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.
I was attracted to this book by its subtitle: “Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth About Reality.” The odd combination of spirituality and mundanity appealed to me because I have a profound distrust of the kind of spiritual teacher who puts on a pretense of living on some higher wavelength of reality. I used to read a lot of David Icke, and much as I now disagree with many of his views, I still love the down-to-earth “spirituality with balls” attitude that he maintains. He was never ashamed to get pissed off, to swear in public, to trample on tradition, and to question authority.
In the same regard, Brad Warner didn’t disappoint. I smiled when the author poured scorn on all the pomp and ceremony that is attached to Buddhism, without losing sight of the value of the philosophy itself. And I found Zen Buddhism to be surprisingly agreeable.
The universe desires to perceive itself and to think about itself and you are born out of this desire. The universe wants to experience itself from the point of view of a tree, and so there are trees. The universe wants to feel what it’s like to be a rock, and so there are rocks. The universe wants to know what it’s like to be a famous Austrian body-builder cum film star and so there is Arnie. We don’t know that rocks and trees have an idea of “self,” and it doesn’t matter one way or the other. But we do know that human beings like you and me and Arnie believe in the existence of “self.” And this belief is the root of all of our problems.
Some might view the above assertsions as absurd, but I completely get the idea of duality as an expression of a more fundamental non-duality. In Eastern terms, I could say that I believe in the Advaita branch of Hinduism. But I’m damned if I can see any fundamental difference between Advaita and Zen – except that Zen has an emphasis on meditation as the principle means to enlightenment.
The type of meditation advocated in Zen Buddhism is pleasantly basic. It’s called “zazen” and it’s basically all about sitting still. There is no requirement for mantas, or specialised technique. The purpose of zazen is to open yourself to your true self. Given enough practice, it is claimed that we will be confronted with everything we’ve repressed.
There’s a really interesting chapter where the author makes a strong case against the idea of seeking enlightenment through psychoactive drugs. Another where he shows the error of belief in reincarnation. For the most part, I found my own views echoed and reinforced throughout the book. But the one chapter where I learned something new and important was “The World of Demons.” This was an alarmingly honest discourse on human nature – especially its nasty side, and how we should relate to that socially unacceptable part of ourselves. This chapter was so good that I went back and read it a second time, after finishing the book.
This is one of the more important books I’ve read in recent years. I don’t know that I would call myself a Zen Buddhist, but I am definitely keen to try zazen, even merely as a means of daily centering myself. It’s something I’ve always neglected, perhaps to my detriment.