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.

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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.