Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 13)


Watts explores the contrast between organic and mechanical world views and the difference between the growing process and the making process, and he explains why one corresponds to a democratic principle and the other to a monarchical hierarchy.



Throughout this series I have been trying to explain two fundamentally different ways of looking at our world, one characteristic predominantly of the West and the other of the East. And these might be called, respectively, the way of description as opposed to the way of seeing. The way, in other words, of understanding things in words or in terms contrasted with the way of understanding through looking and seeing a field or a subject totally all at once. Or you might call these the linear view (strung out in a line) or the total view (seeing all at once), or the serial view on the one hand as contrasted with the simultaneous view on the other.


Now, in classical Western science we have depended largely on this serial or analytic view, which understands the world by translating it into ideas, into words, or into, say, even series of numbers. The basic feature of it being that things are understood in a step-by-step way in sequence. And insofar as we constantly look at nature in that way, we tend to think of nature as something constructed—something, in other words, made or put together as we ourselves make and put things together through a series of steps. And perhaps this gives us the feeling that if we understood nature sufficiently, if we understood in full detail all the steps which go to the making of our universe, we could ourselves make it.


Now, it’s here, you see, that we get a very fundamental contrast between East and West, and especially through Chinese and Japanese ideas of the formation of nature. Because for them it seems extremely odd to think of nature as being constructed or made by a sort of step-by-step procedure. Their feeling is rather that the world and its forms are not so much constructed as grown. And one of the most important keys to an understanding of Far Eastern thought is to see the difference between a view of a constructed world and a grown world.


Now, to give a sort of crazy illustration of this: supposing I construct something—for example, an artificial flower—and you know, when you get instructions, how to do this, and you buy a book of do-it-yourself artificial flowers, you get a step-by-step procedure which tells you what to do. Step one: take a piece of wire with a black button and fix it to the end. Step two: take the stamens previously cut out and affix it to the button. Next step: insert a disk of sticky material, push the wire through the middle, and then affix the petals. Here they go. And notice that, as I put them on, I take them from outside and around me—things that are bits—and I bring these bits together to make the flower a construction, or whatever form it is that I’m intending to create. And so from going around to the center, from getting something that was previously pieces and bringing it all together, I get my flower.


But now watch how an actual flower grows; how it starts, as it were, from the center. And it unfolds itself not bit by bit, but all the parts of the flower exfoliating together from the center outwards, in contrast to the making process, which goes from the outside inwards. From a situation where the parts are originally all apart (all in bits) and then assembled, contrasting with a situation where you have some simple beginning (like a seed or a bud), and as it expands it constellates or forms its own parts from within itself. And this is the fundamental process of natural growth. It’s in the same way that the human baby is formed within the womb. It’s in the same way that, if you watch crystals under a microscope forming a solution, you will notice the whole area of the crystal, the whole structure of the crystal, coming into being all together at once, and you will not see a kind of bit-by-bit assemblage which we use when we make machines or make houses or make tools. Even when we carve a block of wood—although the block of wood is not originally a lot of distinct parts, nevertheless we work upon it from the outside towards the inside, whereas all processes of growth go from the inside to the outside.


Now, in our current scientific way of thinking in the West, this kind of growth, this kind of formation, is always talked about in terms of what we call field theory; fields of force. And I suppose one of the most striking exhibitions of what a field is can be seen in looking at the formation of magnetic lines of force in iron filings—as when we take filings that are not magnetized, just thrown chaotically over an area, and then, with the magnets underneath, notice that all the filings form together into a pattern, the whole area moving together, every single part of it simultaneously into its shape. And that shows us the whole nature of a field of force.


Now, the fascinating thing is that some of these fundamental words which we’ve been studying throughout this program for the basic principle of nature, or the basic reality underlying the world, are words that have the meaning of a field. Let’s take for example the word I introduced to you some programs ago, a term used in Buddhism: śūnya, which meant “the void;” the great space, as it were, underlying the whole world. This has in it the idea of a field. In the same way, that basic Chinese word tao also has the idea of a field of forces, an area in which everything happens. Or, again, the Hindu word Brahman: although it doesn’t literally mean a field, it’s also often symbolized by the idea of a vast inclusive space. And the direct connection of this with the idea of a field comes out in another Buddhist word which describes the entire universe. This Sanskrit word, dharma—that means, well, “law” or “function,” sometimes it means the “Buddhist doctrine,” sometimes it means a “method”—but you could say dharma in this particular context means the fundamental order of the world. And so the expression meaning “universe” is dharmadhātu. And this Sanskrit word dhātu is usually translated “realm,” but it has the idea of a field—especially when you see its Chinese equivalent, which is written this way: 界. And here we have: the character of the top actually means a field, and the bottom part of the character means a shellfish. But think of something like a clam with two shells, and giving one the idea of inclusion or enclosing in. “Enclosed within a field.” This is dharmadhātu.


And then, in turn, in the field there is a structure, and the structure of the field is thought of as governing the formation of the universe. And you may remember that, in the last program, I gave you a particular Chinese world which meant the basic pattern or order of the world. Do you remember this word, which is pronounced , and which had as its original meaning “the markings in jade,” “the fiber in muscle,” or “the grain in wood.” This word, then, designates the basic structure within the tao, within the fundamental field of the world, and thus its order—which can be, as it were, understood by looking at it, but is too complex, too much happening so fast all together at once, for us ever to be able to analyze it in the relatively clumsy language of words. Now thus, you see, it seems to us that that order is enormously complex. The order of nature, the order of beauty, the order of ethics—all these kinds of orders baffle us when we try to think about them bit by bit.


But actually this order is only a complicated order when we try to think about it. I mean, it’s very simple, isn’t it, to drink water if you put it in a cup or a glass and toss it down. But it would be extraordinarily complex if one tried to drink water with a fork. And in the same way, the world and the order of the world, the activity within the field, seems incredibly complicated to us when we try to translate it into thinking and into words. But this, then, is the fundamental Chinese Taoist and Indian Buddhist view of how the formations of the world arise. Not by a step-by-step process which can be put down in a line like the instructions for making the flower, but by something which happens spontaneously all together at once.


And this particular form of activity is commonly represented in Eastern art by many-armed and many-headed figures of various divinities, such as this particular Tibetan figure of Guanyin. You know, Guanyin is sometimes known as the goddess of mercy, but actually Guanyin only became a goddess figure when it reached China. The original meaning of this figure is a representation of the power aspect of nature. And this wonderful Tibetan figure is graciously lent from the collection of my friend, Mr. [???], here in San Francisco.


But the interesting thing about it is, you see, that the figure has three faces and eight arms. And you might think that that presents an incredible problem of coordination. But isn’t it really the same problem that we have in being alive in the simplest and most fundamental way? Our own bodies—without our thinking about it at all—are doing all kinds of things all together at once, and we don’t have to stop to think about it. You remember the little rhyme—thinking of creatures with many arms—the little rhyme that says:

The centipede was happy, quite,

Until a toad, in fun, said, “Pray,

Which leg goes after which?”

This worked its mind to such a pitch,

It lay distracted in a ditch

Considering how to run.


And you may have noticed that the same thing can happen to us when we think too hard about how we breathe, or if you’re doing something to which you’re accustomed in quite a mechanical way, like knitting or tying your necktie: when you begin to think about it too hard you get balled up and you start dropping stitches.


And so one might ask: how is it possible for Guanyin—this figure that we have seen—to use so many arms, to use so many faces, so many eyes? It’s the same question. How can the centipede use so many legs? How can we make our bodies function—all the different parts of it, going together at once—without our having to think about it at all? And the answer that the Eastern world would give is that it happens because it is a field of forces. It is, in other words, a process that’s going on not governed by a boss, but a process that is self-governing.


Because, you see, their idea of nature corresponds (perhaps we would say) to a democracy rather than a monarchy. In a monarchy we have a political type of order where one mastermind is telling all the other people what to do. But we are aspiring—aren’t we?—in a democratic kind of political setup to have something that is not so much like a monarchy as it is like a living organism which is self-governing, where all the parts develop independently and yet harmoniously in terms of the pattern in a field.


And so, speaking of the fundamental principle behind the world, old Lao Tzu—you remember him? I’ll write his name down again just in case you forget this rather difficult Chinese pronunciation. Lao Tzu, the founder of the Taoist philosophy, who’s said to have lived about 600 B.C., but probably lived much later. He said, speaking of Tao:

The great Tao flows everywhere,

Both to the left and to the right.

By it, all things come into being.

It loves and nourishes them,

But does not lord it over them.

Merits accomplished, it lays no claim to them.


In other words, this is an idea of the ultimate reality which does not govern the universe by ruling it, by telling it what to do, but by (as it were) letting it be free to organize itself harmoniously in the same way as you saw the iron filings organizing themselves within the magnetic field, in the same way as you saw the natural rose growing as distinct from the artificial daisy being made by being put together.


Now then, these forms of Asian philosophy want us, as individuals, to feel that we participate in this great democracy of nature no longer as isolated individuals trying to push it around, or command it like monarchs or bosses. For their conception of the omnipotence of nature is not like the omnipotence of a king, but of a self-governing state. Not a mere collection of units, but a body: a self-organizing pattern. And they want us to feel that the true self of each one of us is that entire pattern.


Now, in the ordinary way, we feel that although I am doing certain things, nevertheless most of what is going on in the world is happening quite independently of me. The motions of the clouds and winds, the circling of the stars, the fluctuation of the tides, the flowing of rivers—all these seem to happen quite independently of the individual “me.” And yet, the flowing of rivers which seem to go along by themselves are surely neither more nor less independent of the individual “me” than the beating of my own heart, which, although it seems to go on independently—I mean, I don’t will the beating of my heart—nevertheless, what is more fundamentally “me,” the very center of my physiological life? And if I don’t will the beating of my heart, might it not also be possible to feel that, although I do not will the motions of the wings, the tides, and the stars, that these are nevertheless just as much my activity as the coursing of the blood in my veins moving without my having to think about it, like the centipede’s legs? Might we not be able to feel that the whole eternal universe is our body, like this system here in which every point is defined by its ties with every other point?


Now then, the fundamental and final question that remains is: how are we to come to feel that way? How are we not just to think, but actually to realize, to make real to ourselves, to feel that the motions of the heavenly bodies, the rivers, the seas, the winds, are all “my” body? How are we to feel a general impression of life in which Man is no longer the isolated, lonely, separate ego trying desperately to defend himself by attempting to become the world’s monarch, but feeling rather instead a profound kinship and fellowship, and fundamentally love, for the whole world just as if it were his own body—which in this view it is.


The thing which all these great Eastern philosophies insist upon—whether they be Indian or whether they be Chinese—is at first sight rather depressing to us. Because the fundamental insight is that our ego and our will can do nothing to acquire this feeling of fundamental unity and solidarity. It can’t do anything at all. And the feeling cannot be had until, as we say, we have given up our own will, set aside our own ego. This, after all, too, corresponds with the great basic Christian insight, where as, for example, Dante says of the will of God: “In his will is our peace.” Or, as another Christian writer says: “Our wills are ours to make them thy.” In all the great religious traditions of the world there is the recurrent theme of self-surrender, of giving up one’s self.


Now, at first sight this seems something spineless. This seems something weak and namby-pamby, and as if—you know, the Marxists always say: religion is the opium of the people. And they validate their point of view by saying: look, religion always tells people to give up their will. That’s so that the tyrant can push them around, the nasty capitalists can make them do what they want. But they forget that, in the giving up of our own will we do not surrender power, we gain power. Because in the giving up of our own will we are, as it were, making ourselves an empty channel through which a greater power than our own can pass through.


Lao Tzu said, you know: “The usefulness of a window is not so much in the frame as in the empty space through which something can be seen.” And so, in the same way, you might say that the power of a human being is not so much in his particular individual identity as in a certain kind of emptiness through which something can flow. And so all the great religions of the world—and most especially of the Asian world—have as their deepest insight the principle that Man comes into his own and finds his true power in standing out of his own way, in getting out of his own light. And this involves, as I said, the surrender of our own will.


But, you see, always the problem is: how does the will surrender the will? There is a Chinese saying that when the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way. In other words, if I’m the wrong man that is a willful, selfish, domineering person, anything I do to give up my will will be motivated by my fundamental selfishness. I shall be, in other words, like a clever woman who wants to get her man, but she knows that this particular man always runs away if you go after him. So she acts as if she doesn’t want him. She gives him up—apparently. But her real motive is, of course, to get him. And therefore, she is just, as it were, playing a trick. It’s a kind of clever feminine wile or deceit.


And so, in the same way, if we say: now I’m going to surrender my ego, I’m going to be unselfish, I’m going to give up my will so that I can become one with god, or so that I can feel this splendid fellowship with the whole universe, and feel that my identity is no longer lonely little me, but all—I shall have as the fundamental motive doing it, after all, for my own advantage. After all, because this is a new way of finding spiritual and psychological security, and so because it is basically insincere, it wont’ work.


And therefore, what is at first sight depressing about Eastern insights into this matter is not only that our will, when it is aggressive and assertive, stands in the way of this understanding, it also goes on to say that we cannot even surrender our wills on purpose. And that when it becomes perfectly clear to us that there is nothing at all that we can do about it—either positively by trying to achieve something, or negatively by giving ourselves up—this is the fundamental deflation of our ego and its whole domineering quality. This is the limit. At this it doesn’t give itself up, it sees that it has no alternative but to give up. And from the emptiness, the silence, the feeling of impotence that follows this, the whole vision of a united world bursts like a flower from its bud.


Alan Watts

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