Birth, Death, and the Unborn

All the patterns we see around us in the world are projections of our minds. There is no way things should be, there is no way things shouldn’t be. But if humans can adopt a mental discipline in which they remain able to project patterns without becoming hung up on them, life for everyone will transform into a beautiful artwork.



This seminar about birth, death, and the unborn is going to be a discussion of the Buddhist philosophy of change. And I’m going to start out by going into the very tricky and difficult question of the Buddhist view of birth and death, and the doctrine which is ordinarily understood as reincarnation, or rebirth.


It’s a curious thing that many Westerners who become interested in Hinduism or Buddhism do so because of this idea of reincarnation. They like it. It gives a more satisfactory vision of individual history and development than the two possibilities that would normally be open to Westerners to believe in. On the one hand, you’ve got the choice of the Christian view, which is that you live in this world once, and in this fourscore years and ten your eternal fate is settled. Or you’ve got the possibility of the materialistic view, which is that you only live once, and when you’re dead you’re dead. That’s that. You’re a flash of consciousness between two eternal darknesses.


Intelligent people in the Western world have never felt very happy about either of these two prospects. And therefore there is a certain attractiveness about the idea—which seems to be the point of Buddhism and Hinduism—that you are a soul on a pilgrimage, and that from some extremely obscure origin you began as some sort of animalcule, and worked your way up step by step through all sorts of forms of life, and finally you have the privilege of appearing in human form. And once you’ve got there, you have an opportunity to develop to the highest spiritual position.


You must remember that, according to both Hindu and Buddhist doctrines, the human form is a very privileged position, for there are—according to both of them, because they share a common cosmology—six domains of beings. And if you will visualize the wheel of life with its six divisions: at the highest top division, there is the realm of the deva. Deva is a word from which we get the word “divine,” and equally the word “devil.” Deva means, though, originally: a God, or more correctly, an angel. “Angel” is a better Western translation of deva than “God.”


Immediately opposite the deva world, at the bottom of the circle, there is the naraka world of beings in torment, of the absolute—this is the dimension of the world which is the screaming meemies, which is experience in the form of horror. The deva world is the experience of being in the form of bliss.


And between these two poles there are all kinds of ranges. There are, for example, the asuras next to the devas, going clockwise around the wheel. And the asuras are a wrathful beings. Asura is the incarnation of divine anger. Then, next to the asura, going around, are the animals; all animals whatsoever. Then again, we get to the naraka at the bottom, the place of the purgatory, we’ll call it. Then, coming up again, there’s the world of the preta, who are frustrated beings. And they’re represented iconographically as having very large bellies and very tiny mouths—that is to say, an immense appetite with very little means of satisfying it. They’re a sort of spiritual bottleneck.


And then, coming up between the pretas and the devas is the world of the humans. And this is understood to represent a sort of middle position. You can be liberated from the human state, because the devas are too happy to be liberated, the asuras too furious, the animals to dumb, the narakas too tormented, and the pretas too frustrated. You need not take this as a literal account of various kinds of being in the universe. You can take them simply as a depiction of various states of the human mind, of the moods you can go through. They’re all really in your own head—as we shall see later on about many other things.


But these are the six worlds of Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. And the notion is that one reincarnates again and again through the six worlds. This is the popular idea. In other words, if you live this human life in a bad way and you become angry, if you devote your life to fury, you’ll be reincarnated as an asura. If you devote your life to merely living for back and belly, you’ll be reincarnated as an animal. If you are horribly cruel to people and so on, you’ll be reincarnated as a naraka. And so on all around. But, on the other hand, if you do good things in the course of your karma, you will be reincarnated in the deva world, or in better and better situations in the human world. That’s the popular understanding. And Westerners, many of them, think: well, that’s great! Because this opens up vast vistas of future development. We can go on in future lives working out our destinies, and we can also love to think about who we were before. When you fall in love with somebody, did you meet before in some past life? Is this the working out of a karma that is between you? And it’s very interesting.


But the funny thing is that Hindus and Buddhists who do believe in rebirth do so not because they like it, but because they feel they have to accept it as a hard fact. And the whole task of the work of a sādhanā (or spiritual practice and discipline) is to get out of it. So it always strikes me as very funny that Westerners take this up because they find it comforting, but Easterners are always trying to get away from being reborn.


It was so funny. Once, Joseph Campbell told me a story that he was sitting with a Vedanta swami; one of these Vedanta Society swamis. And the swami was saying, “Oh, dear me.” He said, you know, “The idea of rebirth is so wonderful.” He said, “I really think this is the most comforting notion.” And Joe said to him, “Swami, don’t be a damn fool! What are you talking about; the idea of rebirth being so comforting? Don’t you realize that that’s what you’re supposed to get away from?” And the swami suddenly jumped, and said, “Oh, yes! Of course!”


It was like I once had a talk with a swami, and he was arguing, you see, that behind all the multiple forms of this world there was only one single divine principle. And he was going on about this, and I said, “Swami, you can’t talk like that. You know very well that the Brahman”—the ultimate reality—“isn’t one. Because one has an opposite, which is many. And Brahman has no opposite. You should speak of Brahman as the non-dual.” And again, he said, “You talk just like a Hindu!” They are funny, you see, because these swamis have accepted an enormous amount of Western feeling. And the British were responsible for that; for occupying India so long and perverting its traditions.


Now, it is so curious, all this. Because in Buddhism there still prevails an idea of rebirth very strong among all Buddhist countries. And yet, Buddhism explicitly denies that there is any individual reincarnating soul. You see, in Buddhism there is a doctrine which is called the three signs of being. And these three signs of being—or I should more correctly say the Sanskrit word is bhava, and that means “becoming” rather than “being.” Bhava is from the basic root (I think) bh, which is connected with “growth.”


So bhava—“becoming,” the process of change—has three signs. One is called duḥkha. In Sanskrit it means “frustration”—sometimes translated “suffering,” but I think “frustration” is a more general word, which is perhaps better. Duḥkha is the opposite of sukha. Sukha means “sweet.” Duḥkha perhaps means “sour.” But in the way it’s used it means frustration as a basic characteristic of living beings. Because for some reason or other, life is always eventually frustrating. You desire more than you can ever get. You overreach the possibilities. And so to every being death comes as a collapse and as something unfortunate.


The next sign of being is called anitya, which means “impermanence”—the opposite word being nitya: “eternal.” So anitya is: everything is in flux.


And finally, anātman, which means that nothing has its own soul. Now, that sounds to a Christian a terrible idea. Because we use the word “soulless,” or we say to a person, “you have no soul,” which means you have no finer feelings, you’re not a human being. Because Christian theology did distinguish between humans and animals by saying that animals have no soul. Idiots have no soul. They’ve lost their soul. But you can see at once that there is a complete difference of the meaning. To translate ātman as “soul” is ridiculous.


Anātman means basically that nothing exists—well, there’s another word in Sanskrit you have to know: svabhāva. Sva, that means “one’s self” or “one’s own,” same as the Latin suus, because the “V” becomes the “U.” Sva-bhāva. Bhāva: “becoming again.” “Your own becoming.” Or sometimes it’s called “your own nature” or “self-nature.” And so what it is saying is that nothing has any real svabhāva, because no individual thing of any kind exists except in relation to all the other things.


In other words, you are what you are only because of your relationships to everything else, and therefore the whole universe is a system of interdependence. It’s just as if, for example, you were to stand two sticks on the ground and lean them against each other, and they will stand up and form an inverted V: because they lean on each other. And this is an old thing that they teach children in Japan. That these sticks leaning against each other form the Chinese character for “man” [人]. And they say, therefore: “Man cannot exist unless we support each other.” This is the basis, therefore, of brotherhood and of good social relationships.


But underneath that is the far more profound idea that the universe coheres by everything depending on everything else. And therefore, nothing exists alone, nothing exists in its own right. And that’s what anātman means: you do not have an indestructible, immortal soul which is just plain you forever and ever and ever, and is independent of there being anything else at all. Also, though, this does go along with the idea that there is not some kind of gaseous spook, some kind of etheric double, astral body, what have you, which outlasts the existence of the physical body and migrates to the next incarnation.


So it has always been a puzzle for Buddhist philosophers to explain how they can at once believe in reincarnation, and at the same time deny the existence of an individual spook which is independent of the physical frame. And the most subtle discussions in all Buddhist literature range around this puzzle. The most important text of early Buddhism is a book called The Questions of King Milinda. This is the Greek Menander. He is a king in the succession of Alexander the Great, who ruled in Alexander’s eastern empire and had long conversations with a Buddhist sage by the name of Nāgasena. And Nāgasena tries to explain to the king how there can be rebirth without anyone who is being reborn.


And so this is the problem to which we address ourselves: how can there be a continuing process without any thing carried along by it? And you will recognize at once that the problem is very largely semantic. Because it involves our whole idea of continuity. What, for example, do you mean by a wave? When you throw a stone into the water, and from the plop point where the stone goes in a whole lot of rings emerge. And they are waves, and they go out. And you can, as it were, look at one of them and follow it. And you say, “I am watching a wave.” But what is a wave? You know very well that the water itself—no specific volume of water is moving outwards from the place where you dropped the pebble. The water is staying quite still, so far as lateral motion is concerned. But the water is moving up and down. And these up and down movements create the illusion of a thing called “a wave” that goes along—similar to the illusion when you watch a barber’s pole revolving: it seems to be a procession of something that keeps going up from the bottom of the pole to the top, but actually it’s just going around.


Now, that appearance of something moving when there is actually—the only thing that is going outwards is motion. And motion is about as abstract as you can think. This is the whole route of the Indian idea of māyā; of the world as māyā, as a construct, something which, shall we say, exists only in your mind. Only, we shall have to be very careful what we mean by that—and I’m going to come to that later on in the seminar.


So here is here is the point. You are delivered from rebirth—this being the purpose of the spiritual disciplines of Hinduism and Buddhism—as soon as you are relieved of the illusion that something is going on; continuity. This after this after this after this, all linking up together into a chain. In the famous Zen text called, the Platform Sutra (attributed to Huineng, the Sixth Patriarch) there is a passage which says, “If we allow our thoughts past, present, and future to link up into a series, we put ourselves under restraint. But, on the other hand, if we just see that there is just this thought and then this thought and then this thought, you are liberated.”


This is an idea which is taken up by T. S. Eliot in this poem The Four Quartets, where you come to the passage where he says that you are getting on a train, and you’ve settled down in the compartment with your newspaper, and you’re going on a journey. But the one who arrives at the destination will not be the same person who left the platform in the beginning. Because you, who sit here now, are not the same as the people who came in at the door a little while ago. Just in exactly the same way as the flame of a candle appears to be a constant flame, which we can identify as a thing, but as a matter of fact, it is a stream of hot energy. Which is whatever particles, whatever gaseous molecules are here, are going zhhh zhhh zhhhh, like this, the whole time, flowing upwards and disappearing. The flame is converting the candle wax into gas.


And in exactly the same way as we can see that the flame has an identity—you say it is a flame, we have a noun for it—well actually, it is a process: it is flaming. And so, in just precisely that way, every human being is a process: just as the flame is the conversion of wax into gas, so you and I are the conversion of air and water and light and beefsteak and milk into shit—and which again converts into something else, you see? We are the flowing vibration through which all this goes. And not for one moment are we the same.


So then, the meaning of the Buddhist doctrine is that you, who live today, are never going to die. Because the one that’s going to die will not be the you that’s here know. And likewise, the one that’s here now was never born. It goes like this: it is explained by Dōgen (who was a most fabulous Zen philosopher living around 1200 AD), when he said, “The spring does not become the summer, and the summer does not become the autumn. No one would say that spring becomes the summer. There is spring and then there is summer.” And he said, “In the same way, when you burn wood, there are ashes. But the wood does not become the ashes. There is wood and then there is ashes.” Each is, as it were, sufficient to itself. There are, as it were so, steps. It’s like vibrations, wave crests, you see? Where the water doesn’t move, you see? Water doesn’t move laterally. So, in this sense, by analogy, the spring does not become the summer. But by watching it, you (in your mind) impose motion on the up and down of the water. And so you say the spring becomes the summer. So, likewise, you say the baby becomes the adolescent, becomes the man, becomes the crone, becomes the corpse. And the Buddhists say: no, these states follow in the same way as the apparent motion of a wave.


And so the word to the wise is: live the moment you’re in. There is no other place to be. You will not die, and you were never born—if you realize, if you see through the illusion. Now, this may sound as if one were creating a theory of the universe which is what you might call atomistic, discontinuous. It is saying the universe is nothing but point instants, and it all comes down to that, you see? This as an extension of the Western philosophy of nominalism. Nominalism as opposed to realism. The nominalists argue against the realists’ point of view, which (as realists say) there is such a thing as mankind. Mankind is a reality, and every individual human is a special instance of a real universal substance called man. The nominalists argue this is abstraction and nonsense, there is no such thing as mankind, there are only individual people.


And, of course, this has become, in the twentieth century, the ascendant point of view. There is not really such a thing as the United States of America. That is a political abstraction. There are just the people who live here. But if you take nominalism to its logical conclusion, you get to the point where you don’t exist at all. A human being? There is no such thing as a human being. It’s an abstraction. All there is is the molecules, or the cells, which infest your bones. And dissolve those further into the nuclear particles, and you can say, “Well, that’s all there is, you see? There are just these things.”


But then you suddenly begin to realize there is no end to that way of thinking. Because you can always (given imagination and given instruments of sufficient subtlety) subdivide any unit of existence, of motion, of energy, into further subdivisions, further units of measurement, and say that we get more real as we get smaller, you see? That’s simply saying that the smaller things are the more real things. Well, that’s a ridiculous argument because you can play it exactly in the opposite direction. You can say: oh no, no, no, no. Since all small things only exist relatively—that is to say, in relation to each other—the only real thing is the big thing. So all those small particles are relatively unreal. The only thing that is real is the whole universe. And that’s so big that nobody can conceive it. So do you see: all philosophical argument is a game, playing with people, arguing with each other in words, playing up and down the scale of arguing as to which level of bits, collections of bits, all bits whatsoever—which one is real?


I’ve noticed a very funny thing in observing with my experiments with psychedelics: that psychedelic conversations are absolutely perfect examples of what is going on and always has been going on in philosophy. People start talking with each other, having very animated conversations about nothing at all except the processes of grammar. In other words, let’s imagine a conversation in which nothing specific is mentioned. No proper names are used, no proper nouns, nothing is being referred to whatsoever. But all the words that indicate more or less dimensions of quality, dimensions of quantity—all the operative words, say words like “to be,” “to grow,” “to diminish,” “to expand,” “to contract”—all these are operant words which can be used with reference to all kinds of specifics. But they get into conversations where all specifics are dropped out, and only operant words are used. And they dance with each other by using these kinds of words. And philosophers are doing exactly the same thing. Philosophy is an intellectual dance, a game that we play, just like it might be go, or it might be chess, or checkers, or poker, where we take these abstractions, the set of cards, 52 to the deck, and we play numbers and orders against each other, see? Well philosophers do just the same thing and all their arguments.


And you say: well, isn’t that kind of silly? Well, maybe it isn’t. Because life itself, biology, is the same thing. We have all these species that eat each other and come on in different shapes, in different forms, and so on. And there is a contest going on all the time to prove whether the cats are more powerful than the mice, or the humans than the rats, and this constant thing is going on. But it is the same kind of bubbledee-bubbledee-bubble. Only, it takes instead of such a simple word as “bubble,” which is a vibration in the air, it comes on as a mouse. And a mouse is a very complicated way of saying “bubble.”


So in all this, you see, when you get a game going of this kind, there comes the point of what you might call emotional investment when you feel that the outcome of this particular feature in the game is urgent. See? This matters. And do see that that’s what we mean by “matter?” The word “matter,” meaning something substantial, something material, also means important. “It matters.” And it’s up to you what you think matters. We teach our children what matters, what’s important for them to learn. And we teach them basically that it’s important to live: you must go on. That’s terribly important. When you get a schizophrenic child or a so-called Mongolian idiot, these children don’t realize that it’s important to go on, and they don’t give a damn. And they are very happy—but from our point of view incompetent, unadapted to society, useless. Because they don’t understand why it’s necessary to go on living. They’re just going to have a ball where they are, and generally (what we would say) goof off.


And in a way, every being in this world is torn between going on and goofing off. That’s the basis of our distinction between work and play. Play is: everybody needs some time to goof off. But they must go back to work, because you’ve got to farm and fish and manufacture and produce, so that you can go on. But when you have this terrifying urgency to go on—and feel you must, this is important, this matters—we screen out of our consciousness the fact that this is our own volition and our own game. Because we are captivated by the illusion of the necessity and the importance of going on, to keep other people going on, to keep children going on, to keep this thing up. And the difficulty is that, as we become disturbed and anxious about this, it’s more difficult to keep the game going. In proportion, as we are frightfully concerned to survive, we start fighting other people. We start clobbering our neighbors who are stealing our crops and whatever it is. All the old fights start. And it is these fights which (more than anything else at the moment, you see) are endangering the entire human project—but all based fundamentally on the illusion that it’s utterly important that we survive.


A little while before he died, Robert Oppenheimer said, “It is perfectly obvious that the whole world is going to hell. It’s going to blow up. There is no way that it can be stopped, except that we don’t try to stop it happening.” Because, you see, the panic—what’s going to happen if this bomb goes off? See?—this more than anything else will make it go off. Because it’s like a person who’s looking down over a precipice and starts to get unreasonable. He is terrified to fall over it, and therefore suddenly all the strength goes out of his fingers and his legs get wobbly, and he’s ready to fall. Simply because of his fear of falling.


But, you see, in all this, what underlies is the illusion that I am going on, that I constitute a real continuity from this moment to the next moment to the next moment to the next moment. What are you afraid of losing when you die? Why, all the capital you’ve acquired during your life. The experiences, the friends, the status, the skills. Everything that you remember would be destroyed, ordinarily, when you die. In other words, we are afraid of losing the past.


Now, it’s perfectly obvious to me that, when you die, yes, everything that you’ve acquired as an individual and stored in your brain is dissolved and distributed. But at the same time, it is equally obvious that, when you die, there won’t be following the moment of death everlasting nothingness. That would be as ridiculous as to suppose that you went immediately to heaven and joined the saints and angels. The point is that when you di, you’re always reborn de novo—that is to say, just as you were before. When you came into this world there gradually arose into being the sensation of “I.” And it stays there a while, it goes through a development, and then it drops off. But all the time, everywhere, there are other “I”s starting up, see? Whether they be human, animal, anything you like, they be in other galaxies, et cetera. Always, they’re starting up.


But we would say there is no connection between them. No. In the same way there is no connection between the molecules in your hand, and yet you say it is a hand. But if you look at it under a powerful enough microscope, the molecules in your hand are miles apart. And you would say there is no connection between them. What’s the connection between this galaxy and other galaxies? Well, we can’t see any connection. And yet there are gravitational swings whereby they respond with each other and move in a certain collective order.


So, in a very similar way, the constant appearance of beings who feel that they are “I” constitute a wave motion. And they may be considered individually—see, what we’re doing in this is not setting down a doctrine, but it is doing an exercise in perception. You can see it either way. You can see yourself, in other words, as existing only now. That’s the only you there is. The alternative to that, logically, is to see yourself as everything. Either it must be that you exist, bingo, like that. You’re a point instant. Bong! You know, if you go and the Fillmore Auditorium and dance, they turn on the stroboscopic light, going very rapidly, brilliant light, on and off, on and off, on and off, on and off. And it seems that everybody is all the time going in and out of existence. See?


Now, in a way, that’s a kind of exemplification of the truth: that we are vibrations, and that everything does go on and off, on and off, on and off all the time. So the only real thing is the moment of “on,” where you are now. Got it? Lost it. Got it? Lost it. Got it? Lost it. See? That’s the only thing that’s real. That’s one pole. The other pole is the view that all these on and offs, just like the molecules in your hand, constitute a continuous reality. But if you follow that line, you’ve got to add up not to just what you are at this moment, you’ve got to add up to the whole universe through the entire span of its existence in space and time. Any middle position you take between these things is arbitrary.


You say: okay, I’m going to be so much. I’m going to call myself this particular human being who lives for such and such a time. Okay. That’s the way you want to play the game. Those are the rules you’ve been told. And if you want to get attached to that and hung up on that, you’re going to say that matters. And so you feel material. And the Buddhist idea is simply saying: don’t get hung up on a (what is called in Sanskrit) dṛṣṭi. Dṛṣṭi means a “view,” a particular way of looking at things. You say: looking at it from this point of view, this is the way it seems to me to be, and I’m going to stick for that. I’m going to get hung up on that. That is the meaning of attachment. So in Sanskrit, the word sakaya dṛṣṭi, means the “view of separateness,” the view that the separation of a certain bundle of wiggles, taken out of the total willingness of all that there is, is me, and another bundle of wiggles is very definitely you. And to get stuck on that, see? And therefore to start a fight about it. Therefore, to start crying and weeping and gnashing of teeth, all about this thing being the real thing.


That is what these people are trying, all these Buddhist sages and Hindu sages: to get people off that hangup and say, “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Don’t you understand? The whole thing’s an illusion.” Not that this is a word to put it down and say that it’s horrible or bad. If you could see that the whole thing is an illusion, you’d be happy as a lark, and life would be lived much more joyously by everybody. We would dance together and give things away and stop fighting, see? If we really saw it was an illusion we’d all be happy in our big dream.


But we are constantly saying to ourselves, and we are saying to our children: “It’s real! Goddammit, it’s real! And death is gonna be awful! And sickness is gonna be horrible, you see? It’s real, and you better watch out!” See, people say to me, “You can say, as a philosopher, that all this thing is… and you can talk this way because you’re sitting in a comfortable place. You’ve got plenty to eat. But you watch: when the thing hits you, you’ll laugh the other side of your face.” Krrck! Well, I don’t give a damn! When it happens, it’ll happen. But it’s not happening now. And what I’ll do when it does happen is: “sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof.” As if you let yourself be free to react as nature dictates when catastrophe falls, you’ll be okay. But if you go through your whole life standing in a state of preparation for catastrophe, and eeeeugh, you know what’s going to happen, you just torment yourself and get ulcers and rotting of the brain, long before it’s necessary for that to happen.


In this seminar on birth, death, and the unborn, we’ve been discussing the Buddhist philosophy of change: of life as a flowing, dynamic pattern process, which is essentially immaterial. Because it isn’t anything you can grasp. We use the word “substance,” we use the word “solid,” we use the word “matter,” for something you can catch hold of or stand on or rely on or cling to. And the basis of the Buddhist philosophy of change is that there is nothing of the kind. There is nothing to hang onto, nothing to rely on, nothing to cling to. But when we say, you see, something matters, the word has a double meaning in that it means that it’s substantial in that it’s important. And so we are brought up from birth to play the game of life in a certain way. There are certain things we are told by adults, who were told by their adults, who were told by their adults that these things matter.


And one of the fundamental things that matters is that you go on living. And so everybody is tremendously concerned with the things that matter, that they’ve been taught to value, and because these things actually don’t matter—that is to say, because they’re not substantial, but they’re all a flowing pattern. As I illustrated: a flame seems to be a substantial object that’s there to burn you, and you can watch it for a long time. Actually, it’s a stream of hot gas. And so, likewise, the human organism is a stream of energy. It’s never the same for two seconds. Only, we’ve been taught to watch that thing, and to cherish it, and value it, and it matters, dammit! And yet, it’s going to wear out. And yet, it’s going to get sick. And yet, it’s going to die. So everybody is involved in playing the game of life in a way that goes beyond play and becomes deadly serious. And as a result, the whole of existence is lived in a state of constant frustration. Because you are trying all the time to hold together and to preserve something which (in the long run) can’t be preserved at all.


And therefore, in response to this cry of pain which everybody puts up as a result of being in this situation of trying to hold on to things, the wisdom of the various ways of liberation—be they Hindu, Buddhist, or whatever—is saying to everybody: look, now. Cool it. Wake up! See what the scene is. This is the kind of thing that’s going on. And you are not a captive in a trap. You’re not just some mere little measly being that somehow or other was brought into an insane universe, but you are what the thing is. You are not the victim, you are the system. Only, you have identified yourself with one wave in it, and have forgotten that you are one with the whole energy that’s going on. But what you’re doing is: you have got a particular way—that is to say, a particular accumulation—of memories, of associations, of skills, of things that you’ve learned. And you don’t want to let go of them because you found in that accumulation of memories (which you call yourself) an identity. So you know where you are—or think you do. But actually, you don’t need to be anywhere. Where is the universe? You know, think up an answer to that one. And so the question “Where is the universe?” is really ultimately the same question as “Where are you?”


So what this is saying is: look, let go. It’s alright to play the game and be involved and work out the various intrigues, problems, creative projects, and so on, that life involves. That’s fine. But if you get involved in it so that you’re hung up, this deprives you of delight and joy in playing the game. So the point is to get people un-hung-up on the whole thing—which in the way we have been accustomed to translate Sanskrit, Chinese, we have been calling “unattached.” But “un-hung-up” is much better. It’s much clearer. This colloquial phrase, a hangup, is a much more direct and exact translation of what the Sanskrit word kleśa means: an “attachment” or “evil passion,” or something like that. Kleśa is hangup. It is blocking, being fixed on a particular point of view.


And I was trying to show you this morning that we can take ever so many different points of view towards what’s going on. No point of view is the right one. Infinitely many points of view are possible. But if you take a point of view, and you insist that’s the only point of view, then you’re hung up on it. If, for example, you take the point of view that there are only two kinds of human beings—men and women—and either you are a man or you are a woman. That’s a hangup, because actually we vary a great deal. There are men who have much more feminine elements in them than others, and women who have much more masculine elements in them than other women. And so there is an enormous variation. But so long as you insist that black is black and white is white, and that there are Republicans and Democrats, and capitalists and communists, and good guys and bad guys, it’s a hangup. So, also, between what is you and what is other than you.


Well, that’s the general area of what we were discussing this morning. And now I want to go further in explaining what I started out to explain, which is the basic Buddhist idea of rebirth, of our being reincarnated. I said that this was not in Buddhism the idea that one has a kind of spiritual spook, or astral spook, or soul, which travels from one life to another. It is a much simpler idea than that. But it’s so simple that it’s difficult to explain. I would begin, you see, with the assumption that every person, every sentient being whatsoever, is “I.” “I” is simply the universe aware of itself at a particular place and time. William James once said, “The word ‘I’ is a noun of position, like ‘this’ or ‘here’.”


And so the feeling that we call “I” is how everything feels on the inside. But it is always in a particular place at a particular time. And these particular places and particular times, they keep going on and on and on and on and on. Myriads of them, all over—not only on this globe, but probably in worlds scattered throughout the whole cosmos—the “I”-feeling arises. And you feel that you are “I” just as much as I feel that I am “I.” And your “I”-feeling and my “I”-feeling are essentially the same—only, we’re looking from different places. But it’s all one “I.” Only, we don’t see this because we are hung-up on the coming and going of “I,” on the particular circumstances in which every “I” appears. And so, just as the flame changes its physical identity every second, every split second, every microsecond, so do you. You’re a stream.


And so, taking us all together—supposing you watched the human race from a very different point of view: you were watching us—you didn’t know anything about human beings, never seen them before—and you were observing what’s going on in this planet from some other point of culture in space and time. And you would say, “Well, this world is peopleing. This planet peoples just like a tree bears fruit. And year after year the apples that come off an apple tree all look very much the same.” And you would say, “Yeah, the apples come and go, but they’re always the same apples coming back.” It’s only if you look very minutely at the apples, and studied the details of coloration and formation, that you would say that one apple was different from another. Now, we’re all so used to each other, and we know each other so well, that we see and emphasize the differences between us. But somebody who knew nothing about humanity would see the coming and going of human beings as a repetition of the same process. Just as the flame burning: we say it’s a flame, but it’s a repetition of the same process. It keeps on flaming. Cha, cha, cha, cha, cha, cha, you see? Now, if you’re going to count each cha as a distinct and separate event, then you cannot hear—cha, cha, cha, cha, cha—the rhythm. So, because of our myopia, because our point of view is fascinated by the details and the differentiations between everything that’s going on—the differentiations between people, the differentiations between generations—we are so preoccupied with that particular view of things that we’re hung-up on it, and we don’t see that it’s the same thing happening again and again and again, and that every “I” that comes into this world is you.


Now, you don’t have to have any inside information to understand that. It doesn’t require any sort of is a esoteric, spooky knowledge, something that can be demonstrated. It’s just looking at things the way they are, standing right out in the open and facing it. All “I”s are I, wherever soever scattered. Because, you see, this is the place—at the point called here and now, this universe knows itself on the inside. You look around you and you see everything, as it were, presenting and exterior to you. Supposing I want to delve into another person: how am I going to do that?


Well, there are many ways. I can talk to them, I can get them to express their inmost thoughts and their feelings, I can make love to another person and exchange a very fundamental sort of electrochemical union, I can take a knife and like a surgeon go in and analyze. But my relationship to the other is always seeing life on the outside. However much I get down to the tiniest cells that constitute your nervous system, I’m still looking at that cell from the outside. If I go down into the molecules, I go down into the atoms, I’m still regarding them from the outside. The only point at which I know the thing on the inside is where I am. Then I have inside knowledge of what everywhere else appears to be outside. So if you want to know what all this is, that’s why mystics say you have to look within. So they talk about the inner life within yourself, and so on. Because that’s the point at which you know what it’s like on the inside. And so, to realize inside, there must of course at the same time the outside. To realise self, there must be the counterbalance of other. Because this, like black and white, is like back in front. They’re inseparable.


So then, this is where we start from: that every being coming into this world is “I,” and they keep on coming. It doesn’t matter how long the intervals are between their appearances. Supposing this planet were completely wiped out by a cobalt bomb explosion. That would be the end of this race in just the same way as, say, a group of insects will eat their food supply up on a plant, and the whole population will perish. It happens again and again. And so in all probability, throughout this galaxy, and throughout other galaxies, there are human or comparable populations that arise and go, arise and go, just as we do individually. So don’t get too worried about the thought that this whole human system on this planet may go away and disappear. Because if you get too worried about it, it’s going to happen faster than if you don’t worry about it—because of the attraction of a vertigo, the feeling of wanting to throw yourself over the precipice even though you know it’ll destroy you.


But it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose, in other words, that there is a constant rhythm of what we call consciousness, being awake to life, going on and on just as stars go on and on. If the stars are going all over the place, if galaxies are going on all over the place, it’s equally reasonable to suppose that life is going on all over the place. And although the distances from our particular point of view between these islands of life may be vast, don’t forget that the distances between the molecules in your own body are equally vast, on their scale. You could go down and blow up the inside of your own head so that the various elements would be hundreds of miles away from each other, and yet somehow or other they hang together. Don’t be deceived.


Because distance, space, isn’t just removal. Space isn’t just nothing. This is the grand delusion: that space is somehow a thing to be ignored. When Buddhists say that the root of frustration (or duḥkha) is avidyāavidyā means “ignorance,” “ignoring,” “not knowing.” And this is very clearly explainable in terms of the Gestalt theory of perception. The Gestalt theory of perception is that we notice the figure and ignore the background. We notice what is a relatively small enclosed space and ignore the more dispersed. We notice what moves against what is relatively still, and what is relatively still is ignored. So, likewise, when we get a constant stimulus of consciousness: we begin to ignore it and not to notice it. Consciousness tends always to notice novel things, novel changes in the environment. So that the most unnoticed things in life are those which are the most constant and the most regular. And because, you see, you lose touch with the most constant and the most regular things, you screen them out of your your general thought as insignificant: they don’t matter, they’re not there. And the most ignored thing is space.


Because space is always the background. The solids are the figures. And therefore we say, simply, space is just nothing. It may be filled around this planet for a little distance with air, which is important. Because we do this a while, and you notice something. See? There’s some whoosh going on. But out there, space—that’s nothing and all. The Michelson–Morley experiment showed there isn’t even ether in it. And so we say that is nothing. But all that is saying is that that is the background to every figure, and as the figure cannot be there without the background, the solid cannot be there without the space, and so the space are the world is the one thing we’ve forgotten and the one thing that is absolutely essential to there being anything at all. Because in every direction the stimulus of space is a constant: we don’t notice it. Just in the same way you don’t notice when you hear music on the phonograph, you don’t consider the fact that all the music that you hear is a vibrating diaphragm. Whether it imitates drums, flutes, human voices—it’s still a vibrating diaphragm. But that’s ignored. We say that’s not important. But it is important. Because without the vibrating diaphragm there wouldn’t be any music at all. Space, then, likewise, is everywhere. But, we ignore it because it’s common to everything. A constant stimulation stimulation of consciousness is forgotten.


So then, we must realize that what we call separate things, separate molecules, separate lives, separate planets, separate stars, separate galaxies, are joined by space. Space, in other words, is a relationship between solids. You would not be able to think about space without a relationship between solids. And so the whole theory of rebirth in Buddhism is based on intervals. Not on a transmigrating soul, but upon intervals between lives. Because it’s the interval that’s important, just as in the same way, when you listen to music, you hear melody simply because you hear the interval between the tones. If you couldn’t hear that interval, you would not hear a melody. Tone-deaf people cannot hear melody. They hear merely a succession of sounds. And they can’t understand why other people enjoy this, because they haven’t got the capacity to hear the interval between tones following each other in succession, or the intervals between tones played simultaneously, as in a chord.


Now, isn’t that magical, when you come to think of it? That music is created by not so much the tones, as the distance; the musical or sonic space between them? But so goes for everything. It is how it is spaced that creates the significance and interest of any being whatsoever. You say, for example, the human body consists of about ninety-five cents’ worth of chemicals. But how it’s arranged! Playing a violin by a great master is just scraping cats’ entrails with horse hair. But how it’s done! See?


So the order of the way things are distributed is the magic. And that requires the spacing; how it is spaced. And so architects, they understand that space is real, because they talk about space using space. People, when they first listen to architects talking, are very puzzled. Because an architect will use an expression like “the function of a space.” And the ordinary person says: how can space of a function? How can nothing do something? When the physicist speaks of space being curved: how the devil can space be curved? How can there be properties of space, you see? Because the average person is simply brought up to ignore space as being total non-entity. So then, it is spaces between what we’ll call solids, instants, points, that makes it possible for the points to have some point. After all, if everything was point, nobody would be able to make out one point from another. So there has to be interval.


So likewise, then, when it comes to considering relationships between lives. Your past life, or past incarnation, your future incarnation—to understand this problem I repeat: you do not need any spookery. It is all perfectly obvious, and I’m going to demonstrate to you by playing a game with pebbles. Now, I’ve scattered these pebbles at random all over the floor. And let’s consider for the sake of argument that each pebble is a human life. And you see the slats of the floor going across this way: they may be taken to represent, each one, a century in time; clock time, calendar time. And so here are human lives, all of different sizes, lengths—that is to say, different breadths, how much they travel, how much space they occupied—scattered right across a period of time. And we are looking at them from a sort of celestial position with a kind of eye of God, and seeing history happening scattered all over the place.


Now, one of the first things that we do when we see a scattered arrangement of this kind, the first thing, we maybe say: oh, it’s just a mess. And the second thought: hmm, it seems to have some lines of continuity in it. Because especially, you see, as you can make out, very quickly, you can pick out a line. You know how you do this lying in bed in the morning and looking at a chintz curtain, or lying in hospital and looking at patterns on the ceiling? You start to pick out designs and themes. Leonardo da Vinci used to look a dirty old walls where there’s moisture and damp and mold, and see in those walls all kinds of paintings; that he could therefore bring out the glorious cave paintings which are found in the south of France by most prehistoric man. They’re done by what’s called eidetic vision. Those people looked in the caves at the patterns on the wall, and in them they saw cattle, people. And they simply touch them up, and therefore got the most vividly realistic impressions. It’s called eidetic vision.


So, in just the same way, in looking at the scatter of pebbles on the floor you can (with eidetic vision) pick out certain continuities. So if, for example, we—it’s very easy, you see, as things are, to spot this line. It’s almost a straight line. And a straight line is an abstract concept which is useful to us. See? I notice those are all lined up like that. Now, is there a line there or isn’t there? How real is the line? There was no intention to make a line, these are just where the things fall. But they do. So this particular set of pebbles happens to be pretty much in a straight line.


Now, the straight line is a concept. It isn’t something in the actual pebbles, and yet at the same time I can see it that way. So then, we might argue: if each of the pebbles in that line is representing the lifetime of a human being—because they are lined up in this way, you can say that is a continuity. In other words, this one, here, reincarnates as this one, and then as this one, because they continue each other and form the line. We talk about a line of descent, a line of succession. Well, that’s what happens. And you see that continuity in this system just as you see the continuity of a wave moving across the water—although actually nothing is moving, the water is just going up and down. So you would see the continuity of this. So, in the same way, as I explained this morning, you consider that you, sitting here, are the same people who came in at the door—although you’re not, you’ve changed completely.


So this—in other words, if I insist upon seeing this continuity of lives, then I’m reincarnating. If I realize, however, that my seeing of a line here is purely a projection, I’m not reincarnating, I’m liberated. Or we could do it in some other way. You don’t have to see a straight line to make the connections. Let’s imagine that these are all pebbles in a stream. And what will make connections between them for a little fellow who is walking around, you see, and he wants to get across the stream? And so he puts his foot on a pebble here, and what next one can reach? He can get that one. And then he can get that one. Wowee! He’s going to have a little problem to go on from that, see? But maybe with a jump he can land on that. And then on that one. And whoops, with a jump he can hit that. He can hit that one. See, it all depends on the stretch. That one, that one, that one, that one, that one. You see? And because they’re each within a a stretch, then that’s another reason for setting up a line of continuity: being able to see a significant connection between any of the members of the group.


So what you’re doing here, you see: you are making sense out of a whole multitude of human lives in just exactly the same way that you make sense out of anything else. The way you make sense out of a Rorschach blot—but after all, the whole world is a Rorschach blot. Everything we’re doing is: we’re making sense out of wiggly processes. You see wherever you fly across the world in a plane, and the landscape suddenly begins to look rectangular, where there are straight lines and clear triangles, or clear circles, you know human beings have been around. Where they haven’t been around, the outlines of everything are wiggly. Like the courses of rivers, the shapes of mountains and forests. Because human beings are always trying to straighten things out. But we ourselves are not straightened out. We are wiggles! And we’re interminably wiggling. But we’re trying to regulate our wiggling by setting ourselves up in houses, and going along streets with traffic lights, and regulations, and so on. But we are wiggling. And we’re trying to straighten out this wiggling. But wiggling is basic.


So the whole world—especially us—is a Rorschach blot. And science is the art of trying to make unanimous sense of this blot. And what science does is: it isn’t that there are certain fixed laws of nature which things obey, it isn’t as if the wiggly events of the world are running on tram lines and they have to do that. They don’t have to. The point is that, in order to make sense out of what is going on—there’s no way of making sense, because sense and order the same thing—therefore, we invent orders and describe the way things fit them. In other words, here is this scatter of stones, but it just so happens that I scattered them over a regularly spaced floor. Each of these divides in the planking is even. And so I can classify every stone according by numbering the board which it’s on. And by doing that, I’ll be able to identify them, and I’ll be able to talk about various regularities in the way—you see, I threw them all out like that, and there were certain dynamic principles involved, and these principles can be measured and discussed in terms of the intervals at which all the stones fell. But in fact, though, I invented the order. That order of distances between the divides in the boards is just as much a projection on the formation of the stones as considering, for example, that this group lie in a straight line. It’s something projected onto it.


So in just this way, therefore, we are projecting onto a wiggly universe an order. It’s the only way to make sense out of it. Because after all, wiggles, although they are very irregular, there is regularity in them. And you can only know that there’s regularity in wiggles because there’s also irregularity, and vice versa. So through noticing the regularities you begin to make out a consistency in the behavior of events. And if you dig consistency and say, “Great! Let’s do it again! This was fine. All that wiggle was beautiful. Once more, please! Yeah!” See? Then you dig regularities and you don’t want it to be irregular. Because, gee, if they really were I would have no idea what was going to happen next. You know? Some day there’s going to be an earthquake. Suddenly, bang, the whole thing’s going to vanish. And I don’t know what’s going to happen. Bang! That could be crazy! Be great, you know? But we don’t really settle for that. We like things to go chumm ba-dumm ba-chumm ba-dumm ba-chumm ba-dumm ba-chumm ba-dumm ba-chumm, just so long as it doesn’t get too monotonous and boring.


So therefore we’re looking, we’re scanning, all the time the field of experience for regularities, and thus build our hangups. It’s got to happen every day. The mail’s got to be delivered every day. You know? You’ve got to keep doing your work. You’ve got to eat regular meals. All that kind of jazz, you see? And so it keeps going. Because we’re looking for this regularity thing. But once again, you see, the Buddhists say: do you know this thing actually is neither regular not irregular? You can pick out—do what you want with it. It’s like: here are the chips. What value do you want to put on them? What pattern do you want to see in them? Or do you want to see them in what Buddhists call their suchness? See, that’s the point of the sand and rock garden at Ryōan-ji. You go there and you see a lovely great stretch of white sand with five rocks on it. And that’s what those Zen boys made up, and boy do they get away with murder! Whew! They set up those rocks in the garden, you see? And everybody comes around and looks at it and thinks there must be some deep meaning in this. And so there are little guidebooks that explain what it’s supposed to be. They say: well, it’s supposed to be an ocean with islands in it. Other people say: oh, it’s a beach with rocks on it. Other people say: oh well, these rocks have a certain dynamic relationship, and they represent kinds of Buddhist principles. And there’s a guy at Daisen-in where they have another rock and sand garden, a very funny cute Zen monk who gives a lecture in English—he doesn’t speak English, but he’s memorized a particular English lecture—which explains the symbolism of all the various rocks, and how they work out, and how eventually you get to the ocean of liberation.


All this is made up out of whole cloth, because the whole point of the Zen garden is just that it doesn’t mean any more than this means, or any more than anything else means. The the mountain over here, the fact the water, the fact the coastline goes and such and such a way. And here are we, all sitting around, wiggling, you know? Only, because I’m talking, and you’ve attributed a certain sense to my words and so on, you think that I’m communicating something. But actually, everything that we’re doing is like this.


Now, we are brought up to think: oh, that’s too bad. If that’s all it is, you see—if it’s just this suchness, it is just an arrangement that fell out like that—what’s the point? Life seems meaningless and empty and without purpose and so on, but that’s just because you’re geared, you’ve been conditioned through all your thinking, to feel that things meaningful unless they’re meaningful. When you say: well, life doesn’t have any meaning, that’s because you’ve had it drilled into you that it ought to have. So you make a meaning out of it. And if, on the other hand, nobody ever told you that life ought to have a meaning, and that it ought to make some sense, and it ought to be going somewhere, and that you should survive, then you wouldn’t expect it. You just dig it as it happens. So really, what this is saying is: it isn’t that things are meaningless, it isn’t that they’re meaningful, it’s just that they are so happened to be spread this way, and so there is no fixed way you should look at it.


So what is called the first principle of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, samyak-dṛṣṭi, means: samyak, “perfect;” dṛṣṭi, “view.” Suzuki once was giving a lecture about Buddhism, you know, and he said, “The fourth noble truth of Buddhism is called Noble Eightfold Path. First step of the Noble Eightfold Path called shōken. Mean ‘right view.’ All of Buddhism sum up in right view. Second step of Noble Eightfold Path is… oh, I forget second step. You better look it up in the book!” Anyway, right view doesn’t mean right in the sense of the particular correct view one should take. It means the complete view, which is having no fixed view. So, in other words, when you say what is the correct position of the stars in the Great Dipper, the Big Dipper? It depends where you’re looking for. There is no such thing as the correct position of those stars. So, in the same way, what is the right interpretation of these pebbles? Depends how you want to look at it.


There was a Zen master call Ikkyū. In the front of his monastery he had a very, very gnarled, crooked pine tree. And one day he pinned a notice on it which said: “I will pay one thousand yen to anybody who can see this tree straight.” So all kinds of people came around the tree and started standing on their heads, and looking at it in weird ways, to see if somehow they could line up the branches to see them all straight. And there was one very smart man who came and looked at this for a while, and then he went off to see another priest who was a friend of Ikkyū’s. And he said, “Look. What is this thing Ikkyū’s doing? How would you see that tree straight?” “Well,” he said, “you look straight at it.” So he went back to Ikkyū and said, “I claim the one thousand yen. All you have to do to see the tree straight is to look straight at it.” And Ikkyū looked at him in a very funny way. He forked out the thousand yen and said, “You must’ve been talking to my friend the priest down the road!”


So now, what are we doing, you see? You’ve got a universe which you’re living in which is fundamentally wiggly, like this. And you are in it and in this wiggle, see? Only, you’re trying to straighten it out. You’re trying to see order in it. And your doing this is itself a wiggle. After all, you may say part of this—one of two things in here are straight, you know? And it’s their nature to go that way; to be orderly things, to be straight things, or whatever other quality you want to put on it. And we’re like that. But we are something in this which has it in its nature to arrange it this and that way, to want to see things straight. But actually, there really isn’t anything in the whole arrangement that is the right way of doing it, and there isn’t anything in your life that is supposed to happen. You’re not supposed to live to be eighty, or to die when you’re twenty-three. It doesn’t make the slightest difference. You can be one or the other. That’s why they say, “In the scenery of spring there is nothing superior, nothing inferior. Flowering branches grow naturally; some short, some long.”


So liberation is the realization: there is no way that things are supposed to be. You don’t have to go on living. You are—you know, you’re what there is. It’s up to you to decide, see? But there’s no way it has to happen. But, on the other hand, if you want to feel that there is some way you would like to arrange this—I mean, we can start pushing these things around, you know, and put them in some kind of an order. That’s okay, too. The point being: you will be miserable to the degree that you are hung up on the notion that things should, must, go a certain way—that is to say, to have a fixed view. If you have no fixed view, you remain elastic.


And about this there is always something that can’t quite be said. When we say, “I have no fixed view,” it sounds as if I were just a non-entity, like a moron. Chinese proverb says: “As a hollow room echoes all sounds, an empty mind is open to all suggestions.” But there’s another sense of an empty mind in that. Not the moronic empty mind, but the lively empty mind. The empty mind that can either let it alone or project patterns onto it—and especially do both. So that, instead of saying what do you really ought to do is to project no pattern on the world, and realize that it’s all fundamentally senseless, is to say: always do both at the same time. Project the patterns, but realize at the same time there is no fixed view that you should take.


And this is exactly the same thing as being able to realize that there are rights and wrongs, and things that should be done and should not be done. But at the same time there’s another point of view from which you can see that everything that happens is right the way it is, and that human life never makes an aesthetic mistake, just as the patterns of the clouds and of the foam never make aesthetic mistakes.

Alan Watts

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