The Library
The Tao of Philosophy 2: Images of God


Alan Watts talks on the impact of various models of the ultimate reality, and the contrasts between male and female symbolism.
00:00

Now I’m sure most of you know the old story about the astronaut who went far out in space and was asked, on his return, whether he’d been to Heaven and seen God. And he said, “Yes.” And so they said to him, “Well, what about God?” And he said, “She is black.” And although this is a very well known and well worn story, it is very profound.

00:30

Because—I tell you—I knew a monk who started out in life as pretty much of an agnostic or an atheist. And then he began to read Henri Bergson, the French philosopher who proclaimed the vital force—the élan vital, and so on—and the more he read into this kind of philosophy, the more he saw that these people were really talking about God.

01:09

And I’ve read a great deal of theological reasoning about the existence of God, and they all start out along this line: If you are intelligent and reasonable, you cannot be the product of a mechanical and meaningless universe. Figs do not grow on thistles, grapes do not grow on thorns. And therefore, you—as an expression of the universe, as an aperture through which the universe is observing itself—cannot be a mere fluke. Because if this world peoples, as a tree brings forth fruit, then the universe itself—the energy which underlies it, what it’s all about; the “Ground of Being,” as Paul Tillich called it—must be intelligent.

02:08

Now, when you come to that conclusion, you must be very careful because you may make an unwarranted jump. Namely, the jump to the conclusion that that intelligence—that marvelous designing power which produces all this—is the biblical God. Be careful.

02:34

Because that God, contrary to his own commandments, is fashioned in the graven image of a paternal, authoritarian, beneficent tyrant of the ancient Near East. And it’s very easy to fall into that trap because it’s all prepared, institutionalized—in the Roman Catholic Church, in the synagogue, in the Protestant churches—all there, ready for you to accept. And by the pressure of social consensus, and so on, and so on, it is very natural to assume that, when somebody uses the word “God,” it is that father figure which is intended. Because even Jesus used the analogy “the Father” for his experience of God. He had to, there was no other one available to him in his culture.

03:50

But nowadays we are in rebellion against the image of the authoritarian father. Especially this should happen in the United States, where it happens that we are a republic, and not a monarchy. And if you, as a loyal citizen of this country, think that a republic is the best form of government, you can hardly believe that the universe is a monarchy. But to reject the paternalistic image of God as an idol is not necessarily to be an atheist, although I have advocated something called ‘atheism in the name of God.’ That is to say, an experience, a contact, a relationship with God—that is to say, with the Ground of Your Being—that does not have to be embodied or expressed in any specific image.

05:06

Now, theologians on the whole don’t like that idea because—I find in my discourse with them—that they want to be a little bit hard-nosed about the nature of God. They want to say that God has, indeed, a very specific nature. Ethical monotheism means that the governing power of this universe has some extremely definite opinions and rules to which our minds and acts must be conformed. And if you don’t watch out you’ll go against the fundamental grain of the universe and be punished—in some way. Old-fashionedly, you will burn in the fires of hell forever. More modern-fashionedly, you will fail to be an authentic person. It’s another way of talking about it. But there is this feeling, you see, that there is authority behind the world, and it’s not you! It’s something else. Like we say, “That’s something else! That’s far out!”

06:29

And therefore, this Jewish, Christian, and indeed Muslim approach makes a lot of people feel rather strange—estranged—from the Root and Ground of Being. There are a lot of people who never grow up and are always in awe of an image of grandfather. Now, I’m a grandfather—I’ve five grandchildren—and so I am no longer in awe of grandfathers. I know I’m just as stupid as my own grandfathers were, and therefore am not about to bow down to an image of God with a long white beard.

07:20

Now naturally, of course, we intelligent people don’t believe in that kind of a God—not really. I mean, we think that God is spirit, that God is very undefinable, and infinite, and all that kind of thing. But nevertheless, the images of God have a far more powerful effect upon our emotions than our ideas. And when people read the Bible and sing hymns—Ancient of Days, who sittethst, throned in glory; immortal, invisible, God only wise; enlightened, accessible, hidden from our eyes—they’ve still got that fellow up there with a beard on. It’s way in the back of the emotions.

08:13

And so we should think, first of all, in contrary imagery, and the contrary imagery is: she’s black. Imagine, instead of “God the Father,” “God the Mother.” And imagine that this is not a luminous being—blazing with light—but an unfathomable darkness, such as is portrayed in Hindu mythology by Kālī—the great mother—who is represented in the most terrible imagery. Kālī has a tongue hanging out long, drooling with blood. She has fang teeth. She has a scimitar in one hand and a severed head in the other. And she is trampling on the body of her husband, who is Shiva. Shiva represents also, furthermore, the destructive aspect of the deity, wherein all things are dissolved so that they be reborn again. And here is this blood-sucking, terrible mother as the image of the supreme reality behind this universe. Imagine: it’s the representative of the octopus, the spider, the awful-awfuls, the creepy-crawleys at the end of the line which we’re all terrified of.

09:45

Now that’s a very important image because—let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that all of you sitting here right now are feeling—umm—fairly alright. I mean, you’re not in [the] hospital, you don’t have the screaming meemies, you have a sense—you’ve probably had dinner, and are feeling pretty good. But you know that you feel that you’re fairly good because in the background of your minds—very far off in the background of your minds—you’ve got the sensation of something absolutely ghastly that simply mustn’t happen. And so, against that which is not happening—and which doesn’t necessarily have to happen—but by comparison with that, you feel pretty alright. And that absolutely ghastly thing that mustn’t happen at all, is Kālī.

10:40

And therefore, at once, we begin to wonder whether the presence of this Kālī is not, in a way, very beneficent. I mean, how would you know that things were good unless there was something that wasn’t good at all? Now this is—I’m not putting this forward as a final position. I’m only putting it forward as a variation, as a way of beginning to look at a problem, and getting our minds out of their normal ruts.

11:19

She’s black. Well “she”—first of all: feminine—represents what is called, philosophically, the negative principle. Now, of course, people who are women in our culture today and believe in women’s lib don’t like to be associated with the negative, because the negative has acquired very bad connotations. We say “accentuate the positive:” that’s a purely male, chauvinistic attitude. How would you know that you were outstanding unless, by contrast, there were something in-standing? You cannot appreciate the convex without the concave, you cannot appreciate the firm without the yielding. And therefore the so-called negativity of the feminine principle is obviously life-giving, and very important.

12:27

But we live in a culture which doesn’t notice it. You see a painting—a drawing—of a bird, and you don’t notice the white paper underneath it. You see a printed book, and you think that what is important is the printing, and the page doesn’t matter. And yet, if you reconsider the whole thing, how could there be visible printing without the page underlying it? What is called substance, that which stands underneath—“sub:” underneath; “stance:” stands—to be substantial is to be underlying, to be the support, to be the foundation of the world. And of course, this is the great function of the feminine: to be the substance. And therefore, the feminine is represented by space—which is, of course, black at night. But were it not for black and empty space, there would be no possibility whatsoever of seeing the stars. Stars shine out of space, and astronomers—very high-powered astronomers—are beginning to realize that stars are a function of space.

13:57

Now that’s difficult for our common sense, because we think that space is simply inert nothingness. But we don’t realize that space is completely basic to everything. It’s like your consciousness. Nobody can imagine what consciousness is. It’s the most elusive whatever-it-is that there is at all, because it’s the background of everything else that we know. Therefore, we don’t really pay much attention to it. We pay attention to the things within the field of consciousness: to the outlines, to the objects, to the so-called things that are in the field of vision, the sounds that are in the field of hearing, and so forth. But whatever it is that embraces all that, we don’t pay much attention to it. We can’t even think about it. It’s like trying to look at your head. You know? You try to look at your head and what do you find? You don’t even find a black blob in the middle of things. You just don’t find anything. And yet, that is that out of which you see, just as space is that out of which the stars shine. So there’s something very queer about all this—that that which you can’t put your finger on, that which always escapes you, that which is completely elusive, the blank, seems to be absolutely necessary for there to be anything whatsoever.

15:42

Now let’s take this further. Kālī also is a principle of death, because she carries a scimitar in one hand and a severed head in the other. Death: this is tremendously important to think about. We put it off. Death is swept under the carpet in our culture. In the hospital they try to keep you alive as long as possible in utter desperation. They won’t tell you that you’re going to die. When the relatives have to be informed that it’s a hopeless case they say, “Don’t tell this to the patient.” And all the relatives come around with hollow grins and say, “Well, you’ll be alright in a bout a month, and then we’ll go and have a holiday somewhere, and sit by the sea, and listen to the birds and whatnot.” And the dying person knows that this is mockery.

16:47

Well, of course. We’ve made death howl with all kinds of ghouls. We’ve invented dreadful afterlives. I mean, the Christian version of heaven is as abominable as the Christian version of hell. I mean, nobody wants to be in church forever. Children are absolutely horrified when they hear these hymns, which say, “Prostrate before thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on thee”—they can’t imagine what this imagery means. I mean, in a very subtle theological way I could wangle that statement around to make it extremely profound. I mean, to be prostrate at once, and to gaze on the other hand, see, is a coincidentia oppositorum: a coincidence of opposites, which is very deep. But to a child it is a crick in the neck. And that’s the sort of imagery we’re brought up with.

17:55

So, the idea of what might happen after death: where you’re going to be faced with your judge, the one who knows all about you. This is Big Papa, who knows you were a naughty boy and a very naughty girl—especially girl—from the beginning of things. He’s going to look right through to the core of your inauthentic existence. And what kind of heebie-jeebies may come up? Or you may believe in reincarnation and you think that your next life will be the rewards and the punishments for what you’ve done in this life—and you know you got away with murder in this life—and the most awful things are going to happen the next time around. See, you look upon death as a catastrophe!

18:47

Then there are other people who say, “Well, when you’re dead you’re dead.” Just, y’know—nothing going to happen at all. So what do you have to worry about? Well, we don’t quite like that idea, because it spooks us. You know? What’s it like to die, to go to sleep and never, never, never wake up? Well, [there are] a lot of things it’s not going to be like. It’s not going to be like being buried alive. It’s not going to be like being in the darkness forever. I’ll tell you what: it’s going to be like as if you never had existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. There just never was anything and there’s no one to regret it. And there’s no problem. Well, think about that for a while. It’s kind of a weird feeling you get, when you really think about that; you really imagine it. Just to stop altogether. And you can’t even call it “stop,” because you can’t have “stop” without “start,” and there wasn’t any start. There’s just… no thing.

20:08

Well then, when you come to think of it, that’s the way it was before you were born. I mean, if you go back in memories as far as you can go, you get to the same place. As you go forward in your anticipation of the future is to what it’s going to be like to be dead. And then you get these funny ideas that this blankness is the necessary counterpart of what we call “being.” Now, we all think we’re alive, don’t we? I mean, we’re really here? That there is something called “existence?” You know, the existentialist: Dasein, thrownness, UNGH! You know? Here we are! But how could you be experiencing that as a reality unless you had once been dead? What gives us any ghost of a notion that we’re here, except by contrast with the fact that we once weren’t, And later on won’t be? But this thing is a cycle, like positive and negative poles in electricity.

21:20

So this, then, is the value of the symbolism of “She is black.” She—the womb principle, the receptive, the in-standing, the void and the dark. And so that is to come into the presence of the God who has no image. Behind the father-image, behind the mother-image, behind the image of light inaccessible, and behind the image of profound and abysmal darkness there’s something else which we can’t conceive at all. Dyonysius the Areopagite called it the “luminous darkness.” Nagarjuna called it śūnyatā: “the void.” Shankara called it Brahman: “that of which nothing at all can be said.” Neti neti; beyond all conception whatsoever.

22:39

And, you see, that is not atheism in the formal sense of the word. This is a profoundly religious attitude. Because what it corresponds to, practically, is an attitude to life of total trust, of letting go. When we form images of God they’re all really exhibitions of our lack of faith. Something to hold on to. Something to grasp. How firm a foundation, what lies underneath us, the Rock of Ages, or whatever—Ein’ feste Burg. But when we don’t grasp, we have the attitude of faith. If you let go of all the idols you will, of course, discover that what this unknown is—which is the foundation of the universe—is precisely you. It’s not the you you think you are. No, it’s not your opinion of yourself, it’s not your idea or your image of yourself, it’s not the chronic sense of muscular strain which we usually call “I.” You can’t grasp it. Of course not. Why would you need to? Supposing you could, what would you do with it? And who would do what with it? You can never get at it.

24:20

So there is that profound, central mystery. And the attitude of faith is to stop chasing it. Stop grabbing it. Because if that happens, the most amazing things follow. But all these ideas of the “spiritual,” the “godly,” as this attitude of UNGH! Must! And we have been laid down the laws which we are bound to follow—all this jazz is not the only way of being religious and of relating to the ineffable mystery that underlies ourselves and the world.