It's been interesting to see the various reactions of regular readers of this blog to my series of posts about Alan Watts, especially my recent post about how "Alan Watts was true to his moral philosophy."
Those like me who agree with how Watts viewed reality -- as a self-organizing whole without any top-down commander like God -- tended to view his personal life as irrelevant to his philosophizing, which leaned in his later years toward Chinese/Taoist perspectives.
Not surprisingly, those who disagreed with how Watts saw things seized upon his three marriages, affairs with other women, drug use, and excessive drinking as evidence that Watts was a fake who didn't live up to the ideals that he spoke about in his books and talks.
This is a reflection of the fact that in large part, morality is subjective. Different people look upon right and wrong in different ways. So here's some observations along that line, using the reaction to Alan Watts as an example.
First, I wanted to learn more about the life of Watts, so yesterday I ordered a biography from Amazon, "Zen Effects: The Life of Alan Watts," by Monica Furlong. I got it today and obviously haven't been able to read it yet, but noted that Furlong had a new foreword in the 2012 edition. Here's how Furlong's foreword ends.
Watt's philosophy, carefully developed over the years with study, had a freshness and honesty about it. He had read deeply in Christian theology and felt that many of its symbols had lost their power as a result of being taken too literally, and needed to be rediscovered. He worked at meditation, read Jungian psychology, studied Oriental religious ideas of all kinds, visited Japan.
Out of much thinking, reading, and talking, he developed a language that spoke to Westerners who wanted a religion, or at any rate a way of life, that was not totally trapped in rationality. He felt that religion tended to suffer from mystification and the use of a mandarin language that excluded most people, except as timid followers of leaders who then abused their power.
His own teaching moved between ways of talking about huge imponderables -- suffering, death -- to the everyday -- the kind of food, clothes, relationships, ways of living that might be appropriate for human beings.
Few, if any, human beings can cope well with becoming a guru or icon. Alan Watts handled it better than some, mainly because he had good friends, and he had a sense of humor that put his fame into perspective, but he was stressed by the exposure and at times his head was turned by it.
Watts is not a man on whom it is possible to deliver an easy verdict -- he escapes labels. He had an extraordinary wisdom, a lot of knowledge, and a rare ability to put both into language that ordinary people can understand.
He still has much to teach anyone searching to find belief -- his short and deceptively simple little books are remarkable guides. He was sometimes vain, a know-it-all who could be thoughtless of others, but he was invariably kind in what he said about other people. "He was fond of lifting the elbow," Dom Aelred Graham wrote to me, "but I never heard him say a harsh word about anybody."
There are not many of us of whom the Recording Angel will be able to say as much, and it was perhaps Watts's capacity to live out the life he wanted, with all its ups and downs, its failures and successes, that left him so attractively free of envy.
His children, I noticed when I interviewed them, were both clear-sighted and truthful about him, but also had loving memories, as had his friends.
He was both an inspired leader and, like all of us, flawed -- in Gary Snyder's words, "he sowed problems wherever he went." Watts knew himself well, and used to describe himself as a "genuine fake," an expression that catches not only his ambiguities, but also the ambiguities of the human condition, not least when we are trying to be religious.
This book tries to explore both the genuineness and the fakery.
Furlong does a nice job here, balancing Watts' strengths and weaknesses, pointing out that Watts echoed his philosophy in his life: there aren't sharp edges in nature, or in human nature. No clear demarcation of black and white, good and bad, moral and immoral.
There are shades of meaning, ambiguities, tendencies that can reverse themselves and move in a fresh direction.
As noted before, Alan Watts didn't set himself up as someone to emulate. He urged people to trust themselves, not authorities, religious or otherwise. So those who criticize Watts for not being moral are laying their own ethical framework over Watts' life and then finding it lacking.
I'm reminded of the current controversy in Great Britain over Boris Johnson, the prime minister, having parties during a time the rest of the country was on a strict Covid lockdown. Now, that's the sort of hypocrisy that, if proven to be true, deserves condemnation.
But to my knowledge, Watts never said "Don't drink; don't use psychedelic drugs; don't have affairs; don't drink alcohol excessively." Sure, he did those things. Yet he can't be condemned for living a life that was at odds with his philosophy.
Since Watts was a big admirer of Taoism, below is a story from Eva Wong's book, "Lieh-Tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practical Living." The back cover says, "The Lieh-Tzu is a collection of stories and philosophical musings of a sage of the same name who lived around the fourth century B.C.E."
That's a long time ago, but one story reminded me of the debate over Alan Watts' morality today. In 2007 I shared an abbreviated version of that story in "Wine, women, and enlightenment." Here's that blog post.
Got to get fired up, or cooled down, for the Taoism talk I'm going to give to a Comparative Religion class tonight. I won't prepare a whole lot. Want to let it flow.
I'm planning to carry along the Lieh-tzu, though. That's the third leg of the traditional Taoist canon, along with the Tao-te Ching and the Chuang-tzu.
Translator Eva Wong says:
The Lao-tzu describes a state of reality that a sage experiences; the Chuang-tzu describes a state of mind that the sage is in; but the Lieh-tzu describes how the enlightened person lives.
…If the Lao-tzu is poetry and the Chuang-tzu is prose, then the Lieh-tzu is a series of comic strips. By exaggerating the ridiculous aspects of human actions, it portrays the human condition as humorous and pokes fun at social taboos.
I love how Taoist sages so often take a contrarian view of morality. You won't find a story like "What damages health more—unrestricted pleasure or obsessive hard work?" in a traditional religious scripture. Here's an abbreviated version of Lieh-tzu's tale.
Tzu-ch'an, the chief minister of the kingdom of Cheng, had two brothers. While he spent his energy on strengthening the country and putting down crime and disorder, his two brothers indulged in everything that satisfied their senses.
One of the brothers had a brewery and a large warehouse in the back of his mansion where he stored thousands of jars of wine. He drank heavily, and, when drunk, he was oblivious to everything around him. He couldn't recognize friends or relatives, and he lost all concern for life or death.
The other brother had a dozen rooms in the house where he kept a group of beautiful young women. When he was aroused sexually, he would spend months with the women, never even bothering to come out to meet friends and relatives or take care of the family business.
Tzu-ch'an was very concerned about his brothers' lifestyles. So he went to talk to Teng-hsi, a fellow statesman who, although sarcastic and snide at times, was known for his keen observations and problem-solving ability.
Tzu-ch'an said, "Can you suggest anything that would get my two irresponsible brothers to behave more properly?"
Teng-hsi replied, "Tell them what they're doing is damaging their health. Maybe this will convince them to change their lifestyles."
One day Tzu-ch'an found his brothers together. He took this opportunity to talk to them about their lives.
"Heaven made us a cut above animals in dignity and intelligence. Therefore, it is your duty to live up to these expectations and behave in a manner befitting our position in society. If you only live to satisfy your senses, you are no more than animals. Stop harming yourselves, become responsible citizens, and I shall give you a position in the government."
Tzu-ch'an's brothers said:
"We know that wine and sex damage health. But we also know that life is short, and we want to enjoy whatever we can now. You, on the other hand, suppress what you want to do in order to maintain your rank and power.
"You are proud of your achievements and you want us to conform to your beliefs. You want to entice us with titles and political power, but we know that such things only bring burden and trouble.
"You may be the chief minister, and the country may look like it's in order. But look at yourself closely. You are tired and haggard. You have damaged your body and mind because you are anxious about keeping the country in order. In order to maintain your reputation, you have damaged your heart by suppressing your natural inclinations.
"We, on the other hand, may be wild and unruly, but we are true to ourselves. We have never put up a front to gain respect. We have never been involved in dirty politics or harmed other people with treachery and intrigue.
"Can you say this about yourself? If you can't, then it's not we who should take your advice, but you who should take ours."
Tzu-ch'an did not know what to say. Later he saw Teng-hsi and related the whole incident to him. Teng-hsi said, "You have been living with enlightened men and didn't even know it."
Lastly, here's an excerpt from another Lieh-Tzu story, "A madman or an enlightened man?"
Is Tuan-mu Shu a madman or an enlightened man? If you judge him by social norms, then it would appear that Tuan-mu Shu was indeed crazy. He abandoned his family, did not care for the welfare of his descendants, and squandered his wealth.
But then again, Tuan-mu Shu was sincere in everything he did. There was no pretense, no scheming, no ulterior motive in his actions. He followed his heart and was not constrained by social conventions. He enjoyed himself freely, he gave freely, and he never did anything that went against his nature.