The Inevitable Ecstasy (Part 2)

Out of Your Mind 6

With cosmic wit, Watts unveils the mystic truth: our selves are but specks of dust, our lives a flicker in eternity’s eye. Yet in this vanishing wisp of consciousness, we may glimpse our true nature—the boundless void that births the ten thousand things. Facing the abyss with laughter, we find liberation in the inevitable ecstasy of dissolution.



Seeing Beyond the Game


I was making a basic comparison between the state of consciousness of a baby and that of a so-called mature adult. Respectively, what we would call undifferentiated and differentiated. The adult consciousness being highly selective, and the baby consciousness being very open and hardly selective at all, and therefore unable to distinguish what adults consider to be the important things, which have to do with the conventions and rules that the positive aspects—whether they be called good, or pleasant, or life-giving, and so on—must prevail over the negative aspects. And I went on to show that this contrast between the two views of the world has another marked characteristic: that, in the case of the baby who hasn’t been trained or told about the difference between himself and all that is defined as ‘other’ than himself, doesn’t distinguish between voluntary behavior and involuntary occurrence.


And, of course, we think this is a very fundamental defect. But if we go back, you see, to a principle that underlies the whole universe with a kind of mathematical exactitude, we see that if we reduce things to a situation of primal simplicity, and we have a primordial ‘self’ and ‘other’ situation—that is to say, two balls in space—there is absolutely no way of telling, when they move, which one of them is moving or which one is still. They must necessarily appear to move mutually. There’s no point of reference—except each other—to determine which is moving and which is still.


Now, everything that goes on in the universe is simply a complication of that principle. Because the same thing holds true if you multiply the number of balls. You’ll see that that primordial principle—that all movement is mutual—still applies. And therefore, the baby’s failure to distinguish between the voluntary and the involuntary—the ‘I’ and the ‘other’—is, in a way, correct. Psychologists—psychoanalysts in particular—make a great deal of this contrast and consider that the baby’s view is inferior to the adult’s. And if an adult should acquire that view, in psychoanalysis this would be called ‘regression.’


The point that is missed is that the two ways of looking at things need each other to balance out. And that one needs the baby’s view as a basis for the adult view, because if you don’t have it you take the adult view too seriously; get completely carried away by it. And that would be analogous to a person who, in playing poker, loses his nerve because he doesn’t realize it’s only a game. So he becomes a very bad player.


In exactly the same way, we, in life, are only playing a game. But because we didn’t keep the baby view, we can’t see it. So what we would call a ‘Buddha-view’ is one that knows both, and therefore is not taken in by the adult games—although perfectly capable of playing them—but in so far as they are not regarded as finally and absolutely serious. He’s not captivated by them.


A Conspiracy We Play on Ourselves


Now, therefore, one asks the question, “That sounds very interesting, but how do I recapture the baby point of view?” And I showed that that was the wrong question, because it arises entirely and exclusively out of the adult point of view. Because the adult point of view involves the fiction that ‘I’ exist as an agent independently of everything else that’s going on. And so ask, “How can I do this?” And the important thing is to realize that the feeling of there being this isolated ‘I’ is part of the game, and it has no fundamental reality—except as a convention. And so long as that isn’t clear, we’re confused.


I reiterated the point that, when we ask, “To whom must it become clear?” or “To whom is it not clear?” that this, too, was all part of the illusion of the world that the adult presents to the child. So the only way in which the child’s vision can come again is in the realization that the ‘I’ can’t do anything about it at all, and can’t even do nothing about it. All possibilities of vision for what we call “I, myself” are out. And this in, of course, is the same meaning—as the Christian or the Islamic mystics would say—that the mystical experience is the gift of God. And there’s nothing you can do to get it. That’s a clumsy way, really, of saying the same thing. Because so long as you are trying—or not trying—you are aggravating the sensation of the separate ego.


Now that, in itself, you see, as I talk about it, presents a certain difficulty. Or one thinks it’s difficult. There would be a second difficulty if we were to go on and say, “It isn’t only the illusion of the ego, but the whole valuation system that we put on the complexity of vibrations we call ‘awareness of life’.” All the various valuations that are put on this by the social game are māyā! That is to say, they are illusory—basically. Because it is only in play, as it were, that we say this is good and this is bad, this is advantageous, this is disadvantageous. And so we would go on to say, after this, “But I cannot imagine anything more difficult than overcoming that hypnosis. I am so enchanted by this system that the idea of treating it as not really very serious seems to me unthinkable.” Of course you have to think that. It’s like a hypnotist working on somebody and saying, “You are not going to remember any of this conversation after you come to.” And so he’s put the suggestion into you that you forget the whole thing. So, in the same way, the suggestion has been put into all of us that these rules that we have learned are sacrosanct. And that we—they don’t say that you will not be able to think otherwise, they say they are true! They are the truth, you see? And that is the same function as the hypnotic suggestion put into us ever since we were receptive children.


So, naturally, it’s all part of the conspiracy which we are playing on ourselves. We can’t blame our parents for this, because their parents played it on them, and they bought it. And don’t forget that time goes backwards. You see? You can’t blame this on the past because now, in the present, you are creating the values of the past, and you are buying them all along, you see? So there is no out on this. You see, in a way, psychoanalytically, one is given an out by saying, “Well, the parents didn’t bring up their children properly.” And American people are consumed with guilt about the way they bring up their children. So we must abandon, completely, the notion of blaming the past for any kind of situation we’re in, and reverse our thinking and see that the past always flows back from the present; that now is the creative point of life.


And so, you see, it’s like the idea of forgiving somebody. You change the meaning of the past by doing that. It’s like, also, when you watch the flow of music: the melody, as it is expressed, is changed by notes that come later. Just as the meaning of a sentence—especially, say, take German or Latin, where there’s the convention of placing a verb at the end of a sentence. You wait, in other words, till later to find out what the sentence means. According to our way of feeling it. So it is also, in our language, if I say, “I love you,” you don’t know when I said “I” what ‘I’ is doing. I could say, “I hate you.” So we don’t know until later. So, in other words, the word ‘love’ or the word ‘hate’ changes the function of the word ‘I.’ And then I was going to say, “I love flowers. No, but I love you.” You see? And so the word later changes the meaning of those that go before. The present is always changing the past.


So when you get the idea in your mind that the point of view that I am talking about is very difficult indeed to acquire—that idea is one you are putting there to stop yourself seeing the other point of view. And above all, you must not take that seriously. It is simply a method of postponing seeing the point now. So you have to see it now or never. Because there is only now. If you say, “Well, tomorrow. The next day. Maybe in another dozen lifetimes, I’ll be ready.” That means, simply and solely, “I don’t want to be bothered with it now, I'm even not interested in it now, so I’ve got an excuse for putting it off.” Which is fine; that’s perfectly okay. You can put it off. There is no reason, there is no compulsion, why you should come out of this illusion.


That’s why Oriental people do not tend—in the same way as Westerners—to be missionaries, and saying it’s very urgent that you be saved. It isn’t—unless you say so. I mean, unless you are so disturbed by the suffering, and the problem of suffering, that you’ve go to find some sort of escape. But if you don’t want to, you can stay there. It’s okay, there’s lots of time. And maybe you’ll see through it when you die. At least in the moment of death you’ll see that it was all fake. So don’t be scared about the idea of the difficulty of it. That’s a red-herring. And it’s quite irrelevant, and I don’t think that teachers should talk quite so much about this as they do, and saying, “Oh, this is going to take a long, long time, and a lot of practice, and many years.” Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. But that’s beside the point, because it distracts. It’s like telling somebody that, “This is a very difficult book to read and it requires immense powers of concentration.” Well, that immediately kills your interest in it. Instead, if I were to say, “Well now, this is a most extraordinary book. It’s just so fascinating. I’ve been working on it for years! And every time I just get so involved, I can’t drop the thing.” You know? I mean, that’s a far more encouraging attitude to a student than “Well, this is going to be very difficult.” Except to very, very self-hating students who somehow, perversely, enjoy suffering through it. Now, I suppose that is, of course, a way, too.


The Illusion of the Ego


Alright, now: if we can see the first part, which is that the ego is purely fictitious—that it is a symbol or image of oneself plus a sensation of muscular strain occasioned by trying to make the symbol an effective agent—to control emotion, to concentrate, to direct the nervous operations of the organism. Then, immediately, it is clear that what we have called ourselves, what we have thought of ourselves, isn’t able to do anything at all. There follows this kind of silence in which there is nothing to do except watch what happens. But what is happening is watching itself; there is nobody apart from it, watching it. And so we get into the state of meditation—or, as I prefer to call it, contemplation.


So then, the next problem that arises is: well, what about all the other illusions? Although they are somehow integrated and centered upon the illusion of ego, nevertheless the whole value system—of what is important, what is not important, what is good, what is bad, what is pleasant, what is painful—has to be called into question. Not in order to destroy the whole value system, but in order to see it for what it is. And that’s where we will object and say, “Well, surely that’s a colossally difficult task, because we are so long habituated to it. And we have been taught to believe that the longer we have been habituated to something, the more difficult it is to change it.” And that is true if you believe it. And if you don’t, it isn’t.


That’s why it’s always emphasized—at any rate, in Zen—that when anything is to be done, it should be done immediately, without thinking it over in advance. Act at once. And you find that characteristic of people trained in Zen; they always act immediately. They don’t say, “Well, oh, uhmm… hmmm, well… mmm, when should we do this sort of thing?” They just do it. Because that doesn’t build up. It gives no time for the building up of all this reflection of, “Well, I’ve done this way for a long time, and I really feel kind of draggy about doing it another way.” It’s like some people eat the same thing every day, and the idea of suddenly eating something else seems absolutely weird.


I remember when I used to have lunch in London—in the city of London—I used to go to a rather fancy sandwich bar. And there was a very square young man in a derby hat, who ordered exactly the same lunch every day. Fantastic. And so it came that the man who served the bar—the moment he saw him coming in at the door, he had it there. And he would’ve had a real qualm if somebody had suggested that instead of having a beef sandwich he should have the smoked salmon one.


Now then, we get to this: what we are aware of is a complex of vibrations. And we have been conditioned to call them, graduatedly, ‘good,’ ‘bad,’ ‘pleasant,’ ‘painful.’ Whereas, as a matter of fact, they are nothing but vibrations. And if you look at any one of them, by itself, you won’t know where it is. That is to say, if you only know ‘red,’ you can’t see that it’s red; you can only know that this is red by contrast with yellow and green and blue and violet. So you don’t know that a sound is loud unless you know soft sounds, or you don’t know that it’s soft unless you know loud. And it is that comparison which gives us the feeling of the spectrum as being varied. Otherwise we wouldn’t know.


For example, when you watch television you are actually seeing a single moving point moving over the screen. But it goes so fast that you see it in all these different places having different values of light. But let us—supposing there was someone whose retina was not retentive in this way, he would look at the screen and see the moving point of light, and say to human beings, “I don’t see what you see in this.”


Now can we, therefore, get back not only to the situation where we see that the ego is a mere construct, but also where we see that all the values we put on the vibrations are arbitrary. And that we get to a position where we see the vibrations simply as the vibrations. And we would say, then, “Well, surely, all this is nonsense.” Which is correct. The universe, I mean, is a kind of a “Ba-doo-di-da, ba-doo-di-da, ba-doo-di-da, ba-doo-di-da, ba-doo-di-da,” and going on in this fantastic way.


This is why music can be used as a meditative technique. Because a lot of music is nonsense; it doesn’t mean anything. But it can be very interesting. So, can you get back again to recollecting, from childhood, your pleasure in events that—from your present point of view—you would call entirely meaningless? That you could listen to a sound like twanging metal, and it goes boing, boing, boing, boing, and that’s fascinating. Boing. It’s just boing. And that’s all it is, see? Now, if you can really get with boing, you see, you can see the whole universe in boing. Really! Because every vibration that’s possible implies all the others. And so, likewise, with a candle flame, with a reflection, with grain in wood, anything can—from this child point of view—be completely fascinating. Not because it means anything, but just for what it is that it is shaped so.


The Meaningless Life


There was a joke-in-punch some time ago—many years ago, I remember—of an Army doctor interviewing a private, and the private says, “Every time I shake my leg like this it hurts!” He said, “Goddamnit, don’t shake it!” But, you know, when one has something that hurts, there’s a subtle temptation to keep worrying it. Like if you have a filling out of a tooth, your tongue plays with the empty hole. And children will experiment with pain in this way; it’s like a dare. Children are always playing the game of daring each other to do something forbidden. Because the risk of disapproval involved—the calamity that may follow from it—it makes it so exciting.


And why on Earth do people challenge disaster the way they do? Doing all sorts of wildly adventurous things? Because, obviously, that gives a taste of quality to a vibration that is extremely interesting. Why the craving for speed? And it’s only if you look very carefully at a vibration that you can see this point.


That’s why meditative exercises often involve a repetition process. Oṃ, or saying a phrase, or doing an act like a mudra over and over and over again. After a while it becomes meaningless. You can say your own name like the Sufis do, and go on and on and on and on and on, and finally it doesn’t mean anything at all; it’s just a noise. But it isn’t just a noise, you see? The attitude of saying that something is just a noise, or just a wiggle, is an adult attitude. No wiggle, to the child, is just a wiggle. To the child, the elemental thing going on is, “Bwwlllaaaaaaaah,” you know? I mean, it’s just fantastic!


Now do you see why this is what mystics call ineffable? That is to say, you can’t really talk about it. When I try to explain what I mean by digging a sound, I suddenly realize that I’m not really saying anything. And yet there are states of consciousness in which you can listen to sound and realize that that is the whole point of being alive. Just to go with this particular energy manifestation that is happening right at this moment. To be it.


The whole world is the energy playing at doing all this, you see? Like a kaleidoscope jazzing. So if you watch that, and watch it that way, you will be accused, of course—by those who are guardians of the game—of doing something very dangerous. You’re going completely crazy. I mean, the number of theological texts I’ve read which express, in one way or another, this horror of everything becoming meaningless—the meaningless life, tale told by an idiot full of sound and furies signifying nothing. Those people, you see, have not dared to look at it.


Now, there’s another way of looking at it, of course, where—in states of acute depression—people see it all as meaningless, but not really meaningless; they see it all as a conspiracy of horror. Let’s imagine that everything is mechanical. There are no living beings at all. There are a lot of beings that are such good computers that you can’t tell the difference between them and what you thought were people. But everything going on is simply clockwork, and there’s nobody home—although it puts on a convincing show that there is. So you get the feeling that the entire world is enameled tin or patent leather or plastic, and tasteless, hollow, vulgar; like a Wurlitzer jukebox. That’s a very common feeling of people who get into acute depression.


But, you see, there is still, here, a valuation: you are associating the world with the mechanical as distinct from the organic. And we have a tendency, you see, to put down the mechanical because, obviously, a plastic flower doesn't have the scent, it doesn’t have the soft feeling, of a living flower. There will be perfume plastic flowers soon, but you know what it’ll do: it’ll smell vaguely like soap, and it won’t smell like a flower. So it’ll be plastic smell. Now, we know that, you see, and so we contrast it with the organic.


This Is The Game


In what we are doing now, we are getting to a feel of the world that is neither organic nor mechanical; simply what it is. We don’t—again—we don’t know the contrast, just as we don’t know the contrast voluntary/involuntary, we don’t know the contrast organic/mechanical. Neither. So we get to what the Buddhists call tathātā: ‘suchness.’ Tathātā, based on the word tat, ‘that,’ ‘da.’ Fundamentally da-da, see? Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. That’s what’s going on.


Well, now, this is what happens, you see, in the meditative state. As you are in that you see everything as ‘da.’ Da. And you are not saying anymore, “Well, that doesn’t amount to anything,” because you’ve learned that when people do take you to the place that does amount to something, eventually it all collapses. The price of being taken to the place seriously, you see—where it really does amount to something—this, at last, is the real thing. The price you paid for that, you see, is the horrors about its opposite. And to the degree you take that seriously, okay, you pay the price of the horrors. Now, that's not a matter of fact at all. So I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take it seriously—I mean, to be specific: you are tremendously in love with someone, and you plan and plan and plan how possibly you can get this person to return your love. And they do. And this is the great event, this is fantastic! But in the background of your mind is the thought that, “What if this person should be killed, or some terrible thing happened?” That always lurks behind the triumph of getting it so; of this intense, gorgeous feeling.


Now, if you know that this is—in a way—an illusion, you can allow yourself to take it quite seriously, but always having a Hintergedanke; a reservation, a thought, way back. This is the game. And having that—as a matter of fact, you can take it seriously—you can allow yourself to get involved in life to the most ridiculous degree because you know it’s alright. You know, it’s just these vibrations, and so… wowee! Let’s really get into it.


That is why a person who might be enlightened—a Bodhisattva— does not always present a kind of detached and indifferent attitude, but is perfectly free to allow emotions, attachments. Why, R. H. Blyth, who was a great Zen man, wrote to me once and said, “How are you these days? As for me, I have abandoned satori altogether and I’m trying to become as deeply attached as I can to as many people and things as possible.”


So what I’m pointing out to you is this basic seeing that it’s all da-da-da provides a possibility for you to become involved in it much more incautiously than you normally are: to express feeling, to love, to throw yourself at the mercy of the goings-on completely, you see? So that this very perception of the illusion makes it possible to live up the illusion! And so if someone, therefore, is always—in his attitude to life—detached and reserved, it indicates, you see, that there’s still a primordial fear of getting involved. And I must say that, you see, I can’t understand that very well. I don’t understand what people expect that a so-called ‘enlightened’ person should not need this, that, and the other. It might be beautiful surroundings, it might be the love of the opposite sex, it might be… I don’t know what. But you shouldn’t need that, in other words, you should scrub everything down to basic, basic. And the end of that is, you know, “Let’s scrub the planet! Let’s get all this disease called life off it and have a nice, clean rock!”


I believe in color, I believe in—if you are going to do anything in the way of the illusory dance, let’s live it up! Let’s really do it! And let’s not take ourselves so damn seriously that we have to be scrubbed all the time of any kind of ornamentation or frivolity. Oh, hooray! But you see what all this is dependent on: all this is dependent upon being able to get back to the point where it’s da-da-da-da-da-da-da. Now, that’s what comes in meditation.


Now, don’t misunderstand me if I say ‘practicing’ meditation. Don’t be in a state of expectation, working day after day to ‘improve’ your meditation. Meditation isn’t like that. You just do it. But it is true that, as time goes on and you are in that state of silence, you will see this quality of the world. Now, the most difficult pains and problems to deal with are those that are monotonous. Whereas you can see the possibility of a kind of ecstatic self-abandonment in a catastrophic agony. What really gets people down are those ones that drag on day after day after day after day, like having to lie with bed sores in a very uncomfortable situation; in traction, or something of that kind. Or just a perennial difficultly that drips, drips, drips, drips like a water torture everyday.


Now, this is the kind of situation in which meditation shows its value. That you are increasingly in a state of consciousness where the world is babbling. Every one of us has something, you know, that we say we don’t like to do: washing dishes, doing accounts. But when you get into the meditation consciousness, you see that nothing is more important than anything else—or less important. There is no way of wasting time, because what is time for except to be wasted? And, it would be—furthermore, you’re accustomed, now, to sitting and doing nothing. I mean, meditation itself is the perfect waste of time.


So What's the Problem?


Now, I want to get down to the simplest possible nitty-gritty of what we’ve been talking about in a very easy way, to ask ourselves the question, “Quite fundamentally, what’s all the trouble about?” In other words, what is your state of mind when you contemplate the possibility of everything becoming nothing? Alright, so the universe is a transitory system—like a bubble, like smoke, like foam on the water—and so, how easy! Just go along with it; dissolve.


So what’s the problem? Why don’t we want to give up? What do we think we are going to get by holding on, and by resisting the dissolution? Now, I’m not saying, at the moment, that I’m a sort of preacher advocating giving up. What I’m interested in for you to feel is: what do you really feel like inside at the prospect of there being nothing; of this whole thing being a bubble that dissolves?


You see—about death, the reality of approaching death—people are apt to feel chilly, cold, lonely, scared, because it’s an unknown. The most frightening thing about death is there might be something beyond it and you don’t know what it is. You remember, facing the world as a child—or at any time—the world is full of threats. Mostly from other people. And there are monsters. There are all sorts of things which scare you, but beyond every monster is death. Dissolution is the end of it all. And by and large, the art of government is to fill that void beyond death with threats of a rather unspecified nature so that we can rule people by saying, “If you don’t do as I tell you, I’ll kill you. Or you’ll kill yourself.” And so long as we can be scared of that, and so long as we can be made to think of death as a bad thing, then we can be ruled.


That is why no government likes mystics. Because if we define the mystic as the person who is no longer scared of death—because the mystic is, in the simplest possible language, the person who understands that you have to have nothing to have something. So you can’t fundamentally scare the mystic with death because, say, well, what end can it all come to? What’s all the trouble about? The most it can come to is nothing. I mean, there may be some troubles on the way of resisting this; basically resisting it. I mean, as you might say, the cells in your body resist their dissolution. And so in this resistance there’s an experience called pain, which we’ve been discussing. But beyond pain is annihilation—or so it seems, anyway.


What will it be like to go to sleep and never wake up? Nobody can think about it. But what is that state when you are teased out of thought? See, get with it: going to sleep and never waking up. This is not—as you would fantasize it—a state of being in the dark forever. It is not like being buried alive, because then there is an experience of darkness. Now, I remember a little while ago having at one of my seminars a girl who was born blind, and I had the most interesting discussion with her because she doesn’t know what darkness is. The word is absolutely meaningless to her because she’s never seen light.


Now so, when you really think about nothingness, it becomes like—what I’ve often referred to—is how your head looks to your eyes. And behind the eyes you don’t see darkness, do you? Right now. You’re not aware of a contrast of light here and black there. Behind the visual field, this way, you can’t see darkness; there is simply nothing conceivable at all. Neither darkness nor light, see? Alright, so: might one venture to say, almost, that that area of blankness we call ‘death’ is what lies behind the eyes? In other words, it is what we can’t think about that’s what’s watching.


In other words, the farthest we can go in thinking about nothing, you see—we get to the root of the matter. Let me put this in another way. The world is form. Now, you cannot look for the origin of form in form, because what you would get then would be a universe where you couldn’t make out any form at all because there was so much of it. It would be like writing a letter on top of a newspaper, and then putting a picture over that, and then doing something else until there wasn’t a single square millimeter of paper left of blank paper. Nobody could read anything. But one can read, one can see form, one can see the world, simply because there’s always emptiness behind it.


So you see, in this way, emptiness being the mother of form. And you can always say yes, only the form is there; that’s all that’s real. But that is only saying it is all that is figure. What about background? It always has to be there.


Every Incarnation is This One


So let’s go on, then, into our visualization; our imagination. Use your imagination for all its worth to think yourself into the fact that this whole sense of importance of vitality, of aliveness, of being, is simply a sudden experience which was nothing before it started, and will be nothing after it’s over. That is the simplest possible thing you could believe in. It requires no intellectual effort. Nothing. Supposing that’s the way it is.


Now, I repeat, what’s your inside feeling about that? Supposing—let’s say you feel sorry. For whom is this sorrow? Who, when it’s all over, will there be to feel sorry? You may say, “I regret now that this thing is going to come to an end.” But when it’s come to an end nobody would either regret or be happy about it. That will be that. So, in a way, you can say, “Well, this feeling of sorrow that I have—that is going to come to an end—is really rather irrelevant, because let me look at the thing from the other direction. Supposing it would never come to an end. In other words, here is this alternation of joy and sorrow, and however happy I am today, I’m always going to feel miserable later on. And then maybe happy again, but then, after that, miserable. And this is never, never going to stop; I just can’t get rid of the damn thing!” Well, that’s pretty depressing isn’t it? I mean, when you think it through.


So you say, “Well, let’s make a compromise between these two possibilities.” One is that this compromise is, in other words, that it will disappear altogether, but then it’ll start again. Of course, when it starts again it will feel like it does now, which is that it never happened before. So you are always in the same place, just like you feel now.


Let’s suppose that the Hindus are right, that the universe lasts for 4,320,000 years, and then it vanishes, and then it starts and it runs for another 4,320,000 years, and then it vanishes, and it does it again. And it does it, and does it, and does it, and does it, and there is no end to this! But fortunately, because of the forgettery every 4,320,000 years, it doesn’t become a totally insufferable bore. There is this blank space, this trough, between the crests of the waves, you see? Now, the Hindus thought about that, and they got tired. And they thought about the possibility of mokṣa, ‘liberation,’ or nirvāṇa, from the everlasting cycle of appearing and disappearing.


But then, when they thought that through—the Buddhists for example, having really said, “Now we’ve got the trick.” As the Buddha said after his enlightenment, “Now I found you out, you who build the house. I’m going to take the house apart. The roof beam is brought down. Desire is the builder of the house. See, I found you. Never again shall you build it.” And the Buddhists thought that one over. “That’s crazy, we found a way out of saṃsāra, the wheel of birth and death.” And somebody one day said, “But isn’t that rather selfish? You get yourself out; what about all the other people? Don’t you have any feeling of compassion?” “Oh yes,” they said, “of course; we forgot that, didn’t we? Let’s come back again and help all these people out!” Then they got very sophisticated about it, and they said, “Look, if nirvāṇa is release from birth and death, then they are opposed. And so, nirvāṇa and birth & death go together, and they will have to imply one another.” So you are only really released if you see that; if you see that nirvāṇa and birth & death are the same thing.


Now, I’ve got to pull a fast one on you. So, every time an incarnation occurs it feels like this one. See? It might be quite different; we might be reincarnated in another universe as beings with an altogether different shape, see? Not at all like human beings. But because we were used to it, we would feel that that was the human shape. We would say, “Well, that’s natural, obviously. Obviously, that’s the way things are.” So naturally, if you appeared in the form of a spider, you would look around at other spiders and say, “Well yes, of course, this is a natural place to be in. This is the human shape.” Something that’s not us looks at us and thinks we look perfectly terrible. I mean, imagine how you look to a fish: clumsy, cumbersome, stupid looking thing, whereas a fish is so elegant and graceful and can slide through the water so beautifully. The human beings can’t even swim properly!


So, don’t you see that in every world that comes into being—or could come into being—it seems just like it seems now. And every species that you could belong to would seem like this one. It would have its up-end of what is highly intelligent and its low-end of what is not so intelligent. You would be aware of superior forces and inferior forces. Otherwise you wouldn’t have the idea of mastering a situation unless there were situations you couldn’t master. Now, we are not aware of species, of beings, above us—unless you cultivate those forms of psychic awareness where you think you’re in touch with angels, or something of that sort. But the things that appear to be above us are great natural processes. And we think that they’re rather stupid. Only very tough. Too strong for us. Earthquakes, the elements. Also some little ones, see? The virus is a very troublesome being. And this is where the human being really finds himself at his wits’ end in dealing with molecular biology.


So, you know, if the monsters don’t get you, the ministers will. The insects, you see? But at any rate, whatever level you’re on, it always appears to be the same one. Now, we—therefore, naturally, don’t we—we feel we’re in the middle. We feel—for example, with the telescope—that there is a world greater than us that is infinitely greater. We feel—with the microscope—there’s a world below us that’s infinitely smaller, and we seem to stand in the middle. Of course you seem to stand in the middle. Every creature stands in the middle. Because if you stand on a boat in the middle of the ocean and you turn around through an angle of 360 degrees, you will see the same distance in every direction. That’s because you see. And your sensitivity to sight, or the intensity of light, is the same in every direction. So you’re in the middle. You’re always in the middle. Where else would you be? In other words, anything that perceives, anywhere, is always in the middle. Anything that grows anywhere is always in the middle. It’s betwixt and between. And the middle always has, therefore, extremes. It has extremes in space: as far west and as far east as you can think; as far on and as far back. And there’s always a beginning, and there’s always an end. Just as there is a left and a right. Or a top and a bottom.


The State of Nothing


So, also, if you are aware of a state which you call “is,”—or “reality,” or “life”—this implies another state called “isn’t,” or “illusion,” or “unreality,” or “nothingness,” or “death.” There it is. You can’t know one without the other. And so as to make life poignant it’s always going to come to an end. That is exactly—don’t you see—what makes it lively. Liveliness is change; is motion. And motion is going nnnnneeeeooooowww, like this, see? You’ve got to fall out and be gone. So you see, you’re always at the place where you always are. Only it keeps appearing to change. And you think, “Wowee! A little further on we will get that thing! I hope we don’t go further down so that we lose what we already have.” But that is built into every creature’s situation; no matter how high, no matter how low.


So, in this sense, all places are the same place. And the only time you ever notice any difference is in the moment of transition. When you go up a bit, you gain. When you go down a bit, you feel disappointed, gloomy, lost. You can go all the way down to death. Somehow there seems to be a difficulty in getting all the way up. Death seems so final. Nothingness seems so very, very irrevocable and permanent. But then, if it is, what about the nothingness that was before you started?


So, don’t you see, what we’ve left out of our logic—and this is part of the game rule of the game that we are playing—the way we hoodwink ourselves is by attributing powerlessness to nothingness. We don’t realize that is a complete logical fallacy. On the contrary. It takes nothing to have something, because you wouldn’t know what something was without nothing. You wouldn’t know what the form is without the background space. You wouldn’t be able to see anything unless there were nothing behind your eyes.


Now imagine yourself with a spherical eye. You see all around. Now, what’s in the middle? See? Even if I have all this behind me in view, suddenly I will find that there is something in the middle of it all. There’s a hole in the middle of reality. Like now—there seems to be not so much a hole but a wall. But any animal which had eyes in the back of its head would have the sensation I’m describing. Now, you may say to me, “Well, all that’s wishful thinking. Because when you're dead, you're dead! See?” Now, wait a minute, what’s that state of consciousness that talks in that way? This is somebody saying something—who wants to make a point. Now, what point does that sort of person want to make? Like “When you're dead, you're dead! See?” Why, that’s one of the people who want to rule the world; to frighten you about death. “Death is real, see? Don’t indulge in wishful thinking. All you people who dream of an afterlife and heavens and Gods and mystical experiences and eternity—oh, you are just wishy-washy people. You don’t face the facts.”


What facts? How can I face the fact of ‘nothing,’ which is, by definition, not a fact. You see? All this is toddle from whichever way you look at it. So if you really go the whole way, and see how you feel of the prospect of vanishing forever—of all your efforts, and all your achievements, and all your attainments turning into dust and nothingness—what is the feeling? What happens to you?


It’s a curious thing that, in the world’s poetry, this is a very common theme:

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon

Turns Ashes—or it prospers; and anon,

Like Snow upon the Desert's dusty Face

Lighting a little Hour or two—is gone.

—Omar Khayyám: Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

All kinds of poetry emphasizes the theme of transience. And there’s a kind of nostalgic beauty to it:

The banquet hall deserted

after the revelry, all the guests have left and gone their ways.

The table with overturned glasses, crumpled napkins, bread crumbs and dirty knives and forks lies empty

and the laughter echoes only in one’s mind.

And then the echo goes, the memory, the traces are all gone.

That’s the end you see.


Do you see, in a way, how that is saying, “the most real state is the state of nothing?” That’s what it’s all going to come to. Or these physicists, who think of the energy of the universe running down, dissipating in radiation gradually, gradually, gradually, gradually, until there’s nothing at all left. And for some reason or other, we are supposed to find this depressing. But if somebody is going to argue that the basic reality is nothingness, where does all this come from? Obviously from nothingness. Once again, you get how it looks behind your eyes, see?


So cheer up! You see? This is what is meant, in Buddhist philosophy, by saying, “We are all basically nothing.” When the 6th Patriarch says, “The essence of your mind”—that’s how it is behind your eyes—“is intrinsically pure.” The ‘pure’ doesn’t mean a non-dirty story state of mind, as it is apt to mean in the word ‘puritan.’ ‘Pure’ means clear; void. So you know the story, when the 6th Patriarch was given his office as successor—because he was truly enlightened, there was a poetry contest. And the losing one wrote the idea that the mind—the consciousness—was like a mirror which had to be polished. And constantly, one—“I have to polish my mirror, I have to purify my mind!” See? “So that I’m detached, and calm, and clearheaded,” you know, Buddha.


But the one who won the contest said, “There is no mirror. And the nature of the mind is intrinsically void, so where is there anywhere for dust to collect?” See? So in this way, by seeing that ‘nothingness’ is the fundamental reality—and you see that it’s your reality—then how can anything contaminate you? All the idea of you being scared, or put out, and worried and so on is just nothing; it’s a dream, because you are really nothing. But this is the most incredible nothing. And the 6th Patriarch, likewise, went on to contrast ‘emptiness of indifference’ which is sort of blank emptiness, see? If you think of this nothingness as mere blankness, and you hold on to the idea of blankness—and kind of grizzly about it—you haven’t understood it. He said, “Nothingness is really like the nothingness of space, which contains the whole universe.” All the suns and the stars, and the mountains and rivers, and the good men and the bad men, and the animals and the insects—the whole bit—all are contained in void.

So out of this void comes everything, and you’re it. What else could you be?


The Line of Least Resistance


So what I’m showing you is that all this hocus-pocus about the fear of nothingness is that, truly speaking, ‘nothingness’ is what we want to talk about when we talk about the spiritual. Only, it’s all been ignored! It’s all been put down! You say, “Oh, nothingness, blegh! Heaven preserve us from that!” But that’s where the secret lies! And obviously the secret always lies in a place you never think of looking for it.


In mythology this comes again and again. Okay—this is Christmas—where is the Christ born? In a palace? No. Where no one would think of looking: in pigsty. Although, I have a Japanese friend who once said to me—he said, “You know, the real difference between Christianity and Buddhism is that Christ was the son of a carpenter and Buddha the son of a prince.” (I thought that was rather funny.) Well, we don’t know who the prince is without the carpenter, do we?


Now, it’s in that sense, really, that I could suggest to you that you meditate on nothingness. I know you can’t think about it. But yet, when it becomes perfectly clear to you that that’s what you are, and what you were before you were born, where can anybody stick a knife into you? Fundamentally, you see? Alright. Get it? Because this is really the secret to the whole thing. If you see that—now, we want to go on and be able to answer all the people who will come bug us about it, because whether you say anything about it to other people or not, people are going to bug you about this and say, “Oh, no, no, no, no. Here—you really are something. You know, you—you’ll know it. Wowee! Life isn’t the way you think. La la la la la. It’s gonna be awful, see, I mean real! Woo!” And they’ll say, “Okay, where in such a philosophy as this is there any basis for the love of one’s fellow man? For joy in children? For cultivating gardens, for doing this and that and the other?” See? “There is no basis in it!” That’s the same way there is no basis in emptiness for form; or so it seems. But only precisely to the degree that you have discovered the nothingness that you are, you find that you are suddenly full of energy. That is energy. It’s the source and origin of energy. So that when, you know, when there’s sort of nothing in your way, then you can do exactly what I was describing as having this glee for going into doing this, that, and the other thing, and being thoroughly creative.


But you can’t be creative out of just plain somethingness. You need nothingness to be creative. And that’s what we are. And this, too, is real nothingness; it’s not darkness, it’s not like being buried alive forever, it’s not like rest. Even when the Catholics sing:

Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord.
And let light perpetual shine upon them.

This isn’t rest, because it isn’t motion. Neither motion nor rest. What is it? Nobody can imagine. And it’s at that point, you see, where the imagination completely runs out and stops. there we’ve hit the thing. See, there you are, right at the fundamental mystical reality. Now, what this is we are talking about, is what mystics have quite often discussed. This isn’t read very much. It’s a state called agnosia, which means ‘unknowing.’


There’s a book called the Cloud of Unknowing, written by an English monk in the 14th Century. But it’s based on another book called Theologia Mystica, which was written in the 6th Century by an unknown Syrian monk who used the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. Absolutely fascinating, very short little book—which I translated long ago, back in 1943, and I’m about to reissue it. But this book ends up with a description of God which is all in negatives. Not any kind of anything you can imagine at all. Not light, not power, not spirit, not fathershood, not sonship, not this, that, and the other—all the way down the line. Everything that anybody’s ever said or thought about God is denied. Because God is infinite, and therefore beyond the reach of any conception at all. So he says that anybody who—having a vision—thought he saw God, would not have seen God but some creature that God has made who is less than God.


So again, you approach—in a Christian context, said in such a way that even Saint Thomas Aquinas bought it—that you can’t impute heresy to it. Because everybody’s got to agree that God is the which in which there is no whicher, and this guy spells it out. So, in the same way, you get Nagarjuna saying that the ultimate reality is śūnyatā, voidness.


So Shankara gets at it when he says, “That which is the knower or the knowing in everything can never itself be an object of its own knowledge; for fire doesn’t burn itself,” although it burns other things. So we never know what the Brahman is, just like the eyes don't ever see the head. If you put something there, you are stopping short of nothing and you don’t get the whole benefit of it, that’s all. If you insist that there is something there, that there is the Loving Father at the end of the line, or the Paradise Garden, you are really cheating yourself. Because it’s only when you have thorough emptiness and real downright nothingness at the end of the line, that you get the full impact. No holds. Look, mama, no hands! See?


Now, I really think that’s the simplest thing I can possibly tell you. I really don’t know what else there is to be said about this whole Zen project, or mysticism, Vedānta, what have you. It comes down to that, and there are infinitely many ways of evading. But what I’m trying to point out to you, you see, is the way in which you see the point [is] by taking the line of least resistance. By facing the facts. By not super-adding to truth something you contribute to it; your own business that you put up. But saying, “If I follow what I can see, or can see with my senses, to be reality as far as we can look, it seems that this is sort of the inevitable conclusion.” Which everybody has spent endless effort in arguing about and resisting. Not realizing that—if they went the whole way—how splendid it would be. And that’s all you have to do.

The Inevitable Ecstasy (Part 2)

Alan Watts

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