Off-Beat Zen: The Eccentric Englishman Who Brought Buddhism to America

A photograph of Alan Watts smoking a pipe in Esalen, California in the 1960s or 70s

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Tim Lott presents the story of Alan Watts

Alan Watts (1915-1973) was one of the first –and perhaps the greatest – interpreter of Eastern thought for the Western mind.

Some view his take on Buddhism as idiosyncratic – he wasn’t a fan of zazen (sitting meditation, which he called the ‘aching back school of Buddhism’,) he had little to say about compassion or reincarnation, and he was not a great one for asceticism, being an alcoholic, a heavy smoker and a womaniser. But his brilliant lectures, sense of humour and theatrical delivery made him one of the most popular teachers of Buddhism ever, particularly in America where he continues to enjoy cult status. He has also proved durable, with artists such as Van Morrison, Cheryl and Jarvis Cocker all being inspired by him, as were the animators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park). The film maker Spike Jonze features Watts in his feature film Her.

Come and learn about one of the most remarkable figures in Western Buddhism, an Englishman whose career began as a public schoolboy at Kings School in Canterbury in the 1920s where he discovered Buddhism and ended a few years after appearing at the great ‘Be In’ in San Francisco’s Golden Gate park in 1967 with Alan Ginsburg, the Grateful Dead and Timothy Leary.

Tim Lott is journalist and the author of several novels and a memoir, The Scent of Dried Roses, which won the PEN/J.R. Ackerley Prize. White City Blue won the Whitbread First Novel Award and his young adult book Fearless was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Book Award. His most recent novel (2019) is When We Were Rich. His authored the documentary The New Middle Classes on the class system for BBC Four, has been a prolific travel journalist and a weekly columnist for the Guardian. 

Part of our Buddhism exhibition events series. See more events and adult courses inspired by the exhibition.


Name: Off-Beat Zen: The Eccentric Englishman Who Brought Buddhism to America
Where: Knowledge Centre
The British Library
96 Euston Road
Show Map      How to get to the Library
When: -
Price: Full Price: £13.00
Member: £13.00
Senior 60+: £11.00
Student: £6.50
Registered Unemployed: £6.50
Disabled: £6.50
Under 18: £6.50
18-25: £6.50
Enquiries: +44 (0)1937 546546