Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 3)


This program looks at the East Indian concept of time and the illusion of living for the future as the tomorrow that never comes. Plans for the future are only useful for those able to live fully in the present.


I suppose most of you are familiar with this old optical illusion, and you’re asked the question, “Which of the three thick black lines is the longer?” And I suppose one’s natural reaction is to say, “The one on the left.” And I think you know that this is a result of the illusion of perspective, an illusion to which we are so used and by which we’re so easily fooled once we’ve accustomed ourselves to it. You might, if that picture were drawn more vividly, even be predisposed to thinking that was a real passage stretching away from you with doors at the end. Of course, if you came up against that kind of thing painted against a wall, you might make the mistake of walking into it and banging your nose.


But this is an example of what we were talking about last time as māyā, that word from Indian philosophy which generally has the meaning of “illusion,” or rather, illusions brought about by the acceptance of certain conventions, of which perspective was an example. When we are not aware that certain things which we take for granted—like the separateness of things from each other—when we’re not aware that this is a matter of convention, we are apt to be fooled.


Now, I think one of the conventions by which we tend to be fooled more than almost any other is time. And for all human beings time is a matter of extraordinary importance, and perhaps this is one of the principal ways in which we differ from animals. Because man has been called a time-binding animal—that is to say, a creature who is visibly aware of the fact that his life moves, as it were, along a line from the past through the present and into the future. Animals apparently live pretty much moment by moment. They don’t appear to have very strong memories. But because man has a strong memory, he is able to bear the past in mind and, as it were, cast it forward into visions of the future based upon what has happened in the past. And therefore, although this facility gives man the most extraordinary ability to plan his life, to prepare for future eventualities, at the same time there is a very heavy price which he pays for it, and especially if he takes this ability too seriously—in other words, if he doesn’t realize that the true reality in which he lives is the present moment, now.


For example, the animal probably doesn’t concern itself very much with problems of future disease, death, or starvation; things of that kind. If an animal sees another dead animal lying around, I don’t suppose he thinks to himself, “Well, one day that’s going to happen to me.” Rather, he just sees a dead animal, sniffs it, sees whether it’s good to eat, and wanders away. But for human beings it’s entirely different, because we actually spend most of our time and a great deal of our emotional energy living in time, which is not here; living in an elsewhere which is not concretely real. So much so that, although we may be quite comfortable and happy in our present circumstances, if there is not a guarantee, not a promise, of a good time coming tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, we’re at once unhappy even in the midst of pleasure and affluence.


And so we develop a kind of chronic anxiety about time. We want to be sure more and more, because of our sensitivity to the theme of time. We want to be sure more and more that our future is assured. And for this reason the future becomes of more importance to most human beings than the present. And in this sense we are hooked, taken in, by a māyā, because it is of very little use to us to be able to control and plan the future unless we are capable at the same time of living totally in the present. And so, when in civilized societies we spend so much of our time living for the future, we become very much like those celebrated donkeys, you know, that have a carrot fastened on a stick that’s tied to the neck—you know, behind here—and it comes over, and there’s the carrot dangling in front of them. And they pursue it, pursue it, pursue it, but can never reach it. And so, in exactly the same way, it’s that way with us.


My goodness, don’t you remember when you went first to school, and you went to kindergarten? And in kindergarten the idea was to push along so that you could get into first grade, and then push along so that you can get into second grade, third grade, and so on, going up and up. And then you went to high school, and this is a great transition in life. And now the pressure is being put on: you must get ahead. You must go up the grades and finally be good enough to get to college. And then, when you get to college, you’re still going step by step, step by step, up to the great moment in which you’re ready to go out into “the world.” And then, when you get out into this famous world, comes the struggle for success in profession or business. And again there seems to be a ladder before you; something for which you’re reaching all the time. And then, suddenly, when you’re about 40 or 45 years old in the middle of life, you wake up one day and say, “Huh, I’ve arrived. And by Jove, I feel pretty much the same as I’ve always felt. In fact, I’m not so sure that I don’t feel a little bit cheated.” Because, you see, you were fooled. You were always living for somewhere where you aren’t. And while, as I said, it is of tremendous use for us to be able to look ahead in this way and to plan, there is no use planning for the future which—when you get to it and it becomes a present—you won’t be there! You’ll be living in some other future which hasn’t yet arrived. And so, in this way, one is never able actually to inherit and enjoy the fruits of one’s actions. You can’t live at all unless you can live fully now.


And because now is never satisfactory, because we’re never really living in it, we get more and more avid to go ahead and pursue the future. We develop our technology to a fantastic ability where we can more and more fulfill our desires for the future almost immediately, working towards a sort of push-button world. But have you ever stopped to think what the world would be like if you could fulfill every wish the moment you wished it? Suppose, for example, on going to bed at night, you could always dream whatever you wanted to dream. What would happen after a while? Of course, I suppose, at first you would dream fantastic pleasures, wonderful adventures, fulfillment of all the things you ever wished. But then, as time went on, don’t you think you’d want to be… oh… a little bit surprised? To have a little bit less control over what was happening to you? And after you’d experimented with this for some months or years, you might even want dreams in which you suffer. Because there is no real delight, no real fulfillment, without delay. Doesn’t every child know on a hot day—and you think, “I’m terribly thirsty, and I’d like an ice cream soda.” Haven’t you tried the experiment of putting off drinking it, and putting off, so that you get thirstier and thirstier? And it’s so much fun when you finally get to it. And so, in the same way, in patience with time, always wanting the future is frustrating.


Now, you know, in Indian thought one of the basic myths or ideas is of Brahmā, the world creator, who has infinite power and has everything that he wants. But he is like our dreamer, and he wants to do something with the infinite time at his disposal. And therefore, what he does is to dream just like this; to dream the existence of the world. And he does it over enormous and incalculable periods of time, dreaming that he is the knower, the Self, in every single creature that exists in the world, dreaming them all at once, experiencing their joys and sorrows, completely plunging himself into the adventure of forgetting who he is. But he does this for immense and vast periods, rivaling in conception the latest modern astronomical ideas of the extent of time.


You know, the basic reckoning period of time in the life of Brahmā the Creator is called a kalpa, and that is a period of 4,320,000 years. And the kalpas are called the days of Brahmā: one day for Brahmā’s life is a kalpa. And so there are the periods (which you can call his days or nights, whichever you wish) where he goes into dream and he dreams the world. Then, for the following kalpa, he wakes up and realizes who he is again. And then he dreams again, going on and on and on through years of kalpas of 360 days and nights of Brahmā, centuries of kalpas, endlessly, endlessly, endlessly.


For the Hindu doesn’t think of time in quite the same way that we do. Obviously, we think of time as linear: day after day after day after day, going along on a line. Or sometimes we like to think of time as this sort of line, going up and up and up and up and up and up, and getting better and better and better. But that’s not the fundamental idea of time for almost any people in the world outside of Western civilization. In nearly every other part of the world time is thought of as a circle. And they say, after all, isn’t it reasonable for it to be a circle? Look at your watch: doesn’t your watch go ’round and ’round? But the Hindus not only think of time as cyclic, going ’round and ’round and ’round forever, just as the Earth cycles around and around the sun, they also think of it in another quite fundamentally different way from our conception of time.


I referred to this idea that’s common among us; that time is going up and up, and things are getting better and better. But in the general Hindu view, in every cycle of time things tend, on the whole, to get worse and worse. They divide the kalpa into a number of shorter periods, each of which is called a yuga. But the yugas are so arranged that there are four of them in what is called a mahāyuga, or “great yuga.” The first one, occupying this period, is the longest. The second one occupies a shorter period, from here to here. The third, still shorter than the second. The fourth, the shortest of all. And the names that are given to them are the names of the throws in the Indian game of dice. The best throw, the throw of four, is called krita, and that lasts for the longest time. It is a golden age where everything is just fine. The next one is called treta, the throw of three. Pretty good, but not quite so good. The third is called dvapara, the throw of two. And here, good and evil are equally balanced. Not so hot. The final throw, the throw of one, is called kali; the worst throw. And that’s the shortest period. And, of course, according to Hindu ideas, we’re living in it now. But in kali yuga everything goes to pieces and becomes deadened, and time goes faster.


Now, why do they feel that time deteriorates in this way? It is because, as one lives in time and becomes more and more conscious of time, we tend more and more to pursue the future—as I said a little while ago. And as we pursue the future, present time becomes more and more unsatisfactory, and we feel that we have to chase our happiness at greater and greater speeds. I was talking the other day to a college president who said, “You know, I’m so busy now that I’m going to have to get a helicopter.” I said, “Whatever you do, don’t do it. Because if you get it, more will be expected of you. You’ll be expected to go to more places faster.” And, you see, in this whole problem of speed, of getting advantages in life because we can move about rapidly, we forget that speed is only of real advantage to you if you’re the only person who has it. Then you can get ahead of other people. But the minute everybody else catches up with you, you’re all back where you were, only going much faster and much more nervously; going, as it were, faster and faster to less and less desirable objectives. We hurry everything we do: we make our products, our houses, our furniture, our clothes so that they become obsolete quickly. We’re in such a hurry to get everything done. We pay attention to the front rather than the back.


Who, for example, in this day and age, has time to do anything like this? Here’s a piece of Chinese embroidery. Those among you who’ve ever done any embroidery—some of the ladies—will no doubt recognize that this is a kind of stitch called needlepoint. It’s done on a material made up of minute little squares of thread, like a grid or lattice in thread. And this work here is so minute that there are 1,024 stitches to the square inch. So well done, furthermore, that if you turn it over and look at the back, the back is almost as neat as the front. You know, ordinarily, when you embroider you take shortcuts around the back, and take threads, jumping spaces, and tying knots, and things of that kind. But here, no hurry. Or take such an ordinary object as a lady’s pocketbook. This, again, is Chinese embroidery work in shaded silk. Very patiently done over a padded base underneath, so that the figures stand out. And inside it a little sewing case, which opens up, showing—concealed within—a place for the scissors of the most delicate work. But in this day and age we don’t have time for it because we’re always in a hurry to get things finished, and so the things that we finish weren’t worth finishing because they were done so fast.


After all, the enjoyment of our world is not really unlike listening to music. We don’t play music in order to get somewhere. I mean, if the objective of music were to arrive at a point—say, the last bar, the final great crashing chords of the symphony—well, then all we’d do, we’d be just: “Hurry up, it’s playing!” Play it as fast as possible so as to get to the culmination, the end, as soon as possible—or just cut out the whole symphony and play only the last bars. To be able to enjoy it we have got to live each moment of the playing, and listen to it as if it were the only thing important to listen to. And then, if we do that, our time has an entirely different quality. It’s represented in a Buddhist saying that:

Spring does not become the summer;

There is spring, and then there is summer.

Firewood does not turn into ashes;

There is first firewood, and then there are ashes.


The two stages being, as it were, sufficient by themselves. And this is intended to give the idea of living in a fully concrete present into which you settle in. I mean, the present (for most of us) is—isn’t it?—just a hairline on a dial. And the hand goes by it, FLASH, and there’s nothing in it. One after another. But here there is an entirely different sense of the present as something you can settle into.


There’s a line behind me from a Chinese poem, and it says, literally, “Day, ditto”—in other words: “day, day”—“that is good day.” Every day is a good day. And it comes as the last line of this poem:

In spring, hundreds of flowers.

In summer, refreshing breeze.

In autumn, the moon.

Free your mind from idle thoughts

And for you every season is a good season.

[Or: “Every day is a good day.”]


And “idle thoughts” mean illusory thoughts, thoughts of pursuing a future, thoughts of making one’s happiness depend on something which isn’t here at all. But when one can come to realize that the present is the only place in which you live, and that the past and the future are now no more than useful illusions—still useful, but useful only if one can live in the present—then, as I say, one can settle into full participation with the momentary reality of life as it goes along just like music.


And so, in the arts of the Far East there is reflected a kind of delight in momentariness. One can really consider, for example, this stem of a broken bamboo. Or—not only in painting, but in poetry—a poem in the Japanese haiku style; poems which just crystallize a single moment:

In the dark forest

A berry drops.

The sound of the water.


Or a painting of a man sitting all alone in his boat, listening to the water. He’s not asleep. He’s not dreaming. He’s a man living in an entirely real world; a world which we neglect because we have no time to sit and listen to the water.


After all, are not the memories which you go over memories which persuade you that it’s really worth being alive; really the memories of certain moments in which life itself brought you completely awake? I know we all think of things like the smell of coffee and bacon cooking on an autumn morning, the smell of burning leaves. I remember, particularly for me, one glimpse of a flock of sunlit pigeons against the dark background of a thundercloud. And it’s incidents like that that are very largely celebrated in Far Eastern art and poetry: perceptions of the full reality and intensity of the moment. Such a one as this:

The sea darkens,

The voices of the wild ducks

Are faintly white.

A brushwood gate,

And for a lock

This snail.


Or paintings where one sees just a few birds on a branch, so vividly alive that you somehow think the next time you look at the branch the birds won’t be there. This is all an artform possible for people who feel themselves to be living in this real momentary world.


I remember once a very wise man who used to give lectures on philosophical matters of this kind. Before he started giving any lecture, [he] would sit for a while looking at his audience very intently, like this. And then, quite suddenly, he would say, “Wake up! You’re all fast asleep! And if you don’t wake up, I won’t give any lecture.”


And another Chinese sage pointed one day to some flowers while talking to a friend and said, “Most people look at these as if they were in a dream.” And Buddha, one of the wisest of the sons of Asia—his real name was Gautama, but he was called Buddha because Buddha means “the awakened one.” The man who woke up. Now, in what sense was he awake? He was awake in the sense that he was completely all here. After all, we say about the person who’s nuts: “He’s not all here. He’s not all there.” But our whole culture, our whole civilization—insofar as it is involved with time and living only for a future—is nuts! It’s not all here! We are not awake, we are not completely alive now. And consequently we are so hungry and so greedy, because everything seems tasteless. We are living for an abstraction which has not yet come to be, and we don’t know what really is.


Alan Watts


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