While the usually sleepy English village of Chislehurst was being bombarded by German aircraft in the early morning of January 6, 1915, Alan Watts—who was to become one of the foremost interpreters of ancient Eastern wisdom for the modern West—was born to Laurence Wilson Watts and Emily Mary Buchan.
The elder Watts was an executive with the Michelin tire company in London, and his wife taught at a local school for daughters of missionaries to China. It was because of his mother that Alan had early exposure to Asian culture, via art and other gifts brought by parents returning from China. A Sinophile all his life, Alan attributed the start of his interest in the writings of Chinese poets and sages to his mother’s gift of a Chinese translation of the New Testament.
Watts’s spiritual journey began with a bucolic childhood steeped in the cobwebbed mores of Edwardian England. He had a religious upbringing in the Church of England, and by his teens he’d become an expert on ecclesiastical ritual. He took as his early role models local priests who lived large and showed him that one could be worldly and a holy man, too. In later years he described himself as an unabashed sensualist and openly admitted he was ill at ease with people who militantly abstained from smoking, sex, and drinking. “I am committed to the view,” he wrote in his autobiography, “that the whole point and joy of human life is to integrate the spiritual with the material, the mystical with the sensuous, and the altruistic with a kind of proper self-love.”
As much as he respected his native religion, Watts was troubled by its solemn hymns, its rigidity, and the dualism he found in its teachings, although its harshness was tempered by the natural tranquility he found around him in his mother’s garden and surrounding countryside. “I used to lie in bed feeling my spirits raised by the bird symphony, a choir of angels in praise of the sun. And at sunset a solitary thrush would perch at the very top of the rowan tree and go into a solo,” recalled Watts of his youth.
Watts’s mother was overprotective of her only surviving child (she had suffered two miscarriages and an earlier son’s death at just two weeks old); she discouraged Alan from sports and pushed him toward artistic and intellectual pursuits. His father read to him from Rudyard Kipling and spoke of Buddhism, both of which enchanted the boy with “curious exotic and far-off marvels that simply were not to be found in muscular Christianity.” In the evenings Alan joined his parents in the living room, where his mother played an upright piano and his father sang arias from Gilbert and Sullivan. During school holidays he would write heady papers—often on theological subjects—for the fun of exploring his own ideas, and then read them to his parents, launching family discussions that ran long into the night.
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