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.


  1. Great Post, thank you.
    Alan Watts is a serious inspiration, here's my animation of his' account of Nirvana as recorded in his Lectures on Buddhism: The Middle Way - Watts' Nirvana

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    Alan Watts