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Alan Watts (1915-1973)
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Lecture on Zen
The Joyous Cosmology
Zen Effects - Life of Alan Watts (PDF)
by Alan Watts
Once upon a time, there was a Zen student who quoted an old Buddhist poem to his teacher, which says:
The voices of torrents are from one great tongue, the lions of the hills are the pure body of Buddha. 'Isn't that right?' he said to the teacher. 'It is,' said the teacher, 'but it's a pity to say so.'
It would be,
of course, much better, if this occasion were celebrated with no talk at all,
and if I addressed you in the manner of the ancient teachers of Zen, I should
hit the microphone with my fan and leave. But I somehow have the feeling that
since you have contributed to the support of the Zen Center, in expectation
of learning something, a few words should be said, even though I warn you, that
by explaining these things to you, I shall subject you to a very serious hoax.
Because if I allow you to leave here this evening, under the impression that you understand something about Zen, you will have missed the point entirely. Because Zen is a way of life, a state of being, that is not possible to embrace in any concept whatsoever, so that any concepts, any ideas, any words that I shall put across to you this evening will have as their object, showing you the limitations of words and of thinking.
Now then, if one must try to say something about what Zen is, and I want to do this by way of introduction, I must make it emphatic that Zen, in its essence, is not a doctrine. There's nothing you're supposed to believe in. It's not a philosophy in our sense, that is to say a set of ideas, an intellectual net in which one tries to catch the fish of reality. Actually, the fish of reality is more like water--it always slips through the net. And in water you know when you get into it there's nothing to hang on to. All this universe is like water; it is fluid, it is transient, it is changing. And when you're thrown into the water after being accustomed to living on the dry land, you're not used to the idea of swimming. You try to stand on the water, you try to catch hold of it, and as a result you drown. The only way to survive in the water, and this refers particularly to the waters of modern philosophical confusion, where God is dead, metaphysical propositions are meaningless, and there's really nothing to hang on to, because we're all just falling apart. And the only thing to do under those circumstances is to learn how to swim. And to swim, you relax, you let go, you give yourself to the water, and you have to know how to breathe in the right way. And then you find that the water holds you up; indeed, in a certain way you become the water. And so in the same way, one might say if one attempted to--again I say misleadingly--to put Zen into any sort of concept, it simply comes down to this:
That in this universe, there is one great energy, and we have no name for it. People have tried various names for it, like God, like *Brahmin, like Tao, but in the West, the word God has got so many funny associations attached to it that most of us are bored with it. When people say 'God, the father almighty,' most people feel funny inside. So we like to hear new words, we like to hear about Tao, about Brahmin, about Shinto, and __-__-__, and such strange names from the far East because they don't carry the same associations of mawkish sanctimony and funny meanings from the past. And actually, some of these words that the Buddhists use for the basic energy of the world really don't mean anything at all. The word _tathata_, which is translated from the Sanskrit as 'suchness' or 'thusness' or something like that, really means something more like 'dadada,' based on the word _tat_, which in Sanskrit means 'that,' and so in Sanskrit it is said _tat lum asi_, 'that thou art,' or in modern America, 'you're it.' But 'da, da'--that's the first sound a baby makes when it comes into the world, because the baby looks around and says 'da, da, da, da' and fathers flatter themselves and think it's saying 'DaDa,' which means 'Daddy,' but according to Buddhist philosophy, all this universe is one 'dadada.' That means 'ten thousand functions, ten thousand things, one suchness,' and we're all one suchness. And that means that suchess comes and goes like anything else because this whole world is an on-and-off system. As the Chinese say, it's the _yang_ and the _yin_, and therefore it consists of 'now you see it, now you don't, here you are, here you aren't, here you are,' because that the nature of energy, to be like waves, and waves have crests and troughs, only we, being under a kind of sleepiness or illusion, imagine that the trough is going to overcome the wave or the crest, the _yin_, or the dark principle, is going to overcome the _yang_, or the light principle, and that 'off' is going to finally triumph over 'on.' And we, shall I say, bug ourselves by indulging in that illusion. 'Hey, supposing darkness did win out, wouldn't that be terrible!' And so we're constantly trembling and thinking that it may, because after all, isn't it odd that anything exists? It's most peculiar, it requires effort, it requires energy, and it would have been so much easier for there to have been nothing at all. Therefore, we think 'well, since being, since the 'is' side of things is so much effort' you always give up after a while and you sink back into death. But death is just the other face of energy, and it's the rest, the not being anything around, that produces something around, just in the same way that you can't have 'solid' without 'space,' or 'space' without 'solid.' When you wake up to this, and realize that the more it changes the more it's the same thing, as the French say, that you are really a train of this one energy, and there is nothing else but that that is you, but that for you to be always you would be an insufferable bore, and therefore it is arranged that you stop being you after a while and then come back as someone else altogether, and so when you find that out, you become full energy and delight. As Blake said, 'Energy is eternal delight.' And you suddenly see through the whole sham thing. You realize you're That--we won't put a name on it-- you're That, and you can't be anything else. So you are relieved of fundamental terror. That doesn't mean tht you're always going to be a great hero, that you won't jump when you hear a bang, that you won't worry occasionally, that you won't lose your temper. It means, though, that fundamentally deep, deep, deep down within you, you will be able to be human, not a stone Buddha--you know in Zen there is a difference made between a living Buddha and a stone Buddha. If you go up to a stone Buddha and you hit him hard on the head, nothing happens. You break your fist or your stick. But if you hit a living Buddha, he may say 'ouch,' and he may feel pain, because if he didn't feel something, he wouldn't be a human being. Buddhas are human, they are not devas, they are not gods. They are enlightened men and women. But the point is that they are not afraid to be human, they are not afraid to let themselves participate in the pains, difficulties and struggles that naturally go with human existence. The only difference is--and it's almost an undetectable difference--it takes one to know one. As a Zen poem says, 'when two Zen masters meet each other on the street, they need no introduction. When fiends meet, they recognize one another instantly.' So a person who is a real cool Zen understands that, does not go around 'Oh, I understand Zen, I have satori, I have this attainment, I have that attainment, I have the other attainment,' because if he said that, he wouldn't understand the first thing about it.
So it is Zen that, if I may put it metaphorically, *Jon-Jo said 'the perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing, it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.' And another poem says of wild geese flying over a lake, 'The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection, and the water has no mind to retain their image.' In other words this is to be--to put it very strictly into our modern idiom--this is to live without hang-ups, the word 'hang- up' being an almost exact translation of the Japanese _bono_ and the Sanskrit _klesa_, ordinarily translated 'worldly attachment,' though that sounds a little bit--you know what I mean--it sounds pious, and in Zen, things that sound pious are said to stink of Zen, but to have no hang-ups, that is to say, to be able to drift like a cloud and flow like water, seeing that all life is a magnificent illusion, a plane of energy, and that there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Fundamentally. You will be afraid on the surface. You will be afraid of putting your hand in the fire. You will be afraid of getting sick, etc. But you will not be afraid of fear. Fear will pass over your mind like a black cloud will be reflected in the mirror. But of course, the mirror isn't quite the right illustration; space would be better. Like a black cloud flows through space without leaving any track. Like the stars don't leave trails behind them. And so that fundamental--it is called 'the void' in Buddhism; it doesn't mean 'void' in the sense that it's void in the ordinary sense of emptiness. It means void in that is the most real thing there is, but nobody can conceive it. It's rather the same situation that you get between the speaker, in a radio and all the various sounds which it produces. On the speaker you hear human voices, you hear every kind of musical instrument, honking of horns, the sounds of traffic, the explosions of guns, and yet all that tremendous variety of sounds are the vibrations of one diaphragm, but it never says so. The announcer doens't come on first thing in the morning and say 'Ladies and gentlemen, all the sounds that you will hear subsequentally during the day will be the vibration of this diaphragm; don't take them for real.' And the radio never mentions its own construction, you see? And in exactly the same way, you are never able, really, to examine, to make an object of your own mind, just as you can't look directly into your own eyes or bite your own teeth, because you ARE that, and if you try to find it, and make it something to possess, why that's a great lack of confidence. That shows that you don't really know your 'it'. And if you're 'it,' you don't need to make anything of it. There's nothing to look for. But the test is, are you still looking? Do you know that? I mean, not as kind of knowledge you possess, not something you've learned in school like you've got a degree, and 'you know, I've mastered the contents of these books and remembered it.' In this knowledge, there's nothing to be remembered; nothing to be formulated. You know it best when you say 'I don't know it.' Because that means, 'I'm not holding on to it, I'm not trying to cling to it' in the form of a concept, because there's absolutely no necessity to do so. That would be, in Zen language, putting legs on a snake or a beard on a eunuch, or as we would say, gilding the lily.
Now you say, 'Well, that sounds pretty easy. You mean to say all we have to do is relax? We don't have to go around chasing anything anymore? We abandon religion, we abandon meditations, we abandon this, that, and the other, and just live it up anyhow? Just go on.' You know, like a father says to his child who keeps asking 'Why? Why, Why, Why, Why, Why? Why did God make the universe? Who made God? Why are the trees green?' and so on and so forth, and father says finally, 'Oh, shut up and eat your bun.' It isn't quite like that, because, you see, the thing is this:
All those people who try to realize Zen by doing nothing about it are still trying desperately to find it, and they're on the wrong track. There is another Zen poem which says, 'You cannot attain it by thinking, you cannot grasp it by not thinking.' Or you could say, you cannot catch hold of the meaning of Zen by doing something about it, but equally, you cannot see into its meaning by doing nothing about it, because both are, in their different ways, attempts to move from where you are now, here, to somewhere else, and the point is that we come to an understanding of this, what I call suchness, only through being completely here. And no means are necessary to be completely here. Neither active means on the one hand, nor passive means on the other. Because in both ways, you are trying to move away from the immediate now. But you see, it's difficult to understand language like that. And to understand what all that is about, there is really one absolutely necessary prerequisite, and this is to stop thinking. Now, I am not saying this in the spirit of being an anti-intellectual, because I think a lot, talk a lot, write a lot of books, and am a sort of half-baked scholar. But you know, if you talk all the time, you will never hear what anybody else has to say, and therefore, all you'll have to talk about is your own conversation. The same is true for people who think all the time. That means, when I use the word 'think,' talking to yourself, subvocal conversation, the constant chit-chat of symbols and images and talk and words inside your skull. Now, if you do that all the time, you'll find that you've nothing to think about except thinking, and just as you have to stop talking to hear what I have to say, you have to stop thinking to find out what life is about. And the moment you stop thinking, you come into immediate contact with what Korzybski called, so delightfully, 'the unspeakable world,' that is to say, the nonverbal world. Some people would call it the physical world, but these words 'physical,' 'nonverbal,' are all conceptual, not a concept either, it's (bangs stick). So when you are awake to that world, you suddenly find that all the so-called differences between self and other, life and death, pleasure and pain, are all conceptual, and they're not there. They don't exist at all in that world which is (bangs stick). In other words, if I hit you hard enough, 'ouch' doesn't hurt, if you're in a state of what is called no-thought. There is a certain experience, you see, but you don't call it 'hurt.' It's like when you were small children, they banged you about, and you cried, and they said 'Don't cry' because they wanted to make you hurt and not cry at the same time. People are rather curious about the things the do like that. But you see, they really wanted you to cry, the same way if you threw up one day. It's very good to throw up if you've eaten soemthing that isn't good for you, but your mother said 'Eugh!' and made you repress it and feel that throwing up wasn't a good thing to do. Because then when you saw people die, and everybody around you started weeping and making a fuss, and then you learned from that that dying was terrible. When somebody got sick, everybody else got anxious, and you learned that getting sick was something awful. You learned it from a concept.
So the reason why there is in the practice of Zen, what we did before this lecture began, to practice Za-zen, sitting Zen. Incidentally, there are three other kinds of Zen besides Za-zen. Standing Zen, walking Zen, and lying Zen. In Buddhism, they speak of hte three dignities of man. Walking, standing, sitting, and lying. And they say when you sit, just sit. When you walk, just walk. But whatever you do, don't wobble. In fact, of course, you can wobble, if you really wobble well. When the old master *Hiakajo was asked 'What is Zen?' he said 'When hungry, eat, when tired, sleep,' and they said, 'Well isn't that what everybody does? Aren't you just like ordinary people?' 'Oh no,' he said, 'they don't do anything of the kind. When they're hungry, they don't just eat, they think of all sorts of things. When they're tired, they don't just sleep, but dream all sorts of dreams.' I know the Jungians won't like that, but there comes a time when you just dream yourself out, and no more dreams. You sleep deeply and breathe from your heels. Now, therefore, Za-zen, or sitting Zen, is a very, very good thing in the Western world. We have been running around far too much. It's all right; we've been active, and our action has achieved a lot of good things. But as Aristotle pointed out long ago--and this is one of the good things about Aristotle. He said 'the goal of action is contemplation.' In other words, busy, busy, busy, busy, busy, but what's it all about? Especially when people are busy because they think they're GOING somewhere, that they're going to get something and attain something. There's quite a good deal of point to action if you know you're not going anywhere. If you act like you dance, or like you sing or play music, then you're really not going anywhere, you're just doing pure action, but if you act with a thought in mind that as a result of action you are eventually going to arrive at someplace where everything will be alright. Then you are on a squirrel cage, hopelessly condemned to what the Buddhists call _samsara_, the round, or rat-race of birth and death, because you think you're going to go somewhere. You're already there. And it is only a person who has discovered that he is already there who is capable of action, because he doesn't act frantically with the thought that he's going to get somewhere. He acts like he can go into walking meditation at that point, you see, where we walk not because we are in a great, great hurry to get to a destination, but because the walking itself is great. The walking itself is the meditation. And when you watch Zen monks walk, it's very fascinating. They have a different kind of walk from everybody else in Japan. Most Japanese shuffle along, or if they wear Western clothes, they race and hurry like we do. Zen monks have a peculiar swing when they walk, and you have the feeling they walk rather the same way as a cat. There's something about it that isn't hesitant; they're going along all right, they're not sort of vagueing around, but they're walking just to walk. And that's walking meditation. But the point is that one cannot act creatively, except on the basis of stillness. Of having a mind that is capable from time to time of stopping thinking. And so this practice of sitting may seem very difficult at first, because if you sit in the Buddhist way, it makes your legs ache. Most Westerners start to fidget; they find it very boring to sit for a long time, but the reason they find it boring is that they're still thinking. If you weren't thinking, you wouldn't notice the passage of time, and as a matter of fact, far from being boring, the world when looked at without chatter becomes amazingly interesting. The most ordinary sights and sounds and smells, the texture of shadows on the floor in front of you. All these things, without being named, and saying 'that's a shadow, that's red, that's brown, that's somebody's foot.' When you don't name things anymore, you start seeing them. Because say when a person says 'I see a leaf,' immediately, one thinks of a spearhead-shaped thing outlined in black and filled in with flat green. No leaf looks like that. No leaves--leaves are not green. That's why Lao-Tzu said 'the five colors make a man blind, the five tones make a man deaf,' because if you can only see five colors, you're blind, and if you can only hear five tones in music, you're deaf. You see, if you force sound into five tones, you force color into five colors, you're blind and deaf. The world of color is infinite, as is the world of sound. And it is only by stopping fixing conceptions on the world of color and the world of sound that you really begin to hear it and see it.
So this, should I be so bold as to use the word 'discipline,' of meditation or Za-zen lies behind the extraordinary capacity of Zen people to develop such great arts as the gardens, the tea ceremony, the caligraphy, and the grand painting of the Sum Dynasty, and of the Japanese Sumi tradition. And it was because, especially in tea ceremony, which means literally 'cha-no-yu' in Japanese, meaning 'hot water of tea,' they found in the very simplest of things in everyday life, magic. In the words of the poet *Hokoji, 'marvelous power and supernatural activity, drawing water, carrying wood.' And you know how it is sometimes when you say a word and make the word meaningless, you take the word 'yes'--yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. It becomes funny. That's why they use the word 'mu' in Zen training, which means 'no.' Mu. And you get this going for a long time, and the word ceases to mean anything, and it becomes magical. Now, what you have to realize in the further continuence of Za-zen, that as you-- Well, let me say first in a preliminary way, the easiest way to stop thinking is first of all to think about something that doesn't have any meaning. That's my point in talking about 'mu' or 'yes,' or counting your breath, or listening to a sound that has no meaning, because that stops you thinking, and you become fascinated in the sound. Then as you get on and you just--the sound only--there comes a point when the sound is taken away, and you're wide open. Now at that point, there will be a kind of preliminary so-called satori, and you will think 'wowee, that's it!' You'll be so happy, you'll be walking on air. When Suzuki Daisetz was asked what was it like to have satori, he said 'well, it's like ordinary, everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground.' But there's another saying that the student who has obtained satori goes to hell as straight as an arrow. No satori around here, because anybody who has a spiritual experience, whether you get it through Za-zen, or through LSD, or anything, you know, that gives you that experience. If you hold on to it, say 'now I've got it,' it's gone out of the window, because the minute you grab the living thing, it's like catching a handful of water, the harder you clutch, the faster it squirts through your fingers. There's nothing to get hold of, because you don't NEED to get hold of anything. You had it from the beginning. Because you can see that, by various methods of meditation, but the trouble is that people come out of that an brag about it, say 'I've seen it.' Equally intolerable are the people who study Zen and come out and brag to their friends about how much their legs hurt, and how long they sat, and what an awful thing it was. They're sickening. Because the discipline side of this thing is not meant to be something awful. It's not done in a masochistic spirit, or a sadistic spirit: suffering builds character, therefore suffering is good for you. When I went to school in England, the basic premise of education was that suffering builds character, and therefore all senior boys were at liberty to bang about the junior ones with a perfectly clear conscience, because they were doing them a favor. It was good for them, it was building their character, and as a result of this attitude, the word 'discipline' has begun to stink. It's been stinking for a long time. But we need a kind of entirely new attitude towards this, because without that quiet, and that non- striving, a life becomes messy. When you let go, finally, because there's nothing to hold onto, you have to be awfully careful not to turn into loose yogurt. Let me give two opposite illustrations. When you ask most people to lie flat on the floor and relax, you find that they are at full attention, because they don't really believe that the floor will hold them up, and therefore they're holding themselves together; they're uptight. They're afraid that if they don't do this, even though the floor is supporting them, they'll suddenly turn into a gelatinous mass and trickle away in all directions. Then there are other people who when you tell them to relax, they go like a limp rag. But you see, the human organism is a subtle combination of hardness and softness. Of flesh and bones. And the side of Zen which has to do with neither doing nor not doing, but knowing that you are It anyway, and you don't have to seek it, that's Zen-flesh. But the side in which you can come back into the world, with this attitude of not seeking, and knowing you're It, and not fall apart--that requires bones. And one of the most difficult things--this belongs to of course a generation we all know about that was running about some time ago--where they caught on to Zen, and they started anything-goes painting, they started anything-goes sculpture, they started anything-goes way of life. Now I think we're recovering from that today. At any rate, our painters are beginning once again to return to glory, to marvelous articulateness and vivid color. There's been nothing like it since the stained glass at Chartre(sp). That's a good sign. But it requires that there be in our daily use of freedom, and I'm not just talking about political freedom. I'm talking about the freedom which comes when you know that you're It, forever and ever and ever. And it'll be so nice when you die, because that'll be a change, but it'll come back some other way. When you know that, and you've seen through the whole mirage, then watch out, because there may still be in you some seeds of hostility, some seeds of pride, some seeds of wanting to put down other people, or wanting to just defy the normal arrangements of life.
So that is why, in the order of a Zen monastary, various duties are assigned. The novices have the light duties, and the more senior you get, the heavy duties. For example, the Roshi very often is the one who cleans out the _benjo_, the toilet. And everything is kept in order. There is a kind of beautiful, almost princely aestheticism, because by reason of that order being kept all of the time, the vast free energy which is contained in the system doesn't run amok. The understanding of Zen, the understanding of awakening, the understanding of-- Well, we'll call it mystical experiences, one of the most dangerous things in the world. And for a person who cannot contain it, it's like putting a million volts through your electric shaver. You blow your mind and it stays blown. Now, if you go off in that way, that is what would be called in Buddhism a pratyeka- buddha--'private buddha'. He is one who goes off into the transcendental world and is never seen again. And he's made a mistake from the standpoint of Buddhism, because from the standpoint of Buddhism, there is no fundamental difference between the transcendental world and this everyday world. The _bodhisattva_, you see, who doesn't go off into a nirvana and stay there forever and ever, but comes back and lives ordinary everyday life to help other beings to see through it, too, he doesn't come back because he feels he has some sort of solemn duty to help mankind and all that kind of pious cant. He comes back because he sees the two worlds are the same. He sees all other beings as buddhas. He sees them, to use a phrase of G.K. Chesterton's, 'but now a great thing in the street, seems any human nod, where move in strange democracies the million masks of god.' And it's fantastic to look at people and see that they really, deep down, are enlightened. They're It. They're faces of the divine. And they look at you, and they say 'oh no, but I'm not divine. I'm just ordinary little me.' You look at them in a funny way, and here you see the buddha nature looking out of their eyes, straight at you, and saying it's not, and saying it quite sincerely. And that's why, when you get up against a great guru, the Zen master, or whatever, he has a funny look in his eyes. When you say 'I have a problem, guru. I'm really mixed up, I don't understand,' he looks at you in this queer way, and you think 'oh dear me, he's reading my most secret thoughts. He's seeing all the awful things I am, all my cowardice, all my shortcomings.' He isn't doing anything of the kind; he isn't even interested in such things. He's looking at, if I may use Hindu terminology, he's looking at Shiva, in you, saying 'my god, Shiva, won't you come off it?'
So then, you see, the _bodhisattva_, who is--I'm assuming quite a knowledge of Buddhism in this assembly--but the _bodhisattva_ as distinct from the pratyeka-buddha, bodhisattva doesn't go off into nirvana, he doesn't go off into permanant withdrawn ecstasy, he doesn't go off into a kind of catatonic _samadhi_. That's all right. There are people who can do that; that's their vocation. That's their specialty, just as a long thing is the long body of buddha, and a short thing is the short body of buddha. But if you really understand that Zen, that buddhist idea of enlightenment is not comprehended in the idea of the transcendental, neither is it comprehended in the idea of the ordinary. Not in terms with the infinite, not in terms with the finite. Not in terms of the eternal, not in terms of the temporal, because they're all concepts. So, let me say again, I am not talking about the ordering of ordinary everyday life in a reasonable and methodical way as being schoolteacherish, and saying 'if you were NICE people, that's what you would do.' For heaven's sake, don't be nice people. But the thing is, that unless you do have that basic framework of a certain kind of order, and a certain kind of discipline, the force of liberation will blow the world to pieces. It's too strong a current for the wire. So then, it's terribly important to see beyond ecstasy. Ecstasy here is the soft and lovable flesh, huggable and kissable, and that's very good. But beyond ecstasy are bones, what we call hard facts. Hard facts of everyday life, and incidentally, we shouldn't forget to mention the soft facts; there are many of them. But then the hard fact, it is what we mean, the world as seen in an ordinary, everyday state of consciousness. To find out that that is really no different from the world of supreme ecstasy, well, it's rather like this:
Let's suppose, as so often happens, you think of ecstasy as insight, as seeing light. There's a Zen poem which says
A sudden crash of thunder. The mind doors burst open,
and there sits the ordinary old man.
See? There's a sudden vision. Satori! Breaking! Wowee! And the doors of the mind are blown apart, and there sits the ordinary old man. It's just little you, you know? Lightning flashes, sparks shower. In one blink of your eyes, you've missed seeing. Why? Because here is the light. The light, the light, the light, every mystic in the world has 'seen the light.' That brilliant, blazing energy, brighter than a thousand suns, it is locked up in everything. Now imagine this. Imagine you're seeing it. Like you see aureoles around buddhas. Like you see the beatific vision at the end of Dante's 'Paradiso.' Vivid, vivid light, so bright that it is like the clear light of the void in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It's beyond light, it's so bright. And you watch it receeding from you. And on the edges, like a great star, there becomes a rim of red. And beyond that, a rim of orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. You see this great mandela appearing this great sun, and beyond the violet, there's black. Black, like obsidian, not flat black, but transparent black, like lacquer. And again, blazing out of the black, as the _yang_ comes from the _yin_, more light. Going, going, going. And along with this light, there comes sound. There is a sound so tremendous with the white light that you can't hear it, so piercing that it seems to annihilate the ears. But then along with the colors, the sound goes down the scale in harmonic intervals, down, down, down, down, until it gets to a deep thundering base which is so vibrant that it turns into something solid, and you begin to get the similar spectrum of textures. Now all this time, you've been watching a kind of thing radiating out. 'But,' it says, 'you know, this isn't all I can do,' and the rays start dancing like this, and the sound starts waving, too, as it comes out, and the textures start varying themselves, and they say, well, you've been looking at this this as I've been describing it so far in a flat dimension. Let's add a third dimension; it's going to come right at you now. And meanwhile, it says, we're not going to just do like this, we're going to do little curlicues. And it says, 'well, that's just the beginning!' Making squares and turns, and then suddenly you see in all the little details that become so intense, that all kinds of little subfigures are contained in what you originally thought were the main figures, and the sound starts going all different, amazing complexities if sound all over the place, and this thing's going, going, going, and you think you're going to go out of your mind, when suddenly it turns into... Why, us, sitting around here.
Thank you very much.
(Scribbled down by Alan Seaver)
Nature of Consciousness
by Alan Watts
I find it a little difficult to say what the subject matter of this seminar is going to be, because it's too fundamental to give it a title. I'm going to talk about what there is. Now, the first thing, though, that we have to do is to get our perspectives with some background about the basic ideas that, as Westerners living today in the United States, influence our everyday common sense, our fundamental notions about what life is about. And there are historical origins for this, which influence us more strongly than most people realize. Ideas of the world which are built into the very nature of the language we use, and of our ideas of logic, and of what makes sense altogether.
And these basic ideas I call myth, not using the word 'myth' to mean simply something untrue, but to use the word 'myth' in a more powerful sense. A myth is an image in terms of which we try to make sense of the world. Now, for example, a myth in a way is a metaphore. If you want to explain electricity to someone who doesn't know anything about electricity, you say, well, you talk about an electric current. Now, the word 'current' is borrowed from rivers. It's borrowed from hydrolics, and so you explain electricity in terms of water. Now, electricity is not water, it behaves actually in a different way, but there are some ways in which the behavior of water is like the behavior of electricty, and so you explain it in terms of water. Or if you're an astronomer, and you want to explain to people what you mean by an expanding universe and curved space, you say, 'well, it's as if you have a black balloon, and there are white dots on the black balloon, and those dots represent galaxies, and as you blow the balloon up, uniformly all of them grow farther and farther apart. But you're using an analogy--the universe is not actually a black balloon with white dots on it.
So in the same way, we use these sort of images to try and make sense of the world, and we at present are living under the influence of two very powerful images, which are, in the present state of scientific knowledge, inadequate, and one of the major problems today are to find an adequate, satisfying image of the world. Well that's what I'm going to talk about. And I'm going to go further than that, not only what image of the world to have, but how we can get our sensations and our feelings in accordance with the most sensible image of the world that we can manage to conceive.
All right, now--the two images which we have been working under for 2000 years and maybe more are what I would call two models of the universe, and the first is called the ceramic model, and the second the fully automatic model. The ceramic model of the universe is based on the book of Genesis, from which Judaism, Islam, and Christianity derive their basic picture of the world. And the image of the world in the book of Genesis is that the world is an artifact. It is made, as a potter takes clay and forms pots out of it, or as a carpenter takes wood and makes tables and chairs out of it. Don't forget Jesus is the son of a carpenter. And also the son of God. So the image of God and of the world is based on the idea of God as a technician, potter, carpenter, architect, who has in mind a plan, and who fashions the universe in accordance with that plan.
So basic to this image of the world is the notion, you see, that the world consists of stuff, basically. Primoridial matter, substance, stuff. As parts are made of clay. Now clay by itself has no intelligence. Clay does not of itself become a pot, although a good potter may think otherwise. Because if you were a really good potter, you don't impose your will on the clay, you ask any given lump of clay what it wants to become, and you help it to do that. And then you become a genious. But the ordinary idea I'm talking about is that simply clay is unintelligent; it's just stuff, and the potter imposes his will on it, and makes it become whatever he wants.
And so in the book of Genesis, the lord God creates Adam out of the dust of the Earth. In other words, he makes a clay figurine, and then he breathes into it, and it becomes alive. And because the clay become informed. By itself it is formless, it has no intelligence, and therefore it requires an external intelligence and an external energy to bring it to life and to bring some sense to it. And so in this way, we inherit a conception of ourselves as being artifacts, as being made, and it is perfectly natural in our culture for a child to ask its mother 'How was I made?' or 'Who made me?' And this is a very, very powerful idea, but for example, it is not shared by the Chinese, or by the Hindus. A Chinese child would not ask its mother 'How was I made?' A Chinese child might ask its mother 'How did I grow?' which is an entirely different procedure form making. You see, when you make something, you put it together, you arrange parts, or you work from the outside in, as a sculpture works on stone, or as a potter works on clay. But when you watch something growing, it works in exactly the opposite direction. It works from the inside to the outside. It expands. It burgeons. It blossoms. And it happens all of itself at once. In other words, the original simple form, say of a living cell in the womb, progressively complicates itself, and that's the growing process, and it's quite different from the making process.
But we have thought, historically, you see, of the world as something made, and the idea of being--trees, for example-- constructions, just as tables and houses are constructions. And so there is for that reason a fundamental difference between the made and the maker. And this image, this ceramic model of the universe, originated in cultures where the form of government was monarchial, and where, therefore, the maker of the universe was conceived also at the same time in the image of the king of the universe. 'King of kings, lords of lords, the only ruler of princes, who thus from thy throne behold all dwellers upon Earth.' I'm quoting the Book of Common Prayer. And so, all those people who are oriented to the universe in that way feel related to basic reality as a subject to a king. And so they are on very, very humble terms in relation to whatever it is that works all this thing. I find it odd, in the United States, that people who are citizens of a republic have a monarchial theory of the universe. That you can talk about the president of the United States as LBJ, or Ike, or Harry, but you can't talk about the lord of the universe in such familiar terms. Because we are carrying over from very ancient near-Eastern cultures, the notion that the lord of the universe must be respected in a certain way. Poeple kneel, people bow, people prostrate themselves, and you know what the reason for that is: that nobody is more frightened of anybody else than a tyrant. He sits with his back to the wall, and his guards on either side of him, and he has you face downwards on the ground because you can't use weapons that way. When you come into his presence, you don't stand up and face him, because you might attack, and he has reason to fear that you might because he's ruling you all. And the man who rules you all is the biggest crook in the bunch. Because he's the one who succeeded in crime. The other people are pushed aside because they--the criminals, the people we lock up in jail--are simply the people who didn't make it.
So naturally, the real boss sits with his back to the wall and his henchmen on either side of him. And so when you design a church, what does it look like? Catholic church, with the alter where it used to be--it's changing now, because the Catholic religion is changing. But the Catholic church has the alter with it's back to the wall at the east end of the church. And the alter is the throne and the priest is the chief vizier of the court, and he is making abeyance to the throne, but there is the throne of God, the alter. And all the people are facing it, and kneeling down. And a great Catholic cathederal is called a basilica, from the Greek 'basilikos,' which means 'king.' So a basilica is the house of a king, and the ritual of the church is based on the court rituals of Byzantium.
A Protestant church is a little different. Basically the same. The furniture of a Protestant church is based on a judicial courthouse. The pulpit, the judge in an American court wears a black robe, he wears exactly the same dress as a Protestant minister. And everybody sits in these boxes, there's a box for the jury, there's a box for the judge, there's a box for this, there's a box for that, and those are the pews in an ordinary colonial- type Protestant church. So both these kinds of churches which have an autocratic view of the nature of the universe decorate themselves, are architecturally constructed in accordance with politcal images of the universe. One is the king, and the other is the judge. Your honor. There's sense in this. When in court, you have to refer to the judge as 'your honor.' It stops the people engaged in litigation from losing their tempers and getting rude. There's a certain sense to that.
But when you want to apply that image to the universe itself, to the very nature of life, it has limitations. For one thing, the idea of a difference between matter and spirit. This idea doesn't work anymore. Long, long ago, physicists stopped asking the question 'What is matter?' They began that way. They wanted to know, what is the fundamental substance of the world? And the more they asked that question, the more they realized the couldn't answer it, because if you're going to say what matter is, you've got to describe it in terms of behavior, that is to say in terms of form, in terms of pattern. You tell what it does, you describe the smallest shapes of it which you can see. Do you see what happens? You look, say, at a piece of stone, and you want to say, 'Well, what is this piece of stone made of?' You take your microscope and you look at it, and instead of just this block of stuff, you see ever so many tinier shapes. Little crystals. So you say, 'Fine, so far so good. Now what are these crystals made of?' And you take a more powerful instrument, and you find that they're made of molocules, and then you take a still more powerful instrument to find out what the molocules are made of, and you begin to describe atoms, electrons, protons, mesons, all sorts of sub-nuclear particles. But you never, never arrive at the basic stuff. Because there isn't any.
What happens is this: 'Stuff' is a word for the world as it looks when our eyes are out of focus. Fuzzy. Stuff--the idea of stuff is that it is undifferentiated, like some kind of goo. And when your eyes are not in sharp focus, everything looks fuzzy. When you get your eyes into focus, you see a form, you see a pattern. But when you want to change the level of magnification, and go in closer and closer and closer, you get fuzzy again before you get clear. So everytime you get fuzzy, you go through thinking there's some kind of stuff there. But when you get clear, you see a shape. So all that we can talk about is patterns. We never, never can talk about the 'stuff' of which these patterns are supposed to be made, because you don't really have to suppose that there is any. It's enough to talk about the world in terms of patterns. It describes anything that can be described, and you don't really have to suppose that there is some stuff that constitutes the essence of the pattern in the same way that clay constitutes the essence of pots. And so for this reason, you don't really have to suppose that the world is some kind of helpless, passive, unintelligent junk which an outside agency has to inform and make into intelligent shapes. So the picture of the world in the most sophisticated physics of today is not formed stuff--potted clay--but pattern. A self-moving, self-designing pattern. A dance. And our common sense as individuals hasn't yet caught up with this.
Well now, in the course of time, in the evolution of Western thought. The ceramic image of the world ran into trouble. And changed into what I call the fully automatic image of the world. In other words, Western science was based on the idea that there are laws of nature, and got that idea from Judaism and Christianity and Islam. That in other words, the potter, the maker of the world in the beginning of things laid down the laws, and the law of God, which is also the law of nature, is called the 'loggos.?,.' And in Christianity, the loggos is the second person of the trinity, incarnate as Jesus Christ, who thereby is the perfect exemplar of the divine law. So we have tended to think of all natural phenomena as responding to laws, as if, in other words, the laws of the world were like the rails on which a streetcar or a tram or a train runs, and these things exist in a certain way, and all events respond to these laws. You know that limerick,
There was a young man who said 'Damn, For it certainly seems that I am A creature that moves In determinate grooves. I'm not even a bus, I'm a tram.'
So here's this idea that there's kind of a plan, and everything responds and obeys that plan. Well, in the 18th century, Western intellectuals began to suspect this idea. And what they suspected was whether there is a lawmaker, whether there is an architect of the universe, and they found out, or they reasoned, that you don't have to suppose that there is. Why? Because the hypothesis of God does not help us to make any predictions. Nor does it-- In other words, let's put it this way: if the business of science is to make predictions about what's going to happen, science is essentially prophecy. What's going to happen? By examining the behavior of the past and describing it carefully, we can make predictions about what's going to happen in the future. That's really the whole of science. And to do this, and to make successful predictions, you do not need God as a hypothesis. Because it makes no difference to anything. If you say 'Everything is controlled by God, everything is governed by God,' that doesn't make any difference to your prediction of what's going to happen. And so what they did was drop that hypothesis. But they kept the hypothesis of law. Because if you can predict, if you can study the past and describe how things have behaved, and you've got some regularities in the behavior of the universe, you call that law. Although it may not be law in the ordinary sense of the word, it's simply regularity.
And so what they did was got rid of the lawmaker and kept the law. And so the conceived the universe in terms of a mechanism. Something, in other words, that is functioning according to regular, clocklike mechanical principles. Newton's whole image of the world is based on billiards. The atoms are billiard balls, and they bang each other around. And so your behavior, every individual around, is defined as a very, very complex arrangement of billiard balls being banged around by everything else. And so behind the fully automatic model of the universe is the notion that reality itself is, to use the favorite term of 19th century scientists, blind energy. In say the metaphysics of Ernst Hegel, and T.H. Huxley, the world is basically nothing but energy--blind, unintelligent force. And likewise and parallel to this, in the philosophy of Freud, the basic psychological energy is libido, which is blind lust. And it is only a fluke, it is only as a result of pure chances that resulting from the exuberance of this energy there are people. With values, with reason, with languages, with cultures, and with love. Just a fluke. Like, you know, 1000 monkeys typing on 1000 typewriters for a million years will eventually type the Encyclopedia Britannica. And of course the moment they stop typing the Encyclopedia Britannica, they will relapse into nonsense.
And so in order that that shall not happen, for you and I are flukes in this cosmos, and we like our way of life--we like being human--if we want to keep it, say these people, we've got to fight nature, because it will turn us back into nonsense the moment we let it. So we've got to impose our will upon this world as if we were something completely alien to it. From outside. And so we get a culture based on the idea of the war between man and nature. And we talk about the conquest of space. The conquest of Everest. And the great symbols of our culture are the rocket and the bulldozer. The rocket--you know, compensation for the sexually inadequate male. So we're going to conquer space. You know we're in space already, way out. If anybody cared to be sensitive and let outside space come to you, you can, if your eyes are clear enough. Aided by telescopes, aided by radio astronomy, aided by all the kinds of sensitive instruments we can devise. We're as far out in space as we're ever going to get. But, y'know, sensitivity isn't the pitch. Especially in the WASP culture of the United States. We define manliness in terms of agression, you see, because we're a little bit frightened as to whether or not we're really men. And so we put on this great show of being a tough guy. It's completely unneccesary. If you have what it takes, you don't need to put on that show. And you don't need to beat nature into submission. Why be hostile to nature? Because after all, you ARE a symptom of nature. You, as a human being, you grow out of this physical universe in exactly the same way an apple grows off an apple tree.
So let's say the tree which grows apples is a tree which apples, using 'apple' as a verb. And a world in which human beings arrive is a world that peoples. And so the existence of people is symptomatic of the kind of universe we live in. Just as spots on somebody's skin is symptomatic of chicken pox. Just as hair on a head is symptomatic of what's going on in the organism. But we have been brought up by reason of our two great myths--the ceramic and the automatic--not to feel that we belong in the world. So our popular speech reflects it. You say 'I came into this world.' You didn't. You came out of it. You say 'Face facts.' We talk about 'encounters' with reality, as if it was a head-on meeting of completely alien agencies. And the average person has the sensation that he is a someone that exists inside a bag of skin. The center of consciousness that looks out at this thing, and what the hell's it going to do to me? You see? 'I recognize you, you kind of look like me, and I've seen myself in a mirror, and you look like you might be people.' So maybe you're intelligent and maybe you can love, too. Perhaps you're all right, some of you are, anyway. You've got the right color of skin, or you have the right religion, or whatever it is, you're OK. But there are all those people over in Asia, and Africa, and they may not really be people. When you want to destroy someone, you always define them as 'unpeople.' Not really human. Monkeys, maybe. Idiots, maybe. Machines, maybe, but not people.
So we have this hostility to the external world because of the superstition, the myth, the absolutely unfounded theory that you, yourself, exist only inside your skin. Now I want to propose another idea altogether. There are two great theories in astronomy going on right now about the origination of the universe. One is called the explosion theory, and the other is called the steady state theory. The steady state people say there never was a time when the world began, it's always expanding, yes, but as a result of free hydrogen in space, the free hydrogen coagulates and makes new galaxies. But the other people say there was a primoridial explosion, an enormous bang billions of years ago which flung all the galazies into space. Well let's take that just for the sake of argument and say that was the way it happened.
It's like you took a bottle of ink and you threw it at a wall. Smash! And all that ink spread. And in the middle, it's dense, isn't it? And as it gets out on the edge, the little droplets get finer and finer and make more complicated patterns, see? So in the same way, there was a big bang at the beginning of things and it spread. And you and I, sitting here in this room, as complicated human beings, are way, way out on the fringe of that bang. We are the complicated little patterns on the end of it. Very interesting. But so we define ourselves as being only that. If you think that you are only inside your skin, you define yourself as one very complicated little curlique, way out on the edge of that explosion. Way out in space, and way out in time. Billions of years ago, you were a big bang, but now you're a complicated human being. And then we cut ourselves off, and don't feel that we're still the big bang. But you are. Depends how you define yourself. You are actually--if this is the way things started, if there was a big bang in the beginning-- you're not something that's a result of the big bang. You're not something that is a sort of puppet on the end of the process. You are still the process. You are the big bang, the original force of the universe, coming on as whoever you are. When I meet you, I see not just what you define yourself as--Mr so-and- so, Ms so-and-so, Mrs so-and-so--I see every one of you as the primordial energy of the universe coming on at me in this particular way. I know I'm that, too. But we've learned to define ourselves as separate from it.
And so what I would call a basic problem we've got to go through first, is to understand that there are no such things as things. That is to say separate things, or separate events. That that is only a way of talking. If you can understand this, you're going to have no further problems. I once asked a group of high school children 'What do you mean by a thing?' First of all, they gave me all sorts of synonyms. They said 'It's an object,' which is simply another word for a thing; it doesn't tell you anything about what you mean by a thing. Finally, a very smart girl from Italy, who was in the group, said a thing is a noun. And she was quite right. A noun isn't a part of nature, it's a part of speech. There are no nouns in the physical world. There are no separate things in the physical world, either. The physical world is wiggly. Clouds, mountains, trees, people, are all wiggly. And only when human beings get to working on things--they build buildings in straight lines, and try to make out that the world isn't really wiggly. But here we are, sitting in this room all built out of straight lines, but each one of us is as wiggly as all get-out.
Now then, when you want to get control of something that wiggles, it's pretty difficult, isn't it? You try and pick up a fish in your hands, and the fish is wiggly and it slips out. What do you do to get hold of the fish? You use a net. And so the net is the basic thing we have for getting hold of the wiggly world. So if you want to get hold of this wiggle, you've got to put a net over it. A net is something regular. And I can number the holes in a net. So many holes up, so many holes across. And if I can number these holes, I can count exactly where each wiggle is, in terms of a hole in that net. And that's the beginning of calculus, the art of measuring the world. But in order to do that, I've got to break up the wiggle into bits. I've got to call this a specific bit, and this the next bit of the wiggle, and this the next bit, and this the next bit of the wiggle. And so these bits are things or events. Bit of wiggles. Which I mark out in order to talk about the wiggle. In order to measure and therfore in order to control it. But in nature, in fact, in the physical world, the wiggle isn't bitted. Like you don't get a cut-up fryer out of an egg. But you have to cut the chicken up in order to eat it. You bite it. But it doesn't come bitten.
So the world doesn't come thinged; it doesn't come evented. You and I are all as much continuous with the physical universe as a wave is continuous with the ocean. The ocean waves, and the universe peoples. And as I wave and say to you 'Yoo-hoo!' the world is waving with me at you and saying 'Hi! I'm here!' But we are consciousness of the way we feel and sense our existence. Being based on a myth that we are made, that we are parts, that we are things, our consciousness has been influenced, so that each one of us does not feel that. We have been hypnotized, literally hypnotized by social convention into feeling and sensing that we exist only inside our skins. That we are not the original bang, just something out on the end of it. And therefore we are scared stiff. My wave is going to disappear, and I'm going to die! And that would be awful. We've got a mythology going now which is, as Father Maskell.?, put it, we are something that happens between the maternity ward and the crematorium. And that's it. And therefore everybody feels unhappy and miserable.
This is what people really believe today. You may go to church, you may say you believe in this, that, and the other, but you don't. Even Jehovah's Witnesses, who are the most fundamental of fundamentalists, they are polite when they come around and knock on the door. But if you REALLY believed in Christianity, you would be screaming in the streets. But nobody does. You would be taking full- page ads in the paper every day. You would be the most terrifying television programs. The churches would be going out of their minds if they really believed what they teach. But they don't. They think they ought to believe what they teach. They believe they should believe, but they don't really believe it, because what we REALLY believe is the fully automatic model. And that is our basic, plausible common sense. You are a fluke. You are a separate event. And you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium, and that's it, baby. That's it.
Now why does anybody think that way? There's no reason to, because it isn't even scientific. It's just a myth. And it's invented by people who want to feel a certain way. They want to play a certain game. The game of god got embarrassing. The idea if God as the potter, as the architect of the universe, is good. It makes you feel that life is, after all, important. There is someone who cares. It has meaning, it has sense, and you are valuable in the eyes of the father. But after a while, it gets embarrassing, and you realize that everything you do is being watched by God. He knows your tiniest innermost feelings and thoughts, and you say after a while, 'Quit bugging me! I don't want you around.' So you become an athiest, just to get rid of him. Then you feel terrible after that, because you got rid of God, but that means you got rid of yourself. You're nothing but a machine. And your idea that you're a machine is just a machine, too. So if you're a smart kid, you commit suicide. Camus said there is only one serious philosophical question, which is whether or not to commit suicide. I think there are four or five serious philosophical questions. The first one is 'Who started it?' The second is 'Are we going to make it?' The third is 'Where are we going to put it?' The fourth is 'Who's going to clean up?' And the fifth, 'Is it serious?'
But still, should you or not commit suicide? This is a good question. Why go on? And you only go on if the game is worth the gamble. Now the universe has been going on for an incredible long time. And so really, a satisfactory theory of the universe has to be one that's worth betting on. That's very, it seems to me, elementary common sense. If you make a theory of the universe which isn't worth betting on, why bother? Just commit suicide. But if you want to go on playing the game, you've got to have an optimal theory for playing the game. Otherwise there's no point in it. But the people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game, for what they wanted to say was this: all you people who believe in religion--old ladies and wishful thinkers-- you've got a big daddy up there, and you want comfort, but life is rough. Life is tough, as success goes to the most hard- headed people. That was a very convenient theory when the European and American worlds were colonizing the natives everywhere else. They said 'We're the end product of evolution, and we're tough. I'm a big strong guy because I face facts, and life is just a bunch of junk, and I'm going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else. I'm real hard.' That's a way of flattering yourself.
And so, it has become academically plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles, no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable. Because if you're an academic person, you've got to be an intellectually tough person, you've got to be prickly. There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One's called prickles, the other's called goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it's waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists, and goo people are idealists. And they're always arguing with each other, but what they don't realize is neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn't know you advocated prickles unless there was someone advocating goo. You wouldn't know what a prickle was unless you knew what a goo was. Because life isn't either prickles or goo, it's either gooey prickles or prickly goo. They go together like back and front, male and female. And that's the answer to philosophy. You see, I'm a philosopher, and I'm not going to argue very much, because if you don't argue with me, I don't know what I think. So if we argue, I say 'Thank you,' because owing to the courtesy of your taking a different point of view, I understand what I mean. So I can't get rid of you.
But however, you see, this whole idea that the universe is nothing at all but unintelligent force playing around and not even enjoying it is a putdown theory of the world. People who had an advantage to make, a game to play by putting it down, and making out that because they put the world down they were a superior kind of people. So that just won't do. We've had it. Because if you seriously go along with this idea of the world, you're what is technically called alienated. You feel hostile to the world. You feel that the world is a trap. It is a mechanism, it is electronic and neurological mechanisms into which you somehow got caught. And you, poor thing, have to put up with being put into a body that's falling apart, that gets cancer, that gets the great Siberian itch, and is just terrible. And these mechanics--doctors--are trying to help you out, but they really can't succeed in the end, and you're just going to fall apart, and it's a grim business, and it's just too bad. So if you think that's the way things are, you might as well commit suicide right now. Unless you say, 'Well, I'm damned. Because there might really be after all eternal damnation. Or I identify with my children, and I think of them going on without me and nobody to support them. Because if I do go on in this frame of mind and continue to support them, I shall teach them to be like I am, and they'll go on, dragging it out to support their children, and they won't enjoy it. They'll be afraid to commit suicide, and so will their children. They'll all learn the same lessons.'
So you see, all I'm trying to say is that the basic common sense about the nature of the world that is influencing most people in the United States today is simply a myth. If you want to say that the idea of God the father with his white beard on the golden throne is a myth, in a bad sense of the word 'myth,' so is this other one. It is just as phony and has just as little to support it as being the true state of affairs. Why? Let's get this clear. If there is any such thing at all as intelligence and love and beauty, well you've found it in other people. In other words, it exists in us as human beings. And as I said, if it is there, in us, it is symptomatic of the scheme of things. We are as symptomatic of the scheme of things as the apples are symptomatic of the apple tree or the rose of the rose bush. The Earth is not a big rock infested with living organisms any more than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. The Earth is geological, yes, but this geological entity grows people, and our existence on the Earth is a symptom of this other system, and its balances, as much as the solar system in turn is a symptom of our galaxy, and our galaxy in its turn is a symptom of a whole company of other galaxies. Goodness only knows what that's in.
But you see, when, as a scientist, you describe the behavior of a living organism, you try to say what a person does, it's the only way in which you can describe what a person is, describe what they do. Then you find out that in making this description, you cannot confine yourself to what happens inside the skin. In other words, you cannot talk about a person walking unless you start describing the floor, because when I walk, I don't just dangle my legs in empty space. I move in relationship to a room. So in order to describe what I'm doing when I'm walking, I have to describe the room; I have to describe the territory. So in describing my talking at the moment, I can't describe it as just a thing in itself, because I'm talking to you. And so what I'm doing at the moment is not completely described unless your being here is described also. So if that is necessary, in other words, in order to describe MY behavior, I have to describe YOUR behavior and the behavior of the environment, it means that we've really got one system of behavior. Your skin doesn't separate you from the world; it's a bridge through which the external world flows into you, and you flow into it.
Just, for example, as a whirlpool in water, you could say because you have a skin you have a definite shape you have a definite form. All right? Here is a flow of water, and suddenly it does a whirlpool, and it goes on. The whirlpool is a definite form, but no water stays put in it. The whirlpool is something the stream is doing, and exactly the same way, the whole universe is doing each one of us, and I see each one of you today and I recognize you tomorrow, just as I would recognize a whirlpool in a stream. I'd say 'Oh yes, I've seen that whirlpool before, it's just near so-and-so's house on the edge of the river, and it's always there.' So in the same way when I meet you tomorrow, I recognize you, you're the same whirlpool you were yesterday. But you're moving. The whole world is moving through you, all the cosmic rays, all the food you're eating, the stream of steaks and milk and eggs and everything is just flowing right through you. When you're wiggling the same way, the world is wiggling, the stream is wiggling you.
But the problem is, you see, we haven't been taught to feel that way. The myths underlying our culture and underlying our common sense have not taught us to feel identical with the universe, but only parts of it, only in it, only confronting it--aliens. And we are, I think, quite urgently in need of coming to feel that we ARE the eternal universe, each one of us. Otherwise we're going to go out of our heads. We're going to commit suicide, collectively, courtesy of H-bombs. And, all right, supposing we do, well that will be that, then there will be life making experiments on other galaxies. Maybe they'll find a better game.
ALAN WATTS: THE NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS, part 2 of 3
Well now, in the first session this afternoon, I was discussing two of the great myths or models of the universe, which lie in the intellictual and psychological background of all of us. The myth of the world as a political, monarchial state in which we are all here on sufferance as subject to God. In which we are MADE artifacts, who do not exist in our own right. God alone, in the first myth, exists in his own right, and you exist as a favor, and you ought to be grateful. Like your parents come on and say to you, 'Look at all the things we've done for you, all the money we spent to send you to college, and you turn out to be a beatnik. You're a wretched, ungrateful child.' And you're supposed to say, 'Sorry, I really am.' But you're definitely in the position of being on probation. This arises out of our whole attitude towards children, whereby we don't really acknowledge that they're human. Instead, when a child comes into the world, and as soon as it can communicate in any way, talk language, you should say to a child, 'How do you do? Welcome to the human race. Now my dear, we are playing a very complicated game, and we're going to explain the rules of it to you. And when you have learned these rules and understand what they are, you may be able to invent better ones. But in the meantime, this is the thing we're doing.'
Instead of that, we either treat a child with a kind of with a kind of 'blah-blah-blah' attitude, or 'coochy-coochy-coochie,' y'know? and don't treat the thing as a human being at all--as a kind of doll. Or else as a nusiance. And so all of us, having been treated that way, carry over into adult life the sense of being on probation here. Either the god is somebody who says to us 'coochy- coochy-coochie,' or 'blah-blah-blah.' And that's the feeling we carry over. So that idea of the royal god, the king of kings and the lord of lords which we inherit from the political structures of the Tigres-Euphrates cultures, and from Egypt. The Pharoah, Amenhotep IV is probably, as Freud suggested, the original author of Moses' monotheism, and certainly the Jewish law code comes from Hammarabi in Chaldea. And these men lived in a culture where the pyramid and the ziggurat--the ziggurat is the Chaldean version of the pyramid, indicating somehow a hierarchy of power, from the boss on down. And God, in this first myth that we've been discussing, the ceramic myth is the boss, and the idea of God is that the universe is governed from above.
But do you see, this parallels--goes hand in hand with the idea that you govern your own body. That the ego, which lies somewhere between the ears and behind the eyes in the brain, is the governer of the body. And so we can't understand a system of order, a system of life, in which there isn't a governer. 'O Lord, our governor, how excellent is thy name in all the world.'
But supposing, on the contrary, there could be a system which doesn't have a governor. That's what we are supposed to have in this society. We are supposed to be a democracy and a republic. And we are supposed to govern ourselves. As I said, it's so funny that Americans can be politically republican--I don't mean republican in the party sense--and yet religiously monarchial. It's a real strange contradiction.
So what is this universe? Is it a monarchy? Is it a republic? Is it a mechanism? Or an organism? Becuase you see, if it's a mechanism, either it's a mere mechanism, as in the fully automatic model, or else it's a mechanism under the control of a driver. A mechanic. If it's not that, it's an organism, and an organism is a thing that governs itself. In your body there is no boss. You could argue, for example, that the brain is a gadget evolved by the stomach, in order to serve the stomach for the purposes of getting food. Or you can argue that the stomach is a gadget evolved by the brain to feed it and keep it alive. Whose game is this? Is it the brain's game, or the stomach's game? They're mutual. The brain implies the stomach and the stomach implies the brain, and neither of them is the boss.
You know that story about all the limbs of the body. The hand said 'We do all our work,' the feet said 'We do our work,' the mouth said 'We do all the chewing, and here's this lazy stomach who just gets it all and doesn't do a thing. He didn't do any work, so let's go on strike.' And the hands refused to carry, the feet refused to walk, the teeth refused to chew, and said 'Now we're on strike against the stomach.' But after a while, all of them found themselves getting weaker and weaker and weaker, because they didn't realize that the stomach fed them.
So there is the possibility then that we are not in the kind of system that these two myths delineate. That we are not living in a world where we ourselves, in the deepest sense of self, are outside reality, and somehow in a position that we have to bow down to it and say 'As a great favor, please preserve us in existence.' Nor are we in a system which is merely mechanical, and which we are nothing but flukes, trapped in the electrical wiring of a nervous system which is fundamentally rather inefficiently arranged. What's the alternative? Well, we could put the alternative in another image altogether, and I'll call this not the ceramic image, not the fully automatic image, but the dramatic image. Consider the world as a drama. What's the basis of all drama? The basis of all stories, of all plots, of all happenings--is the game of hide and seek. You get a baby, what's the fundamental first game you play with a baby? You put a book in front of your face, and you peek at the baby. The baby starts giggling. Because the baby is close to the origins of life; it comes from the womb really knowing what it's all about, but it can't put it into words. See, what every child psychologist really wants to know is to get a baby to talk psychological jargon, and explain how it feels. But the baby knows; you do this, this, this and this, and the baby starts laughing, because the baby is a recent incarnation of God. And the baby knows, therefore, that hide and seek is the basic game.
See, when we were children, we were taught '1, 2, 3,' and 'A, B, C,' but we weren't set down on our mothers' knees and taught the game of black and white. That's the thing that was left out of all our educations, the game that I was trying to explain with these wave diagrams. That life is not a conflict between opposites, but a polarity. The difference bewteen a conflict and a polarity is simply--when you think about opposite things, we sometimes use the expression, 'These two things are the poles apart.' You say, for example, about someone with whom you totally disagree, 'I am the poles apart from this person.' But your very saying that gives the show away. Poles. Poles are the opposite ends of one magnet. And if you take a magnet, say you have a magnetized bar, there's a north pole and a south pole. Okay, chop off the south pole, move it away. The piece you've got left creates a new south pole. You never get rid of the south pole. So the point about a magnet is, things may be the poles apart, but they go together. You can't have the one without the other. We are imagining a diagram of the universe in which the idea of polarity is the opposite ends of the diameter, north and south, you see? That's the basic idea of polarity, but what we're trying to imagine is the encounter of forces that come from absolutely opposed realms, that have nothing in common. When we say of two personality types that they're the poles apart. We are trying to think eccentrically, instead of concentrically. And so in this way, we haven't realized that life and death, black and white, good and evil, being and non-being, come from the same center. They imply each other, so that you wouldn't know the one without the other.
Now I'm not saying that that's bad, that's fun. You're playing the game that you don't know that black and white imply each other. Therefore you think that black possibly might win, that the light might go out, that the sound might never be heard again. That there could be the possibility of a universe of pure tragedy, of endless, endless darkness. Wouldn't that be awful? Only you wouldn't know it was awful, if that's what happened. The point that we all forget is that the black and the white go together, and there isn't the one without the other. At the same time, you see, we forget, in the same way as we forget that these two go together.
The other thing we forget, is that self and other go together, in just the same way as the two poles of a magnet. You say 'I, myself; I am me; I am this individual; I am this particular, unique instance.' What is other is everything else. All of you, all of the stars, all of the galaxies, way, way out into infinite space, that's other. But in the same way as black implies white, self implies other. And you don't exist without all that, so that where you get these polarities, you get this sort of difference, that what we call explicitly, or exoterically, they're different. But implicitely, esoterically, they're one. Since you can't have the one without the other, that shows there's a kind of inner conspiracy bewteen all pairs of opposites, which is not in the open, but it's tacit. It's like you say 'Well, there are all sorts of things that we understand among each other tacitly, that we don't want to admit, but we do recognize tacity there's a kind of secret between us boys and girls,' or whatever it may be. And we recognize that. So, tacitly, all of you really inwardly know--although you won't admit it because your culture has trained you in a contrary direction--all of you really inwardly know that you as an individual self are inseparable from everything else that exists, that you are a special case in the universe. But the whole game, especially of Western culture, is to coneal that from ourselves, so that when anybody in our culture slips into the state of consciousness where they suddenly find this to be true, and they come on and say 'I'm God,' we say 'You're insane.'
Now, it's very difficult--you can very easily slip into the state of consciousness where you feel you're God; it can happen to anyone. Just in the same way as you can get the flu, or measles, or something like that, you can slip into this state of consciousness. And when you get it, it depends upon your background and your training as to how you're going to interpret it. If you've got the idea of god that comes from popular Christianity, God as the governor, the political head of the world, and you think you're God, then you say to everybody, 'You should bow down and worship me.' But if you're a member of Hindu culture, and you suddenly tell all your friends 'I'm God,' instead of saying 'You're insane,' they say 'Congratulations! At last, you found out.' Becuase their idea of god is not the autocratic governor. When they make images of Shiva, he has ten arms. How would you use ten arms? It's hard enough to use two. You know, if you play the organ, you've got to use your two feet and your two hands, and you play different rhythms with each member. It's kind of tricky. But actually we're all masters at this, because how do you grow each hair without having to think about it? Each nerve? How do you beat your heart and digest with your stomach at the same time? You don't have to think about it. In your very body, you are omnipotent in the true sense of omnipotence, which is that you are able to be omni-potent; you are able to do all these things without having to think about it.
When I was a child, I used to ask my mother all sorts of ridiculous questions, which of course every child asks, and when she got bored with my questions, she said 'Darling, there are just some things which we are not meant to know.' I said 'Will we ever know?' She said 'Yes, of course, when we die and go to heaven, God will make everything plain.' So I used to imagine on wet afternoons in heaven, we'd all sit around the throne of grace and say to God, 'Well why did you do this, and why did you do that?' and he would explain it to us. 'Heavenly father, why are the leaves green?' and he would say 'Because of the chlorophyll,' and we'd say 'Oh.' But in he Hindu universe, you would say to God, 'How did you make the mountains?' and he would say 'Well, I just did it. Because when you're asking me how did I make the mountains, you're asking me to describe in words how I made the mountains, and there are no words which can do this. Words cannot tell you how I made the mountains any more than I can drink the ocean with a fork. A fork may be useful for sticking into a piece of something and eating it, but it's of no use for imbibing the ocean. It would take millions of years. In other words, it would take millions of years, and you would be bored with my description, long before I got through it, if I put it to you in words, because I didn't create the mountains with words, I just did it. Like you open and close your hand. You know how you do this, but can you describe in words how you do it? Even a very good physiologist can't describe it in words. But you do it. You're conscious, aren't you. Don't you know how you manage to be conscious? Do you know how you beat your heart? Can you say in words, explain correctly how this is done? You do it, but you can't put it into words, because words are too clumsy, yet you manage this expertly for as long as you're able to do it.'
But you see, we are playing a game. The game runs like this: the only thing you really know is what you can put into words. Let's suppose I love some girl, rapturously, and somebody says to me, 'Do you REALLY love her?' Well, how am I going to prove this? They'll say, 'Write poetry. Tell us all how much you love her. Then we'll believe you.' So if I'm an artist, and can put this into words, and can convince everybody I've written the most ecstatic love letter ever written, they say 'All right, ok, we admit it, you really do love her.' But supposing you're not very articulate, are we going to tell you you DON'T love her? Surely not. You don't have to be Heloise and Abyla to be in love. But the whole game that our culture is playing is that nothing really happens unless it's in the newspaper. So when we're at a party, and it's a great party, somebody says 'Too bad we didn't bring a camera. Too bad there wasn't a tape recorder. And so our children begin to feel that they don't exist authentically unless they get their names in the papers, and the fastest way to get your name in the paper is to commit a crime. Then you'll be photographed, and you'll appear in court, and everybody will notice you. And you're THERE. So you're not there unless you're recorded. It really happened if it was recorded. In other words, if you shout, and it doesn't come back and echo, it didn't happen. Well that's a real hangup. It's true, the fun with echos; we all like singing in the bathtub, because there's more resonance there. And when we play a musical instrument, like a violin or a cello, it has a sounding box, because that gives resonance to the sound. And in the same way, the cortex of the human brain enables us when we're happy to know that we're happy, and that gives a certain resonance to it. If you're happy, and you don't know you're happy, there's nobody home.
But this is the whole problem for us. Several thousand years ago, human beings devolved the system of self-consciousness, and they knew, they knew.
There was a young man who said 'though
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see
Is the I that sees me
When I know that I know that I know.'
And this is
the human problem: we know that we know. And so, there came a point in our evolution
where we didn't guide life by distrusting our instincts. Suppose that you could
live absolutely spontaneously. You don't make any plans, you just live like
you feel like it. And you say 'What a gas that is, I don't have to make any
plans, anything. I don't worry; I just do what comes naturally.'
The way the animals live, everybody envies them, because look, a cat, when it walks--did you ever see a cat making an aesthetic mistake. Did you ever see a badly formed cloud? Were the stars ever misarranged? When you watch the foam breaking on the seashore, did it ever make a bad pattern? Never. And yet we think in what we do, we make mistakes. And we're worried about that. So there came this point in human evolution when we lost our innocence. When we lost this thing that the cats and the flowers have, and had to think about it, and had to purposely arrange and discipline and push our lives around in accordance with foresight and words and systems of symbols, accountancy, calculation and so on, and then we worry. Once you start thinking about things, you worry as to if you thought enough. Did you really take all the details into consideration? Was every fact properly reviewed? And by jove, the more you think about it, the more you realize you really couldn't take everything into consideration, becauase all the variables in every decision are incalculable, so you get anxiety. And this, though, also, is the price you pay for knowing that you know. For being able to think about thinking, being able to feel about feeling. And so you're in this funny position.
Now then, do you see that this is simultaneously an advantage and a terrible disadvantage? What has happened here is that by having a certain kind of consciousness, a certain kind of reflexive consciousness--being aware of being aware. Being able to represent what goes on fundamentally in terms of a system of symbols, such as words, such as numbers. You put, as it were, two lives together at once, one representing the other. The symbols representing the reality, the money representing the wealth, and if you don't realize that the symbol is really secondary, it doesn't have the same value. People go to the supermarket, and they get a whole cartload of goodies and they drive it through, then the clerk fixes up the counter and this long tape comes out, and he'll say '$30, please,' and everybody feels depressed, because they give away $30 worth of paper, but they've got a cartload of goodies. They don't think about that, they think they've just lost $30. But you've got the real wealth in the cart, all you've parted with is the paper. Because the paper in our system becomes more valuable than the wealth. It represents power, potentiality, whereas the wealth, you think oh well, that's just necessary; you've got to eat. That's to be really mixed up.
So then. If you awaken from this illusion, and you understand that black implies white, self implies other, life implies death--or shall I say, death implies life--you can conceive yourself. Not conceive, but FEEL yourself, not as a stranger in the world, not as someone here on sufferance, on probation, not as something that has arrived here by fluke, but you can begin to feel your own existence as absolutely fundamental. What you are basically, deep, deep down, far, far in, is simply the fabric and structure of existence itself. So, say in Hindu mythology, they say that the world is the drama of God. God is not something in Hindu mythology with a white beard that sits on a throne, that has royal perogatives. God in Indian mythology is the self, 'Satchitananda.' Which means 'sat,' that which is, 'chit,' that which is consciousness; that which is 'ananda' is bliss. In other words, what exists, reality itself is gorgeous, it is the fullness of total joy. Wowee! And all those stars, if you look out in the sky, is a firework display like you see on the fourth of July, which is a great occasion for celebration; the universe is a celebration, it is a fireworks show to celebrate that existence is. Wowee.
And then they say, 'But, however, there's no point in just sustaining bliss.' Let's suppose you were able, every night, to dream any dream you wanted to dream, and that you could for example have the power to dream in one night 75 years worth of time. Or any length of time you wanted to have. And you would, naturally, as you began on this adventure of dreams, fulfill all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure you could conceive. And after several nights of 75 years of total pleasure each, you would say 'Well, that was pretty great. But now let's have a surprise. Let's have a dream which isn't under control, where something is going to happen to me that I don't know what it's going to be.' And you would dig that, and come out of it and say 'That was a close shave, now wasn't it?' Then you would get more and more adventurous, and you would make further and further gambles as to what you would dream, and finally you would dream where you are now. You would dream the dream of the life that you are actually living today. That would be within the infinite multiplicity of the choices you would have. Of playing that you weren't God. Because the whole nature of the godhead, according to this idea, is to play that he's not. The first thing that he says to himself is 'Man, get lost,' because he gives himself away. The nature of love is self-abandonment, not clinging to oneself. Throwing yourself out, for instance as in basketball; you're always getting rid of the ball. You say to the other fellow 'Have a ball.' See? And that keeps things moving. That's the nature of life.
So in this idea, then, everybody is fundamentally the ultimate reality. Not God in a politically kingly sense, but God in the sense of being the self, the deep-down basic whatever there is. And you're all that, only you're pretending you're not. And it's perfectly OK to pretend you're not, to be perfectly convinced, because this is the whole notion of drama. When you come into the theater, there is an arch, and a stage, and down there is the audience. Everybody assumes their seats in the theater, gone to see a comedy, a tragedy, a thriller, whatever it is, and they all know as they come in and pay their admissions, that what is going to happen on the stage is not for real. But the actors have a conspiracy against this, because they're going to try and persuade the audience that what is happening on the stage IS for real. They want to get everybody sitting on the edge of their chairs, they want you terrified, or crying, or laughing. Absolutely captivated by the drama. And if a skillful human actor can take in an audience and make people cry, think what the cosmic actor can do. Why he can take himself in completely. He can play so much for real that he thinks he really is. Like you sitting in this room, you think you're really here. Well, you've persuaded yourself that way. You've acted it so damn well that you KNOW that this is the real world. But you're playing it. As well, the audience and the actor as one. Because behind the stage is the green room, offscene, where the actors take off their masks. Do you know that the word 'person' means 'mask'? The 'persona' which is the mask worn by actors in Greco-Roman drama, because it has a megaphone-type mouth which throws the sound out in an open-air theater. So the 'per'--through--'sona'--what the sound comes through--that's the mask. How to be a real person. How to be a genuine fake. So the 'dramatis persona' at the beginning of a play is the list of masks that the actors will wear. And so in the course of forgetting that this world is a drama, the word for the role, the word for the mask has come to mean who you are genuinely. The person. The proper person. Incidentally, the word 'parson' is derived from the word 'person.' The 'person' of the village. The 'person' around town, the parson.
So anyway, then, this is a drama, and what I want you to is-- I'm not trying to sell you on this idea in the sense of converting you to it; I want you to play with it. I want you to think of its possibilities. I'm not trying to prove it, I'm just putting it forward as a possibility of life to think about. So then, this means that you're not victims of a scheme of things, of a mechanical world, or of an autocratic god. The life you're living is what YOU have put yourself into. Only you don't admit it, because you want to play the game that it's happened to you. In other words, I got mixed up in this world; I had a father who got hot pants over a girl, and she was my mother, and because he was just a horny old man, and as a result of that, I got born, and I blame him for it and say 'Well that's your fault; you've got to look after me,' and he says 'I don't see why I should look after you; you're just a result.' But let's suppose we admit that I really wanted to get born, and that I WAS the ugly gleam in my father's eye when he approached my mother. That was me. I was desire. And I deliberately got involved in this thing. Look at it that way instead. And that really, even if I got myself into an awful mess, and I got born with syphilis, and the great Siberian itch, and tuberculosis in a Nazi concentration camp, nevertheless this was a game, which was a very far out play. It was a kind of cosmic masochism. But I did it.
Isn't that an optimal game rule for life? Because if you play life on the supposition that you're a helpless little puppet that got involved. Or you played on the supposition that it's a frightful, serious risk, and that we really ought to do something about it, and so on, it's a drag. There's no point in going on living unless we make the assumption that the situation of life is optimal. That really and truly we're all in a state of total bliss and delight, but we're going to pretend we aren't just for kicks. In other words, you play non-bliss in order to be able to experience bliss. And you can go as far out in non-bliss as you want to go. And when you wake up, it'll be great. You know, you can slam yourself on the head with a hammer because it's so nice when you stop. And it makes you realize how great things are when you forget that's the way it is. And that's just like black and white: you don't know black unless you know white; you don't know white unless you know black. This is simply fundamental.
So then, here's the drama. My metaphysics, let me be perfectly frank with you, are that there the central self, you can call it God, you can call it anything you like, and it's all of us. It's playing all the parts of all being whatsoever everywhere and anywhere. And it's playing the game of hide and seek with itself. It gets lost, it gets involved in the farthest-out adventures, but in the end it always wakes up and comes back to itself. And when you're ready to wake up, you're going to wake up, and if you're not ready you're going to stay pretending that you're just a 'poor little me.' And since you're all here and engaged in this sort of enquiry and listening to this sort of lecture, I assume you're all in the process of waking up. Or else you're pleasing yourselves with some kind of flirtation with waking up which you're not serious about. But I assume that you are maybe not serious, but sincere, that you are ready to wake up.
So then, when you're in the way of waking up, and finding out who you are, you meet a character called a guru, as the Hindus say 'the teacher,' 'the awakener.' And what is the function of a guru? He's the man that looks you in the eye and says 'Oh come off it. I know who you are.' You come to the guru and say 'Sir, I have a problem. I'm unhappy, and I want to get one up on the universe. I want to become enlightened. I want spiritual wisdom.' The guru looks at you adn says 'Who are you?' You know Sri-Ramana-Maharshi, that great Hindu sage of modern times? People used to come to him and say 'Master, who was I in my last incarnation?' As if that mattered. And he would say 'Who is asking the question?' And he'd look at you and say, go right down to it, 'You're looking at me, you're looking out, and you're unaware of what's behind your eyes. Go back in and find out who you are, where the question comes from, why you ask.' And if you've looked at a photograph of that man--I have a gorgeous photograph of him; I look by it every time I go out the front door. And I look at those eyes, and the humor in them; the lilting laugh that says 'Oh come off it. Shiva, I recognize you. When you come to my door and say `I'm so-and-so,' I say `Ha-ha, what a funny way God has come on today.''
So eventually--there are all sorts of tricks of course that gurus play. They say 'Well, we're going to put you through the mill.' And the reason they do that is simply that you won't wake up until you feel you've paid a price for it. In other words, the sense of guilt that one has. Or the sense of anxiety. It's simply the way one experiences keeping the game of disguise going on. Do you see that? Supposing you say 'I feel guilty.' Christianity makes you feel guilty for existing. That somehow the very fact that you exist is an affront. You are a fallen human being. I remember as a child when we went to the serves of the church on Good Friday. They gave us each a colored postcard with Jesus crucified on it, and it said underneath 'This I have done for thee. What doest thou for me?' You felt awful. YOU had nailed that man to the cross. Because you eat steak, you have crucified Christ. Mythra. It's the same mystery. And what are you going to do about that? 'This I have done for thee, what doest thou for me?' You feel awful that you exist at all. But that sense of guilt is the veil across the sanctuary. 'Don't you DARE come in!' In all mysteries, when you are going to be initiated, there's somebody saying 'Ah-ah-ah, don't you come in. You've got to fulfill this requirement and that requirement, THEN we'll let you in.' And so you go through the mill. Why? Because you're saying to yourself 'I won't wake up until I deserve it. I won't wake up until I've made it difficult for me to wake up. So I invent for myself an eleborate sytem of delaying my waking up. I put myself through this test and that test, and when I convince myself it's sufficiently arduous, THEN I at last admit to myself who I really am, and draw aside the veil and realize that after all, when all is said and done, I am that I am, which is the name of god.'
ALAN WATTS: THE NATURE OF CONSCIOUSNESS, pt 3 of 3
In last night's session, I was discussing an alternative myth to the Ceramic and Fully Automatic models of the universe, I'll call the Dramatic Myth. The idea that life as we experience it is a big act, and that behind this big act is the player, and the player, or the self, as it's called in Hindu philosophy, the _atman_, is you. Only you are playing hide and seek, since that is the essential game that is going on. The game of games. The basis of all games, hide and seek. And since you're playing hide & seek, you are deliberately, although you can't admit this--or won't admit it--you are deliberately forgetting who you really are, or what you really are. And the knowledge that your essential self is the foundation of the universe, the 'ground of being' as Tillich calls it, is something you have that the Germans call a _hintengedanka_[?] A _hintengedanka_ is a thought way, way, way in the back of your mind. Something that you know deep down but can't admit.
So, in a way, then, in order to bring this to the front, in order to know that is the case, you have to be kidded out of your game. And so what I want to discuss this morning is how this happens. Although before doing so, I must go a little bit further into the whole nature of this problem.
You see, the problem is this. We identify in our exerience a differentiation between what we do and what happens to us. We have a certain number of actions that we define as voluntary, and we feel in control of those. And then over against that, there is all those things that are involuntary. But the dividing line between these two is very inarbitrary. Because for example, when you move your hand, you feel that you decide whether to open it or to close it. But then ask yourself how do you decide? When you decide to open your hand, do you first decide to decide? You don't, do you? You just decide, and how do you do that? And if you don't know how to do it, is it voluntary or involuntary? Let's consider breathing. You can feel that you breath deliberately; you don't control your breath. But when you don't think about it, it goes on. Is it voluntary or involuntary?
So, we come to have a very arbitrary definition of self. That much of my activity which I feel I do. And that then doesn't include breathing most of the time; it doesn't include the heartbeats; it doesn't include the activity of the glands; it doesn't include digestion; it doesn't include how you shape your bones; circulate your blood. Do you or do you not do these things? Now if you get with yourself and you find out you are all of yourself, a very strange thing happens. You find out that your body knows that you are one with the universe. In other words, the so-called involuntary circulation of your blood is one continuous process with the stars shining. If you find out it's YOU who circulates your blood, you will at the same moment find out that you are shining the sun. Because your physical organism is one continous process with everything else that's going on. Just as the waves are continuous with the ocean. Your body is continuous with the total energy system of the cosmos, and it's all you. Only you're playing the game that you're only this bit of it. But as I tried to explain, there are in physical reality no such thing as separate events.
So then. Remember also when I tried to work towards a definition of omnipotence. Omnipotence is not knowing how everything is done; it's just doing it. You don't have to translate it into language. Supposing that when you got up in the morning, you had to switch your brain on. And you had to think and do as a deliberate process waking up all the circuits that you need for active life during hte day. Why, you'd never get done! Because you have to do all those things at once. That's why the Buddhists and Hindus represent their gods as many-armed. How could you use so many arms at once? How could a centipede control a hundred legs at once? Because it doesn't think about it. In the same way, you are unconsciously performing all the various activities of your organism. Only unconsciously isn't a good word, because it sounds sort of dead. Superconsciously would be better. Give it a plus rather than a minus.
Because what consciousness is is a rather specialized form of awareness. When you look around the room, you are conscious of as much as you can notice, and you see an enormous number of things which you do not notice. For example, I look at a girl here and somebody asks me later 'What was she wearing?' I may not know, although I've seen, because I didn't attend. But I was aware. You see? And perhaps if I could under hypnosis be asked this question, where I would get my conscious attention out of the way by being in the hypnotic state, I could recall what dress she was wearing.
So then, just in the same way as you don't know--you don't focus your attention--on how you make your thyroid gland function, so in the same way, you don't have any attention focused on how you shine the sun. So then, let me connect this with the problem of birth and death, which puzzles people enormously of course. Because, in order to understand what the self is, you have to remember that it doesn't need to remember anything,just as you don't need to know how you work your thyroid gland.
So then, when you die, you're not going to have to put up with everlasting non-existance, because that's not an experience. A lot of people are afraid that when they die, they're going to be locked up in a dark room forever, and sort of undergo that. But one of the interesting things in the world is--this is a yoga, this is a realization--try and imagine what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up. Think about that. Children think about it. It's one of the great wonders of life. What will it be like to go to sleep and never wake up? And if you think long enough about that, something will happen to you. You will find out, among other things, it will pose the next question to you. What was it like to wake up after having never gone to sleep? That was when you were born. You see, you can't have an experience of nothing; nature abhorres a vacuum. So after you're dead, the only thing that can happen is the same experience, or the same sort of experience as when you were born. In other words, we all know very well that after other people die, other people are born. And they're all you, only you can only experience it one at a time. Everybody is I, you all know you're you, and wheresoever all being exist throughout all galaxies, it doesn't make any difference. You are all of them. And when they come into being, that's you coming into being.
You know that very well, only you don't have to remember the past in the same way you don't have to think about how you work your thyroid gland, or whatever else it is in your organism. You don't have to know how to shine the sun. You just do it, like you breath. Doesn't it really astonish you that you are this fantastically complex thing, and that you're doing all this and you never had any education in how to do it? Never learned, but you're this miracle? The point of it is, from a strictly physical, scientific standpoint, this organism is a continuous energy with everything else that's going on. And if I am my foot, I am the sun. Only we've got this little partial view. We've got the idea that 'No, I'm something IN this body.' The ego. That's a joke. The ego is nothing other than the focus of conscious attention. It's like the radar on a ship. The radar on a ship is a troubleshooter. Is there anything in the way? And conscious attention is a designed function of the brain to scan the environment, like a radar does, and note for any troublemaking changes. But if you identify yourself with your troubleshooter, then naturally you define yourself as being in a perpetual state of anxiety. And the moment we cease to identify with the ego and become aware that we are the whole organism, we realize first thing how harmonious it all is. Because your organism is a miracle of harmony. All these things functioning together. Even those creatures that are fighting each other in the blood stream and eating each other up. If they weren't doing that, you wouldn't be healthy.
So what is discord at one level of your being is harmony at another level. And you begin to realize that, and you begin to be aware too, that the discords of your life and the discords of people's lives, which are a discord at one level, at a higher level of the universe are healthy and harmonious. And you suddenly realize that everything you are and do is at that level as magnificent and as free of any blemish as the patterns in waves. The markings in marble. The way a cat moves. And that this world is really OK. Can't be anything else, because otherwise it couldn't exist. And I don't mean this in a kind of Pollyanna Christian Science sense. I don't know what it is or why it is about Christian Science, but it's prissy. It's got kind of a funny feeling to it; came from New England.
But the reality underneath physical existence, or which really is physical existence--because in my philosophy there is no difference between the physical and the spiritual. These are absolutely out-of-date catagories. It's all process; it isn't 'stuff' on the one hand and 'form' on the other. It's just pattern-- life is pattern. It is a dance of energy. And so I will never invoke spooky knowledge. That is, that I've had a private revelation or that I have sensory vibrations going on a plane which you don't have. Everything is standing right out in the open, it's just a question of how you look at it. So you do discover when you realize this, the most extraordinary thing that I never cease to be flabbergasted at whenever it happens to me. Some people will use a symbolism of the relationship of God to the universe, wherein God is a brilliant light, only somehow veiled, hiding underneath all these forms as you look around you. So far so good. But the truth is funnier than that. It is that you are looking right at the brilliant light now that the experience you are having that you call ordinary everyday consciousness--pretending you're not it--that experience is exactly the same thing as 'it.' There's no difference at all. And when you find that out, you laugh yourself silly. That's the great discovery.
In other words, when you really start to see things, and you look at an old paper cup, and you go into the nature of what it is to see what vision is, or what smell is, or what touch is, you realize that that vision of the paper cup is the brilliant light of the cosmos. Nothing could be brighter. Ten thousand suns couldn't be brighter. Only they're hidden in the sense that all the points of the infinite light are so tiny when you see them in the cup they don't blow your eyes out. See, the source of all light is in the eye. If there were no eyes in this world, the sun would not be light. So if I hit as hard as I can on a drum which has no skin, it makes no noise. So if a sun shines on a world with no eyes, it's like a hand beating on a skinless drum. No light. YOU evoke light out of the universe, in the same way you, by nature of having a soft skin, evoke hardness out of wood. Wood is only hard in relation to a soft skin. It's your eardrum that evokes noise out of the air. You, by being this organism, call into being this whole universe of light and color and hardness and heaviness and everything.
But in the mythology that we sold ourselves on at the end of the 19th century, when people discovered how big the universe was, and that we live on a little planet in a solar system on the edge of the galaxy, which is a minor galaxy, everybody thought, 'Uuuuugh, we're really unimportant after all. God isn't there and doesn't love us, and nature doesn't give a damn.' And we put ourselves down. But actually, it's this funny little microbe, tiny thing, crawling on this little planet that's way out somewhere, who has the ingenuity, by nature of this magnificent organic structure, to evoke the whole universe out of what otherwise would be mere quanta. There's jazz going on. But you see, this ingenious little organism is not merely some stranger in this. This little organism, on this little planet, is what the whole show is growing there, and so realizing it's own presence. Does it through you, and you're it.
When you put a chicken's beak on a chalk line, it gets stuck; it's hypnotized. So in the same way, when you learn to pay attention, and as children you know how all the teachers were in class: 'Pay attention!!' And all the kids stare at the teacher. And we've got to pay attention. That's putting your nose on the chalk line. And you got stuck with the idea of attention, and you thought attention was Me, the ego, attention. So if you start attending to attention, you realize what the hoax is. That's why in Aldous Huxley's book 'Island,' the Roger had trained the myna birds on the island to say 'Attention! Here and now, boys!' See? Realize who you are. Come to, wake up!
Well, here's the problem: if this is the state of affairs which is so, and if the conscious state you're in this moment is the same thing as what we might call the Divine State. If you do anything to make it different, it shows that you don't understand that it's so. So the moment you start practicing yoga, or praying or meditating, or indulging in some sort of spiritual cultivation, you are getting in your own way.
Now this is the Buddhist trick: the buddha said 'We suffer because we desire. If you can give up desire, you won't suffer.' But he didn't say that as the last word; he said that as the opening step of a dialogue. Because if you say that to someone, they're going to come back after a while and say 'Yes, but now I'm desiring not to desire.' And so the buddha will answer, 'Well at last you're beginning to understand the point.' Because you can't give up desire. Why would you try to do that? It's already desire. So in the same way you say 'You ought to be unselfish' or to give up you ego. Let go, relax. Why do you want to do that? Just because it's another way of beating the game, isn't it? The moment you hypothesize that you are different from the universe, you want to get one up on it. But if you try to get one up on the universe, and you're in competition with it, that means you don't understand you ARE it. You think there's a real difference between 'self' and 'other.' But 'self,' what you call yourself, and what you call 'other' are mutually necessary to each other like back and front. They're really one. But just as a magnet polarizes itself at north and south, but it's all one magnet, so experience polarizes itself as self and other, but it's all one. If you try to make the south pole defeat the north pole, or get the mastery of it, you show you don't know what's going on.
So there are two ways of playing the game. The first way, which is the usual way, is that a guru or teacher who wants to get this across to somebody because he knows it himself, and when you know it you'd like others to see it, too. So what he does is, he gets you into being ridiculous harder and more assiduously than usual. In other words, if you are in a contest with the universe, he's going to stir up that contest until it becomes ridiculous. And so he sets you such tasks as saying-- Now of course, in order to be a true person, you must give up yourself, be unselfish. So the lord steps down out of heaven and says 'The first and great commandment is `Thou shalt love the lord thy god.' You must love me.' Well that's a double-bind. You can't love on purpose. You can't be sincere purposely. It's like trying not to think of a green elephant while taking medicine.
But if a person really tries to do it--and this is the way Christianity is rigged--you should be very sorry for your sins. And though everybody knows they're not, but they think they ought to be, they go around trying to be penetant. Or trying to be humble. And they know the more assiduously they practice it, the phonier and phonier the whole thing gets. So in Zen Buddhism, exactly the same thing happens. The Zen master challenges you to be spontaneous. 'Show me the real you.' One way they do this getting you to shout. Shout the word 'moo.' And he says 'I want to hear YOU in that shout. I want to hear your whole being in it.' And you yell your lungs out and he says 'Pfft. That's no good. That's just a fake shout. Now I want to hear absolutely the whole of your being, right from the heart of the universe, come through in this shout.' And these guys scream themselves hoarse. Nothing happens. Until one day they get so desperate they give up trying and they manage to get that shout through, when they weren't trying to be genuine. Because there was nothing else to do, you just had to yell.
And so in this way--it's called the technique of reductio ad absurdum. If you think you have a problem, and you're an ego and you're in difficulty, the answer the Zen master makes to you is 'Show me your ego. I want to see this thing that has a problem.' When Bodidharma, the legendary founder of Zen, came to China, a disciple came to him and said 'I have no peace of mind. Please pacify my mind.' And Bodhidharma said 'Bring out your mind here before me and I'll pacify it.' 'Well,' he said, 'when I look for it, I can't find it.' So Bodhidharma said 'There, it's pacified.' See? Becuase when you look for your own mind, that is to say, your own particularized center of being which is separate from everything else, you won't be able to find it. But the only way you'll know it isn't there is if you look for it hard enough, to find out that it isn't there. And so everybody says 'All right, know yourself, look within, find out who you are.' Because the harder you look, you won't be able to find it, and then you'll realize it isn't there at all. There isn't a separate you. You're mind is what there is. Everything. But the only way to find that out is to persist in the state of delusion as hard as possible. That's one way. I haven't said the only way, but it is one way.
So almost all spiritual disciplines, meditations, prayers, etc, etc, are ways of persisting in folly. Doing resolutely and consistently what you're doing already. So if a person believes that the Earth is flat, you can't talk him out of that. He knows it's flat. Look out the window and see; it's obvious, it looks flat. So the only way to convince him it isn't is to say 'Well let's go and find the edge.' And in order to find the edge, you've got to be very careful not to walk in circles, you'll never find it that way. So we've got to go consistently in a straight line due west along the same line of latitude, and eventually when we get back to where we started from, you've convinced the guy that the world is round. That's the only way that will teach him. Because people can't be talked out of illusions.
There is another possibility, however. But this is more difficult to describe. Let's say we take as the basic supposition- -which is the thing that one sees in the experience of satori or awakening, or whatever you want to call it--that this now moment in which I'm talking and you're listening, is eternity. That although we have somehow conned ourselves into the notion that this moment is ordinary, and that we may not feel very well, we're sort of vaguely frustrated and worried and so on, and that it ought to be changed. This is it. So you don't need to do anything at all. But the difficulty about explaining that is that you mustn't try and not do anything, because that's doing something. It's just the way it is. In other words, what's required is a sort of act of super relaxation; it's not ordinary relaxation. It's not just letting go, as when you lie down on the floor and imagine that you're heavy so you get into a state of muscular relaxation. It's not like that. It's being with yourself as you are without altering anything. And how to explain that? Because there's nothing to explain. It is the way it is now. See? And if you understand that, it will automatically wake you up.
So that's why Zen teachers use shock treatment, to sometimes hit them or shout at them or create a sudden surprise. Because is is that jolt that suddenly brings you here. See, there's no road to here, because you're already there. If you ask me 'How am I going to get here?' It will be like the famous story of the American tourist in England. The tourist asked some yokel the way to Upper Tuttenham, a little village. And the yokel scratched his head and he said 'Well, sir, I don't know where it is, but if I were you, I wouldn't start from here.'
So you see, when you ask 'How to I obtain the knowledge of God, how do I obtain the knowledge of liberation?' all I can say is it's the wrong question. Why do you want to obtain it? Because the very fact that you're wanting to obtain it is the only thing that prevents you from getting there. You already have it. But of course, it's up to you. It's your privilege to pretend that you don't. That's your game; that's your life game; that's what makes you think your an ego. And when you want to wake up, you will, just like that. If you're not awake, it shows you don't want to. You're still playing the hide part of the game. You're still, as it were, the self pretending it's not the self. And that's what you want to do. So you see, in that way, too, you're already there.
So when you understand this, a funny thing happens, and some people misinterpret it. You'll discover as this happens that the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behavior disappears. You will realize that what you describe as things under your own will feel exactly the same as things going on outside you. You watch other people moving, and you know you're doing that, just like you're breathing or circulating your blood. And if you don't understand what's going on, you're liable to get crazy at this point, and to feel that you are god in the Jehovah sense. To say that you actually have power over other people, so that you can alter what you're doing. And that you're omnipotent in a very crude, literal kind of bible sense. You see? A lot of people feel that and they go crazy. They put them away. They think they're Jesus Christ and that everybody ought to fall down and worship them. That's only they got their wires crossed. This experience happened to them, but they don't know how to interpret it. So be careful of that. Jung calls it inflation. People who get the Holy Man syndrome, that I suddenly discover that I am the lord and that I am above good and evil and so on, and therefore I start giving myself airs and graces. But the point is, everybody else is, too. If you discover that you are that, then you ought to know that everybody else is.
For example, let's see in other ways how you might realize this. Most people think when they open their eyes and look around, that what they're seeing is outside. It seems, doesn't it, that you are behind your eyes, and that behind the eyes there is a blank you can't see at all. You turn around and there's something else in front of you. But behind the eyes there seems to be something that has no color. It isn't dark, is isn't light. It is there from a tactile standpoint; you can feel it with your fingers, but you can't get inside it. But what is that behind your eyes? Well actually, when you look out there and see all these people and things sitting around, that's how it feels inside your head. The color of this room is back here in the nervous system, where the optical nerves are at the back of the head. It's in there. It's what you're experiencing. What you see out here is a neurological experience. Now if that hits you, and you feel sensuously that that's so, you may feel therefore that the external world is all inside my skull. You've got to correct that, with the thought that your skull is also in the external world. So you suddenly begin to feel 'Wow, what kind of situation is this? It's inside me, and I'm inside it, and it's inside me, and I'm inside it.' But that's the way it is.
This is the what you could call transaction, rather than interaction between the individual and the world. Just like, for example, in buying and selling. There cannot be an act of buying unless there is simultaneously an act of selling, and vice versa. So the relationship between the environment and the organism is transactional. The environment grows the organism, and in turn the organism creates the environment. The organism turns the sun into light, but it requires there be an environment containing a sun for there to be an organism at all. And the answer to it simply is they're all one process. It isn't that organisms by chance came into the world. This world is the sort of environment which grows organisms. It was that way from the beginning. The organisms may in time have arrived in the scene or out of the scene later than the beginning of the scene, but from the moment it went BANG! in the beginning, if that's the way it started, organisms like us are sitting here. We're involved in it.
Look here, we take the propogation of an electric current. I can have an electric current running through a wire that goes all the way around the Earth. And here we have a power source, and here we have a switch. A positive pole, a negative pole. Now, before that switch closes, the current doesn't exactly behave like water in a pipe. There isn't current here, waiting, to jump the gap as soon as the switch is closed. The current doesn't even start until the switch is closed. It never starts unless the point of arrival is there. Now, it'll take an interval for that current to get going in its circuit if it's going all the way around the Earth. It's a long run. But the finishing point has to be closed before it will even start from the beginning. In a similar way, even though in the development of any physical system there may by billions of years between the creation of the most primitive form of energy and then the arrival of intelligent life, that billions of years is just the same things as the trip of that current around the wire. Takes a bit of time. But it's already implied. It takes time for an acorn to turn into an oak, but the oak is already implied in the acorn. And so in any lump of rock floating about in space, there is implicit human intelligence. Sometime, somehow, somewhere. They all go together.
So don't differentiate yourself and stand off and say 'I am a living organism in a world made of a lot of dead junk, rocks and stuff.' It all goes together. Those rocks are just as much you as your fingernails. You need rocks. What are you going to stand on?
What I think an awakening really involves is a re-examination of our common sense. We've got all sorts of ideas built into us which seem unquestioned, obvious. And our speech reflects them; its commonest phrases. 'Face the facts.' As if they were outside you. As if life were something they simply encountered as a foreigner. 'Face the facts.' Our common sense has been rigged, you see? So that we feel strangers and aliens in this world, and this is terribly plausible, simply because this is what we are used to. That's the only reason. But when you really start questioning this, say 'Is that the way I have to assume life is? I know everybody does, but does that make it true?' It doesn't necessarily. It ain't necessarily so. So then as you question this basic assumption that underlies our culture, you find you get a new kind of common sense. It becomes absolutely obvious to you that you are continuous with the universe.
For example, people used to believe that planets were supported in the sky by being imbedded in crystal spheres, and everybody knew that. Why, you could see the crystal spheres there because you could look right through them. It was obviously made of crystal, and something had to keep them up there. And then when the astronomers suggested that there weren't any crystal spheres, people got terrified, because then they thought the stars would fall down. Nowadays, it doesn't bother anybody. They thought, too, when they found out the Earth was spherical, people who lived in the antiguities would fall off, and that was scary. But then somebody sailed around the world, and we all got used to it, we travel around in jet planes and everything. We have no problem feeling that the Earth is globular. None whatever. We got used to it.
So in the same way Einstein's relativity theories--the curvature of the propogation of light, the idea that time gets older as light moves away from a source, in other words, people looking at the world now on Mars, they would be seeing the state of the world a little earlier than we are now experiencing it. That began to bother people when Einstein started talking about that. But now we're all used to it, and relativity and things like that are a matter of common sense today. Well, in a few years, it will be a matter of commons sense to many people that they're one with the universe. It'll be so simple. And then maybe if that happens, we shall be in a position to handle our technology with more sense. With love instead of with hate for our environment.
Zen, Square Zen, and Zen
by Alan Watts
Orignial version as published the spring 1958 issue of the Chicago Review
It is as difficult for Anglo-Saxons as for the Japanese to absorb anything quite so Chinese as Zen. For though the word "Zen" is Japanese and though Japan is now its home, Zen Buddhism is the creation of T'ang dynasty China. I do not say this as a prelude to harping upon the ncommunicable subtleties of alien cultures. The point is simply that people who feel a profound need to justify themselves have difficulty in understanding the viewpoints of those who do not, and the Chinese who created Zen were the same kind of people as Lao-tzu, who, centures before, said, "Those who justify themselves do not convince." For the urge to make or prove oneself right has always jiggled the Chinese sense of the ludicrous, since as both Confucians and Taoists-however different these philosophies in other ways-they have invariably appreciated the man who can "come off it." To Confucius it seemed much better to be human-hearted then righteous, and to the great Taoists, Lao-tzu and Chang-tzu, it was obvious that one could not be right without also being wrong, because the two were as inseparable as back and front. As Chang-tzu said, "Those who would have good government without its correlative misrule, and right without its correlative wrong, do not understand the principles of the universe."
To Western ears such words may sound cynical, and the Confucian admiration of "reasonableness" and compromise may appear to be a weak-kneed lack of commitment to principle. Actually they reflect a marvelous understanding and respect for what we call the balance of nature, human and otherwise-a universal vision of life as the Tao or way of nature in which the good and evil, the creature and the destructive, the wise and the foolish are the inseparable polarities of existence. "Tao," said the Chung-yung, "is that from which one cannot depart. That from which one can depart is not the Tao." Therefore wisdom did not consist in trying to wrest the good from the evil but learning to "ride" them as a cork adapts itself to the crests and troughs of the waves. At the roots of Chinese life there is a trust in the good-and-evil of one's own nature which is pecularly foreign to those brought up with the chronic uneasy conscience of the Hebrew-Christian cultures. Yet it was always obvious to the Chinese that a man who mistrusts himself cannot even trust his mistrust, and must therefore be hopelessly confused.
For rather different reasons, Japanese people tend to be as uneasy in themselves as Westerners, having a sense of social shame quite as acute as our more metaphysical sense of sin. This was especially true of the class most attracted to Zen, the samurai. Ruth Benedict, in that very uneven work hrysanthemum and Sword, was, I think, perfectly correct in saying that the attraction of Zen to the samurai class was its power to get rid of an extremely awkward self-consciousness induced in the education of the young. Part-and-parcel of this lf-consciousness is the Japanese compulsion to compete with oneself-a compulsion which turns every craft and skill into a marathon of self-discipline. Although the attraction of Zen lay in the possibility of liberation from self-consciousness, the Japanese version of Zen fought fire with fire, overcoming the "self observing the self" by bringing it to an intensity in which it exploded. How remote from the regimen of the Japanese Zen monastery are the words of the great T'ang master Lin-chi:
In Buddhism there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you're tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand.
Yet the spirit of these words is just as remote from a kind of Western Zen which would employ this philosophy to justify a very self-defensive Bohemianism.
There is no single reason for the extraordinary growth of Western interest in Zen during the last twenty years. The appeal of Zen arts to the "modern" spirit in the West, the words of Suzuki, the war with Japan, the itchy fascination of "Zen-stories," and the attraction of a non-conceptual, experiential philosophy in the climate of scientific relativism-all these are involved. One might mention, too, the affinities between Zen and such purely Western trends as the philosophy of Wittgenstein, xistentialism, General Semantics, the metalinguistics of B. L. Whorf, and certain movements in the philosophy of science and in psychotherapy. Always in the "anti-naturalness" of both Christianity, with its politically orderd cosmology, and technology, with its imperialistic mechanization of a natural world from which man himself feels strangely alien. For both reflect a psychology in which man is identified with a conscious intelligence and will standing apart from nature to control it, like the architect-God in whose image this version of man is conceived. This disquiet arises from the suspicion that our attempt to master the world from the outside is a vicious circle in which we shall be condemned to the perpetual insomnia of controlling controls and supervising supervision ad infinitum.
To the Westerner in search of the reintegration of man and nature there is an appeal far beyond the merely sentimental in the naturalism of Zen-in the landscapes of Ma-yuan and Sesshu, in an art which is simultaneously spiritual and secular, which conveys the mystical in terms of the natural, and which, indeed, never even imagined a break between them. Here is a view of the world imparting a profoundly refreshing sense of wholeness to a culture in which the spiritual and the material, the conscious and the unconscious, have been cataclysmically split. For this reason the Chinese humanism and naturalism of Zen intrigue us much more strongly than Indian Buddhism or Vedanta. These, too, have their students in the West, but their followers seem for the most part to be displaced Christians-people in search of a more plausible philosophy than Christian supernaturalism to carry on the essentially Christian search for the miraculous. The ideal man of Indian Buddhism is clearly a superman, a yogi with absolute mastery of his own nature, according perfectly with the science-fiction ideal of "man beyond mankind." But the Buddha or awakened man of Chinese Zen is "ordinary and nothing special"; he is humorously human like the Zen tramps portrayed by Mu-chi and Liang-k'ai. We like this because here, for the first time, is a conception of the holy man and sage who is not impossibly remote, not superhuman but fully human, and, above all, not a solemn and sexless ascetic. Furthermore, in Zen the satori experience of awakening to our "original inseparability" with the universe seems, however elusive, always just round the corner. One has even met people to whom it has happened, and they are no longer mysterious occultist in the Himalayas nor skinny yogis in cloistered zshrams. They are just like us, and yet much more at home in the world, floating much more easily upon the ocean of transience and insecurity.
But the Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously. He must really have come to terms with the Lord God Jehovah and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience so that he can take it or leave it without fear or rebellion. He must be free of the itch to justify himself. Lacking this, his Zen will be either "beat" or "square," either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the Liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adopting foreign conventions, on the other.
Conventional thought is, in brief, the confusion of the concrete universe of nature with the conceptual things, events, and values of linguistic and cultural symbolism. For in Taoism and Zen the world is seen as an inseparably interrelated field or continuum, no part of which can actually be separated from the rest or valued above or below the rest. It was in this sense that Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch, meant that "fundamentally not one thing exists," for he realized that things are terms, not entities. They exist in the abstract world of thought, but not in the concrete world of nature. Thus one who actually perceives or feels this to be so no longer feels that he is an ego, except by definition. He sees that his ego is his persona or social role, a somewhat arbitrary selection of experiences with which he has been taught to identify himself. (Why, for example, do we say "I think" but not "I am beating my heart"?) Having seen this, he continues to play his social role without being taken by it. He does not precipitately adopt a new role or play the role of having no role at all. He plays it cool.
The "beat" mentality as I am thinking of it is something much more extensive and vague that the hipster life of New York and San Francisco. It is a younger generation's nonparticipation in "the American Way of Life," a revolt which does not seek to change the existing order but simply turns away from it to find the significance of life in subjective experience rather then objective achievement. It contrasts with the "square" and other-directed mentality of beguilement by social convention, unaware of the correlativity of right and wrong, the mutual necessity of capitalism and communism to each other's existence, of the inner identity of puritanism and lechery, or of, say, the alliance of church lobbies and organized crime to maintain the laws against gambling.
Beat Zen is a complex phenomenon. It ranges from a use of Zen for justifying sheer caprice in art, literature, and life to a very forceful social criticism and "digging of the universe" such as one may find in the poetry of Ginsberg and Snyder, and, rather unevenly, in Kerouac. But, as I know it, it is always a share too self-conscious, too subjective, and too strident to have the flavor of Zen. It is all very well for the philosopher, but when the poet (Ginsberg) says-
in the physical world
moment to moment
I must write down
every recurring thought-
stop every beating second
this is too indirect and didactic for Zen, which would rather hand you the thing itself without comment.
The sea darkens;
The voices of the wild ducks
Are faintly white.
Furthermore, when Kerouac gives his philosophical final statement, "I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't make any difference"-the cat is out of the bag, for there is a hostility in these words which clangs with self-defense. But just because Zen truly surpasses convention and its values, it has no need to say "To hell with it," nor to underline with violence the fact that anything goes.
Now the underlying protestant lawlessness of beat Zen disturbs square Zennists very seriously. For square Zen is the Zen of established tradition in Japan with its clearly defined hierarchy, its rigid discipline, and its specific tests of satori. More particularly, it is the kind of Zen adopted by Westerners studying in Japan, who will before long be bringing it back home. But there is an obvious difference between square Zen and the common-or-garden squareness of the Rotary Club or the Presbyterian Church. It is infinitely more imaginative, sensitive, and interesting. But it is still square because it is a quest for the right spiritual experience, for a satori which will receive the stamp (inka) of approved and established authority. There will even be certificates to hang on the wall.
I see no real quarrel in either extreme. There was never a spiritual movement without its excesses and distortions. The experience of awakening which truly constitutes Zen is too timeless and universal to be injured. The extremes of beat Zen need alarm no one since, as Blake said, "the fool who persists in his folly will become wise." As for square Zen, "authoritative" spiritual experiences have always had a way of wearing thin, and thus of generating the demand for something genuine and unique which needs no stamp.
I have known followers of both extremes to come up with perfectly clear satori experiences, for since there is no real "way" to satori the way you are following makes very little difference.
But the quarrel between the extremes is of great philosophical interest, being a contemporary form of the ancient dispute between salvation by works and salvation by faith, or between what the Hindus called the ways of the monkey and the cat. The cat-appropriately enough-follows the effortless way, since the mother cat carries her kittens. The monkey follows the hard way, since the baby monkey has to hang on to its mother's hair. Thus for beat Zen there must be no effort, no discipline, no artificial striving to attain satori or to be anything but what one is. But for square Zen there can be no true satori without years of meditation-practice under the stern supervision of a qualified master. In seventeenth-century Japan these two attitudes were approximately typified by the great masters Bankei and Hakuin, and it so happens that the followers of the latter "won out" and determined the present-day character of Rinzai Zen.
(Rinzai Zen is the form most widely known in the West. There is also Soto Zen which differs somewhat in technique, but is still closer to Hakuin then to Bankei. However, Bankei should not exactly be idenfitied with beat Zen as I have described it, for he was certainly no advocate of the life of undisciplined whimsy despite all that he said about the importance of the uncalculated life and the folly of seeking satori.)
Satori can lie along both roads. It is the concomitant of a "nongrasping" attitude of the senses to experience, and grasping can be exhausted by the discipline of directing its utmost intensity to a single, ever-elusive objective. But what makes the way of effort and will-power suspect to many Westerners is not so much an inherent laziness as a thorough familiarity with the wisdom of our own culture. The square Western Zennists are often quite naive when it comes to an understanding of Christain theology or of all that has been discovered in modern psychiatry, for both have been long concerned with the fallibility and unconscious ambivalence of the will. Both have proposed problems as to the vicious circle of seeking self-surrender or of "free-associating on purpose" or of accepting one's conflicts to escape from them, and to anyone who knows anything about either Christianity or psychotherapy these are very real problems. The interest of Chinese Zen and of people like Bankei is that they deal with these problems in a most direct and stimulating way, and being to suggest some answers. But when Herrigel's Japanese archery master was asked, "How can I give up purpose on purpose?" he replied that no one had ever asked him that before. He had no answer except to go on trying blindly, for five years.
Foreign relations can be immensely attractive and highly overrated by those who know little of their own, and especially by those who have not worked through and grown out of their own. This is why the displaced or unconscious Christian can so easily use either beat or square Zen to justify himself. The one wants a philosophy to justify him in doing what he pleases. The other wants a more plausible authoratative salvation than the Church or the psychiatrists seem to be able to provide. Furthermore the atmosphere of Japanese Zen is free from all one's unpleasant childhood associations with God the Father and Jesus Christ-though I know many young Japanese who feel the same way about their early training in Buddhism. But the true character of Zen remains almost incomprehensible to those who have not surpassed the immaturity of needing to be justified, whether before the Lord God or before a paternalistic society.
The old Chinese Zen masters were steeped in Taoism. They saw nature in its total interrelatedness, and saw that every creature and every experience is in accord with the Tao of nature just as it is. This enabled them to accept themselves as they were, moment by moment, without the least need to justify anything. They didn't do it to defend themselves or to find an excuse for getting away with murder. They didn't brag about it and set themselves apart as rather special. On the contrary, their Zen was wu-shih, which means approximately "nothing special" or "no fuss." But Zen is "fuss" when it is mixed up with Bohemian affectations, and "fuss" when it is imagined that the only proper way to find it is to run off to a monastery in Japan or to do special excercises in the lotus posture five hours a day. And I will admit that the very hullabaloo about Zen, even in such an article as this, is also fuss-but a little less so.
Having said that, I would like to say something for all Zen fussers, beat or square. Fuss is all right, too. If you are hung on Zen, there's no need to try to pretend that you are not. If you really want to spend some years in a Japanese monastery, there is no earthly reason why you shouldn't. Or if you want to spend your time hopping frieght cars and digging Charlie Parker, it's a free country.
In the landscape of Spring there is neither better
The flowering branches grow naturally, some long,
Complete Alan Watts Bibliography
The Spirit of
The Legacy of Asia and Western Man (1937)
The Meaning of Happiness (1940)
The Theologica Mystica of St. Dionysius (1944) (translation)
Behold the Spirit (1948)
Easter - Its Story and Meaning (1950)
The Supreme Identity (1950)
The Wisdom of Insecurity (1951)
Myth and Ritual in Christianity (1953)
The Way of Zen (1957)
Nature, Man, and Woman (1958)
"This Is It" and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (1960)
Psychotherapy East and West (1961)
The Joyous Cosmology - Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (1962)
The Two Hands of God - The Myths of Polarity (1963)
Beyond Theology - The Art of Godmanship (1964)
The Book - On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966)
Does It Matter? - Essays on Man's Relation to Materiality (1970)
Erotic Spirituality - The Vision of Konarak (1971)
The Art of Contemplation (1972)
In My Own Way - An Autobiography 1915-1965 (1972)
Cloud-hidden, Whereabouts Unknown - A Mountain Journal (1973)
Tao: The Watercourse Way (unfinished at the time of his death in 1973 - published in 1975)
The Early Writings of Alan Watts (1987)
The Modern Mystic: A New Collection of Early Writings (1990)
In addition, a number of books have been published since his death that contain transcripts of recorded lectures and/or articles not included in the above. They include:
of Alan Watts (1974)
Essential Alan Watts (1976)
Uncarved Block, Unbleached Silk: The Mystery of Life (1978)
Om: Creative Meditations (1979)
Play to Live (1982)
Way of Liberation: Essays and Lectures on the Transformation of the Self (1983)
Out of the Trap (1985)
Diamond Web (1986)
Talking Zen (1994)
Become Who You Are (1995)
Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion (1995)
The Philosophies of Asia (1995)
The Tao of Philosophy (1995)
Myth and Religion (1996)
Taoism: Way Beyond Seeking (1997)
Zen and the Beat Way (1997)
Culture of Counterculture (1998)
Sources of Recordings:
Recordings of Alan Watts can be ordered from several sources. Two outlets that specialize in them are:
Alan Watts Electronic
P.O. Box 2309
San Anselmo, CA USA 94979
1-800-96-WATTS (toll free)
World Wide Web: http://www.alanwatts.com
P.O. Box 303
Olema, CA USA 94950
1-800-75-WATTS (toll free number for placing orders)
World Wide Web: http://www.wattstapes.com
Additional recordings may also be gotten from:
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1-800-937-1819 (toll free)
World Wide Web: http://www.hartleyvideos.org
P.O. Box 422
New York, NY USA 10012-0008
1-212-941-0999 (general office)
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World Wide Web: http://www.mysticfire.com
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World Wide Web: http://www.tantra.com
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New York, NY 10012
1-800-538-5856 (toll free)
World Wide Web:
In addition, Alan Watts made at least two record albums:
Om: The Sound
of Hinduism (1967); and
Why Not Now: Dhyana, The Art of Meditation (two record set) (1969)
In 1995, "Om: The Sound of Hinduism" was re-released on compact disc by Infinite Zero/American Recordings, however it appears to be unavailable at this time.
Radio broadcasts featuring recordings of Alan Watts can be heard in the following U.S. cities:
Alamosa KRZA (719) 589-9057
Athens (GA) WUOG (706) 542-7100
Austin KAZI (512) 836-9544
Boston WZBC (617) 552-3511
Boulder KGNU (303) 449-4885
Crested Butte KBUT (303) 349-5225
Detroit WDTR (313) 596-3507
Duluth KUMD (218) 726-7181
Honolulu KIFO (808) 955-8821
Johnson City (TN) WETS (615) 929-6440
Los Angeles / Santa Barbara KPFK (818) 985-2711
New York City WFMU (201) 678-8264
Olympia KAOS (206) 866-6000
Pittsburgh WDUQ (412) 396-6030
Plainfield (VT) WGDR (802) 454-7762
Plattsburgh (NY) WCFE (518) 563-9770
San Francisco Bay Area KKUP (408) 253-6000
San Luis Obispo KCBX (805) 544-5229
Scranton WVSR (717) 941-7648
St. Louis KDHX (314) 664-3955
Tampa WMNF (813) 238-8001
Telluride KOTO (303) 728-3334
Trenton WTSR (609) 771-2554
Tucson KXCI (602) 623-1000
Watts on the Web:
Radio station KPFK-FM, which broadcasts in the Los Angeles area and airs Alan Watts tapes twice a week - on Sundays from 8:30 to 9:00 a.m. and on Thursdays (actually Fridays) from around Midnight to 1:00 a.m., Pacific Time - also broadcasts simultaneously on the World Wide Web via RealAudio. To listen, point your Web browser to KPFK-FM and click on "Listen Live".
On Thursday nights the tapes are played during the "Something's Happening" show, which airs Monday-Thursday from Midnight to 5:30 a.m. To subscribe to the Something's Happening Program Guide, which is sent out every weekend with program information for the coming week, go to the Something's Happening Website and follow the instructions to sign up.
WMNF-FM, which broadcasts in the Tampa, Florida, area and airs Alan Watts tapes
on Wednesdays starting at 11:00 a.m., Eastern Time, also broadcasts simultaneously
on the World Wide Web. To listen, point your Web browser to:
Policy Library contains a number of Watts' works on the drug issue.
The entire text (but not the photographs) of the 1970 revised edition of "The Joyous Cosmology..." (in which Watts added several pages to the Prologue of the original 1962 edition) is at:
In addition, two articles by Watts:
and the Religious Experience (from the book "Does It Matter?...");
The New Alchemy (from the book "This Is It...")
Another article by Watts:
Experience - Fact or Fantasy?
(from "LSD, The Consciousness-Expanding Drug," David Solomon, Editor, 1964)
And an excerpt from "In My Own Way..." is at:
An excerpt from
a dialogue featuring Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg,
originally published in the San Francisco Oracle in 1967, is at:
There are two
Alan Watts Groups at Yahoo.com. The URLs are:
an Alan Watts Group at MSN:
The Alan Watts
Mailing List archives are at: