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November 02, 1986|Victoria Scott

ZEN EFFECTS: THE LIFE OF ALAN WATTS by Monica Furlong (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95; 230 pp.)When I was in graduate school, my major professor warned me about "aficionados" like Alan Watts. Such popularizers were not impeccable scholars, he said, so they inevitably distorted their subjects in the process of making them accessible.

Yet what Watts said about Zen jibes remarkably well with supposedly more reliable sources. Watts was no fly-by-night charlatan but a serious--if self-taught--student of Buddhism, as Monica Furlong is quick to point out in this even-handed biography. Much more revealing than Watts' rather vague autobiography, Furlong's book is a fascinating account of Watts the precocious English schoolboy, repressed young man, one-time Episcopal priest and turned-on lecturer extraordinaire.

To what extent Watts actually meditated is not known, but by the time 1960s America was ready to indulge in Zen, he had been probing and writing about Eastern religion for 30 years. Furlong rightly views Watts as he viewed himself--as a "philosophical entertainer" and "genuine fake." She sees that he was a trickster whose "intellectual grasp and achievement was real and solid," but who was prone to both grace and disgrace, public eloquence and private foolishness. For illuminating details on how Watts happened to be in the right place at the right time to bring Zen to the attention of millions, this biography is a must.

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