Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 7)


This program focuses on the East Indian idea that we have forgotten who or what we really are through identifying ourselves with the individual personality. The person or "persona" is also discussed as the social or dramatic mask assumed in daily life.


Have you ever set too few places at table or poured out too few drinks because you forgot to count yourself? Funny, isn’t it? One’s self is the closest thing to you, and yet, just because it’s so close and your eyes don’t look at you, you’re difficult to see. Sometimes you forget yourself.


You know, there’s a strange way in which obviousness conceals things. I’ve often been struck by the fact that some of the very greatest discoveries that Man has made have been occasion when he’s suddenly noticed something that was staring him in the face all the time. And when we see it, we say: “Good heavens! Why didn’t I ever see that before? There it was, right under my nose, and I never noticed it!” Oh, this sort of thing happens, I suppose, every day when you lose your glasses, and you go around all over the house looking for them, and then suddenly they’re on your nose. Or you’ve lost your handbag, and there it is over your shoulder.


There’s an old story about an Indian king who one day woke up in the morning and turned to his bedside to look at himself in the mirror. He had a mirror like this—you know, these old bronze mirrors, which used to be polished on one side, and then had a design of some kind on the other. And here he was with a mirror beside his bed, and he was kind of bleary-eyed in the morning, and he picked it up and looked into the wrong side. And he said, “Where’s my head? I’ve lost it!” And he summoned all his attendants and started running around all over his apartment looking for his head. And when the attendants arrived they said, “But, your majesty, oh King live forever, it’s still on your shoulders. You looked in the wrong side of the mirror.” And that story is told as an illustration of what is, after all, the greatest theme of Indian philosophy: the recollection, or remembering, of something that mankind as a whole seems to have forgotten.


I was talking a moment ago about great discoveries of benefit to the human race; how they are things that might have been obvious all the time. Supposing there was a very greatest discovery, something that would really set the heart of man at peace, and it’s the most obvious thing there is, and nobody is noticing it at all. What might it be? Well, when in Indian philosophy it is said that the objective of the whole thing is remembering or recollecting something that has been forgotten, what is that? It means remembering who or what we really are. Well, of course, if we say, “Well, who am I?” we say, “Well, I’m I. I’m a person.” Well, what is a person?


Here is a person. A person is originally an actor’s mask—whether for an ordinary dramatic performance or a ritual performance—and in the Greco-Roman world these masks were called persona. For the word per-sona means “that through which there comes sound.” And those old masks, as they were made from the Greco-Roman stage, had mouthpieces that were shaped like a megaphone. Rather wide mouths. And so, because those mouths emphasized the sound, persona became the name for a mask. And this use of the word still survives when you look in the title pages of a play, and you see a list of dramatis personae: “the persons of the drama.” Because this was originally a list of the masks that the actors were going to wear. And so isn’t it strange that the word “person,” which originally meant a “mask,” has come to mean what we really and truly feel ourselves to be?


And this is perhaps a very, very significant confusion. After all, what one is as a person—that is to say: as a mask, as a part in a play—is what we nowadays call one’s role. And we are such (aren’t we?) that we very much depend—for our personal security and our social security—we very much tend to fix upon and identify ourselves with certain roles. Now, I think one of the best illustrations of this is when you go to a party, and you’re meeting a lot of strange people. And when your hostess introduces you to each other she always gives some little indication in her introduction so that another person can identify your role. She says, “Oh, I do want you to meet Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith is a painter.” “I do want you to meet Mr. Jones. Mr. Jones is a banker.” And so Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones know who they are. But what they know is not exactly who they really are, they know what roles they play in society. And by knowing their roles they are able to converse with each other without difficulty. You have, in other words, a starting point for conversation. Oh, it may be something so trivial: “Oh, I do want you to meet Mrs. Dokes, because she comes from your home state.” And then immediately the conversation can begin quite easily talking about one’s home town or home state. And in this way, you know, you can talk with people without ever really meeting them. By identifying clearly with your role and playing your part—oh, I mean, it may be some other part than banker or doctor or lawyer, it may be regular guy or buffoon or bohemian or whatever sort of role one identifies one’s self with—by playing this part you can completely conceal yourself from other people.


You know, the only people who don’t really need these role keys in meeting each other are children. A child has no embarrassment in going straight up to you and saying, “Oh, what a pretty face you have!” Or, “Isn’t that a funny nose you’ve got!” He can go right into conversation without having to meet your persona, your front, your mask. And that is, of course, why great philosophers and sages have always admired children and have, in that respect, tried to emulate them.


So then, society encourages us—not only modern society, but ancient societies—have encouraged the individual to identify himself with a consistent role and to play his part consistently. In other words, we all find that the moment in which we really make fools of ourselves, when something goes wrong, is when we act out of role. In other words, my role at the moment is being a speaker on television and talking to you, and I would be considered to flub the show if suddenly I acted out of role and did something that simply speakers don’t do. And if I did this unintentionally, I would feel embarrassed because my role had slipped.


Now, in Indian society the roles that people play are what we now know as their castes. In old Indian society there were four principal castes: the priests, the warriors and rulers, the merchants, and the laborers—rather much as in medieval European society there were lords spiritual, lords temporal, commons, and serfs. And then, within each one of these caste groups, there were many subdivisions corresponding to the various vocations that people adopted. But Indian society contains an interesting custom, an interesting tradition. And that is that when a man has established himself in his role about the middle of his life, he hands over his vocation, the running of his business or his shop or whatever it may be, to his oldest son and says, “Now you carry on.” And the man who gives up his job or gives up his role becomes what is called a forest dweller. He retires from active life. He changes his name and he gives up his role.


And this is done in the pursuit of what is called in Hindu philosophy liberation, or to use the technical term, mokṣa. And this means “becoming a nobody.” You give up your identifying role. You drop caste and become, as it were, no one. You, in other words, go to find the great question of all life: who behind these masks, these parts I play in life, who am I really? Now, we often talk about finding ourselves. We often talk about finding ourselves in relation to our work: am I doing the job I am really fit for? Am I married to the person who really suits me? Am I living in the part of the world that is really congenial to my nature?


But this, you see, raises the question—doesn’t it?—what is one’s fundamental nature? And if you look into this question carefully, you suddenly find yourself rather like an onion. You start peeling off masks or skins, looking deeper and deeper and deeper, until you get to the point of ultimate puzzle: what is it behind all this that is the very foundation of my consciousness? What am I really? And in Hindu philosophy the answer to that question is always: behind all the many masks of the world—be they masks of Men or masks of animals or plants or stars or mountains—there is one actor, there is the supreme self of the universe, which is called Brahman. Brahman (in its personal form Brahma) is the name thus accorded to the one actor playing all the different personae, or parts. And the deepest self in Man, the one who is under all those onion skins really us, is called Ātman, meaning “the self.” And the great formula of Indian philosophy is: Ātman is Brahman. You are not really this role, this mask—whether it be the social mask, or the mask of skin over one’s body. What you are, fundamentally, is the Brahman.


And so comes this formula which sums up the whole inner doctrine of Hinduism. Excuse me, I’ve started to write it the wrong way. We’ll begin over here. Tat: that means “that.” Tvam: “thou.” Asi: “Art.” “That thou art,” or in ordinary English order: “thou art that.” The very word, “that,” in English, is, I think, originally from this Sanskrit expression tat. And this is, in a way, the best word that can be used for the underlying reality of the world. And perhaps I can try and explain to you why.


Now, you know, when I was in my teens, I first became interested in this, and I very much fervently wanted to realize what it would be like to experience the whole world as a unity and myself as being involved in that unity, of being it, of being the one self which is all. And at first I thought: well, I suppose this is a state of consciousness which, if one realized it, all the distinctions and outlines of things would disappear, and the whole world would kind of go bleeagh into a great sea of cosmic jello, like this. Or else I thought perhaps that it wouldn’t be quite like that, but maybe everything would become suffused with a kind of omnipresent interior light; something like this. But I couldn’t make it happen that way.


And, you know, it’s strange. There was one thing in my experience—I was living in London in those days—which really stuck in my craw, one thing that I just couldn’t make disappear into this jello or this infinite continuum of the one ultimate reality, the one true self behind everything. And that happened to be a London taxicab. I wonder if you’ve ever seen a London taxicab. They used to look like this. They were upright, they were ugly, the were the most individual, impertinently definite things you could imagine. And I could not make these silly gadgets which I saw all around me disappear into the one.


And suddenly it dawned on me one day that, to see the unity behind life, things don’t have to merge into jello. They don’t have to become suffused with inner light. I saw it with that taxicab. I saw that that taxicab, by being the very upright, impertinent, stupid-looking thing that it is, precisely as taxicab, it manifested the one underlying reality. In other words, this is not a question of imposing upon the world of differences some abstract conception of unity in your mind. You don’t have to go around saying to yourself, “Now don’t get fussed. Don’t be disturbed. Be at peace. All things are fundamentally one.” You don’t have to do that at all. You have to see the secret that it’s the very differences of things, the very individuality of things, their prickly personal reality, that manifests, that shouts out, that advertises the underlying unity.


You remember, perhaps, that in a previous program I was talking to you about the contrast of figure and background, and we saw what happened to my figure when the background disappeared. And we were getting from that the idea that it’s precisely the difference between the figure and the background that makes us able to see both the background and the figure. There is, in other words, a hidden unity underlying these contrasts. And so, then, it is through seeing the fact that the differences themselves are the unity that we come to an inward, clear realization of, after all, the thing that we’ve forgotten. Because going about our everyday tasks involves constantly focusing on the details [???], focusing on the contrasts and the differences between them. And so in this absorption, in dealing with the difference aspect of the world, we simply forget, we overlook, the unity aspect of the world which the very differences so clearly proclaim.


So then, if we know that the differences redeem the unity, then we see that what we really are is tat—“that,” “it”—so what? Does it make any difference? Does it make anybody any happier to understand that behind all the differences of life is a unity which each one of us is? Well, it does—doesn’t it?—in this way. If you really know this, you come to a point where nothing can faze you. For you know that you aren’t anymore just the fragmented individual. You know that what you are deep down at the very center is something beyond time and change, the eternal Ātman, the self of the world.


Now, of course, that just doesn’t mean that you become, oh, insensitive. It doesn’t mean that you go beyond human emotions, that you’re no longer ever afraid, no longer sad, no longer loving other people because you see it’s all one and so it doesn’t make any difference. It’s not like that. In Buddhism they say our object is not to make stone Buddhas, but living Buddhas. A stone Buddha is a symbol of what we might call an ultra stoic: a person who so represses his fears and his emotions that he doesn’t have any left. And they say: well, if that’s your idea of a sage, a rock will do just as well. It doesn’t mean that. It means rather that you’re no longer afraid of being afraid, you’re no longer afraid of grief, of pain, of being sensed. You’re no longer afraid, in other words, to go into life with total zest.


In other words, when we say you’re not fazed by anything, it means you don’t block. Blocking, you know, is always difficult to overcome. It’s just about the time of year when we have to do a lot of figuring, say, to work out our income tax. Don’t you notice sometimes, when you’re adding columns of figures, that there are certain combinations—like it may be nine and seven, or something like that—at which you block? And this annoys you. Every time you reach this combination you think: “Oh yes, nine and seven is… umm, what is it? Four, five, six—oh, thirteen!” And you block. (Nine and seven aren’t thirteen, anyways. You see how it is!) Well, anyway, that happens if you get annoyed that you block at it: you block at blocking. And it gets worse and worse and worse. But if you don’t get annoyed at it and you say, “Oh well, I’m going to block anyway,” and you don’t resist the fact that you block, it’s okay and you’ll eventually stop blocking. So, in this way, too, it isn’t a question of a state of mind which enables us not to be afraid at all, of not to be sad at all. It’s a state of mind in which we don’t block at being afraid; we are not afraid of fear. And so, as I said, this enables one to go into life with a certain kind of zest.


Once upon a time there was a Chinese Buddhist master. One of his disciples asked him the question, “What is the Tao?” You know, I’ve used that word before. Tao means the “way of nature” in one sense. It has almost the same meaning as Brahman. It is the same one reality underlying the whole universe. Also, Tao means a “way of life,” a “way of behaving,” a “way of conduct.” So both meanings were involved in his question. What is the ultimate reality? What is the way of conduct by which one comes into accord with it? And the teacher answered him in two words: “Walk on.” You know, it’s almost like a policeman when he comes out into the crowd hanging about in the street, and he says, “C’mon now, keep moving, keep moving!” For, after all, keeping moving in this sense is keeping alive, keeping things circulating, not hoarding, not blocking—not, as it were, getting clots of blood in one’s psychological and spiritual arteries.


Another illustration that is given of this state in Chinese Buddhist philosophy is the way of behavior of a ball on a mountain stream. Think of a ping pong ball on rough water: the ball keeps dancing, dancing, dancing, and it is never swamped. It never stops moving. It’s always instantly responsive to the motion of the water. And so, in this way, when we are living, to be able to go straight into things without hesitation, without blocking—we have our own proverb: he who hesitates is lost. And hesitation is what is basically meant in Buddhist thought by attachment in a bad sense, in the sense of evil attachments to the world. It doesn’t mean love. It doesn’t mean joy and sorrow in that sense. It means blocking at love, blocking at joy and sorrow, blocking at fear. This is the attachment from which the sage is going to be liberated.


And so, in his answer “Walk on,” “Keep going”—you know, sometimes you wake up (maybe Monday morning) and you think of the week coming up, and all the chores you’ve got to do. And right as you wake up in bed you feel this fundamental block to going any further. And you think, “Oh, I wish time wouldn’t go on. I’d just like to lie here and let it stop. I don’t want to face it.” The longer you lie that way, the more and more difficult it becomes to wake up. And, you know, the answer is given to us over and over again. It is just: get up! Don’t think about it! Move! Walk on! The moment one moves into it, the problem becomes simple. It’s only when you stop to think about it that it’s difficult.


I referred in a previous program to that astonishing gentleman Bodhidharma: the sage who is supposed to have been one of the people who introduced Buddhism from India into China. Let’s look at a picture of Bodhidharma again. This is—here he is in rather an odd form. You can see him there, looking like a kind of a rolly polly, and here he is rolling around various positions, and at the top it says: jinsei nana korobi ya oki, which means: “Seven times down, eight times up, such is life.” And here he is: the doll that can never be fazed. Because he’s not afraid of yielding. Whichever way you knock him, he always comes up again. He goes down, he comes up. You can never defeat him. He doesn’t block.


Alan Watts

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