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Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks: 1960-1969

Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life: Collected Talks: 1960-1969

by Alan Watts

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Alan Watts introduced millions of Western readers to Zen and other Eastern philosophies. But he is also recognized as a brilliant commentator on Judeo-Christian traditions, as well as a celebrity philosopher who exemplified the ideas — and lifestyle — of the 1960s counterculture. In this compilation of controversial lectures that Watts delivered at


Alan Watts introduced millions of Western readers to Zen and other Eastern philosophies. But he is also recognized as a brilliant commentator on Judeo-Christian traditions, as well as a celebrity philosopher who exemplified the ideas — and lifestyle — of the 1960s counterculture. In this compilation of controversial lectures that Watts delivered at American universities throughout the sixties, he challenges readers to reevaluate Western culture's most hallowed constructs. Watts treads the familiar ground of interpreting Eastern traditions, but he also covers new territory, exploring the counterculture's basis in the ancient tribal and shamanic cultures of Asia, Siberia, and the Americas. In the process, he addresses some of the era's most important questions: What is the nature of reality? How does an individual's relationship to society affect this reality? Filled with Watts's playful, provocative style, the talks show the remarkable scope of a philosopher at his prime, exploring and defining the sixties counterculture as only Alan Watts could.

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Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life

Collected Talks 1960â"1969

By Alan Watts

New World Library

Copyright © 2006 Alan Watts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-922-1



In this series of articles on Eastern wisdom and modern life, I'm going to be exploring Buddhism and Zen, Zen being a particular form of Buddhism which flourishes in Japan and China.

You may wonder why I am particularly interested in investigating Buddhism as distinct from other forms of Asian philosophy and religion. The reason is that Buddhism is a method of liberation which has emerged as a way of life in Asia, but which is not so closely tied to the different cultures of Asia as such other philosophies or religions as Hinduism or Confucianism or Shinto. Shinto, for example, is the national cult of Japan, and it would be impossible, really, for Shinto to migrate to any other people than the Japanese. In the same way, Confucianism is intimately bound up with Chinese culture. And also Hinduism is tied to the particular culture and social order of India. Although it began in India, Buddhism has migrated to all parts of Asia and has adapted itself to all kinds of different cultures. And so, in this way you might say Buddhism is an intercultural or even international way of life, and therefore of all the forms of Asian philosophy it is probably of most interest to the West.

However there are certain difficulties in trying to introduce the idea of Buddhism at all because it's ordinarily looked upon as a form of religion. When, for example, we look at studies of comparative religions, Buddhism is grouped together with Christianity, with Judaism, with Islam, with Zoroastrianism, and with Hinduism — as if all these were things of the same kind. But I think if we use the one word religion to designate things so astonishingly different as Christianity and Judaism, on the one hand, and Buddhism, on the other, we make the word have such a wide meaning that it really means nothing at all. Now I don't want to lay down the law as to what religion is, but I think I would make myself more intelligible if I let you know the way I understand the word. And I think it's simplest if we confine the word religion to such phenomena as Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam. And then we'll have to find another term for things so different as Buddhism.

What is the difference? The word religion comes from the Latin religare – to bind — and thus a religion is the following of a rule of life that is believed to be divinely revealed. There is, in other words, a body of doctrine we call the creed, and this is revealed doctrine, which the human being is supposed to believe. Then there is the revealed way of life — the code — the expression of the will of God in terms of law or, as in Christianity, in terms of the personality of Christ. And then, finally, in religion there is the cult; that is to say the worship of God, of the ultimate reality who has revealed Himself in the form of the religion.

Now Buddhism has neither creed, code, nor cult. There is nothing that is binding upon the Buddhist, nothing they are supposed to believe in. There is no authoritative code, and there are no positive doctrines that the believer has to ascend to. It's true that Buddhists do observe certain precepts of moral and ethical behavior, however they don't regard the observation of them as following a divine will. It's simply a pledge you take to yourself. And, furthermore, Buddhism has no particular cult. That is to say, there are no specific sacraments or forms of worship that are binding upon all Buddhists. You might then say that Buddhism is a form of philosophy, but again this would not be quite correct because what we understand by philosophy in the West is the elaboration of certain ideas, certain theories about the nature of the universe, the nature of man or the nature of knowledge. And Buddhism is not particularly concerned with elaborating ideas.

The nearest thing in our culture to Buddhism, although it isn't exactly the same, is probably psychotherapy. And the reason is that what constitutes the essence of Buddhism is not beliefs, not ideas, not even practices, but a way of experiencing. I could almost call it a way of feeling. Now in psychotherapy, if a person goes to a psychotherapist because they feel miserable, are depressed, anxious, or profoundly worried, the object of the psychotherapist's practice is to change the person's state of consciousness, to change their state of mind. And, in this respect, it is something like Buddhism because Buddhism envisages a transformation, a very radical transformation, of the way in which ordinary people feel themselves and the surrounding world. And so, in this sense, I have coined for Buddhism a special term to contrast it with a religion. I would call it a "way of liberation," a way of liberation from the ordinary way in which most civilized and probably many primitive people feel themselves and the world. That is to say, for example, the feeling that I am a lonely, separate, transient individual locked up inside my skin, and therefore different from, even hostile to and alienated from, everything else.

Now, of course, if I mention the word Buddha, I suppose to many people's minds it refers to the picture of an idol. But the image of a Buddha is a figure of a man, not of a god. Specifically it is a figure of an Indian prince who lived around 560 B.C., and his name was Gautama Siddhartha. This man is called the Buddha, but that's not his proper name. It is a title and it means, approximately, "the man who woke up." Buddha refers to the awakened one, and in saying that Buddhism is something like psychotherapy, it might be correct to say that Gautama, the Buddha, was the world's first great psychotherapist. And it is interesting that the way in which he formulated his method was patterned upon a doctor's prescription. He expressed his treatment in a form called the Four Noble Truths and I'm going to go through these four truths, which are named in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. They follow the doctor's method of diagnosing and prescribing, because the first thing a doctor is asked, when he's summoned to the bed of a sick man, is to diagnose what it is he suffers from. And so the first of the Buddha's noble truths is the name of the disease from which human beings suffer, and in Sanskrit that is duhkha, which means something approximately like anguish, or suffering in a special sense. The cause of the disease he called trishna, and the word trishna, which is related to our word thirst, means clutching or grasping, and it is often translated "desire." The third thing the doctor is asked is whether the disease can be cured, and if so what the cure might be, and to this he responds in Sanskrit nirvana, and that means "release." Finally, having stated the cure, he gives the prescription for the cure and here we have the Sanskrit word marga. Marga means "path" and it designates the Noble Eightfold Path, the steps to following the Buddhist way of life.

So let's go back to the meaning of each one of these words, and we go back, first of all, to duhkha, the disease from which human beings are suffering according to the Buddha's method. Now sometimes this word is given just the very general meaning of suffering, but I think it should be given a more specific sense, and I would call it anguish or chronic frustration as a result of trying to do things that are inherently impossible, and that are inherently contradictory. If you try to draw a square circle, you can try to the end of time but you'll never do it because it's a contradiction. And in the same way, there are certain things which human beings are doing which are contradictory and which get them into a state of chronic anguish.

Now in Buddha's method duhkha stems from another factor which is sort of intermediate between suffering, or anguish, and its cause. And he said that clutching, which is the basis of our anguish, is ultimately dependent upon a kind of unconsciousness or ignorance, which in Sanskrit is called avidya, literally "not knowing," thus ignorance. And it is really a way of seeing the world in an unrelated way, and thinking of it as consisting simply of so many things, like a rock, a foot, a plant, a man, when, actually, the world is not composed of bits and pieces. Everything that exists exists only in relation to other things. In other words, an egg, for example, looks very separate. It looks like a very definite, particular thing. But you don't find eggs without chickens. And you don't find chickens without the sort of environment in which chickens can live. Likewise, in a similar fashion you don't find fingers lying around without a hand. Although we think of the fingers as separate, they are related to the hand; the hand, in turn, to the arm; the arm to the body; and the body to its whole environment of earth and sky, sunlight and air.

And so, if we think of the world as being made up of separate things rather than related things, we start trying to deal with things as if they were separate. That is to say, take for example pleasure and pain. We say pleasure is distinctly separate from pain. I want pleasure, but I don't want pain. I would like to have pleasure without pain. And so we set our lives to this task. But actually this is as contradictory as trying to have up without down. Supposing we try to arrange everything around here so that everything was up and there was nothing down, or so that we had all fronts but no backs. We would simply cease to exist. And so, in the same way, to try to wrest or separate pleasure from pain would bring about a state of mind in which we cease to know what pleasure was. There would be no contrast to pleasure and it would become simply boring. And so, in this way, we orient our lives towards impossible ideals and as a result run into frustration.

Another source of frustration arises when we do not see that the world in which we live is fundamentally impermanent. One of the cardinal features of the Buddha's teaching is that all life, however solid it may seem to be, and all things, however separate they may seem to be, are in a state of flux. That is to say that the world we live in doesn't consist so much of things or entities as it consists of process. Everything is in a constant state of flowing pattern. By way of illustration you might say that it's something like the flowing pattern you see when you look at smoke: a dancing, constantly changing arabesque of pattern; flowing, flowing, all the time. Or that the substance of life is something like water, which I can hold in my hand so long as I cup it gently, but if I clutch at the water, I immediately lose it.

And so, in this way, through our failure to see that everything is alive because it flows, we try to possess it, and this is trishna, or grasping. In other words we try to hold on as tight as we can to what we love: to hold on to our own lives, to hold on to the lives of people we cherish. In exactly the same way a mother, who's very fond of a child who's growing up and still wants to keep that baby, and smothers with love that little kid which she adores so much, and is anxious lest the child while growing up should run into mistakes. So she clings to the child, and she refuses to let the child have the full play of responsibility and risk. But this is no different than refusing to let an egg hatch. All that happens is that the egg will get addled inside its shell if it isn't allowed to grow into the chick, to break free, to change. Or, in the same way, you might love the sound of running water that you hear in a stream passing through somebody's garden. And you think, "Oh yes, I'd love to have that water in my own garden." And you arrive there with a bucket, and you pick the water up, and you take it away. But having caught the water in the bucket, it's dead; it's no longer living running water.

So we are constantly frustrated by grasping and strangling a world that is essentially a changing pattern. Now of course in our ordinary common sense we do think of the world as pattern, but as patterns of something. In other words, we think that underneath all form, all shape, all pattern, there is some solid stuff that we might call substance, and this is based on thinking that the world is made in the same way as a potter makes pots out of clay. And therefore we think it quite natural to ask: "What are stars made of?" "What are mountains made of?" "What are trees made of?" We assume that they were constructed and that they were constructed out of something, like a carpenter makes tables out of wood or the potter makes pots out of clay. But really this is an unnecessary notion because the stuff underlying things, when we inquire into it in our own modern science, turns out to be evermore complex and subtle patterns. If you take something that looks very solid and metallic, like a coin, it has a good hard, dense surface. But look at this same dense, polished surface under an electron microscope and what you see is pattern. Or look at it more deeply, from the standpoint of the nuclear physicist, and it's simply dancing orbits of energy. So, if we have a picture of the world in which we think that beneath all changing forms there lies solid stuff, then in the same way we come to have an idea of ourselves as a sort of stuff underlying the changing form of our actions. We think of ourselves as doers behind thoughts and words and deed, as experiencers behind experience.

But if we were to realize that we are, as it were, all action, all deed — the doer vanishes, and with it vanishes this sense of man as something separate, something cut off, walled away from the rest of the world by his skin. When that realization comes about; when, in other words, our own separateness disappears, we have what the Buddha called nirvana — release, or the cure. But nirvana is a terribly misunderstood word. A lot of people, when they hear the word nirvana, think, "Well, it's sort of a state of being, a place vaguely, dreamily blissful." It's like you might feel on a Sunday afternoon after an enormous dinner. Or they think it means annihilation. Strictly speaking, though, this word in Sanskrit means simply to "blow out," that is, blow out in the sense of "wheeeeew," to breathe a sigh of relief. And this word was chosen because breath is one of the fundamental symbols of life. The word spirit is, originally, one's breath, and if I were to think: "I've got to have breath, I need my breath, my breath is my life and therefore I hold my breath," then, like keeping water in the bucket, I begin to lose my breath and turn purple in the face. So instead I have to let go, breathe out, and lose my breath in order to have breath. So you might say that the whole idea of clinging is put in the metaphor of trying to hold on to one's breath, trying to hold on to one's life, refusing to let one's self go. But when that is seen to be impossible, just as it's impossible to have pleasure all the time and no pain, then one lives what you might call "the blown out life" — the life of nirvana.

And finally the Buddha describes marga, the path that leads to awakening. I'm not going to go into all the details, the eight steps, or the eight folds of the Buddha's marga, or path, instead for now I'll just touch on the spirit of it. Buddha called the path the Middle Way and so you might say this is the path of the middle road. This is often misunderstood as a way of what you might call compromise. In Buddha's time there were many people in India seeking liberation from suffering by extreme forms of asceticism and self-mortification. And naturally on the other hand there were other people trying to escape from suffering by intense pleasure seeking, as we can see today. But Buddha said both these roads were ignoble, both the road of self-mortification, lying on beds of nails and the like, and the road of pleasure seeking, or hedonism.

But the Middle Way does not quite mean a compromise between these two extremes.

It has a somewhat more profound sense than that, and I think the easiest way of understanding what the Buddha meant by "the middle way" would be to call it "the balanced life" — avoiding falling into one extreme or to another extreme. When you ride a bicycle, you do something that is very much like following the Middle Way, because to stay upright as you go along you balance to avoid falling to either side. But the curious thing about riding a bicycle, which is so difficult for beginners to understand, is that when you start falling, say to the right, you have to turn the handlebars and the wheel to the right, to the direction in which you're falling. And as a result of this, surprisingly enough, you come upright. One would ordinarily think, perhaps, that if you start falling to the right you should turn your wheel to the left, but if you do that you'll collapse.


Excerpted from Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life by Alan Watts. Copyright © 2006 Alan Watts. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Meet the Author

Alan Watts was one of the most famous and insightful writers and speakers of the twentieth century on the subjects of Eastern thought and meditation. He was born in England in 1915 and lived in the United States, where he was an Episcopalian priest at Northwestern University until 1950. Soon after, he devoted himself to the study of Eastern philosophy and meditation at the Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, and became one of the most famous and enduring writers on Asian philosophy. He died in his home in northern California in 1973. His books include The Way of Zen, Psychotherapy East and West, The Joyous Cosmology, and The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.

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