Category Archives: Alan Watts
Here in the West, we’ve all grown up under the influence of Christianity, where God is viewed as a divine monarch. Little do we realise that we only picture God in this way because we’re unconsciously projecting an entirely human political structure onto him/it. Watts’s book challenges this, by describing the very different concept of God that has arisen in the East, specifically Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. To the Hindus, the Universe is viewed as God play-acting, or dreaming each of us. God is inside everything rather than above everything. It’s like a game of hide and seek; each one of us is God-in-disguise without realising it. In Taoism the Universe is viewed as a single organism (indistinguishable from God). Watts helps us to look upon the Universe in a very different way, not as a collection of separate things which exist independently of one another, but as a series of interconnected relationships. These Eastern approaches differ greatly from the likes of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, because they are not concerned with divine revelation, or obedience to a monarch. In this sense, they are not really religions at all, in terms of what we understand religion to be. The focus of the East is a transformation of consciousness. Learning to look upon the Universe in a different way that dramatically affects one’s life.
This volume consists of various verbal lectures given by Alan Watts, transcribed by his son Mark in the 1990s, from earlier recordings. The lecture “The Mythology of Hinduism” examines the religious side of Hinduism, where the godhead is said to be dreaming each of us. “Eco-Zen” delves into how the individual is one with the world, showing how the line between organism and environment is blurry and insubstantial when we get past the idea of “things.” “Swallowing a Ball of Hot Iron” examines the relationship of student and master in Zen Buddhism. “Intellectual Yoga” looks at the mind as a path to enlightenment. The volume finishes with “Introduction to Buddhism” and “The Taoist Way of Karma.” This is not a lecture series, as such. Mark Watts draws together material that spans his father’s career into single book of related topics.
Since this is the fourth book by Watts that I have read, I’m starting to notice a lot of overlap, but that’s unavoidable, and actually serves as a reminder of important insights. I continue to be impressed with this philosopher, and I have a better undersatnding of the Universe as a result of his work. This book provides a short and often humourous brief on Eastern philosophy. It’s certainly not detailed enough for the serious student, but as an introduction, it makes perfect reading.
Alan Watts is a non-dualist, as am I. Among those who think in this fashion, opinion is divided on the helpfulness of psychedelic drugs in the quest for enlightenment. Watts is in favour of their use, although he cautions that such experiences are wasted on those who do not approach the activity with a philosophical mindset.
Personally, I’ve never felt the need to take drugs in order to heighten my awareness. The human organism is working perfectly just as it is, and I’ve been able to grasp very deep things about reality from an intellectual perspective, and to feel these insights so deeply that I doubt drug use would be of any benefit. Many have congratulated me on my ability to talk and write about things they have felt but been unable to articulate; one individual even expressed great surprise that I have managed to comprend life to such a deep extent without resorting to drugs. My suspicion is that psychedelic drugs are merely a shortcut – something that takes the hard work out of the endeavour of understanding our place in the cosmos. And the drawback of such a shortcut is that it can leave the user stunned by glimpses of a deeper reality without any ability to communicate what he has experienced meaningfully to others. He feels a lot intuitively about what he went through, but cannot process it mentally. Since I haven’t dabbled in drugs, I’m doing a little guesswork here, but I hope intelligent guesswork.
The Joyous Cosmology is Alan Watts’ attempt to articute his psychedelic experiences in words. He never had hallucinations, except when his eyes were closed and he allowed his visual cortex to run amuck. In normal consciousness, the effect of drugs was to heighten perception. The simple act of gazing at a flower takes on far greater significance. Ordinary things became objects of incredible wonder. As I said, I think it’s possible to cultivate this appreciation without resorting to drugs. In fact, the author’s endeavour to capture his experiences in words attests to that.
Some people who are interested in non-duality have a strange view about life: they’re trying to “awaken,” to experience the underlying oneness. But if your individual mind were able to experience unity with everything, then it’s still the individual mind experiencing something separate from itself – still in duality. Any experience of oneness brought about by meditation or drug use will only be a halfway house, by virtue of the ever present subject-object (dual) relationship of consciousness. So, if that’s why you want to take psychedelics, you might as well forget it. What you seek can’t be accomplished.
The main aversion I have about mind-altering drugs are the toxic effects of drugs in general, especially when used habitually – which the author does not advocate. If you’re thinking about using a psychedelic drug for “spiritual” purposes, first educate yourself with this book and others. For me, this whole endeavour is of little practical value, because I’ve already achieved something the hard way. Still, a highly interesting book.
This is a very different look at Christianity from how it is commonly understood. It says that Christianity is not so much a historical faith of God’s actual dealings with mankind; it is mythological in character, telling a story with symbols – a story that is told, not just in Christianity, but in the core teachings of all of the world’s religions. I suppose you might call this Mystic Christianity. The idea is that you have to get past all the dross of conventional religion to find the nuggets of truth that are intuited at the heart.
Is there anything to this notion? Well, yes, at least to a degree. For instance, consider the prevalence of the number 12: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples of Christ, etc. The significance of this is the twelve months of the year, with the sun (Jesus) at the centre. The notion of the incarnation (God becoming man) is viewed, not as a historic event that happened once for all time, but as a symbol of the divine and earthly natures of all men. We are all both God and creature. To comprehend this, you have to appreciate consciousness as something more profound than how it is considered within the constraints of materialistic science.
Before reading this book, I was already in touch with hints of what Watts’ explains. The idea of God having two natures (Father and Son) was not as absurd to me as it is to most atheists, because I had already come to appreciate that consciousness has metaphysical roots that are non-dual. There is little-me here in the material realm and big-me running the show from beyond space-time. But both are me.
While this was an interesting read, and by far the strangest book on Christianity I’ve delved into, I’m not sold on the idea that there is any value to be had in attempting to restore Christianity to some sort of mystic relevance. Christianity, for the most part, has long been interpreted as a historical record of God’s dealings with mankind. The idea of convincing the world that it is better treated symbolically can only happen after the world has been convinced that it is non-historical – at any which point ex-believers will be disenchanted at having been conned all their lives and will have no wish to translate the fictions of their imprisonment into symbols of genuine metaphysical worth. At least, that’s how being an ex-Christian makes me feel. Perhaps Watts’ approach to Christianity will have some relevance to a lapsed Catholic who has been trying long and hard to make something good out of it.
I personally feel that the way forward for metaphysics is to lose all religious and spiritual garb and to integrate with modern scientific language. For instance, understanding man as the Infinite focused to a point of limited awareness within space-time. That works a lot better for me than talking about man realising his godhood through his union with Christ the God-man.
An interesting and unique book, packed with a staggering amout of research by way of footnotes. But ultimately of no more value than a historical curiosity.