Monday, September 9, 2013

Alan Watts - Philosophy of the Tao

This is a lecture by Alan Watts, circa 1970, which I transcribed in 2004. I will be publishing a few more transcripts over time. It's no substitute for listening to one of his lectures, where his spirit and sense of humor come through better. I recommend you subscribe to the Wisdom of Alan Watts podcast, which you can find on iTunes or at

The subject of this seminar is going to be Taoism as contained in the teachings of Lao-Tzu and Juang-Tzu who lived approximately 400 years or more before Christ, separated probably by 100 years from each other. And as is often repeated, Lao-Tzu started out by explaining that "The Tao which can be explained is not the eternal Tao," and then went on to write a book about it, also saying "Those who say do not know; those who know do not say." Because there's nothing to be explained. You must remember that the word "explain" means to lay out in a plane. That is, to put it on a flat sheet of paper.

All mathematics is done on a flat sheet of paper until very recent times. But it makes a great deal of difference, because this world isn't flat. If you draw a circle on a flat sheet of paper it has an inside and an outside which are different. On the other hand if you draw a circle around a doughnut the inside and the outside are the same. So what we are first of all saying is that the Tao - whatever that is - cannot be explained in that sense.

So it's important, first of all, to experience it so we know what we're talking about. And in order to go into Taoism at all we must begin by being in the frame of mind which can understand it. You cannot force yourself into this frame of mind, any more than you can smooth disturbed water with your hand. But let's say that our starting point is that we forget what we know - or think we know. That we suspend judgment about practically everything, returning to what we were when we were babies. When we have not yet learned the names, or language, and although we have extremely sensitive bodies - very alive senses - we have no means of making an intellectual or verbal commentary on what is going on.

Now can you consider that as your state? Just plain ignorant, but still very much alive. And in this state you just feel what is without calling it anything at all. You know nothing at all about anything called an external world in relation to an internal world. You don't know who you are. You haven't even got the idea of the word "you" or "I." It's before all that. Nobody has taught you self-control. So you don't know the difference between the noise of a car outside and a wandering thought that enters your mind. They're both something that happens. You don't identify the presence of the thought, which might be just an image of a passing cloud in your mind's eye, and the passing automobile. They happen. Your breath happens. Light all around you happens. Your response to it by blinking happens.

So you simply are really unable to do anything. There's nothing that you're supposed to do. Nobody's told you anything to do. You're unable, completely, to do anything but be aware of the buzz. The visual buzz, the audible buzz, the tangible buzz, the smellable buzz, all buzz that's going on. Ha ha. Watch it! Don't ask who's watching it. You've no information about that yet, that it requires a watcher for something to be watched. That's somebody's idea. You don't know that.

And Lao-Tzu says, "The scholar learns something every day. The man of Tao unlearns something every day... until he gets back to non-doing." And that's what we are in at the moment.

Just simply, without comment, without an idea in your head, be aware. What else can you do? Don't try to be aware. You are. You'll find, of course, that you can't stop the commentary going on inside of your head. But at least you can regard it as interior noise. Listen to your chattering thoughts as you listen to the singing of a kettle. We don't know what it is we are aware of. Especially when you take it all together. And there's this sense of something going on. I won't even say that. This. You see? This.

Well, I said it was going on. That's an idea. It's a form of words. Obviously I wouldn't know if anything was going on unless I could say something else wasn't. Huh. I know motion by contrast with rest. So while I am aware of motion I am also aware of rest, so maybe what's at rest isn't going on and what's motion is going on. So I won't use that concept because I've got to include both. And if I say, "Well here it is," that excludes what isn't - like space. And if I say "this" it excludes "that." Ha ha ha, I'm reduced to silence!

But you can feel what I'm talking about, can't you? That's what's called "Tao" in Chinese. That's where we begin.

Tao means basically "way" - and so "course" - the course of Nature. Of which Lao-Tzu says "Tao fa tzu yan," which means - the "fa" - "Tao fa" means the way of functioning of the Tao. "Tzu yan" is of itself, so. That is to say, is spontaneous.

Watch again what's going on. If you approach it with this wise ignorance you will see that you are witnessing a happening. In other words, in this primal way of looking at things there's no difference between what you do on the one hand and what happens to you on the other. It's all the same process. Just as your thoughts happen the car happens outside. The clouds. The stars.

When a Westerner hears that he thinks of fatalism or determinism. That's because he still preserves in the back of his mind two illusions. One is that what is happening is happening to him, and therefore he is the victim of circumstances. But when you are in primal ignorance there is no you different from what's happening, and therefore it's not happening to you. It's just happening. Ha ha. So is you, you know, what you call "you," what you later call "you" is part of the happening. You're part of the Universe. Although the Universe, strictly speaking, has no parts. We only call certain features of the Universe parts of it, but you can't disconnect them from the rest without causing them to be not only nonexistent but never to have existed. Ha ha.

So when you have this happening the other illusion that a Westerner is liable to have is that it's determined in the sense that what is happening now follows necessarily from what happened in the past. But you don't know anything about that in your primal ignorance. Cause and effect? Why, obviously not! Ha ha ha! Because if you're really na•ve you see that the past is the result of what's happening now. It goes backwards into the past like a wake goes backwards from a ship. All the echoes are disappearing, finally, going away and away and away. And it's all starting now. What we call the future is nothing, the great void. And everything comes out of the great void.

That's the way a na•ve person - and as I explained if any of you were at my lecture last night, if you shut your eyes and contemplate reality only with your ears you'll find there's a background of silence and all sounds are coming out of it. They start out of silence. If you close your eyes - listen, just listen. [rings meditation bell] You see the bell came out of nothing, floated off, off, off, off, and then stopped being a sonic echo and became a memory, which is another kind of echo. A wake. It's very simple!

It all begins now. And therefore it's spontaneous. It isn't determined. That's a philosophical notion. Nor is it capricious! That's another philosophical notion. As we distinguish between what is orderly and what is random. Of course we don't really know what randomness is. If you talk to a mathematician about randomness he'll make you feel quite weird.

What is so of itself? "Sui generis" in Latin. That means coming into being spontaneously on its own accord. It's the real meaning of "virgin birth." Sui generis. And that's the world. That is the Tao. That makes us feel scared. Perhaps. Because we say "Well if all this is happening spontaneously who's in charge? I'm not in charge, that's pretty obvious! Ha ha ha! But I hope there's God or somebody looking after all this." Though why should there be someone looking after it? Because then there's a new worry that you may not have thought of. Like who takes care of the caretaker's daughter while the caretaker's busy taking care? Who guards the guards? Who supervises the police? Who looks after God? Well you say "God doesn't need looking after." Oh. Oh, then nor does this!

Tao. Because Tao is a certain kind of order. And this kind of order is not quite what we call order. When we arrange everything geometrically in boxes or in rows that's a very crude kind of order. But when you look at a plant it's perfectly obvious that this bamboo plant has order. We recognize at once that that is not a mess. But it is not symmetrical. And it is not geometrical looking. It looks like a Chinese drawing. Because the Chinese appreciated this kind of order so much that they put it into their painting. Non-symmetrical order.

In the Chinese language this is called "li" and the character for li means originally the markings in jade. Also means the grain in wood, and the fiber in muscle. We could say too that clouds have li, marble has li, the Human body has li. And we all recognize it, and the artist copies it whether he is a landscape painter, a portrait painter, or an abstract painter, or a non-objective painter. They all are trying for li.

And the interesting thing is that although we all know what it is there's no way of defining it. But because Tao is the course we can also call li the watercourse, because the patterns of li are patterns of flowing water. And we see those patterns of flow memorialized as it were in sculpture, in the grain in wood (which is the flow of sap), in marble, in bones, in muscles. All these things are patterned according to the basic principles. That is the fa, Tao fa, the Tao's principle of flow.

There is a book called "Sensitive Chaos" by Theodore Svenk with many many studies and photographs of flow patterns. And there in the patterns of flowing water you will see all kinds of motifs from Chinese art. Immediately recognizable, including the S-curve in the circle, the yang-yin, like this.... See?

So li means then the order of flow, the wonderful dancing pattern of liquid. Because Lao-Tzu likens Tao to water. "The great Tao," he says, "flows everywhere, to the left and to the right. [Like water]," - I'm interpolating that - "it loves and nourishes all things but does not lord it over them." "Because," he says elsewhere, "water always seeks the lowest level, which men abhor." Because we're always trying to play games of one-upmanship and be on top of each other. Well, Lao-Tzu explains that the top position is the most insecure. Everybody wants to get to the top of the tree. But then if they do the tree will collapse.

That's the fallacy of American democracy. You too might be president. The answer is, no one but a maniac would want to be president! [Laughter] Who wants to be put in charge of a runaway truck? [Laughter]

So, Lao-Tzu says that the basic position is the most powerful. And this we can see at once in Judo, or Aikido, which are wrestling arts or self-defensive arts where you always get underneath the opponent, and so he falls over you if he attacks you. The moment he moves to be aggressive you go either lower than he is, or in a smaller circle than he's moving. And you have spin if you know Aikido. You're always spinning, and you know how something rapidly spinning exercises centrifugal force. So if somebody comes into your field of centrifugal force he gets flung out, but by his own bounce. Huh, it's very curious. So, therefore, the watercourse way is the way of Tao.

Now, that seems to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and Irish Catholics... lazy... spineless... passive. And I'm always being asked when I talk about things, "If people did what you suggest wouldn't they become terribly passive?" Well, from a superficial point of view I would suggest that a certain amount of passivity would be an excellent corrective for our kind of culture. Because we are always creating trouble by doing good to other people. [Laughter] You know, we wage wars for people's benefit. [Laughter] And educate the poor for their benefit, so that they desire more things which they can't get. I mean, that sounds rather callous. But our rich people are not happy, whereas the poor people of Haiti are - to judge by the way they laugh. And we think-- we're sorry, really, not for the poor but for ourselves. Guilty.

So a certain amount of doing nothing, and stopping rushing around, would cool everything. But also it must be remembered that passivity is the root of action. Where do you suppose you're going to get enery from, just by being energetic? No, you can't get energy that way. That is exhausting yourself. To have energy you must sleep, but also much more important than sleep is what I told you at the beginning. Passivity of mind, mental silence. Not-- you can't, as I tried to explain, be passive, as an exercise that's good for you. You can only get to that point by realizing there's nothing else you can do. So for God's sake don't cultivate passivity as a form of progress. That's like playing because it's good for your work. [Laughter] You never get to play! [Laughter]

Friday, July 12, 2013

How Did I Become an Atheist?

I grew up on Cape Cod and attended a Baptist church with my parents before they switched to the Catholic faith when I was maybe 8 years old. And I attended a religious school for one year, for first grade, whose curriculum was slightly ahead of the public school I attended afterward. Although I appreciated the kindness exhibited by Jesus (the Golden Rule) and agreed that it was good advice to be forgiving, I never really thought about how it compared to other religions, or whether it was all true, because there just wasn't any exposure to other religions.

From the age of 8 to 16 I went to church with my parents and occasionally went with them on retreats to a former Shaker village in New Hampshire, where Catholics got together to affirm their religious identity and bolster their marriages. During those years I was most interested in making art, studying entomology and herpetology, and eventually, computer programming. We had a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, and I read a lot of it.

At the time when I was preparing to be confirmed, a rite of Catholicism for teenagers, I was attending "CCD" in my friend's basement with some other boys, and as we listened to the story of Noah's ark I realized that of course it wasn't literally true. But I thought about it no further than that. There was literally no one around with any different kind of background, with other kinds of ideas, with experience in the world at large, just all these working class Catholics.

Even after I stopped paying any attention to my religious upbringing, for a long time I thought there must be something to it. I tried LSD and read about Hinduism and Buddhism, and I found that, yes, indeed, there is something there, and so I wanted to understand how all these religions were connected, and whether there was some core to them all that made them necessary or useful or natural.

To make a long, long story short, due to my semi-literalistic Catholic upbringing, I actually had a very difficult time thinking outside of that box and understanding what, for example, Zen was pointing to. It took me until very recently (I'm now 46) to fully embrace Atheism and accept that the absence of any gods is just a fundamental fact of the Universe. For the longest time I really wanted there to be something to it.

Today I absolutely reject any claims that can't be demonstrated, and of course I reject all the manipulative claims of religion that are used to keep us in a box. In a sense, I have finally reclaimed my mind from that construct that had me so bamboozled for so long. It's nice to finally be here in the real world, and to be out of that unhelpful storybook.

So I have rejected as false all prophets, messiahs, saints, angels, gods, demons, and unicorns. When I engage with religious types today the subject invariably ends up at a point where I have to explain how reason works, how scientific theories are formed, and how knowledge is arrived at, because in the United States, unless you're brought up by conscientious freethinkers, we simply aren't given any direct instruction on how to reason. And in-general, it seems that knowing how to reason is simply not a given among humans. We have to learn it anew with every new generation.

As for meditation, and as for yoga, from my experience and growing understanding of neurobiology, I happen to think these are both demonstrably useful practices, and supremely valuable for getting over the even more subtle kinds of delusion that we carry around in our heads, such as our false notions of selfhood and ego. It is unfortunate that both meditation and yoga are so often accompanied by superstitious readings of the traditions in which they originated. Fortunately, more and more modern people seem to prefer a more austere and plainspoken approach to these practices.

So before I get too far afield, that's where I am at today. I have wholly rejected religious dogma and the horrible habits of thinking that it engenders in people, but in the process I have tried not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, and to understand what goes on in the brain when people pray or do other things to move forward when they're mentally stuck.

I put it this way now: Religion pulls on our levers to manipulate us. I'm taking control of those levers now, which I didn't even know were there!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Does the Big Economy Need Us Anymore?

First thing you learn in Economics 101 is that an economy consists in the flow of money to drive the demand for goods, which jumpstarts the production and services sector. By allowing lower and middle-income individuals to keep more of their income, they are encouraged to spend more, and thus the cycle is driven. When there is more demand for goods, there is more demand for people to produce them, therefore more jobs, etc. And when you provide for the security of the worst-off people, you give them freedom from fear that allows despair to lift and for their ambitions to flourish.

The upper-tier of the US economy is huge, and forms its own micro-bubble that doesn't really rely on the economy as a whole to thrive and to survive. The work of waging war, for example, takes money straight from the coffers of the government and distributes it to the military-industrial complex, which then feeds a million soldiers and employs millions more personnel. Whether or not the local coffee shop survives is of no consequence to that part of the economy.

Then consider the super-wealthy, those who may be running companies that use resources, the common-wealth, in order to provide largely for the military-industrial complex, largely provide investment in pharmaceuticals to cure our illnesses, and fast food and food-devaluation enterprises that take the production of agriculture and turn it into salty fatty foods that make people sick, thus providing more cattle for the pharmaceutical industry to keep the cycle going.

The people involved in these sectors of the economy only rely on you and me to consume a nickel at a time, the lowest-quality and cheapest products that can be produced without poisoning our bodies and minds too quickly. The upper-tier of the economy for the most part cares little for the man on the street or the small business, and in fact often competes directly with small business, removing money from local economies and concentrating them into the hands of individuals and companies which - for prudence alone - invest in the upper-tier of the economy, and ultimately in the war industry which resides at the top of the pyramid.

For the economy to get back to a healthier place, it really comes down to providing more tax relief for the middle class, and for communities to decide on their own to kick out large corporate chains in order to foster small businesses whose profits will tend to circulate locally for a longer time.

At the same time, the upper tiers of the economy need to be taxed heavily, because they make the most use of the finite resources of the earth that we all —in the Constitutional sense— own and have stewardship of together, for the benefit of the country as a whole. Likewise, big industries pollute the most and therefore contribute to the problem of disease, species decline, etc. which cost the country and the world untold amounts of liquid wealth and destroy natural resources. Finally, big corporations must be strictly regulated by lawmakers who are free from corruption or bias, and therefore they should not be allowed to petition the Congress directly through lobbies or to provide funds to buy elections.

What we are witnessing is the rotting of the fruit of democracy, not due to 'moral corruption' in the sense corporatists would have us believe, shaming scapegoats like homosexuals for personal behavior, but for 'moral corruption' at the top, where everything is for sale, including you and me.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Alan Watts on Buddhism

This is a lecture by Alan Watts, circa 1969, which I transcribed in 2004. I will be publishing a few more transcripts over time. It's no substitute for listening to one of his lectures, where his spirit and sense of humor come through better. I recommend you subscribe to the Wisdom of Alan Watts podcast, which you can find on iTunes or at

I'm continuing this program with talks on some of the fundamental ideas of Oriental philosophy. But before going on I want to refer back to something that I said in the last program in which I was talking about Hinduism which may possibly have been misunderstood. At the end of the program I was referring to certain trends in modern Hinduism which I described as being of a somewhat "namby-pamby" nature. Perhaps that wasn't quite the right phrase, because that suggests weakness. What I really wanted to suggest was "bloodlessness," lack of earthiness, or excessive spirituality. And I think this arises in certain schools of thought from a wrong interpretation of the great commentator Shankara. Shankara and Ramanuja are probably the two greatest medieval Indian commentators on the Upanishads and the traditional scriptures.

And the way some people interpret this is somewhat as follows: That there is but one reality which is Brahman, which is without form, without any quality that the mind can imagine following the usual method of description by negation, and that this being so it excludes there being any reality whatsoever, to the seeming multiplicity of the physical world. In other words the physical world that we perceive with our senses is in reality simply not there. And there is even no cause within reality for its seeming to be there! And this is rather like the Christian Science doctrine of mortal mind producing the error of suffering and physical existence. That it has no reality at all. And our seeing of it - its seeming to be real - again has no basis within the divine reality which is the sole thing that exists. Now this is an interpretation of Shankara which I believe to be fundamentally wrong.

I don't believe that Shankara can correctly be interpreted as saying that the world of sense experience which this - to my mind - wrong interpretation of his school identifies with Maya. I don't believe that this is the way he ought to be understood. Maya... I can think of passages in Shankara where Maya is given a much more positive sense, where the world is not to be considered identical with Brahman - in the sense that it's not really there and Brahman is the only reality which exists - but rather that the world is Maya - or is illusory - only in the sense that we do not see it to be one with Brahman, just as it is! The seeing of its oneness with Brahman does not involve its disappearance. And if it does then we've got - not a non-dualistic doctrine at all - we've got an extremely dualistic doctrine.

Because after all, if there is the seeing of an illusion.... Supposing you say, what you see as the illusion isn't really there but you can't deny the fact that you see it. And then if that seeing of it has no basis in reality - if that in turn is an illusion - and the illusion that one sees an illusion is an illusion - then you've got a principle that is fundamentally distinct from the supreme reality, and in a way stands against it, is not explained by it, is not grounded in it. And therefore this is a highly dualistic form of thought. And as a result all fundamental dualisms lead to consequences in feeling and in conduct which are world-hating. And this is - seems to me - why there are trends in modern Hinduism to be excessively spiritual, to regard all sense-knowledge as basically evil in the sense of being fundamentally - and I mean fundamentally - unreal.

And this in other words is what I wanted to indicate about these trends in modern Hinduism which I do not feel are representative at all of either Shankara's doctrine or the doctrine of the Upanishads upon which the whole tradition of Hinduism is based.

Now then today I want to go on to the subject of Buddhism.

Buddhism originates in India somewhere between 6- and 500 B.C. There is always some conjecture about the exact dating of individuals at this time. But it was during this period that there lived a man called Gautama. And Gautama was the son of a king - or perhaps tribal chieftain - who lived very close to modern Nepal in the north of India.

And "Buddha" is a title given to this man. It wasn't his proper name just as "Christ" is not, as it were, the surname of Jesus. As when we say "Jesus Christ" we should correctly say "Jesus the Christ." "Jesus the annointed one." And in the same way one should say - not "Gautama Buddha" - but "Gautama the Buddha." For "Buddha" means an Awakened One. A man who woke up. Who, in other words (you must understand this term within the whole Hindu tradition) a man who is no longer spellbound by Maya, by the seeming separateness of all the things in this world. (That's one of the forms of Maya.)

And so a Buddha is not a unique historical character. There can be - and it is supposed that there have been - innumerable Buddhas. But the idea of a Buddha is related to the Hindu idea of an Avatar, which means an incarnation of the Godhead in Human form. Buddhists don't think of a Buddha as an incarnation of the Godhead. Because they - although not rejecting the idea of God or gods - relegate all gods to the world of Maya, to the world of relative reality. And in this sense a Buddha is felt in some way to be superior even to the gods.

Let's put it in this way. Perhaps some of you have seen what is a sort of fundamental illustration of the principles of Buddhism, a diagram or maplike thing called "The Wheel of Life." And in Tibetan versions of The Wheel of Life you'll notice that the wheel is divided into six realms. And these six realms include Human beings, gods (or perhaps angels would be a better term for devas), spirits of wrath called asuras (personifications of the destructive forces of nature), animals, then what are called "naraka" or purgatories, "preta" or tormented, frustrated spirits with tiny mouths and immense bellies. Having, in other words, immense appetite but very little means of satisfying it. And then again, Humans.

And the basic idea of Buddhism is that awakening - Buddhahood - can be attained only from the Human state. Deliverance from the vicious circle which the Wheel represents: life considered as a vicious circle. The gods are too powerful and too happy to concern themselves to be delivered. At the opposite extreme the people in the narakas - the tormented souls in purgatory as it were - are too miserable, the animals too dumb, the asuras too angry, the pretas too frustrated.

You can take this wheel, as a matter of fact, not as referring to any actual worlds other than ours of ghosts or gods and purgatories. But you can take these six realms as representing states of the Human mind. And the Human state as representing even-mindedness, what is called in Sanskrit "upeksha" - equanimity. Now when it is said then that one can become a Buddha only from the Human state, it means you see that a Buddha stands above the gods as being released from the Wheel.

In very popular Buddhism of course as in popular Hinduism the idea of the Wheel is taken rather literally. It is in other words believed that the individual passes from life to life - and it's rather funny that even though Buddhism denies the existence of an individual soul as an enduring reality, nevertheless in Buddhist countries it is popularly believed that some sort of equivalent of the soul passes from life to life and that if your present life is miserable it is a result of foolish actions in the former life, but if in this life you act wisely your birth in the next life is to be more fortunate. And you may get up, of course, to the Heaven worlds, the world of the gods.

But Human birth is the thing that is always regarded as most fortunate. Because you can be tied to the Wheel not only by chains of iron - that is to say by acting wrongly - you can also be bound by chains of gold - that is by acting wisely so as to inherit good fruits.

Now, of course, very sophisticated Buddhists - not only in modern times but in ancient times - did not take this idea of reincarnation literally. They looked upon it in quite a different way. And just as they regarded the Six Worlds as states of the Human mind, so they regarded reincarnation as something happening in this life.

Those of you who've read T.S. Eliot's four quartets, will remember the passage perhaps where he says that those who have just left the platform of a station on a railway train are not those who will arrive at any destination. Those who, in other words, walked in at the door of the room and are now sitting down in chairs are not the same people as those who stepped in at the door. We are, in other words, constantly changing. Just as we know - physiologically speaking - that our bodies are in all their molecular structure completely changed every seven years or so, so that we are as it were not enduring entities but rather something like a university where the faculty and the students and the very buildings themselves may change completely within a span of years and yet somehow the university - or something by way of a pattern - goes on. And so in this sense freedom from reincarnation would be by very sophisticated Buddhists interpreted as freedom from the illusion that the person who came in at the door is the same one now sitting in the chair. And that in its turn signifies freedom from an emotional habit: the habit of grasping at one's own life, at seeking for continuity.

And you see the idea of continuity in Buddhist philosophy is that we desire continuity in order to perpetuate our past. In our past, in other words, we have accumulated various things: experiences, material goods, knowledge, virtues, power, so on. And the desire for continuity is the desire for the perpetuation of a past self - or string of selves - with which we identify ourselves. And Buddhist insight involves the recognition that the past is perpetually vanishing. There really is no past to continue. And therefore to cling to it, to identify oneself with it is to perpetuate an illusion resulting in incessant frustration. Resulting, indeed, in that very vicious circle which the symbol of the Wheel represents.

Now, Gautama made it very easy to summarize his teaching. He was really quite an adept in what we call mnemonics, in putting things in simple form so that they could easily be remembered. And he summed up the whole of his doctrine in what is called the Fourfold Noble Truths. And although it becomes sometimes awfully boring to read fundamental text on Buddhism which just go over these things again and again, I think it's only boring if one goes over them in the formal way that these texts adopt.

Really it's a very skillful outline of the nature of Buddhism, and it's based on an old medical formula. In ancient India, as in almost all ancient cultures, every activity was ceremonialized. And when a physician came to pay his call he gave his diagnosis in a very ceremonial way. He made four pronouncements. The first pronouncement was the name of the disease. The second, the cause of the disease. The third, the curability of the disease. (Can it be cured? Yes or no.) And if it can be cured the fourth pronouncement is the giving of the prescription. And that's exactly the form of Gautama's summary of his doctrine.

He said, in other words, the first principle is that mankind - and indeed all forms of life - suffer from a disease which is called in Sanskrit "Duhkha." And the most general translation of that word is "suffering." Duhkha means suffering in all its forms: moral, physical, spiritual. But Western interpreters of Buddhism have sometimes represented him as saying that life is suffering, period. In other words of annunciating a highly pessimistic and world-hating doctrine. That to be alive is to suffer. And that in other words the amount of joy, of positive pleasure in life is after all so negligible that the game is not worth the candle.

Now if one studies the method of teaching of sages in ancient India, you have to realize that one of their fundamental pedagogical gambits is to arrive at the point of view they wish to inculcate by a zigzag method. When we walk, you know we put down maybe first the left foot, then we shift to the right foot, then the left foot, then the right foot. And in this way we go along, neither to the left nor to the right, but straight ahead. And you find too that in thought that the Human mind tends to go from position to position but it always, when it settles on any fixed position, we can always point out that that position is an extreme.

For example, in scholastic philosophy in the Middle Ages, when St. Thomas Aquinas fastened on the idea that God is fundamentally "enz" or being, a Buddhist philosopher would point out that he had settled upon an extreme that has an opposite: non-being. And that therefore his position needs to be corrected by the opposite position. Somebody else should get up and say "No no! God is not being. God is non-being." And from this facing of opposites with each other we arrive at what in Buddhism is sometimes called The Middle Way. Doesn't mean the compromise position. The Middle Way is the doctrine of relativity, of showing that all positions or experiences which we can formulate must always be perceived or known by contrast with their opposites.

So in other words, Buddhist doctrine that life is fundamentally Duhkha, or suffering, is an antithesis directed towards those people who believe that the object of life is to attain "Suhkha," or sweetness: pleasure. He is saying, in other words, you cannot experience pleasure except in reference to non-pleasure. And therefore the more you pursue pleasure the more non-pleasure will arise to frustrate you. The more you pursue permanence the more you will feel the impermanence of things. And so it is, for after all when we are bent on enjoying ourselves we become at that very moment curiously aware of how rapidly time is slipping by. When on the other hand we are not enjoying ourselves we become curiously aware of how time is dragging. So then Duhkha arising from an exaggerated pursuit of Suhkha, its opposite, becomes the basic characteristic of life.

And he goes on to say in his second principle that the cause of this is "thrishna," or grasping. Sometimes translated "desire" and indeed I believe the word "thrishna" does underlie etymologically the English word "thirst." But thrishna is not quite desire. For example, one's appetite. When you haven't eaten for some time and you get hungry, this is not thrishna. It's a perfectly natural occurrence. Thrishna is based in turn on "Avidya," which means unwisdom, (which is the way the Tibetan scholar around here, Alex Wayman likes to translate it). It's a good translation, unwisdom! Or simply lack of insight, lack of consciousness. Lack of - well a special sense of ignorance. Not the ordinary sense of ignorance, of not being informed, but ignore-ance. Action based on ignoring something.

And ignorance is not realizing the relativity of experiences. Not realizing the inseparability of pleasure and pain, existence and non-existence, life and death, up and down, good and bad. So that as a result of such ignore-ance or unwisdom people try to separate these opposites from each other. To corral, to gain the good ones and to exclude and annihilate the bad ones. And as a result of that, because these opposites are - exist mutually - they go round in circles. And that mutual existence of these opposites is really - it seems to me - the basic meaning of the doctrine of karma which is involved in Buddhism, the doctrine of conditioned action which Buddha epitomized in the phrase "This arises, that becomes." In other words without this on the one hand - or this on the one hand always implies that on the other. Good on the one hand implies bad on the other, and so on and so forth. And so if a person becomes involved in karma - involved in conditioned action leading to a vicious circle - if he is ignore-ant of the interdependence of all states of experience.

So then the third truth, the cure of this Duhkha - or suffering - is the truth about Nirvana. Nirvana is most grossly mistranslated word in all foreign languages probably. Because we are - early scholars of Buddhism translated it as annihilation, nowadays Nirvana means a state of being doped-up to most people. It's popularly used as being in ecstacy or in a kind of dreamy bliss. And Nirvana doesn't mean that at all. It's a state of being very very wide awake. A state of being completely aware. But the etymology of the word is disputed. There are several etymologies that you can offer, and so I just choose the one I like, and that is "to blow out." As when, having tried to hold one's breath, you discover that you can't hold it. You lose your breath by holding it. Therefore you expire, you de-spirate. And so you heave a sigh of relief. And so Nirvana is the sigh of relief. The ex-piration or de-spiration. In other words the giving up of the attempt to clutch at life, to hold it in a fixed form, to resist change, to separate the good side of things from the bad side and annihilate the bad side. It is the giving up of that fundamentally contradictory - self-contradictory - kind of conduct.

And so then in the fourth truth there is set out the Noble Eightfold Path. Buddha's prescription for Duhkha. And the Noble Eightfold Path is really in three divisions, one of which concerns itself with understanding - you might almost say intellectual understanding of the doctrine. Then one is concerned with conduct. And the third part of it is concerned with the state of consciousness, or meditation.

Now to summarize them briefly, the first stages of the path such as the right view - or I prefer to translate the word "Samyak" not so much as "right" but as "perfect" in the Greek sense of "telos" or "complete." And thus to have a complete view is a view which does not take sides, which takes the middle path. Which, in other words, does not go off to extremes. And so on.

The part of the eightfold path that is concerned with conduct. Buddhism is often represented as having a very exalted ethical system. And this is true; in a way it does. But also one must recognize the difference between Buddhism and Christianity - at any rate as Christianity is ordinarily taught - is that these ethical ideas are not Commandments. They are really forms of expedient conduct. The Buddha counseled his followers to take upon themselves certain obligations, say of not killing, of not stealing, of not exploiting the senses, of not getting drunk or intoxicated with poisons, not lying. Because - not because these were against the will of God or against the fundamental laws of the universe - but because they are inexpedient forms of conduct for a person who wants to wake up! For if you get thoroughly doped up you're not liable to be very wide awake.

And then finally the end of the path - the last stages of it - are concerned with one state of consciousness, with being with the process of what is sometimes called meditation, or of bringing one's mind to its maximum awareness through clear recollection. And then finally the attainment of what is called "Samadhi," which means integrated consciousness. Consciousness no longer under the influence of Avidya, no longer bamboozled and fooled by the apparent separateness of things which are really inseparably interlinked. And thus Samadhi could be called integrated, a unified consciousness in which it is seen that the subject - the knower - is inseparable from the object - the known - that man is inseparable from the totality of life, and so on and so forth. So that Samadhi, at the end of the Eightfold Path, might be described as being the entry to or realization - the making-real - of the state of Nirvana which constitutes in turn being a Buddha.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Jesus: His Religion or the Religion About Him?

This is a lecture by Alan Watts, circa 1969, which I transcribed in 2004. I will be publishing a few more transcripts over time. It's no substitute for listening to one of his lectures, where his spirit and sense of humor come through better. I recommend you subscribe to the Wisdom of Alan Watts podcast, which you can find on iTunes or at

Some years ago I had just given a talk on television in Canada when one of the announcers came up to me and said "You know, if one can believe that this universe is in charge of an intelligent and beneficent God, don't you think he would naturally have provided us with an infallible guide to behavior and to the truth about the universe?" And of course I knew he meant the Bible. I said "No, I think nothing of the kind. Because I think a loving God would not do something to His children that would rot their brains."

Because if we had an infallible guide we would never think for ourselves, and therefore our minds would become atrophied. It is as if my grandfather left me a million dollars: I'm glad he didn't." And we have therefore to begin any discussion of the meaning of the life and teaching of Jesus with a look at this thorny question of "authority." And especially the authority of Holy Scripture. Because in this country in particular [the USA] there are an enormous number of people who seem to believe that the Bible descended from Heaven with an angel in the year sixteen-hundred and eleven, which was when the so-called King James – or more correctly Authorized – version of the Bible was translated into English.

I had a crazy uncle who believed that every word of the Bible was literally true including the marginal notes. And so whatever date it said in the marginal notes, that the world was created in 4004, B.C., and he believed it as the Word of God. Until one day he was reading - I think - a passage in the book of Proverbs and found a naughty word in the Bible. And from that time on he was through with it. You know, how Protestant can you get?

Now, the question of "authority" needs to be understood, because I am not going to claim any authority in what I say to you, except the authority – such as it is – of history. And that's a pretty uncertain authority. But from my point of view the four Gospels are I think to be regarded on the whole as historical documents. I'll even grant the miracles. Because, speaking as one heavily influenced by Buddhism, we're not very impressed with miracles! The traditions of Asia – Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and so forth – are full of miraculous stories. And we take them in our stride. We don't think that they're any sign of anything in particular except psychic power. And we in the West have by scientific technology accomplished things of a very startling nature. We could blow up the whole planet, and Tibetan magicians have never promised to do anything like that.

And I'm really a little scared of the growing interest in psychic power because that's what I call "psycho-technics." And we've made such a mess of things with ordinary technics that Heaven only knows what we might do if we got hold of psycho-technics and started raising people from the dead, and prolonging life insufferably, and doing everything we wished.

The whole answer to the story of miracles is simply imagine that you're God and that you can have anything you want. Well you'd have it for quite a long time. And then after awhile you'd say "This is getting pretty dull because I know in advance everything that's going to happen." And so you would wish for a surprise. And you would find yourself this evening in this church as a Human being.

So, I mean, that is the miracle thing. I think miracles are probably possible. That doesn't bother me. And as a matter of fact when you read the writings of the early fathers of the church – the great theologians like Saint Clement, Gregory of Nissa, Saint John of Damascus, even Thomas Aquinas – they're not interested in the historicity of the Bible. They take that sort of for granted but forget it. They're interested in its deeper meaning. And therefore they always interpret all the tales like Jonah and the whale. They don't bother even to doubt whether Jonah was or wasn't swallowed by a whale or other big fish. But they see in the story of Jonah and the whale as a prefiguration of the resurrection of Christ. And even when it comes to the Resurrection of Christ they're not worrying about the chemistry or the physics of a risen body. What they're interested in is that the idea of the resurrection of the body has something to say about the meaning of the physical body in the eyes of God. That the physical body – in other words – is not something worthless and unspiritual, but something which is an object of the Divine Love.

And so therefore I'm not going to be concerned with whether or not miraculous events happened. It seems to me entirely beside the point. So I regard the Four Gospels as on the whole as good a historical document as anything else we have from that period, including the Gospel of Saint John. And that's important. It used to be fashionable to regard the Gospel of Saint John as late. In other words, at the turn of the century the higher critics of The New Testament assigned the Gospel of Saint John to about 125 A.D.. And the reason was just simple. Those higher critics at that time just assumed that the simple teachings of Jesus could not possibly have included any such complicated mystical theology. And therefore they said, "Well, it must be later."

Now, as a matter of fact, in the text of the Gospel of Saint John the local color, his knowledge of the topography of Jerusalem, and his knowledge of the Jewish calendar is more accurate than that of the other three writers, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And it seems to me perfectly simple to assume that John recorded the inner teaching which He gave to His disciples and that Matthew, Mark, and Luke record the more exoteric teaching which He gave to people-at-large.

Now, what about them, the authority of these scriptures? We could take this problem in two steps. A lot of people don't know how we got the Bible at all. We Westerners got the Bible thanks to the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church and members of the church wrote the books of the New Testament. And they took over the books of the Old Testament which even by the time of Christ had not been finally decided upon by the Jews. The Jews did not close the canon of the Old Testament until the year 100 A.D. – or thereabouts – at the Synod of Jamnia. And then they finally decided which were the canonical books of the Hebrew Scriptures and embodied them in the Masoretic Text, the earliest copy of which dates from the tenth century – early in the tenth century A.D.. The books to be included in the New Testament were not finally decided upon until the year three hundred and eighty-two – A.D. again – at the Synod of Rome under Pope Damasus. So it was the church – the Catholic Church – that promulgated the Bible and said "we are giving you these scriptures on our authority and the authority of the informal tradition that has existed among us from the beginning, inspired by the Holy Spirit."

So you receive historically the Bible on the church's say-so. And the Catholic Church insists, therefore, that the church collectively, speaking under the presumed guidance of the Holy Spirit, has the authority to interpret the Bible. And you can take that or leave it. Because obviously the authority of the Bible is not first of all based on the Bible itself. I can write a bible and state within that book that it is indeed the Word of God which I have received. And you're at liberty to believe me or not. Hindus believe that the Vedas are divinely revealed and inspired with just as much fervor as any Christian or any Jew. Muslims believe that the Koran is divinely inspired. And some Buddhists believe that their Sutras are of divine – or rather Buddhic – origin. The Japanese believe that the ancient texts of Shinto are likewise of divine origin. And who is to be judge?

If we are going to argue about this – as to which version of the Truth is the correct one – we will always end up in an argument in which the judge and the advocate are the same person. And you wouldn't want that if you were brought into a court of law, would you? Because if I say that, "Well, thinking it all over I find that Jesus Christ is the greatest being who ever came onto this Earth," by what standards do I judge? Why obviously, I judge by the sort of moral standards that have been given to me as somebody brought up in a Christian culture. There is nobody impartial who can decide between all the religions because more or less everybody has been in one way or another influenced by one of them.

So if the church says the Bible is true it finally comes down to you. Are you going to believe the church or aren't you? If nobody believes the church it will be perfectly plain, won't it, that the church has no authority. Because the people is always the source of authority. That's why de Tocqueville said that the people gets what government it deserves. And so you may say "Well, God Himself is the authority!" Well, how are we to show that? That's your opinion. Well you say "Well, you wait and see. The Day of Judgment is coming, and then you'll find out who is the authority!" Yes, but at the moment there is no evidence for the Day of Judgment, and it remains until there is evidence simply your opinion that the Day of Judgment is coming. And there is nothing else to go on except the opinion of other people who hold the same view and whose opinions you bought.

So really, I won't deny anybody's right to hold these opinions. You may indeed believe that the Bible is literally true and that it was actually dictated by God to Moses and the Prophets and the Apostles. That may be your opinion and you are at liberty to hold it. I don't agree with you.

I do believe, on the other hand, that there is a sense in which the Bible is divinely inspired. But I mean by "inspiration" something utterly different from dictation, receiving a dictated message from an omniscient authority. I think inspiration comes very seldom in words. In fact almost all the words written down by automatic writing from psychic input that I've ever read strike me as a bit thin. When a psychic tries to write of deep mysteries instead of telling you what your sickness is or who your grandmother was, he begins to get superficial. And psychically communicated philosophy is never as interesting as philosophy carefully thought out.

But divine inspiration isn't that kind of communication. Divine inspiration is, for example, to feel – for reasons that you can't really understand – that you love people. Divine inspiration is a wisdom which it's very difficult to put into words. Like mystical experience. That's divine inspiration. And a person who writes out of that experience could be said to be divinely inspired. Or it might come through dreams. Through archetypal messages from the collective unconscious, through which the Holy Spirit could be said to work. But since inspiration always comes through a Human vehicle it is liable to be distorted by that vehicle. In other words, I'm talking to you through a sound system. And it's the only one now available. Now if there's something wrong with this sound system whatever truths I might utter to you will be distorted. My voice will be distorted. And you might mistake the meaning of what I said.

Now so therefore everybody who receives divine inspiration – and I'm using that in a very loose way – you could mean anything you like by "divine" – that's your option – but anybody who receives it will express it within the limits of what language he knows. And by language here I don't only mean English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or Sanskrit. I mean language in the sense of what sort of terms are available to you; what kind of religion were you brought up with.

Now you see, if you were brought up in the Bible Belt – you came out of Arkansas somewhere – and that's all the religion you knew, and you had a mystical experience of the type where you suddenly discover that you are one with God, then you're liable to get up and say "I'm Jesus Christ!" And lots of people do. Well the culture that we live in just can't allow that. There is only one Jesus Christ. And so if you don't look like you're Jesus Christ coming back again – because it said in the scriptures that when He comes back there'll be no doubt about it: He'll appear in the Heavens with legions of angels, and you're not doing that; you're just old Joe Dokes we knew years ago. Well now you say you're Jesus Christ. Well, he says that when Jesus Christ said he was God nobody believed him and you don't believe again. You know you can't answer that argument. (laughter)

But you see, he says it that way because he is trying to express what happened to him in terms of the religious language which is circumscribed by the Holy Bible. He's never read the Upanishads. He's never read the Diamond Sutra. He's never read The Tibetan Book of the Dead or the I-Ching or the Lao-Tsu, and therefore there is no other way in which he can say this.

But if he had read the Upanishads he would have had no difficulty, and nor would the culture – the society in which he was talking – have any difficulty. Because it says in the Upanishads we are all incarnations of God. Only they don't mean by the word "God" – in fact they don't use that word; they use "Brahman" – they don't mean the same thing that a Hebrew meant by "God." Because the Brahman is not personal. Brahman is – we would say – supra-personal. Not impersonal, because that is a negation. But I would say supra-personal.

Brahman is not he or she, has no sex. Brahman is not the creator of the world – as something underneath and subject to Brahman – but the actor of the world, the player of all the parts, so that everyone is a mask (which is the meaning of the word "person") in which the Brahman plays a role. And like an absorbed actor the divine spirit gets so absorbed in playing the role as to become it, and to be bewitched. And this is all part of the game, hereto believing that I am that role. When you were babies you knew who you were. Psychoanalysts refer to that as the oceanic feeling. They don't really like it, but they admit that it exists. Where the baby cannot distinguish between the world and the way it acts upon the world. It's all one process. Which is of course the way things are.

But we learn very quickly because we are taught very quickly what is you and what is not-you, what is voluntary, what is involuntary, because you can be punished for the voluntary but not for the involuntary. And so we unlearn what we knew in the beginning. And in the course of life if we are fortunate we discover again what we really are, that each one of us is what would be called in Arabic or Hebrew "a son of God." And the word "son of" means "of the nature of" as when you call someone a "son of a bitch," or in Arabic you say "Ibn-kalb" which means "son of a dog," "Ibn al-Himar": "son of a donkey." So, "a son of Belial" means "an evil person." "Son of God" means "a divine person," a Human being who has realized union with God.

Now my assumption – and my opinion – is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Human being like Buddha, like Sri Rama Krishna, like Ramana Maharshi, etc., who early in life had a colossal experience of what we call "cosmic consciousness." Now you don't have to be any particular kind of religion to get this experience. It can hit anyone anytime, like falling in love. There are obviously a number of you in this building who've had it in greater or lesser degree. But it's found all over the world. And when it hits you, you know it. Sometimes it comes after long practice of meditations and spiritual discipline. Sometimes it comes for no reason that anybody can determine. We say it's the "Grace of God," that there comes this overwhelming conviction that you have mistaken your identity, that what you thought, what I thought was just old Alan Watts – who I know very well is just a big act and a show – but what I thought was, you know, "me!" – was only completely superficial, that I am an expression of an eternal something-or-other: "X," a name that can't be named, as the name of God was taboo among the Hebrews; "I am."; and that I suddenly understand why – exactly why – everything is the way it is. It's perfectly clear.

Furthermore I no longer feel any boundary between what I do and what happens to me. I feel that everything that's going on is my doing, just as my breathing is. Is your breathing voluntary or involuntary? Do you do it or does it happen to you? So you can feel it both ways. But you feel everything like breathing. And it isn't as if you had become a puppet. There is no longer any separate "you." There is just this great Happening going on. And if you have The Name in your background you will say "This happening is God," or "the Will of God," or "the Doing of God." Or if you don't have that word in your background you will say with the Chinese "it is the flowing of the Tao." Or if you're a Hindu you will say "it is the Maya of Brahman." "The Maya" means "the magical power," "the creative illusion," "the play."

So you can very well understand how people to whom this happens feel genuinely inspired. Because very often there goes along with it an extremely warm feeling. Because you see the Divine in everybody else's eyes. When Kabir, a great Hindu Muslim mystic, was a very old man he used to look around at people and say "To whom shall I preach?" Because he saw the Beloved in all eyes, and could see – sometimes I look into people's eyes, and I can look right down, and I can see that Beloved in the depths of those pools, and yet the expression on the face is saying "What, me?!" Ha ha ha ha, it's the funniest thing! But there is everybody, in his own peculiar way, playing out an essential part in this colossal cosmic drama. And it's so strange, but one can even feel it in people you thoroughly dislike.

So, let's suppose then that Jesus had such an experience. But you see, Jesus has a limitation that he doesn't know of any religion other than those of the immediate Near-East. He might know something about Egyptian religion, a little bit maybe about Greek religion, but mostly about Hebrew. There is no evidence whatsoever that he knew anything about India or China. And we – people who think that, you know, Jesus was God assume that he must have known because he would have been omniscient. No! Saint Paul makes it perfectly clear in the Epistle to the Phillipians that Jesus renounced his divine powers so as to be Man. "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God thought not equality with God a thing to be hung onto, but humbled himself and made himself of no reputation and was found in fashion as a man and became obedient to death." Theologians call that "kenosis," which means "self-emptying."

So obviously an omnipotent and omniscient man would not really be a man. So even if you take the very orthodox Catholic doctrine of the nature of Christ, that he was both true God and true Man, you must say that for true God to be united with true Man, true God has to make a voluntary renunciation – for the time-being – of omniscience and omnipotence... and omnipresence for that matter. Now therefore if Jesus were to come right out and say "I am the son of God" that's like saying "I'm the boss's son," or "I AM the boss," and everybody immediately says that is blasphemy. That is subversion. That is trying to introduce Democracy into the Kingdom of Heaven. That is –– you are a usurper of the throne. No man has seen God.

Now, Jesus in his exoteric teaching – as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels – was pretty cagey about this. He didn't come right out there and say "I and the Father are one." Instead he identified himself with the Messiah described in the second part of the prophet Isaiah, "the suffering servant who was despised and rejected by men." And this man is the non-political Messiah, in other words. It was convenient to make that identification even though it would get him into trouble.

But to his elect disciples as recorded in Saint John, he came right out "Before Abraham was, I am." "I am the way, the truth, and the life." "I am the resurrection and the life." "I am the living bread that comes down from Heaven." "I and the Father are one, and he who has seen me has seen the Father." And there can be no mistaking that language.

So the Jews found out and they put him to death – or had him put to death – for blasphemy. This is no cause for any special antagonism toward the Jews. We would do exactly the same thing. It's always done. It happened to one of the great Sufi mystics in Persia who had the same experience. Now, what happened? The Apostles didn't quite get the point. They were awed by the miracles of Jesus. They worshipped him as people do worship gurus, and as you know to what lengths that can go if you've been around guru-land. And so the Christians said "Okay, okay: Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God but let it stop right there! Nobody else." So what happened was that Jesus was pedestalized. He was put in a position that was safely upstairs so that his troublesome experience of cosmic consciousness would not come and cause other people to be a nuisance. And those who have had this experience and expressed it during those times when the church had political power were almost invariably persecuted. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake. John Scotus Eriugena was excommunicated. Meister Eckhardt's theses were condemned. And so on, and so on. A few mystics got away with it because they used cautious language.

But you see what happens. If you pedestalize Jesus you strangle the Gospel at birth. And it has been the tradition in both the Catholic Church and in Protestantism to pass off what I will call an emasculated Gospel. Gospel means "good news," and I cannot for the life of me think what is the good news about the Gospel as ordinarily handed down. Because, look here – here is the revelation of God in Christ, in Jesus, and we are supposed to follow his life and example without having the unique advantage of being the boss's son. Now, the tradition – both Catholic and Protestant Fundamentalist – represents Jesus to us as a freak! Born of a virgin, knowing he is the son of God, having the power of miracles, knowing that basically it's impossible to kill him, that he's going to rise again in the end. And we are asked to take up our cross and follow him when we don't know that about ourselves at all! So what happens is this: we are delivered, therefore, a Gospel which is in fact an impossible religion. It's impossible to follow the Way of Christ. Alright. Many a Christian has admitted it. "I am a miserable sinner. I fall far short of the example of Christ." But do you realize the more you say that the better you are? Because what happened was that Christianity institutionalized guilt as a virtue. (enthusiastic applause) You see, you can never come up to it. Never. And therefore you will always be aware of your shortcomings, and so the more shortcomings you feel the more – in other words – you are aware of the vast abyss between Christ and yourself.

[Audience member] "You are just setting up straw men and knocking them down!"

You will have your opportunity to speak during the question period, madam. So, you go to confession.... (laughter and applause) ... and if you've got a nice dear understanding confessor he won't get angry with-at you. He'll say, "My child, you know you've sinned very grievously but you must realize that the love of God and of Our Lord is infinite and that naturally you are forgiven. As a token of thanks-giving say three 'Hail Mary's." And you know, you've committed a murder and robbed a bank and fornicated around and so on, but the priest is perfectly patient and quiet. Well you feel awful! "I have done that to the love of God? I have wounded Jesus, grieved the Holy Spirit," and so on. But you know in the back of your mind that you're going to do it all over again. You won't be able to help yourself. You'll try. But there's always a greater and greater sense of guilt.

Now, the lady objected that I was putting up a straw man and knocking it down. This is the Christianity of most people. Now there is a much more subtle Christianity of the theologians, the mystics, and the philosophers. But it's not what gets preached from the pulpit, grant you. But the message of Billy Graham is approximately what I've given you, and of all – what I will call – fundamentalist forms of Catholicism and Protestantism.

What would the real Gospel be? The real Good News is not simply that Jesus of Nazareth was THE son of God, but that he was a powerful son of God who came to open everybody's eyes to the fact that you are too. Now this is perfectly plain. If you will go to the tenth chapter of Saint John, verse 30, there is the passage where Jesus says "I and the Father are one." And this is – there are some people who aren't intimate disciples around, and they are horrified! And they immediately pick up stones to stone him. He says "Many good works I have shown you from the Father, and for which of these do you stone me?" And they said, "For a good work we stone you not, but for blasphemy, because you being a man make yourself God." And he replied "Isn't it written in your law 'I have said you are gods'?" (He's quoting the 82nd Psalm.) "Isn't it written in your law 'I have said you are gods'? If God called them those to whom he gave his word 'gods' – and you can't deny the scriptures – how can you say I blaspheme because I said I am a son of God?" Well there's the whole thing in a nutshell.

Of course if you read the King James Bible that descended with the angel you will see in italics in front of these words "son of God," "THE son of God" – "...because I said I am THE son of God." And most people think the italics are for emphasis. They're not. The italics indicate words interpolated by the translators. You will not find that in the Greek. The Greek says "a son of God." So it seems to me here perfectly plain that Jesus has got it in the back of his mind that this isn't something peculiar to himself.

So when he says "I am the way. No man comes to the Father but by ME," this "I am," this "me" is the divine in us which in Hebrew would be called the "Ruach Adonai." This – a great deal is made of this by the esoteric Jews, Kabbalists and the Hasidim. The Ruach is the breath that God breathed into the nostrils of Adam. It is differing from the soul. The individual soul in Hebrew is called "Nephesh." And so we translate the "Ruach" into the Greek "pneuma" into "psyche" [see´kay] or "psyche" [sy´kee]. The spirit – and you ask the theologian what's the difference between the soul and the spirit and he won't be able to tell you – but it's very clear in Saint Paul's writings.

So the point is that the Ruach is the divine in the creature by virtue of which we are sons of, or of the nature of God: manifestations of the divine. This discovery is the Gospel. That is, the Good News. But this has been perpetually repressed throughout the history of Western religion because all Western religions have taken the form of celestial monarchies, and therefore have discouraged Democracy in the Kingdom of Heaven. Until, as a consequence of the teachings of the German and Flemish mystics in the Fifteenth Century there began to be such movements as the Anabaptists, the Brothers of the Free Spirit, and the Levelers, and the Quakers. A spiritual movement which came to this country and founded a republic and not a monarchy.

And how could you say that a republic is the best form of government if you think that the Universe is a monarchy? Obviously, if God is top on a monarchy, monarchy is the best form of government. But you see, ever so many citizens of this republic think they ought to believe that the Universe is a monarchy, and therefore they are always at odds with the republic.

It is from, principally, white racist Christians that we have the threat of Fascism in this country. Because you see, they have a religion which is militant, which is not the religion of Jesus – which was the realization of divine son-ship – but the religion ABOUT Jesus which pedestalizes him and which says "Only this man – of all the sons of woman – is divine, and you had better recognize it." And so it speaks of itself as The Church Militant, the onward Christian soldiers marching as to war. Utterly exclusive. Convinced, in advance of examining the doctrines of any other religion that it is the top religion. And so it becomes a freak religion, just as it has made a freak of Jesus, an unnatural man. It claims uniqueness, not realizing that what it does teach would be far more credible if it were truly "Catholic" – that is to say: restated again, the truths which have been known from time immemorial, which have appeared in all the great cultures of the world.

But even very liberal Protestants still want to say, somehow – so as, I suppose to keep the mission effort going or to pay off the mortgage – "Yes, these other religions are very good. God has no doubt revealed himself through Buddha and Lao-Tsu. But...!"

Now, obviously, it is a matter of temperament. You could be loyal to Jesus just as you're loyal to your own country, but you are not serving your country if you think that it's necessarily the best of all possible countries. That is doing a disservice to your country. It is refusing to be critical where criticism is proper. So of religion. Every religion should be self-critical. Otherwise it soon degenerates into a self-righteous hypocrisy. If then we can see this, that Jesus speaks not from the situation of a historical deus-ex-machina – a kind of a weird, extraordinary event – but he is a voice which joins with other voices that have said in every place and time "Wake up, Man. Wake up and realize who you are."

Now I don't think, you see, until churches get with that that they're going to have very much relevance. You see, popular Protestantism and popular Catholicism will tell you nothing about mystical religion. The message of the preacher, fifty-two Sundays a year, is "Dear people, be good." We've heard it ad-nauseam! Or: "Believe in this." He may occasionally give us a sermon on what happens after death or the nature of God, but basically the sermon is "Be good." But how? As Saint Paul said, "To will is present with me, but how to do that which is good I find not; for the good that I would I do not, and the evil that I would not, that I do." How are we going to be changed? Obviously, there cannot be a vitality of religion without vital religious experience. And that's something much more than emoting over singing "Onward Christian Soldiers."

But you see what happens in our ecclesiastical goings-on is that we run a talking shop. We pray. We tell God what to do, or give advice as if He didn't know. We read the scriptures, and remember: talking of the Bible Jesus said "You search the scriptures daily, for in them you think you have life." Saint Paul made some rather funny references about the spirit which giveth life and the letter which kills. I think the Bible should be ceremoniously and reverently burned every Easter. We need it no more because the Spirit is with us. It's a dangerous book. And to worship it is of course a far more dangerous idolatry than bowing down to images of wood and stone. Because you can –– nobody's senses can confuse a wooden image with God, but you can very easily confuse a set of ideas with God, because concepts are more rarified and abstract.

So with this endless talking in church we can preach, but by-and-large preaching does nothing but excite a sense of anxiety and guilt. And you can't love out of that. No scolding, no rational demonstration of the right way to behave is going to inspire people with love. Something else must happen. But we will say "What are you going to do about it?" Do about it? You have no faith? Be quiet. Even Quakers aren't quiet. They sit in meeting and think. At least some of them do. But supposing we get really quiet; we don't think; be absolutely silent through-and-through? We say "Well, you'll just fall into a blank." Oh? Ever tried?

I feel then, you see, that it's enormously important that churches stop being talking shops, they become centers of contemplation. What is contemplation? Con-templum: It's what you do in the temple. You don't come to the temple to chatter, but to be still and know that "I am God." And this is why, if the Christian religion – if the Gospel of Christ – is to mean anything at all instead of just being one of the forgotten religions along with Osiris and Mithra we must see Christ as the Great Mystic. In the proper sense of the word "mystic," not someone who has all sorts of magical powers and understands spirits and so on. A mystic – strictly speaking – is one who realizes union with God, by whatever name. This seems to me the crux and message of the Gospel, summed up in the prayer of Jesus which Saint John records as he speaks over his disciples praying that "they may be one even as you, Father, and I are one." That they may be all one. All realize this divine son-ship, all oneness, basic identity with the eternal energy of the universe and the love that moves the Sun and other stars.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

DMT The Spirit Molecule

I've just been watching DMT The Spirit Molecule with some interest, mainly in the hope of discovering what is known about the chemical and how it affects the brain. It starts out well, with a lot of attention paid to ayahuasca and the shamanistic traditions. Throughout the documentary people describe their experiences under the influence of DMT during scientific tests under controlled conditions. While individual experiences differ markedly, the overall consensus is that there is a lingering sense of wonder, amazement, and improved optimism following its use.

It strikes me in watching this how intensely literally people take the "places" and "experiences" that they have "outside of time" and in altogether "alternate universes." You can't blame them for their enviable enthusiasm, because it's true that DMT makes your brain feel like it's gone through "a thousand years of experience" without the sticky constraints of having to be you, or anyone in particular.

I haven't tried DMT, but I have experienced the very similar effects of Salvia divinorum, and I can attest to all of the above. I left my body but retained a sense of existing, though I had no identity. The concept of time –before and after– became completely meaningless, as did any ability to conceive of self and other. You might say that every mechanism of differentiation or discernment was tuned way way down. Other commonly-reported experiences also came with it, such as the sense of a separate presence, or two, a vision of the universe as a vast living machine, etc.

After subsequent experiences with Salvia I came to the definite conclusion that all these experiences are taking place in the brain, brought on by the chemical, and that the actual content and sensory stuff that people bring back from the experience is entirely synthetic. It doesn't mean in any sense that these experiences aren't highly valuable, but I think it is a mistake to take one person's subjective report about what they saw, heard, and felt, as being anything other than the resultant contents of their brain, which is now re-composed very much as if it had actually had these experiences, as if such experiences were possible in the world that our bodies occupy.

This is one of the great things about the brain. It is a continuous reality generator, and most of the time it deals with inconsistencies and incongruities in our experience by filling in the gaps. In fact it does this continually, to build a picture of the here and now from fragments of our long and short-term memory, from visual images entering the eye, sounds, smells, the temperature, etc., etc. The physical world is real, and our brains are firmly embedded in the physical world. Consciousness is not separate from chemistry, cellular respiration, and neuronal activity. I think DMT The Spirit Molecule actually makes a strong case for this, and simultaneously it's an exhibit of the strong social desire —even of scientists— to take the subjective reports of others literally and give them the same level of credence that the original witness does. We are polite beings to the core, at some level, and a person beaming with a thousand years of transcendent experience is the kind of person to whom we naturally defer.

As I said, I think these experiences are valuable. DMT experiences improve people's sense of well-being and gratitude, feelings of universal connection, personal resilience, optimism, and sociability. They help people to let go of past hurt and fears, and, as a rite of passage, to move forward with their lives and to reconnect with their core selves, beyond limiting conceptions. In short, it is a dose of enlightenment, in the transcendent sense. But in the intellectual sense, the scholarship on DMT is a muddle.

We can't tell people not to take their very vivid experiences as "mere hallucinations," nor should we. The visceral quality of any experience is what lends it its significance, and very often these experiences yield a treasure of unexpected associations and insights. But I think it's important for anyone really seeking to understand how the brain makes consciousness to utilize Dan Dennett's hetero-phenomenological approach for these subjective experiences. From dozens or hundreds of personal reports, we can begin to build a stronger picture of which activities of consciousness are being augmented or dampened by DMT, and correlate those elements with the regions of the brain being affected, which can be determined through FMRI and other technologies arriving in the coming decades.

DMT The Spirit Molecule is not wrong in describing the phenomenon as "spiritual" but I think it's a mistake to connect that with the usual superstitious meaning of the word, which literally invokes spirits from other realms, communication from ancestors, and the usual complement of mythical creatures. What is called "spiritual" here is altogether 100% psychological and physiological. DMT reveals very uncommonly-witnessed aspects of the human potential, which is usually constrained within the personality, which is the activity of relating to the outside world. And for the subjects themselves, it permits a synesthesia that's almost always suppressed, except possibly in sleep, and then only in some brain regions. So, when we discuss "spiritual" transformation we're talking about a marked change in personality that takes place as a result of the experience. The person's voice and hair color won't change, but they get many of the benefits of spiritual exertion without all the exertion, and so they may suddenly make a big life change, do the thing they've been putting off for too long.

When the word "spiritual" comes into play people get caught up in a classic inversion of reality, which I think is completely wrong, but which others feel very strongly about. From the materialist perspective, there is only the physical energy of the universe, and this energy generates all the phenomena that we know and love, including the brain. The experiences of the brain are thus coterminous with the physical processes of the brain. Conscious states are physical states. The "spiritualist" stance might say that physical reality can't be proved to exist out there, and therefore consciousness and the mind could very well be the primary constituent of reality. So a spiritualist would say that when someone takes DMT their consciousness really does go to another continuum, or that it transcends this continuum. They are correct only in the sense that the physical brain and its metabolism of the DMT is happening in space and time, therefore consciousness is "traveling" as it changes, but it is definitely not bound to the usual neuronal limitations, and therefore it is not bound to this plane in the same sense that the brain itself is. The whole reason being, of course, that consciousness really is an epiphenomenon of the activity of the brain. So if the activity of the brain is affected, the consciousness is affected. In the case of DMT the personality has a few minutes to cobble together a consistent narrative for its experiences of late, including making sense of space, time, and self, and in doing so it coalesces meaning from a flood of near chaos.

Until we establish more formal definitions, and maybe add some modifiers, there's always going to be a muddle concerning the concepts of things like free will, consciousness, and determinism. Most of our terms are too broad and more philosophical than scientific. In the case of determinism, quantum physics has rendered the debate meaningless. At the quantum level, the universe is non-deterministic. At the large scale it is largely deterministic. For some this opens the door to ever-more subtle consciousnesses subsisting at ever-smaller scales, which appear to our instruments of observation as quantum particles, waves, and strings. We have a strong prejudice against our minds being complex machines embedded in the physical world. And for most of us it's hard to imagine how it could really do what it does, it seems too miraculous.

If there is no spirit realm that we can visit hand in hand, but only these transcendent states of consciousness that we must experience entirely within our own minds, does that somehow make the universe out there mundane and limited? I personally don't feel that way. Profound experiences of self-transcendence are correlated with overcoming the past and moving forward with renewed purpose, and it doesn't seem to matter if you get there by prayer, climbing Everest, witnessing your first child being born, or ingesting Ayahuasca. They are all spiritual experiences.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Anti-Science Representatives, Senators, and Councilmen


SB 1854 (pdf link)
Sponsor: Sen. Stephen Wise (R)
Opponents: Howard Simon of the ACLU
States that instructors will "faithfully teach ... [a] thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution."


HB 169 (doc link)
Sponsor: Rep. Tim Moore (R)
Teachers "may use, as permitted by the local school board, other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner."


Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA)
(wired) (arstechnica)
Sponsors: Gov. Bobby Jindal, The Discovery Institute, The Louisiana Family Forum
Opponents: AAAS CEO Alan Leshner, Prof. Arthur Landy, Louisiana Science Coalition, Prof. Barbara Forrest, NCSE Policy Director Joshua Rosenau, "A subcommittee of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education"
Allows local school boards to approve supplemental classroom materials specifically for the critique of scientific theories. “promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories.”


HB 195 (pdf link)
Sponsor: Rep. Andrew Koenig (R)
Calls for protection of teachers that "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of the theory of biological and hypotheses of chemical evolution."

Amendment 2 (pdf link)
Sponsors: Rep. Mike McGhee (R), Missouri Catholic Conference, Missouri Baptist Convention
Opponents: The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri and "several non-Christian groups"
The so-called "right to pray" amendment to Missouri's state constitution includes the provision that "no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs." The amendment was proposed in a referendum and passed by an overwhelming majority of the electorate in August, 2012. The amendment is unnecessary, given the robust protections that religious expression already enjoys in the USA, but it was mainly designed to get the academic portion into law. As evidence of its cynicism, it also strips prisoners of their state constitutional protections for religious expression.

New Mexico

HB 302 (pdf link)
Sponsor: Rep. Thomas A. Anderson (R)
Would prevent schools from punishing teachers for "informing students about relevant scientific information regarding either the scientific strengths or scientific weaknesses pertaining to [a controversial scientific topic.]"


SB 554 (doc link)
HB 1551 (doc link)
Sponsors: Sen. Josh Brecheen (R), Rep. Sally Kern (R)
Opponents: Gov. Brad Henry
Schools “shall not prohibit any teacher from informing students about relevant scientific information regarding either the scientific strengths or scientific weaknesses of controversial topics in sciences"


HB 368 / SB 893 (pdf link)
Sponsors: State Rep. Bill Dunn (R), Family Action Council of Tennessee
Adds protections for teachers who wish to help "students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught."


HB 2454 (pdf link)
Sponsor: Bill Zedler (R)
Specifies intelligent design as a supposed "alternate theory" to evolution.

Summary of Sponsors:

  • FL Sen. Stephen Wise (R)
  • KY Rep. Tim Moore (R)
  • LA Gov. Bobby Jindal
  • MO Rep. Andrew Koenig (R)
  • MO Rep. Mike McGhee (R)
  • NM Rep. Thomas A. Anderson (R)
  • OK Sen. Josh Brecheen (R)
  • OK Rep. Sally Kern (R)
  • TX Bill Zedler (R)
  • TN State Rep. Bill Dunn (R)
  • The Discovery Institute
  • The Louisiana Family Forum
  • Family Action Council of Tennessee