The Void

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 4)


Buddhism symbolizes its basic spiritual experience as a void, but Alan Watts explains this must not be taken literally. Watts explores the void as a symbol of freedom and of a world feeling which can be described poetically though not logically as the "absolute rightness" of every moment.


That is a way of demonstrating the basic experience which underlies some of the major forms of Oriental philosophy. And actually, this way of demonstrating it is taken from a kind of Chinese and Japanese Buddhism called Zen, which I’m going to be talking about quite a bit today, because Zen is one of the best examples of a philosophy, shall we call it, in which this experience is dominant. Zen, of course, is a Japanese word, and it’s spelled Z-E-N. And that is the Japanese way of pronouncing the Chinese word Chán. And this, in turn, is the Chinese way of pronouncing an Indian Sanskrit word, dhyāna. And dhyāna refers to the kind of experience which has been represented in this circle. Another word for it would be a second Sanskrit term, śūnya. And the nearest we can translate śūnya in English is “emptiness” or “void.” And so we might say this is an experience of the void.


Before trying to explain what this is—and, you know, the funny thing is it really can’t be explained, because it has to be felt, because it’s a transformation of one’s basic feeling, one’s basic consciousness of life. But I should mention first that it is characteristic of Eastern philosophy to be based on experience rather than ideas. You see, philosophy in the Western world, especially as it’s taught in our universities and academies, is mainly a matter of thinking. It’s a matter of trying to arrive at certain clear, positive ideas about the nature of man, the nature of the universe, and so on and so forth. And also, religion in the West is somewhat similar, because religion is largely concerned with belief in certain ideas.


In these basic forms of Eastern philosophy, on the other hand—such as Zen, which is a kind of Buddhism; or Taoism, the basic native philosophy of China; or in Vedanta, which is the central form of Indian philosophy—what is basic to them is not ideas, but a way of experiencing, a way of feeling. And this might be called (as it is here) the void, demonstrated by this circle. Because it is not a void which is just emptiness. This isn’t the idea that there are people in the backward worlds of Asia, who think that the universe is ultimately nothing at all. It is rather that the void represents complete spiritual freedom—or you might say, if you don’t like the word “spiritual,” complete psychological freedom.


And therefore, I want to try, if I can, to communicate to you, to give you some idea, of what this experience is. In Japanese, in Zen, it is called satori. I’ll write that down; it’s an unfamiliar word. S-A-T-O-R-I. And I like the way that that’s pronounced in southern Chinese. They pronounce it ng. Because it’s something that happens to you suddenly.


Now let me try, if I can possibly, to put into some sort of words what this experience is. This experience—which, so far as they are concerned, is the objective of human life—to get this is to understand the meaning of human nature and destiny. Only, because it’s a transformation of consciousness—because it’s something you feel rather than something you think—it is for this reason to put into words. But it is as if you saw quite suddenly—and indeed, this experience could’ve happened to you. It can come without warning to anybody. And so what I’m going to be saying may strike a familiar ring in some ears. But it is as if, quite suddenly, you became totally convinced that the way everything is in this universe and at this moment is absolutely right. And that’s almost putting it too weakly.


I’m not trying to talk about a sort of Pollyanna feeling, where we say, “Well, this is the best of all possible worlds. And everything, however evil and however wrong, it’s going to work out alright in the end, because it’s a means to an end in some master design.” I’m not saying that. I’m saying: it is suddenly feeling that everything is right the way it is now, however appalling, however terrible. And you know it beyond a shadow of doubt.


There are two other aspects to this experience as well, and although you feel them altogether, we have to talk about them separately. While the first aspect is feeling that everything, just as it is, is so right that you could say of it, “This is why I’m alive. This is what life’s all about.” The second is that everything you see and feel seems to come to life in an extraordinary way. You feel the world as you’ve seen it before was seen almost in a dream, where it is as if just the ordinary things that were confronting you suddenly went yaah! and came alive. And the third aspect of it is that you no longer feel yourself and what you are experiencing to be separated. Although you don’t lose the feeling of the outline of your skin, you don’t forget that I or Joe Dokes is a possible name by which you can refer to yourself. Nevertheless, it suddenly seems to you that your skin is no longer what divides you from the world, it’s what joins you to it. What you see outside you is also you.


Now, we ordinarily restrict the idea of ego, of I-ness, or of you-ness, to some sort of psychological entity or process inside us which is in control of things, and we identify ourselves with a sort of controlling center. But in this experience it is as if that center were suddenly enlarged to include the whole universe. You almost feel as if you were God—except that in Eastern thought one doesn’t think of God as a kind of omnipotent person. I mean, there are lots of people in our asylums who say, “Well, I’m God.” I always like the story of the woman who insisted that she was God, and to humor her someone said, “Well, if you’re God, will you please explain how you managed to create the universe in six days?” She said, “I never talk shop.”


It isn’t feeling God in that sense, as if you could do anything, but it is feeling that you and this whole world are one. And that in this experience of oneness and this sudden coming alive of everything, and the profound rightness—that’s the only word I can use—the profound rightness of each moment, of this moment, however far it may seem to be short of one’s ideals of perfection. This is it. And you say, having seen this, “I can die content. This is what it was all about.”


Now, you might think at the same time that an experience of this kind is rather dangerous. I mean, supposing one did become convinced that everything, just as it is, is the ideal, is right. Would this mean that you could go out and murder some rich relative in order to inherit their fortune? Does it mean you can do anything you like? You can kick your father and mother, you can be cruel to your children, that you could steal and rob anything? In a way, it does mean that. But that is only to say—isn’t it?—that we are free. And freedom is dangerous. But yet, freedom is one of the things which we cherish as one of our greatest possessions and privileges. But if we deny ourselves freedom, then we don’t really have the power to act morally. Because all true moral acts are not the acts we are bound to do, they are the acts we are free to do.


But freedom is dangerous. The moment you teach a child to walk, you can teach it to kick its mother. The moment you teach a child to use a knife to cut up its steak with, the child can go and kill someone with a knife. Life is risky. Life is not safe. And so, in the same way, this experience is not safe. But, on the other hand, its content is so joyous that when people are profoundly happy, they are not in the mood, usually, to go out and slug someone. And so you might say this experience, then—which is the foundation of these great forms of Oriental philosophy—that sounds wonderful, and I’d like to get it.


You know, that reminds me of a story. Once a fellow was traveling in England, and he’d lost his way and wanted to get to a certain village. And he went to a country yokel and said, “Can you tell me the way to Little Tottenham?” And the yokel scratched his head and said, “Well, sir, I do know where that is, but if I were you I wouldn’t start from here.” And so, in the same way, when one asks, “How do I get this experience?” that’s not quite the right question. And to go out to get it is, from the first, the wrong approach. Because this sort of transformation of consciousness happens to a person only in the moment when, you might say, they give up grasping, they start to treat life not as something to be grabbed. When their whole approach to things is no longer clutching.


You know, it was a basic teaching in Buddhism that the root of all human suffering is clinging, or grasping. Just in the same way as I was suggesting on a previous program that you can’t cling to your breath without losing it. You have to let go of your breath. And for that reason the word that is used in Buddhism for this experience—it’s another word familiar to you all, nirvana—literally means “blow out.” Whew! Don’t hang on. Don’t clutch life. And so one of the great problems is: how on Earth to get ourselves to give up clutching, to give up clinging? But, you see, if that’s something you eagerly want to do because you want to get something good out of it, this is still a grasping attitude.


Well, you know, in Zen they have a means of teaching people how to stop clinging. Zen, incidentally, is supposed to have been brought from India to China around somewhere between 400 and 500 AD by a fierce looking gentleman called Bodhidharma. You can see him in this picture by the Japanese painter Soga Jasoku. He’s always drawn as a very fierce fellow with a twinkle in his eye at the same time. And when Bodhidharma came to China, he didn’t have any disciples. But there was one fellow who sought him out, and his name was Eka. And Eka came to Bodhidharma and said, “Sir, I want you to accept me as your disciple.” And Bodhidharma replied, “I have nothing to teach. What I understand is an experience,”—in other words—“and I can’t put it into words. And therefore, go away. I can’t teach it to you.” But Eka insisted on being taught, and he waited outside Bodhidharma’s cave in the snow. And if you look in the picture by Sesshū, you can see Eka standing out there. And Eka got so persistent, and Bodhidharma so persisted in his refusal to teach him, that at last Eka cut off his arm and handed it to Bodhidharma saying, “Look! Here is the testimony of my sincerity. Please take me as your disciple.” So Bodhidharma said, “Alright, what do you want?” And Eka replied, “I have no peace of mind. Please pacify my mind.” And by “mind,” of course, he meant his soul, his self. So Bodhidharma said, “Bring out your mind here before me. I’ll pacify it.” But Eka said, “When I look for my mind, I can’t find it.” Bodhidharma said, “There! I have pacified your mind.” And at that moment Eka had this satori. In other words, he had the experience I’ve tried to describe to you.


Because Bodhidharma made him really struggle to catch hold of himself, to find that separate ego, that controlling center, which all of us tend to believe ourselves to be. But, you know, when you look for it you can’t find it. It’s like they say lunatics sometimes, sitting in an asylum, are doing this. Yes, they sit (for hours, perhaps) in a padded cell doing that. But you can’t catch hold of it.


You know, perhaps one of the good ways of showing you what this means is through the application of Zen to Japanese fencing. You know, Japanese fencing—or kendō, which means “the way of the sword”—is done with gruesome swords like this. And the samurai (or Japanese feudal soldier) used to practice Zen to give them courage, and they applied it through the art of fencing. Now, if you go to study with a Japanese fencing master, you will not at first be given a sword and be told how to use it. You will be made a kind of janitor around the house, and you have to do all the little chores like sweeping the floors, putting away the bedding, washing up the dishes, and so on and so forth. And while you are doing that, the master will get hold of a practice sword. This, you see, is made of bamboo. It’s made of about six slips of bamboo loosely tied together, so that if you get hit with it, although it may give you a pretty hard crack, at least you don’t get killed. And while the poor boy who’s the apprentice is doing the household duty, the teacher struts around with one of these things, and unawares gives him a bang on the head. And the boy is expected to defend himself by any means at his disposal. If he’s got a saucepan in his hand, use the saucepan. If he’s picking up a cushion, use the cushion. And everywhere, always at unknown moments, the teacher sneaks up on him and bangs him on the head.


So after a while the poor fellow is going around, looking this way and looking that, expecting at any moment the teacher to hit him. And he begins, in his mind, to plan how he can be ready to meet the teacher’s assault. And as he goes along a passage, he’s expecting the teacher to come right round the corner at the end. And instead of that, just as he’s all ready to defend himself, doing! he gets hit on the head from behind. Now, when this has been going on for a little time, there are only two possibilities. The apprentice gets a nervous breakdown and quits, or he learns. And what does he learn?


He learns that the teacher will always outwit him; that he can never be prepared for an unexpected attack. And so he gives up trying to control the situation. He gives up trying to prepare. In other words, he just wanders around just like this. Oh, maybe it hits, maybe it doesn’t. He gives up caring whether he’s going to get hit or not. And at that moment the teacher gives him the practice sword and says, “Now you can begin to learn fencing.”


Because the importance of this is simply: let us say you’re faced with a group of attackers, and you don’t know where the next attack is coming from. If you are ready to go for this fellow, and this one is going to come at you, and you’re all set to go for him, you have to withdraw from here to go here. But if you’re in a middle position, and you’re not tensed in mind in any particular direction, you’re ready to go in all directions, wherever the attack may come from.


And so, in exactly the same way, the Zen way of teaching teaches one to see that you cannot be in complete control of your whole life situation. You cannot, in other words, fundamentally possess yourself. And so they set you with the problem of trying to find out who you are. Who is the knower behind all your experience? Who is the experiencer? Who is the ego, the I? And they make you search for it, and search for it, and search for it. Or you could put this in another way: they ask you—and this really amounts to the same thing—act with total sincerity. Show me (in the Zen way of putting it) who you were before your father and mother conceived you. In other words, show me your real, basic, original self. And this means: perform an absolutely, 100% genuine and sincere act.


Well, you know how it is when you try to be sincere, when you try to be natural: you know jolly well that you’re trying, and that everything you do is a fake. And so, in the same way, the Zen student finds out that he cannot act 100% genuinely with his whole being. And he gets frustrated again and again and again, and the teacher rejects every attempt he makes to show him his real self, until the moment comes when he suddenly realizes—not just as an idea, but something that he knows in his whole body, he knows with his very bones—that it can’t be done. You cannot intentionally be natural. And he gives up. And that moment of giving up is just the same as when the student of the sword gives up trying to prepare to defend himself. And in the moment when we let go of ourselves in that way, zhhupp, there comes upon us this experience of the void, of complete freedom—or, as we might say in psychological language: being free from blocking.


You know, blocking is when you are stalled by something. When somebody says something to you that fundamentally embarrasses you, or when an event happens in life which, as it were, knocks the wind out of your sails, you are blocked. And to be free from blocking, to be free from being stopped, being phased, is part of the satori experience. To be able to go straight ahead—as it were, going with the stream of life and not trying to resist the stream. Just as, for example, if you were actually swimming, and you got caught in a strong current: if you try to swim against it you’re perfectly sure to drown. But you have to learn in that situation to turn around and go with the stream, let it carry you. And then, in that moment, you and the stream become one. The whole force of the stream becomes one with your own body. And you learn after that how to use the force of the stream to edge to the side, and get out of it in that way. This, of course, is the philosophy of judo, of the “gentle way,” a philosophy of self defense in which Zen Buddhism has had a great influence.


So then, when the moment of letting go comes, when we see that every moment of life is now it—in other words, the object of life is no longer seen as something to grasp after in the future, every moment is it now. Every moment. Even the most trivial answers the question: what is life for? And so, you see, the experience at the basis of Zen and at the basis of other types of Oriental philosophy can be demonstrated by ordinary everyday life. That’s why, in Zen teaching, those old masters in China didn’t like to answer questions about philosophy with wordy explanations. They had quite a different way going about it.


I remember one case where a Confucian scholar came to a teacher and said, “Please explain to me your secret teaching.” And the teacher replied, “Well, there’s a saying in your own master Confucius which very well puts it. When Confucius said, ‘My disciples, do you think I’m holding anything back from you? Indeed, I am holding nothing back.’” Now, that was all he said. And so the Confucian scholar was a bit perturbed and said, “Well, what do you mean?” And the Zen teacher said, “Well, forget it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” Well, a few days later, they were walking together in the mountains. And they happened to pass a bush of wild laurel. And the Zen teacher turned to the Confucian scholar and said, “Do you smell it?” The scholar said, “Yes.” “You see,” said the teacher, “I’m keeping nothing back from you!” And it’s said that at that moment the scholar was awakened.


This is the characteristic approach of Zen: to answer questions about abstract, vast matters of philosophy with absolutely concrete, momentary events. Because it is these concrete, momentary events that are the answer. If they are experienced with a mind that is no longer clinging to life and clinging to itself—as I said—the trivial, the ordinary, the momentary suddenly comes zhupp! to life. And this, you see, this thing that we are living now is the answer. And so Zen teachers have said very strange things when asked philosophical questions. One of them said, “The cypress tree in the yard.” Another said, “Three pounds of flax.” Another said, “It’s windy again this morning.” Sometimes they don’t say anything.


There’s a famous story of a Chinese general, I think he was, who came to one of the old masters and said to him, “What is the way?” And in answer, the master… [points at glass]. The teacher said, “I don’t understand.” The master said, “Cloud in the sky, water in the jar.”

The Void

Alan Watts

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