Essential Lectures, Program 10


In this whimsical presentation, Alan Watts demonstrates a variety of cultural garb and points out how each influences the way we live and feel. His choices of attire include a western business suit, kimonos, and a sarong.


When I was a boy in London I used to love to visit the British Museum. And in the neighborhood of the museum there were a number of old shops—some of them, I think, dating from the end of the 18th century—and on the inscription over the shop window it said that they sold philosophical instruments. And I couldn’t for the life of me make out what ‘philosophical instruments’ could be because I thought philosophers were people who simply sat thinking and wouldn’t have any need for any special instruments. But when I went up to these shops I found that what they had in the window were telescopes, slide rules, chronometers, and all sorts of what we would now call scientific instruments.


Because, you see, the original name for science was natural philosophy. Because a philosopher is a person who is curious about everything. He’s not only curious about theoretical matters, but he’s also curious about what we should now call practical matters. And I regard myself as a philosopher in exactly that sense because, aside from being interested in changed states of consciousness, in problems of death, problems of time and space, and the practice of meditation, I’m also interested in what you would call down-to-earth things such as food, clothing, housing, problems of ecology and population. Because all this is part of natural curiosity or philosophy.

The Business Suit


Well now, today I want to begin with the subject of clothing. You see me now arrayed in what has become the standard official man’s dress for the whole world: the business suit. Derived from England, popularized by the Americans, adopted by the Japanese, the Indonesians, the Indians, the Persians, the Arabs—everybody on the face of the Earth is now tending to go around dressed like this, in a peculiar form of clothing which derives from military uniforms. Because you will notice that it has buttons on the sleeve. Now, what do you suppose those are for? They don’t fasten to anything. Originally, though, on the uniforms from which these coats are derived, there were a whole row of buttons all the way up. And they were on military uniforms, or uniforms worn by servitors, to prevent them from wiping their noses on their sleeves. And then it has these curious lapels. And goodness knows what purpose these serve. Sometimes people turn them up to try and protect themselves from the rain, but they’re not really very effective.


And then you have to wear this extraordinary shirt which is extremely difficult to fold up if you’ve tried and you’re not an expert laundress, and you have to strangle yourself with a necktie. Also, you have to wear pants—British trousers—which is the most devastating garment for men. Trousers are worn by Chinese women. Chinese men, in the old times before the era of Mao Zedong wore skirts. Because trousers are a garment suitable for shapely women. They are not at all suitable for men because they’re castrative and extremely uncomfortable, especially if you want to sit on the floor. To wear a business suit and be comfortable you invariably have to sit on a chair because, if you don’t, your trousers will become baggy at the knees.


And a coat—as you know, when you try to put it in a suitcase—is very difficult to fold. And the problem of a business suit coat is this: that it’s made to fit the contours of the human body. It doesn’t—you see, it has to be tailored so that it fits you here, and it fits you here, and it fits across your back. And all this requires a very complex process so that it will snugly fit around you like this and show up your form. Which is all very well if you have a slim form and you haven’t begun, in later age, to develop a protuberance here as we naturally do.


And then, of course, also: how about keeping these trousers suspended? I still can wear a belt. But the time is going to come when I’m going to have to wear suspenders, which is a kind of block and tackle contraption underneath here, which is another—and further—inconvenience.


But it just does astonish me that all over the world men are putting up with this drab, funereal uniform—looking like undertakers and ministers—when they could be much more comfortable. So that I could be just as respectable, just as proper, just as demure—and instead of this, come on like this…

The Kimono & Related Garments


…which is the Japanese kimono, as worn—not so much in modern times as 50 years ago—by all Japanese gentlemen. Now, this is one of the most extraordinary garments ever made. To begin with, it’s completely comfortable. You feel absolutely relaxed underneath it, nothing is restricting you anywhere, and it has these tremendously capacious sleeves which are immense pockets into which you can put anything you want. I mean, you know, you can put your wallet in there, and pipe, and tobacco, and cigarettes, and money; anything you want. And you also can put things in here. And then it’s quite proper for you to carry a fan. And when the weather’s too hot you can just cool yourself off.


And this outward garment, here, is a coat for cooler weather or for rather proper occasions when you should be wearing it. It’s called a haori. You can take the haori off and just wear what’s underneath, and you see more or less the same thing as before with the big sleeves and the enormous pockets. And I want you to notice a peculiar thing about a kimono—and we can show it from the haori—and that is that it’s entirely cut from rectangular pieces of cloth. You see? The cloth has not been shaped to fit the human body. Cloth is naturally rectangular because of its being woven material with a perpendicular warp and a horizontal woof. And so cloth, of its own accord, comes out in rectangles.


Now, in designing this form of clothes we do not alter the rectangular nature of the cloth. We do not attempt to shape it in any other way so as to force it to fit the curves of the human body. But if we honor the nature of cloth in that way and respect its nature, curiously enough, it respects our nature. Because if you hang rectangular cloth upon you it falls in folds which give you a kind of natural dignity. When you shape the cloth to you, you begin to look more and more like a monkey. But when you allow the cloth to hang upon you and follow its own nature, you look more and more like a prince. So this is the essential principle of Japanese clothing.


Now, the Japanese—as I said—have been abandoning this clothing and I asked one of them why. Well, the first thing he said is, “It’s impossible to run for a bus in a kimono.” And that’s perfectly true: you cannot run in this garment. You have to walk at a dignified pace. And I think that’s very good for us. I don’t think any self-respecting person should ever run for a bus. That we need, above all things, to slow down and get ourselves to amble through life instead of to rush through it. And therefore, I consider that this garment, commonly worn by men, would have an enormously beneficent effect on American civilization, that we should be much more comfortable, much more at ease, much more dignified. I wear one all the time—not quite as formal as this, but I always wear a kimono around my home. And next I’m going to show you the exact style of kimono that I would wear for normal purposes of relaxation.


And that is called the yukata. It is a cotton kimono which the Japanese businessman—who would have worn the clothes that I was just showing you—would don. When he gets home he takes a very hot bath in an enormous tub where practically all the family can sit together. It’s a wonderful institution; that’s the first thing you do when you get back from work. You don’t wash inside the tub; you wash outside the tub by taking a bucket and sloshing yourself with water from the tub, and then you soap yourself and rinse off, and then you go and sit in the bath, and the steam rises all around you, and you smoke cigarettes and chat with all the family. And that’s the greatest kind of bath in the world. And then, back you get—afterwards—into your yukata, and in this it is perfectly permissible to go out strolling in the streets in the evening. This, of course, is a warm-weather yukata; made of cotton. There is a cold-weather yukata which is different; it’s called a tanzen, and it’s made very often of silk, and it’s padded. But this light garment has exactly the same principles as the other kimono I showed you because it has, still, the same big pocket sleeves, and still the possibility of sticking things inside here.


Now then, also: you can wear it with a same sash that you wear with a kimono. This is called an obi. There are men’s obi, which are made with tie-die ornamentations on the end, and women’s obi, which are much more stiff and made of a very, very heavy silk, and they’re not nearly as comfortable to wear. But again, you see this is an absolutely perfectly relaxed dress for men. And I, myself—since I’m a writer and do most of my work at home—I wear one of these almost all of the time. Because it is not constricting, and because of the extreme convenience of its pockets. And if I stand up, I show you how the sash fastens in a sort of elegant bow at the back.


And you may think that that, along with the absence of pants, is a little bit effeminate. But you know, men—especially in America, and I will say this also of the men in England—are terribly uptight about coming on in a way that they suppose to be feminine. They say, “Skirts are for women. Sissy stuff.” But, you know, if you are biologically male you don’t need to prove that you are. It’s so strange to me how an enormous number of men don’t seem to be able to realize that they’re men unless they can—in some way, or through some sort of medium—go WARROOOOMM! and come on with tremendous energy, very strong! See? That shows I’m a man! You don’t need to show that at all. All you need to do to find out whether you’re a real man is ask a woman.

The Chlamys & Related Garments


Now here’s something else altogether. This is the ancient Greek chlamys. A long linen garment that has come down to us in modern times through the Roman Catholic church in the form of what is called an alb, which a priest wears at Mass. Only, he puts it on over his ordinary suit, or he takes off the coat and he puts on a long, heavy black garment called a cassock, which is a kind of a wretched thing. Then he puts this extra suit of clothes over it. But any sensible priest, in celebrating Mass, would take off all his clothes underneath and simply wear his underpants and his chlamys, which is his alb. And then this thing, here, is a hood which you can pull up over your head and—I won’t do it now; it’s a bit of a nuisance—ut it just sort of makes a comfortable thing around the neck. Catches the sweat. It’s called an amice. Amicia, in Latin. But this is what men in our Western world commonly wore, back in about, oh, I should say 400 B.C. and onwards in Greece. They wore the toga in Rome, which was a somewhat more inconvenient garment because you had to throw it over you, and all those things were always dropping down and falling off. But this is extremely comfortable and very convenient.


Now—along with the alb or the chlamys—a priest of the Catholic Church, when celebrating Mass, will wear over this a garment called a chasuble, in English; casula in Latin. And the word casula means a ‘little house’ or, in other words, a tent. That is to say, a poncho, a garment which you could tie to a pole, spread it out, put stones on it, and rest under it during the night and keep the rain off you. So it’s a casula, a little house. But now, you can make a poncho by taking, simply, a perfectly square piece of cloth. All you have to do is hem it—you don’t have to fit it in any way—and cut a slit in it, like that. You see? And then you have a cassula, a little tent. And I can get into it like that. And we pull this outside. And, you see, without any tailoring or fitting you at once have a really very dignified and becoming garment. And these things are of enormous use. You can wear them with anything. They keep you beautifully warm, especially if you make them out of some heavy material. This one happens to be made out of camel’s hair.


And, actually—once, when I wore this—I was stopped in a bar by an Irishman who said, “Where have I seen that before?” Well, I said, “You saw a priest wearing it at Mass,” which he thought was very funny. But this is the essential poncho and it gives, again, great freedom of movement. Your hands are free, and it’s very warm, and you can wear it over such loose-fitting clothes as these and be extremely comfortable, not castrated, and at your ease.

The Sarong


Now, of all the outlandish garments which I’ve shown you, the most outlandish is the Philippine sarong. My Japanese friends of modern times, objecting to the kimono, said “Well, you can’t run for a bus in a kimono.” Alright, you can sure run for a bus in a Philippine sarong because it gives you complete freedom of your legs. Get them right up, either way. Because, you see, it’s essentially a divided skirt, very floppy, made of cotton, and it wraps around your waist and you tuck it in, and you can secure it with a safety pin. And over it you simply wear a colorful shirt. I don’t know whether this matches very good, but at any rate, one just sees how many different jazzy things you could put together.


But this… the sarong, with variations, is worn all over south Asia. But this particular Philippine design with the divide is the most comfortable, the most elastic that I’ve ever discovered. And I do not know any more comfortable form of dress in the world than this. Now, the thing is, you can make it of any material. You could make this same thing out of heavier material, say, out of woolstead, out of silk, in order to be warm in cold weather, and have it completely comfortable and, I think, reasonably dignified form of clothing.



Well, now, what is the problem with this? What’s the problem with Western man, and even Western woman, that they dress so damned uncomfortably? I’ve thought about this a great deal because it comes down to some pretty fundamental philosophical matters. And I’ve discovered that one of them is this: that when people get up in the morning and they put up a bathrobe. After a little time goes by they feel slightly guilty. And why do they feel slightly guilty? Because when you’ve got loose-fitting clothes on you may have a slight suspicion that you don’t really exist. In other words, you’re not strapped in! Because all people of action wear big belts, like military, you know? Boots. Things that clutch you tightly. And then you feel—because of the pressure upon your skin—you’re really there.


Now, this is a very serious mistake, especially for soldiers. I maintain that the German army lost two world wars because of the goose step; because of military pomp and swagger. Because of such things as brass bands and close-order drill. Because a really effective army should be invisible and inaudible. But you cannot get men who are on the machismo kick, who have to prove that they’re men, to be invisible and inaudible. But a truly effective army, an army of guerrillas, should dress with complete comfort, complete practicality, and no kind of tying themselves together in knots so that the pressure on you will assure you that you’re there. Because, after all, that’s like sleeping on a bed of nails. But a great many people in our culture don’t feel that they are really alive unless, in some way, they are uncomfortable or suffering. And the reason for that is that we have a profound, built-in sense of guilt about our existence. You see, we have a profound sense of guilt about our existence because we feel that we don’t really belong to the universe.


There was a wonderful story about a Japanese mystic—a kind of wandering holy man—who, one night, stopped in a Buddhist temple for shelter. And he went up to the high altar, and there were all these kneeling cushions which the priests use for celebrating the service, and he arranged them all and made a comfortable bed and went to sleep. And, early in the morning, the priest came in to celebrate the early morning service and saw this apparent bum lying on all the cushions in front of the altar. And he said, “What are you doing here? Such disrespectful conduct in front of the altar!” And the holy man looked up at him and said, “Oh? So? You must be stranger here. You cannot belong to the family.”


And so, likewise, in an Italian church, little children are running around, in and out of the pews, ducking back and forth while their mother was offering candles at the shrine of St. Anthony. And two American spinsters from New England were viewing the church and were very shocked the way these children were playing, and went over and touched the mother on her shoulder and said, “Don’t you think these children should be controlled?” “Well,” she said, “it is their Father’s house. Can’t they pray here? Can’t they play here?” See, I made a very interesting slip of the tongue.


But that’s a most curious thing, isn’t it, you see? Our clothing—as I said at the beginning in exhibiting the business suit—is undertaker clothing, ministerial clothing, military clothing. For all those things which—in our culture—we cultivate an uptight attitude. UNGH! Hold yourself in! Restrain yourself! UNGH! Like this. But in doing this, you see, we are constantly at ware with ourselves. It is as if you were moving your arm, and you wanted to move your arm very strongly in one way. Alright, you go like that. You immediately tighten the bicep. And that would be the natural thing to do. In lifting something heavy you immediately tighten the bicep, and up it comes. But supposing you tighten the tricep at the same time, which is the muscle here at the back. Then you get this… You’re fighting with yourself, you see? And although this movement may look oooh, very tough and strong, it isn’t at all! Because you’re fighting with yourself while you do it.


Now, in this way—all the time—we have been taught to fight with ourselves because our personalities have been split. Our culture tells us that we are, on the one hand, a nasty little animal that has to be controlled and beaten into submission, and that, on the other hand, we’re a rational soul, which is the sort of higher self which is supposed to take control of the lower self. And for this reason we’re always at cross-purposes with ourselves.


Freud, for example, distinguished between the pleasure principle (which he located in the genital region) and the reality principle (which he located in the cortical region, in the brain). So there’s a distance between these two centers. This is the pleasure center, this is the intelligence center. And because they’re not in the same place, for some reason or other, it seems there always has to be a fight between them.


In a plant, like a flower, its mind and its sex organ is the same place, and so it doesn’t have that conflict. But in a human being they’re divided. We think they’re divided, at least. Simply because they are at a distance from each other in space. But they’re not really divided at all. They look different; the head looks very different from the genitals. But, in the same way, bees look very different from flowers.

A bee atop a flower
Figure 1: Two organisms or one?


One flies freely in the air and buzzes, and the other is rooted to the ground and colorfully perfumes the environment so the bee is attracted to it. But the thing is that these two very different looking things are, in fact, one single organism. Because if there are no bees there are no flowers, and if there are no flowers there are no bees. They come together; as the Chinese have a phrase: to arise mutually. So, in the same way, when you were born your head and your feet, your head and your genitals, arose mutually. They came in together. They’re not really separate from each other.


And therefore, this idea that discipline, that living an ordered life consists in controlling yourself—that is to say, by having one self that needs to be controlled and another part of yourself which is the controlling one is nothing but creating a conflict and a disturbance inside yourself. You have to get with yourself in order to control yourself. In other words, if I want to open my hand it opens, like that. I don’t know how it does it, but it just does it like that. But if it were necessary for me to open my hand to do this—you see?—and then, when I had to pick up something like, well, here’s a cigar, and I need to pick it up with my right hand so I have to do this… I mean, wouldn’t that be absurd? But that’s what we’re doing all the time when we divide ourselves into two parts: the spiritual and the material; the angelic and rational, and the animal or irrational.


And so, constantly, we’re holding clubs over ourselves. And that is one of the reasons, therefore, why, when you get up in the morning and you put on your bathrobe and you feel at ease that, after a while, you begin to feel guilty. Because you feel you should be—as we say—dressed and in your right mind so that you can go out and be a person of action; you can go to the office and feel that… there it is.


Now,another thing which makes the philosopher comment in connection with clothing is commuting. Every day in the urban areas millions of people are absolutely wearing themselves out, tearing their nerves to distraction by going along the freeways—in a car, fouling the atmosphere—to do their work. And their work, you see, is completely divorced, something quite separate from their play. Now, this is one of the great insanities of our civilization. Every sensible person should get paid for playing. If you don’t get paid for playing, something’s wrong with you. You haven’t learned the art of life. And, furthermore, in most kinds of business—especially clerical forms of business where you need an office for paperwork and so on—you don’t need an office if you’ve got a telephone. The telephone company can show you how to do anything in the world you want to do—by way of business—by way of phone, so that you can cut down the enormous amount of time wasted in rushing around commuting. You can stay at home and do your work from there. But we have got this idea that work is one thing and play is another, therefore we have work clothes—and the business suit is not a practical form of work clothes—and we have play clothes. And I suggest—and we will develop this in future talks—that one of the most important things is to get our heads together with our genitals, our genitals together with our heads, and our work together with our play, and make our life unified and one.


Alan Watts

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