Queries and Sources

Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life (Episode 8)


Alan Watts reveals his research resources for the series of Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life thus far, and he answers questions about points in the previous programs. He recommends books for further study.


Part 1



Since we are now over halfway through our series on Eastern wisdom and modern life, I thought I would use this program as an interlude, first for answering some queries that have come up about the previous talks, and secondly for suggesting a number of books which might be of interest to you to deepen your knowledge of the subject of Eastern philosophy. I’ve left the question of books to this stage of the program because I thought, perhaps, the first few talks might arouse your interest, and you might want to explore the matter more deeply.


So then, let’s go, first of all, to some of the questions that have come up. The first one has to do with the problem of whether I’m trying to say that Eastern culture is, after all, very much better than Western culture, and therefore as if I were trying to talk our own culture down. That’s not the point at all. First of all, I want it to be quite clear to you that the philosophical ideas which I’ve been discussing are, as a matter of fact, only, oh, I would say, held by quite a minority of people in Asia. Very often, the ideas that we get about Oriental religion and philosophy from books will discuss simply the beliefs of the general masses of the people. But what I’ve been talking about are the insights of some of the very great sages of the Asian world. And, just as here, just as very few people are very familiar with the profounder levels of Western philosophy and religion, so the same is true in Asia. And these ideas filter down to the masses in quite a distorted form, just as they do here.


Now, in that case, I’m not trying to say that these ideas have been carried out or are exemplified in Asian culture on a large scale. I’m only saying that they are ideas from another part of the world, from a minority of people in that other part of the world, which are of possible use to us. After all, we do have something to learn from Asia, just as they have something to learn from us, and as we have many things are useful to them. And we should not visit Asia or treat Asian peoples with the attitude that they are simply backward, depressed folk in need of our help. This is really a very insulting attitude. But we can really help them—and they will be in a state of mind ready to receive our help—if we go to them with a certain humility and say, yes, we have something that we want to learn from you. Because, in all conscience, our culture—technologically superior as it is—is by no means free of problems. And in an age when our scientific knowledge has by no means kept pace with our moral or psychological fitness to control it, we can certainly do with some wisdom. And fortunately, just at the very time when we are in crisis because of these kinds of development, modern communications—both by transportation, and by printing and by radio and television—put the other half of the world almost in our back yards so that we are, after all, in a position to learn from them.


Now, the second question that comes up has to do with what I was trying to communicate in a previous program about Eastern ideas of death and rebirth, particularly as they’re found in Hinduism and Buddhism. I had suggested that the idea that death is followed by everlasting unconsciousness is intrinsically absurd. But I went on to show that these philosophies have an idea of rebirth which does not involve belief in some kind of soul entity, some kind of psychic ego that survives death and lives, as it were, in a spirit world, and then transfers itself into the new life. And I think, possibly, some of you may have had some difficulty in grasping that idea, because at first sight it seems absurd to talk about there being any possibility of the rebirth of consciousness if there is not some surviving soul that passes over from one life to another.


And what I suggested was that, although death involves the destruction of memory, and therefore of what we call our “I” or “ego,” nevertheless there isn’t just a blank after death. There isn’t just endless darkness or endless nothingness. But rather, that nature fills the vacuum created by unconsciousness with a new consciousness. Look at it in this way. Try and remember back: who were you before you were born? If we go back in memory as far as we can go, we reach the same total blankness that we reach when we try to go forward and see what death would be like if it were something like going to sleep and never waking up. Alright. You go into the same blankness out of which you came. So is there really anything to be afraid of in it? After death is the same nothingness as before birth.


But this, oddly enough, seems to be a very creative nothingness. Here you are. You’re alive now. You have absolutely no memory of any former life. You’ve come out of the darkness. If you go back into it, well, a “you” can come out of it again, but it’ll be a different “you.” What has happened once can always happen again. After all, in a way, you could say this is a matter of statistical probability. If this universe persists for endless time, there is always the probability that life may arise again, even if all life on this planet were to be obliterated. Just give it enough time, and even on a statistical basis—let alone anything else—there’s the chance of consciousness occurring again on this planet or another, in this galaxy or another—it matters not.


Now then, the third question. I have talked a good deal in this program about the Eastern idea which is shared by many of the great spiritual traditions of Asia—Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and so forth—the idea that all life is fundamentally one, and that the height of wisdom consists in some way to experience the unity of life. And you’ll remember I pointed out at the same time that this does not involve a consciousness of oneness which obliterates the differences between people and between things.


And so the problem which arises about this very naturally is: if the realization that life is one does not obliterate differences, how on Earth can one realize it? How on Earth can one detect something which, as it were, permeates everything, doesn’t alter the differences between things? You might say: well, does it make any difference at all? If, for example, I were to say: every body in this universe—every star, every planet—is moving in a certain direction. Now, I said every one of them is moving. So how are we to know that they’re moving at all? This movement would be undetectable. And so you might ask: would not the underlying oneness of life be undetectable in just the same way? And if it’s undetectable, how can you talk about there being an experience of it?


Well, there are certain kinds of experience which are different from what we would ordinarily call objective experience. There is a kind of knowledge which you could say is not knowledge that we get by standing off from things and looking at them, but what I would rather call knowledge by participation. There is a Chinese Zen Buddhist poem which puts the idea. I thought I’d write it. And this is in reference to the kind of knowledge I’m talking about. The poem says:

It is like an eye which can see,

But does not itself see.


In other words: it is like an eye which can see, but does not see itself. And so, in the same way, although we constantly have sight and we are aware that we see—in every experience of sight we are, after all, aware of seeing—but we do not see sight. And so, in rather the same way, one can have as a sort of subjective knowledge (like the knowledge of seeing) the knowledge of the unity of the whole world.


Also, from the literature of Zen Buddhism I remember this story. Most of the literature of Zen consists of rather pithy and enigmatic stories. But this one I don’t think is so enigmatic as some of them. There was an old master called Bokuju, and one of his students came to him with a question: “We have to dress and eat every day, and how do we get out of all that?” In other words, he was saying most of our life is a boring routine, and we get depressed by it. How do we escape from the routine of the daily round? And the master answered, “We dress, we eat.” And the student said, “I don’t understand.” And the master said, “If you don’t understand, put on your clothes and eat your food.” In other words: get right into it.


For this is a question, you see, of knowledge by participation, as distinct from knowledge by standing out. And the point is that this strange, powerful, convincing sense of the unity of life comes to people who, as it were, become united with their own experience. Now, very often one has the sensation of one’s experience as being something out there, and thus away from and different from you. And you’re aware of yourself looking at what you’re experiencing. But when you thoroughly go into experience—for example, when you’re listening to a concert—and you are really absorbed in the concert, you don’t think while you’re sitting there, “I am listening to the music,” “I am improving my culture by being at this concert.” No. You, as it were, become the music in listening to it. And in this moment you are one with your experience.


The same thing is done in every detail of life, throughout one’s whole day, of, as it were, going into it and thus not having the constant sensation of “it is I who am experiencing this.” And so when one, as it were, becomes one with one’s experience, one can no longer be the victim of one’s experience. And so to grasp the idea of the oneness of life, you mustn’t, as it were, try to get it by thinking and thinking and thinking about it. You have to get it by going right into your life as it happens.


You know, there are limits to thinking. It’s like boiling an egg or cooking a soufflé. If you boil an egg too long, it becomes much too hard. If you cook a soufflé too long in the oven, it’s absolutely ruined. And there’s a moment to stop. And so with thinking: we can think and think and think, and worry and worry and worry over certain problems, but beyond a certain point, thinking about it any more just makes things more and more confused.


I remember another of these Zen stories, where there was an old master called Gensha, and a student came to him to be instructed in Buddhism, and he seemed to do nothing but be a kind of personal attendant on the master. He took care of the house and served his master’s very simple means, and after about three months he said to the master, “Look, I’ve been here with you three months, and so far I’ve received no instruction at all.” And the master said, “What? No instruction? I have been instructing you all the time.” “Well, in what way?” said the student. “Well,” said the master, “when you brought me my rice, didn’t I eat it? When you brought me my tea, didn’t I drink it? When you made salutations to me, didn’t I return them? When did I ever neglect to instruct you?” But the student said, “I don’t understand.” And the master said, “If you want to see into it, see into it directly. But when you begin to think about it, it’s altogether missed.”

Part 2



Well, now, I think I’ve dealt with the main questions, and now we can go on to the consideration of books. I have tried, in choosing books to talk about, to pick books that are very easily available and inexpensive. And therefore, most of the ones I’ve chosen are pocketbooks in paper covers. And the first one is an extraordinarily good book: Heinrich Zimmer’s Philosophies of India, published by Meridian Books. That’s by Heinrich Zimmer: Z-I-M-M-E-R.


Heinrich Zimmer was a very, very great German Orientalist. He came to this country during the Nazi regime, and unfortunately died in the prime of his life around 1940. And therefore, his writings have been edited from notes by Joseph Campbell. And this book is one of the very best introductions to Indian philosophy that you can get. It’s extraordinarily, fascinatingly written, and it includes all branches of Indian thought. It’s a very comprehensive book, for it deals not only with the types of philosophy that I’ve been talking about—those that deal with the ultimate questions of life—it also deals with political and social philosophies in the first part of the book. And I recommend this very, very highly indeed for getting a comprehensive view of the whole thought of India.


And then I think what I should like to recommend next would be some of the original sources of Indian philosophy. First of all: the Upanishads, a translation of the fundamental scriptures of Indian philosophy. Sacred texts which were composed, oh, probably somewhere between about 800 B.C., and the beginning of the Christian era. They are very, very beautiful writings, largely in poetic form, and largely consisting of dialogues and discussions between the teachers, or rishis (forest sages), and their disciples.


And this particular edition has been translated from the Sanskrit by Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester. And it’s in Mentor Books. I think I should write down the name Prabhavananda, as it’s not very clear on the book, and it’s one of those complicated Indian names—if you want to take a note of it. That’s the Upanishads: fundamentally important to an understanding of Indian philosophy.It’s really the original source from which the teaching called Vedānta—which is kind of the core of Hinduism—the original source on which that is based.


Now, the next book I want to show is, likewise, an important source of Indian philosophy. It’s called the Bhagavad Gita. This means “the song” (gita), (bhagavad) “of the lord.” You could say that the Bhagavad Gita is the most popular book in India itself having to do with Hindu philosophy and religion. This translation of the Bhagavad Gita is likewise by Swami Prabhavananda, and assisted by the novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood. And this is also a Mentor book.


The Bhagavad Gita is, for the most part, a dialogue between Krishna—who is a divine sage, the incarnation of Vishnu, one of the aspects of the godhead—and a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna, a warrior, which takes place on a battlefield. And Krishna speaks with Arjuna about his fear of slaying and death, and of the turmoil of life. And the symbol of the battlefield is the symbol of the whole turmoil and struggle of this world, and what should be one’s attitude to it. That’s the Bhagavad Gita: the “Song of the Lord,” or the “Song of God,” translated by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood.


Now let me see. The next I would very strongly recommend is a book about Vedānta: Man and His Becoming According to the Vedānta by René Guénon. This is published by Noonday. This is one of the best (you might say) textbooks about Vedānta philosophy. And one thing I’d warn you about in reading the writings of this particular man: he has an extraordinarily haughty style of talking. He sounds, in a way, insufferably proud and seems to talk down to you. You, I think, would overlook that, because in spite of this attitude that he has, he has a lot of things that are very well worth saying. And if you can overlook this haughtiness of style and simply concentrate on the positive information in the book, it’s a very valuable book indeed. And I’m so glad to see that this has come out in a cheap edition. Man and His Becoming According to the Vedānta by René Guénon; French writer.


Now, I also think it’s important to read books that show something of the effect of the philosophy upon the culture. And in regard to Indian philosophy and Indian culture I would particularly recommend this. It’s called The Dance of Shiva by Ananda Coomaraswamy. I think you can probably see the name clearly. Again, it’s another complex Indian name.


Ananda Coomaraswamy was, for many years, a research fellow at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts—a man of astounding learning. He knew ever so many languages, and was a great authority on comparative art, religion, mythology, culture—all kinds of things. He was a very expert carpenter, fisherman. A very all-round man, like the great characters of the Renaissance; men like Pico della Mirandola and Leonardo da Vinci; a man of this stature. And his book, The Dance of Shiva, is a discussion of various aspects of Indian culture—its politics, music, sculpture, painting, position of women, philosophy of love, all kinds of questions—in relation to Indian philosophy. It’s very readable. A very excellent volume. That’s The Dance of Shiva by Coomaraswamy, published by Noonday.


Now I think we’ll move over to China. This, I think, is the most easily available, and one of the very best books for an introduction to Chinese philosophy. The Wisdom of Laotse by Lin Yutang. It’s published in the Modern Library. Now, the advantage of this book is that it contains a translation of the works of Lao Tzu, the scripture that he wrote, and the commentary—well, it isn’t exactly a commentary on it. Lin Yutang has so translated it to use it as a commentary. But it’s the writings of another great Chinese Taoist philosopher, and I’ll write his name down. He is called Zhuang Zhou.


Zhuang Zhou is an absolutely delightful person—one of the most humorous philosophers who ever wrote—and he’s very, very entertaining to read. I mean, he illustrates his points with all sorts of delightful anecdotes. I remember one of two people having an argument on a bridge, and looking down into the water, and one of them says, “Oh, how the fishes are enjoying themselves down there in the water.” And the other says, “You, not being a fish, how could you possibly know how the fishes feel?” To which he replied, “You, not knowing me, how could you know that I do not now?” And that sort of thing is all the way through Zhuang Zhou. But Zhuang Zhou is also one of the most clear and lucid and profound exponents of the Taoist philosophy that ever lived. So these two men are both translated in this volume of Lin Yutang's The Wisdom of Laotse (or you can spell it Lao Tzu), by Lin Yutang in the Modern Library.


Then books on Buddhism. It's very difficult to find a really good overall textbook about Buddhism, but certainly I think the best available is this one: Buddhism by Christmas Humphreys in the Pelican series, published by Penguin Books. That's a British publication. This is an extraordinarily comprehensive outline of Buddhism, and is really the most thorough study of the subject available on the market today—even though I feel there are one or two rather serious defects in it, nevertheless I think this is the best available.


There is, incidentally, a discussion of fundamentals of Buddhism which you can get in a shorter form in my own book, The Way of Zen. The first chapters are devoted to an outline of some of the fundamental ideas of Oriental philosophy. And this book, The Way of Zen, is published by Pantheon.


And then, as a book which sums up most of the ideas I've been talking to you about, I would suggest this: Nature, Man, and Woman, also published by Pantheon. And you might well use it as a manual to go along with this whole series.

Queries and Sources

Alan Watts


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