The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

wattsa-wayofzenZen Buddhism has become an object of fascination for me in recent years. Fascinating because my personal philosophy happens to be highly compatible with the philosophical underpinnings of Buddhism: the realisation that there is no individual self distinct from the Universe. Buddhism, in contrast to Western religions, seems to offer more of an experiential spirituality than a set of dogmas. It’s an approach of “Do x, and y will happen.” Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, appears to be just a regular guy who realised something deep and profound about life; he is not a saviour figure to be worshipped, the way that Christians worship Jesus.

This little book helped to give me greater clarity about the Buddhist pratice of “seated meditation” called zazen – what the specifics of the posture are for, and what the practitioner can hope to achieve (or not achieve) through sustained pactice. Unfortunately, thus far, I have been far too lazy to meditate on a regular basis. But if all this reading has done one thing for me, it’s to make me much more aware of the general “toxicity” of my mind, and what I can do about it.

The Way of Zen also provides some useful historical anecdotes on the origins of Buddhism. A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read – which is no surprise when it comes to Alan Watts, a consistently brilliant writer and lecturer.

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The Philosophies of Asia by 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.

The Joyous Cosmology by Alan Watts

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.

Myth and Ritual in Christianity by Alan Watts

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.

The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are by Alan Watts

I’m frequently disappointed by what passes for spirituality, from a non-dualist perspective. Quite often, there is a crafty repackaging of salvation woven into an author’s sales pitch, or there is a totally unrealistic descent into a spiritual pipedream of “universal love.”

Alan Watts, happily, manages to be both a non-dualist and a down-to-earth realist. In recent years, one of the most interesting dilemmas I went through was the clash between non-dualism (which says that everything is one) and LaVeyan Satanism (which grasps that the universe is adversarial). I rate both of these observations as true, but the latter one is often missed. Watts gets it. He describes existence within the universe as “a harmony of contained conflicts,” understanding that it cannot be any other way, by virtue of the dualistic predicament of all life.

This was a fabulous read. It began with a suggestion of how non-dualism can be explained to young children, as a better alternative to the “God made the universe” stereotype. Watts goes on to tackle non-dualism from a vector that had never even occurred to me: our inability to separate the human organism from the environment around it. We naturally think of the self as a human body – a distinct unit isolated from what is around it. But the air that is breathed into the body from the environment and the carbon dioxide that is breathed out are just as essential to the body as the blood that circulates within. The body cannot be isolated from its environment, nor can the immediate environment be isolated from the planet, the planet from the solar system, and so on. The division of self into body and environment is arbitrary – merely an act of labelling. There is no “you” independent of everything else – only an organism within a super-organism, i.e. the universe itself.

Many times in the book, Watts made observations that were profound, simple, and obviously true, yet so easily missed until pointed out. Chief among them was our conditioned way of thinking, “I came into this world,” when it is far more accurate to say “I came out of the universe.” A person is like the eyes of the universe, which is gazing at itself. Watts has a way of describing life on earth that makes the materialism of atheists seem absurd. Atheists commonly think of the universe as something unconscious. But since man came out of (not into) the universe, and man is conscious, does this not mean that the universe must be conscious?

The balance of nature, the “harmony of contained conflicts,” in which man thrives is a network of mutually interdependent organisms of the most astounding subtlety and complexity. Teilhard de Chardin has called it the “biosphere,” the film of living organisms which covers the original “geosphere,” the mineral planet. Lack of knowledge about the evolution of the organic from the “inorganic,” coupled with misleading myths about life coming “into” this world from somewhere “outside,” has made it difficult for us to see that the biosphere arises, or goes with, a certain degree of geological and astronomical evolution. But, as Douglas E. Harding has pointed out, we tend to think of this planet as a life-infested rock, which is as absurd as thinking of the human body as a cell-infested skeleton. Surely all forms of life, including man, must be understood as “symptoms” of the earth, the solar system, and the galaxy – in which case we cannot escape the conclusion that the galaxy is intelligent.

Watts is well versed in Eastern philosophy (Hinduism and Buddhism), and his writing serves as a useful bridge between very different cultures, helping us in the West to appreciate a wider metaphysical perspective outside of the cramped confines of Western materialism.

After reading this book, I want to get hold of everything that Watts has written.