Man and Nature

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 1)


Alan Watts speaks on the contrast between classical Chinese and historic Western attitudes in regard to man’s place in nature. Do we see ourselves as nature’s conquerors or collaborators?



It was as a result of looking at paintings like this that I first became interested in Eastern philosophy. That was many years ago, when I was a boy only about fourteen years old. And the thing that grasped me and excited me about this vision of the world was the astonishing sympathy and feeling for the world of nature. Think, for example, of a painting like this, which is called Mountain After Rain: a painting by the Chinese artist Gao Kegong showing the mist and clouds drifting away after a wet night of pouring rain. And it’s fascinating for us to think that pictures of this kind are not what we would call just landscape paintings, they are also icons. That is to say, they are a religious and philosophical kind of painting. We are used to, of course—in thinking of iconographic or religious paintings—thinking of pictures of human figures; of angels and saints and divine beings. But when the mind of the Chinese expresses its religious feelings, it expresses it in the objects of nature.


And their feeling for nature is in one very important respect strangely different from ours. And that is as a result of the sensation that the human being is not someone who stands apart from nature and looks at it from an entirely outside position, but the human being has himself the feeling of belonging right in nature. And this is very startlingly illustrated if you look at another painting, this one by the great Song Dynasty painter Ma Yuan, called Poet Drinking By Moonlight. You’d think it was just a landscape painting and struggle to find the poet. But if you look very closely at the bottom part of the painting, you will see him right there drinking a cup of wine, sitting at a table, with his boy attendant beside him—I suppose that’s the equivalent of what would be a graduate student for a professor of English literature these days. But that tiny man, lost in the landscape, is representative and symbolic of the whole attitude of the Chinese mind and of Chinese philosophy to the harmony of man and nature: man not dominating nature, but fitting into it and feeling perfectly at home.


But, you know, our attitude is very strange and different. And we constantly use a phrase which, in the ears of Chinese people, sounds very peculiar indeed. We speak constantly of the conquest of nature: the conquest of space, the conquest of mountains (like Everest). And they would say to us: why, what’s the matter with you? Why must you be in such a fight all the time with your environment? Aren’t you grateful to the mountain? That it, itself, lifted you up when you got to the top of it? Aren’t you grateful to space, that it opens itself out for you so that you can travel through it? Why do you think all the time of getting into a fight with it? That is indeed—isn’t it?—our dominant feeling: that we are using science and technology, the powers of electricity and steel, to carry on a fight with our external world and to beat our surroundings into submission with bulldozers.


And it’s also the same with our attitude to our own nature, because we’ve been brought up in a religio-philosophical tradition which has taught us to a great extent to mistrust ourselves—that is to say, it has taught us as reasoning and willing beings to mistrust our animal and instinctual nature. We have inherited a doctrine of original sin which tells us not to be too friendly, to be very cautious, with our own human nature. And this is something which is all very well, for we have indeed achieved marvelous things by technological interference with and alteration of nature. But if this thing is carried beyond a certain point, it gets us into very serious trouble indeed as a result of what I would call the law of diminishing returns.


Now, it’s something like this, to illustrate it in a very simple way. Supposing you start mistrusting your own senses. Supposing you are the sort of person that, when you go out for a walk in the morning, you’re going down to the market, and you wonder: did I turn off the gas stove? And you’ve only gone a few paces from your house, and you think you must go back and take a look in the kitchen and see if you really did turn it off. So back you go, and you open the back door, look in the kitchen—yes, you did turn it off. So you close the back door and off you go again. And then, a few paces out, you think: I wonder if I really saw correctly. Did I look carefully enough? And if at that point you break down and go back again, the more careful you’re going to be, you’re never going to get out shopping. You’re going to be tied in a bind. And although you may say: well, that’s only the sort of thing a very stupid person needs to do, as a matter of fact, this is what our culture is beginning to carry on in very big dimensions.


For example, we are privileged (in the United States) to enjoy freedom in a way that many other peoples in the world don’t have it. Yet, at the same time, we are very anxious to be sure that our freedom won’t be abused. And we keep saying when somebody does something that is an abuse of freedom: there ought to be a law against it. And so hundreds and thousands of laws are put into effect to prevent people from abusing their freedoms. And so much legislation involves the most complicated processes of record-keeping as, for example, the record you have to send in every April to be sure you didn’t cheat on your financial affairs. Records which become more and more complicated so that, nowadays, sending in an ordinary individual income tax return is as complicated as extracting the cube root of a complicated number. And the net result of our anxieties to write down just exactly and to the hair—so that some shyster lawyer won’t find a loophole—exactly and to the last hair what we may and may not do, the net result of this is: it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do anything at all. In other words, if you want to start a business enterprise, if you want to, say, create a nonprofit society, you have to hire lawyers, you have to have whole staffs of secretary to attend to the bookkeeping, the records, the returns that must be made to the government. And some of our great universities even have vice presidents in charge of relations with the government.


The same thing comes out, for example, also in our animosity to nature in the sense of wanting to obliterate distance. We want to go faster and faster everywhere we go, and so annihilate the span of the Earth between ourselves and the place we want to reach. But what is the ultimate result of this? Just think: if you’re getting faster and faster from point to point, and obliterating the distance between points, two things happen. In the first place, all points that are set next to each other—by, say, jet propulsion—begin to become the same points. In other words, the faster you can get from Los Angeles to Hawai’i, the more Hawai’i becomes exactly like Los Angeles. And therefore tourists keep asking: “Well, has it been spoiled yet?” And by that they mean: is it just exactly like home? And furthermore, if we begin to think about our goals in life as destinations, as points to which we must get, it begins to cut out all that makes the points worth having. It’s like saying: well, instead of giving you a full banana to eat, I will give you the two precise ends of the banana. And that would not be in any sense a satisfactory meal. But that is what happens as we tend to fight our environment and to want to get rid of the wonderful limitation of space and distance.


And, you know, if we carry this kind of thing to its ultimate extreme we get into a most extraordinary tangle, which I think I can very well illustrate in this way. Let’s go and have a look over here at a sentence which has been written on the board. That is a sentence which is behaving like we are behaving in our mistrust of nature. That is a sentence which fundamentally does not trust itself. And it says of itself, “This statement is false.” Now, what do you see funny about that? This sentence behaves in an extremely peculiar way. Because if it is true, then it is not true. And if it’s not true, then that’s what it says: it isn’t true, so it’s true. So that if the statement is true, it is false, and if it is false, it is true, and so on and so on. In other words, the meaning of the sentence is oscillating. It’s shaking from true to false, true to false, like an electric bell vibrating. And, in other words, you might say that this particular sentence is suffering from anxiety. For anxiety is the condition that comes upon us when we fundamentally mistrust ourselves, when we mistrust our own nature, and are trying to keep such a tight grip on it that we start to tremble as one’s hand starts to tremble if you become extremely anxious to hold it still.


Now, Chinese thinking—of which there are really two main currents: the Taoist current and the Confucian. Taoist, that’s spelled t-a-o-i-s-t, and Confucian. And both of these main currents of Chinese thought agree on one fundamental principle, and that is that the natural world in which we live and human nature itself must basically be trusted. They would say of a person who can’t trust his own nature: well, if you can’t trust your own nature, how can you trust your very mistrusting of it? How do you know that that’s not wrong, too? And so if you don’t trust your own nature, you are as fundamentally balled up as anyone can get.


Now, it’s interesting to look at the fundamental Chinese word which we translate as “nature,” because it has a rather different meaning from the word that we use. In Chinese, “nature” is written like this. You know that Chinese characters are fundamentally pictures. And this first one—here’s the picture (自)—used to be a face, and so it means “one’s self,” or “of itself.” And the second character—I don’t know what this was originally; it’s become now a very abstract figure (然)—that means “so.” And so the whole figure (自然) means “of itself so,” and we should give the rough English equivalent of that as “spontaneity.” That which happens of itself just in the same way, for example, that your hair is growing by itself, your heart is beating by itself; so that if you feel your pulse, you get the funny sensation of movement going on inside your body, and you think, “Oh, I’m not doing that! That’s something queer going on inside me over which I have no control.” But when you come to think of it, what is more fundamental, what is more central to you, what is more the very middle of yourself than your own heart? And so this idea of nature—that which happens of itself so—is a process which is fundamentally not under our control, which is happening all on its own just as our breathing is happening all on its own and just as our heartbeat is happening all on its own. And the fundamental thought of Taoist philosophy is that this self-so process has to be trusted.


If you turn, now, to Confucian ideas, we will find another word that represents the basis of human nature. This word, written like this (仁), has a funny pronunciation. Although, when we romanize this word in English, we spell it j-e-n, which is pronounced ren. Sort of like rolling an “r,” or rather saying “r” but not rolling it. And this word is the cardinal virtue in the whole system of Confucian morality. It’s usually translated “human-heartedness” or “humanness,” but when Confucius was asked to give a precise definition of it, he refused. He said, “You have to feel the meaning of this virtue. You must never put it into words.” And the wisdom of his attitude about not-defined ren is simply this: that a human being is always greater than anything he can say about himself and anything he can think about himself.


If we formulate ideas about our own nature, about how our own minds and emotions work, those ideas are always going to be qualitatively inferior—that is to say, far less complicated, far less alive than the actual author of the ideas themselves, and that is us. So there’s something about ourselves which we can never get at, which we can never define, in just the same way that you can’t bite your own teeth, you can’t without the aid of a mirror look into your own eyes, you can’t hear your own ears, and you can’t make your own hand catch hold of itself. So that you must basically trust this. Confucius would say he would rather trust human passions and human instinct than he would sometimes trust human ideas about what is right. For example, when people go to war, they very often go to war about who has the right ideology? Who has the right of this particular dispute and who has the wrong of it? And because there can be no agreements, no compromise between principles of right and wrong, ideological wars generally tend to be vastly disgusting. On the other hand, when we go to war for simple ordinary greed, because I am greedy of another peoples, another nation; I want to carry off their goods, I want to carry off their women—I would at least be sure in going to war with them that I don’t destroy the thing I want to possess.


And so if we are, then, bound to trust our own nature, this attitude of hands-off, of not interfering with one’s self beyond a certain point, is called—again, in Lao Tzu’s Taoist philosophy—this: wu wei. This character means “no,” “not,” or “don’t,” and it’s said to have been originally based on a picture of bunches of grass tied together, like this, indicating that a certain area is taboo. “You mustn’t step on this area. The ground is sacred. So don’t. Keep off!” is its meaning. And it’s possible that this was originally a drawing of a hand over a bird, like this. Well, the meaning of this is “grasping a bird.” The whole idea is: “don’t grasp the bird.” In other words: don’t clutch at what is living.


If, for instance, you—like sometimes, little children pick up a kitten, and they’re so eager to hold the kitten they squeeze it tightly, and the kitty says Meow! Meow! and scratches the child all over the place. It’s because he is loving it, he is grasping it, too tightly. And so, in the same way, we have to allow all living things to let go and manage themselves. Look, supposing if, in drawing, I wanted to be absolutely certain that my hand didn’t go away from a line, and I began to get anxious: is it going to go straight? And so let’s bring in this hand to hold onto it. Oh, and let’s bring this on straight. But now, how can I be sure my left hand’s going to stay still? Indeed, the right one’ll have to catch hold of it. Oh, and then we’re in a total mess.


But, you see, we in the West are basically afraid that, if we trust our own nature, everything will turn into chaos. We’re afraid, as it were, not to keep holding a club over our heads, to keep watching on our instincts and our passions and our so-called uncivilized animal natures, fearing that they will go awry. But, you know, when you let go of that grip on yourself, sometimes astounding things happen. You get out of your own life. You’re functioning altogether in one piece. I mean, after all, a person who is basically divided against himself, who is in inner conflict and is trying to go in two directions at once, he can’t go anywhere. He just has to sit and dither. Whereas if I’m going all in one direction, then at least I’m going—and even if I’m going in the wrong way, I can change the direction. But if I’m trying to go in two ways at once, I don’t get anywhere at all.


Now, artists in the Far East have made a great deal of what they call the controlled accident: marvelous things which happen as surprises. When an artist does not try to dominate his medium, but lets his medium itself do some of the work. Take, for example, this cigarette jar that I have here. Do you see the glaze has just been slopped on it in a swift motion of the wrist? And do you notice, as I turn it, that there are all sorts of little flecks of light inside the black outline there? And little flecks of black, like right here, outside the main band of black? It’s incidental things like this which, to the Chinese and Japanese mind, and increasingly to our own way of thinking, make the real beauty of things.


For instance, consider a shell like this. Here is an object which any one of you would pick up on the beach if you saw it. And yet, what does it represent? If you saw a painting with markings on like that, you might say, “Well, that’s not what I call a painting. It doesn’t look like anything.” And yet, as I say, none of you would hesitate to pick that up and treasure it if you found it. That it, too, like the jar, is a sort of controlled accident. And it is the art of trusting the medium to express itself along with your own contribution to it as an artist.


When this harmonious relationship of man and nature is brought into play we get marvelous little objects of this kind. And so, in the same way, if we can learn to trust our own nature, we will—I think—be profoundly surprised that things don’t go out of control at all, but on the contrary suddenly come back into control. Take, for example, a very familiar instance: supposing you’re learning to ride a bicycle. Some of you will have known that, when you started out this rather difficult art, you found yourself immediately falling over, and your first instinct was to turn the wheel right opposite the direction in which you were falling. And in this way you collapsed totally on the ground. It seemed to be common sense to turn away from the direction in which you were falling. And yet, the thing you have to learn to do is to turn the wheel in the direction in which you are falling, and in this way you—zhhup!—suddenly come up straight again, and you’re in control. You expected to fall, you went with the fall, and you came to yourself again.


In precisely the same way, when we go with our own nature, our own inner feelings, we come into control of them. We don’t lose control. If we fight them we get in that state of balled-upness, of anxiety, of dither, which makes us incapable of doing anything at all—an anxiety and a dither which is comparable to the whole problem of maintaining freedom in a world like ours; a problem that we are in danger of losing our freedom through being over-anxious to preserve it.


Or think of another illustration: those of you who live in the East and the Middle West are familiar every winter with the problems of icy roads. But any good driver knows that when you skid on an icy road, you have to turn in the direction of your skid and not against your skid. That, again, brings you into control. To fight the trend of things, to fight what the Chinese call the Tao, the way of nature, is to come into conflict with nature, so that you can’t do anything at all.


Or another common example: everybody who ever used a sailing boat knows that, if you are going to move, you’ve got to keep the wind in your sails. Even if you want to go against the wind, you would never dream of turning the boat directly into the path of the wind. So you always have in some way to keep the wind behind you. so when you want to go against the wind, you don’t fight the wind, you use the wind. You, in other words, tack against it at an angle so that it blows you into itself. This is the fundamental principle of Chinese philosophy which underlies that startling manifestation of it in Japanese wrestling called judo, where you overcome the enemy not by opposing him, but by using his own strength to bring about his downfall. For this is the philosophy of bend and survive: of the strength of weakness. As the willow trees under snow go supple and drop the snow, the pine with its tough branch piles up the snow and cracks.

Man and Nature

Alan Watts

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