California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) is the successor to another university, called the American Academy of Asian Studies (AAAS). The Academy was founded in 1951 in San Francisco, and it was celebrated in its heyday for the Friday night colloquia that were conducted by three of its most popular professors, Alan Watts, Haridas Chaudhuri, and Frederic Spiegelberg.
Michael Murphy, who was a student at the academy at the time and went on to cofound Esalen Institute and the human potential movement, describes Watts, Chaudhuri, and Spiegelberg: “They were all charismatic, spirited, and knew a lot. All three of them were very eloquent.”
The colloquia were packed every Friday evening at the Academy, initially located on First and Sansome streets in San Francisco. Even to get in the room, you had to arrive an hour early. The attendees included many of the brightest young minds of the time: poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, and Michael McClure; Esalen cofounder Richard Price; and Richard Hittleman, who first widely popularized yoga in North America through the TV show he hosted. Enormously influential, the colloquia on topics related to Asian religion, art, philosophy, and politics helped stir and warm up the broth that heated to boiling during the San Francisco Renaissance.
Why were so many drawn to the colloquia at the American Academy of Asian Studies? The U.S. was coming out of World War II and entering an era when travel to and trade with Asia were exposing the country to new ideas and aesthetics. The action of 1950s conformity in North America was producing an equal and opposite reaction in the form of curiosity about other countries, religions, arts, and cultures, a movement that later gave birth to the Beat Generation and later, the hippies.
The hosts of the colloquia were also inspirational speakers. “Front and center, of course, were these three leading figures in cultural and religious studies,” Murphy notes.
Alan Watts was the most visible person in the West who was making Buddhism and Daoism accessible to the English-speaking world through his books and his talks on radio and TV. “He was extremely articulate, very colorful, a lot of fun, quite witty,” Murphy recalls. Watts lived on a legendary houseboat in Sausalito called the SS Vallejo, which he shared with artist Jean Varda. “Watts brought a great festivity to things. He was a great entertainer,” says Murphy. Watts was also an Episcopalian minister from England who could bring in his knowledge of the teachings of the Abrahamic faiths.
No less exciting a speaker was Haridas Chaudhuri, who had just come from Kolkata, India, to help create the Academy. Chaudhuri was a leading expounder of the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, founder of integral yoga. Chaudhuri’s teachings combined social activism and the insights of several Eastern faiths. “Haridas came trailing clouds of learning,” Murphy describes. “He was an expert in all things of the Indian tradition,” steeped in philosophy, religion, and art; and also well versed in Western philosophies of the past and present, as well as depth psychology.
The other member of this troika was also extremely erudite. “Frederic Spiegelberg was in the great European tradition of comparative religious studies,” Murphy recounts. “He had studied with Martin Heidegger and Carl Jung, and he succeeded Paul Tillich at Dresden.” Spiegelberg, who had built the religious studies program at Stanford University, served as the first president of the American Academy of Asian Studies, and invited Watts and Chaudhuri to help launch this new center of learning and its colloquia.
The AAAS colloquia were the first time that Asian and Western ideas, practices, and arts were brought together before a large audience to shed light on a range of topics. “You had a comparativist view,” Murphy elaborates. “That broadening of perspective was very new for a wide audience in America.” The innovations of the colloquia have continued and been expanded at CIIS, founded by Haridas Chaudhuri in 1968.