Philosophy Explained: Alan Watts' Explanation of Nirvana

Alan Watts (born 1915 in Chislehurst, Great Britain, died 1973, Druid Heights, USA) first studied theology and later moved to the United States (1938) and began Zen training. From then on he began to study Eastern philosophy in general. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Buddhist concept of Nirvana was part of his writings and lectures.

In summary, Alan Watts describes the Buddhist principle of "Nirvana" as the freedom and peace that one attains when one realizes that there is no real need to follow the compulsion of life that we in Western culture have often adopted.

Below you will find a very short video with an excerpt from one of his lectures in which he describes the idea of Nirvana. After that, we will look at what is meant by each passage.


"So Nirvana means exhaling, "Shhhhh. Ah!" What a relief that was.

The sigh of relief.

The definition of nirvana that we know best in the Western world is "a state of happiness and peace," but in reality it also depends heavily on liberation from suffering. With the sigh of relief, Alan Watts wanted to point out the transition from suffering to non-suffering.

"Let it go, because it will come back to you if you let it go. But if you don't let it go, you will simply suffocate.

So a person in the state of nirvana is what we might call a runaway.

In the sense of: "Stolen the mind".

Let go. Do not cling. And then you will be in the state of nirvana.

Here, a metaphor is meant to underscore the need to break away from our societal perception of taking things too seriously. Even if that leads to us being perceived by our peers as some kind of outcasts.

"And I emphasize the point again. This is not... I'm not going to preach. I'm not saying you should do that. I'm just pointing out a fact that is so. It has nothing to do with morality at all. I'm just pointing out that you can get burned if you put your hand in the fire. You can get burned if you want to. It's fine, but if you don't want to get burned, then don't put your hand in the fire.

So is not wanting to be in a state of anxiety all the time...and again I emphasize, if you like being anxious, that's perfectly fine."

This passage is one of many in which Watts indicates that he does not intend to convert people to any particular faith, but simply to tell them about things. Also, the passage emphasizes the idea that one has a choice and no real obligations in the cosmic sense, which is crucial when trying to reach the state of nirvana.

Buddhism does not urge anyone to hurry. It says that you have all eternity to live in different forms, and therefore you don't have just one life in which you must avoid eternal damnation. You can participate in the wheel and the rat race as long as you want, as long as you think you enjoy it."

This is an allusion to the fundamental self in Buddhism - the Saguna Brahman, which, because of its omnipotent nature, amuses itself with games (games being life). Therefore, life is nothing but a show. We look at this concept in this article in more detail:

But if at some point you think it's not fun, you don't have to do it. So I wouldn't tell anyone who disagrees with me and says, "Well, I think we should fight the forces of evil and fix this world and so on and so forth and fix everything in this world so that everything is okay." Try it, please. It's perfectly all right. Go ahead and do that.

But when you see that it's pointless, then you can let go, not try to hold on, relax, and when you do that, you're in the state of nirvana and become a Buddha. And of course that means you become a pretty amazing person.

This last part is something of an invitation to engage in nirvana, when we happen to see that it is all meaningless.

Although this is only a short passage from one of Alan Watts' lectures, it gives a good understanding of this complex and foreign concept and shows that Alan Watts stood between the Eastern and Western philosophical worlds.

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