugh, which is an emotional reaction. It has to be understood immediately and the resultant reaction is the laughter. If the joke has to be explained or it is analyzed, then the resultant laughter is not spontaneous but a polite one. A Zen story is to produce awakening, clarification and enlightenment.