Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.Alan Watts
Why would you want to read yet another post about Alan Watts quotes? I doubt there’s anything I can say you don’t already know. Unless you’re not familiar with Alan Watts, the English philosopher who had a timeless way of looking at life’s contradictory, disorienting and absurd demands. This may be the reason why people can’t get enough of his ideas.
Alan Watts played a crucial role in popularising the teachings of Zen Buddhism in the Western world more than 50 years ago. He created some of the most memorable aphorisms. The question of how we can become masters of life was often at the centre of his work. So what’s his secret?
5 Alan Watts Quotes
If you insist to know, I invite you to explore five Alan Watts quotes on Zen and his surprising wisdom on how to become a master of life. We begin with the man himself, his relationship to Zen Buddhism and his intentions.
1. The Spiritual Entertainer
Watts had his own way of approaching these rather personal and emotional topics. Here are his opening remarks to one of his talks:
I suppose most of you have heard of Zen. But before going on to explain any details about it I want to make one thing absolutely clear: I am not a Zen Buddhist, I am not advocating Zen Buddhism, I am not trying to convert anyone to it. I have nothing to sell. I am an entertainer.
That is to say in the same sense that when you go to a concert and you listen to someone play Mozart, he has nothing to sell except the sound of the music. He doesn’t want to convert you to anything, he doesn’t want you to join an organisation in favour of Mozart’s music as opposed to, say, Beethoven’s.
I approach you in the same spirit as a musician with his piano or a violinist with his violin. I just want you to enjoy a point of view which I enjoy.
Watts’ sets the stage by modelling an attitude that feels like a breath of fresh air; an antidote to one-upmanship, hypocrisy and ideologically motivated activism. His analogy brings together two seemingly contradictory mindsets. Dedication and passion for a cause on the one hand, and a sense of humility and absence of missionary ambitions on the other. Watts aims to share his ideas in the same way the point of making music is not to get to the end of a piece, but about the enjoyment of it. He chooses the love of wisdom (Philia Sophia) over the love of victory (Philia Nikia).
That doesn’t make his method less compelling. We can see it as a form of soft power, exerted through attraction, credibility and persuasion rather than coercion and the use of carrots and sticks. It may be a long-term strategy that doesn’t yield immediate results. But it certainly can free us from being too obsessed with what other people think of us. Success becomes a mere by-product of having and exuding passion for what we do. As Naval Ravikant would put it, Watts manages to “escape competition through authenticity”.
The first of our Alan Watts quotes illustrates well why he used to describe himself as a spiritual entertainer. His ideal is an egoless existence lived with humour, carefreeness and the enjoyment of wisdom. But what exactly are the viewpoints Alan Watts wants us to enjoy?
2. What Is Zen?
With his 1957 book, The Way of Zen [affiliate link], Alan Watts aimed to give Westerners a better understanding of Zen and its meaning for today’s world (as in the today of the 1950s). He saw Zen as a kind of therapy, a method to change the way we look at life. Here’s Watt’s explanation of what Zen is:
We really don’t have a English word for Dhyāna, or Zen. But I would say we do know what it is because we do all sorts of things everyday of our lives in this spirit. When for example you drive a car, most Americans, at any rate, drive cars since they were teenagers and are very expert drivers. And when they drive a car they don’t think about it. They’re one with the car.
Or when rider of a horse is one being with a horse. He’s glued to the horse. He’s like a centaur almost. As the horse moves, he moves. Which is in control? Is the horse riding the man or the man riding the horse? You practically don’t know. Same way when you have an excellent dancing partner. Who leads, who follows? It seems as if you are one body and you move together. That is Zen.
With analogies from everyday life, Alan Watts manages to illustrate the supposed secret to true mastery of life according to Zen. He establishes a relatable ideal. We all know what it feels like to be unconsciously competent at something if only it’s riding a bike. The peculiarity of it is that we don’t seem to have too many problems achieving this state in the most ordinary aspects of our daily routine. If we follow this approach further, mastering life in its entirety would mean applying this principle to everything we do.
LIfe in its entirety, however, is much more complex or disorienting an experience than going for a dance. The Observe Orient Decide Act (OODA) Loop is a fine example of our attempts to get on top of fast-paced decision-making in highly competitive environments. As Alan Watts suggests, what the exercise of mastering life comes down to is the notion of control. More precisely the dichotomy between being in control and being controlled.
3. Being in Control
In the third of our Alan Watts quotes, the spiritual entertainer dives deeper into the idea of controlling the world around us:
The principle is that any time you, as it were, you voluntarily let up control, in other words cease to cling to yourself, you have an excess of power. Because you’re wasting energy all the time in self-defence. Trying to manage things. trying to force things to conform to your will. The moment you stop doing that, that wasted energy is available. In that sense, having the energy available you are one with the divine principle. You have the energy.
When you’re trying, however, to act as if you were god. That is to say you don’t trust anybody, you are the dictator and you have to keep everybody in line, you lose the divine energy. Because what you’re doing is simply defending yourself. So then the principle is: The more you give it away the more it comes back.
Now you say I don’t have the courage to give it away. I’m afraid. And you can only overcome that by realising: You better give it away because there’s no way holding on to it. The meaning of the fact that everything is dissolving constantly, that we’re all falling apart, we’re all in the process of constant death.
You see, that fact that everything is in decay is your helper. That is allowing you that you don’t have to let go because there’s nothing for you to hold on to. It’s achieved for you in other words by the process of nature.
In this quote, Alan Watts focuses on the paradoxical idea of giving up control to gain control. Try to coerce your dancing partner across the dance floor and chances are he will not be your dancing partner for long. Try to carelessly push your car beyond its limits and the centrifugal forces of nature will interject. People — and physics for that matter — do not react well to tyranny. This ties back nicely to the analogy of the musicians from the beginning. The ones who pursue their passion and let go of the outcome in terms of their success or popularity.
Obviously, the point of this Alan Watts quote is the ultimate futility of exerting control. Apparently, it’s the moments when we don’t try to force an outcome that we are at our best. But there’s a big problem. Even if we do manage to voluntarily give up control, how will we deal with those who won’t? This brings us to the other side of the coin, the fear of being controlled.
4. Being Controlled
Having the courage to let go is one thing. Knowing how to handle those who wish to control us is another. And when we don’t know how to do something, we ask for help. In the next one of our Alan Watts quotes, the Englishman illustrates the peculiar admission process to a Zen school.
If you go to a Zen teacher and you approach him in the traditional way. the first thing he will do is to say:
“I haven’t anything to teach. Go away!”
“Well,” you say, “what are these people doing around here? Aren’t they your students?”
“They’re working with me, but unfortunately, we are very poor these days, we don’t have enough rice to go around to make ends meet.”
So you have to insist to be taken in. Every postulant for Zen training assumes immediately that the teacher has given him the brush-off in order to test his sincerity. In other words: “If you really want this thing, you gotta work for it.”
But that isn’t the real point. The point is that you got to make such a fuss to get in that you cannot withdraw gracefully after having made such a fuss to get in. Because you put yourself on the spot. And you define yourself as somebody needing help or as somebody with a problem who needs a master in order to be helped out of the problem.
Zen schools seem to work a lot like job interviews nowadays. You apply to 100 places, all of which are your one true passion. Then you’re thrust into a highly controlled and performative environment where you’re required to act with authentic sincerity. It’s the epitome of a self-contradictory social situation. In Watts’ mind, this is merely a special case of what life does to us all — or what we do to ourselves. Often we put someone on a pedestal only to be surprised by their fallibility.
A seeming lack of control leads us to outsource it to others. We create the problem by surrendering ourselves to ideas or people voluntarily. According to Alan Watts, there are two kinds of people we end up with. Those that encourage us to keep up the charade because they’re still in the rat race. And those who want us to see through the futility of it all; semi-satirically illustrated by ‘creative incompetence’ as the solution to the Peter Principle.
In order to lead us to see through it all, Watts describes the magnificent trap set by the philosophy of Zen.
5. A Magnificent Trap
What does it all mean? We conclude with the last of our Alan Watts quotes.
This is the humour in the whole thing that when you catch yourself doing something such as looking all over the house for the spectacles you’re wearing, there’s nothing when you find out what you’ve done but to laugh. […] The whole of Zen is based on this. Zen, you see, traps you, cunningly enough, into going through a great discipline. […]
But you can’t find this out by being told. Because you wouldn’t believe it. You can only find it out by carrying your supposed predicament to its logical conclusion.
Alan Watts reveals Zen training, and by extension life itself, to be nothing more than a magnificent trap, an elaborate albeit compassionate prank. A prank designed to show us — rather than tell — that many of our problems are self-made figments of our imagination. It has an element of the philosophy of Stoicism. At its core is the realisation that the only things over which we have at least some level of control are our own minds.
Life does indeed make contradictory and disorienting demands and fate can put us in desperate positions at a moment’s notice. The misconception, according to Watts, is that they can be solved by exerting control or giving one’s life into the hands of a saviour; or a spiritual entertainer for that matter.
How to become a master of life? Our five Alan Watts quotes illustrate Zen as a way of showing that this isn’t a problem we should concern ourselves with. If there is a secret, it’s to reject the premise of the question entirely. After all, there really isn’t anything to teach or learn that we don’t already know.