Reality, Art, and Illusion

Join Alan as he expresses the meaning of life through the Hindu-Buddhist idea of reality as a divine game of hide-and-seek. "Life is not ultimately serious," Watts argues. By embracing the fluidity of identity and recognizing our interconnectedness, we can creatively engage with existence as impermanent, unified, and filled with playful potential. Accessible yet philosophically rich, these decades-old lectures offer timeless insights on the nature of reality.


Part 1

Māyā’s Many Faces


I’m going to start by talking to you about the foundation idea underlying the whole of this seminar, which is the Hindu Buddhist—that is to say, Indian—idea of the world as illusion, which they call māyā. This is one of the most rich ideas that has ever been thought by the mind of man, because it has such a great multiplicity of meanings. When Hinduism is reported in little textbooks on comparative religion and encyclopedia articles, this is one point on which almost all the scholars are either completely misleading or very incomplete. Because a general impression has circulated in the West that the Hindus live in a very, very hot country, have very little to eat, and live an absolutely miserable life, and therefore this affects the brain in a certain way. The heat makes the world seem like a mirage, makes it seem rather unreal. And the extremely low standard of living makes life intolerable, and so they would just as soon believe that it isn’t real, that it all has a dreamlike quality, and that the highest ideal to which man can aspire is to escape altogether from this sort of physical existence (which they call saṃsāra: the round of birth and death), and to disappear into a state of rather diffuse consciousness wherein the individuality vanishes and one is simply suspended forever, or in a kind of timeless time, in an infinite ocean of faintly luminous, mauve jello. Now, this is all terribly misleading. This isn’t the point at all. And so I want to start, then, by telling you the many, many things that the word māyā actually means.


First of all, the foundation of the word is the Sanskrit root mātṛ, and that has as its original meaning (so far as we can trace it back) the idea of measuring or laying out the foundations for a building. And you can see how, from that root mātṛ, we derive many, many words through Greek and Latin in the English language connected with measurement: “metric,” “meter,” “matrix,” “matter”—as in the saying: “does it matter?” Does it measure up to anything? And so, fundamental to the concept of the world illusion is, then, the idea of measurement, of equating the realities of the physical world with certain systems of numbering—whether it be so many spans of the hand, so many feet, so many paces, so many bongs on a drum, or whatever you got to be your regular model, your regular system. For the whole idea of measurement is to find an equation between the physical world and something regular, that is to say, with a ruler.


Because, you see, the physical world is fundamentally wiggly. We don’t notice this very much if we live in towns and if we live in ordinary houses, because we build our streets and our homes so as to seem to be non-wiggly. And so we’re confronted with tables and chairs and walls and window frames, and we get a sense of non-wiggly reality. And so then we are also always in conflict with wiggliness. We try, for example, not to let the stars seem to be disordered, but to organize them into constellations. The constellations, of course, aren’t there; there are no strings joining those stars which constitute the Big Dipper. Seen from another point of view in space they wouldn’t look like a dipper at all. Actually, those stars happen to be fairly close to each other in space. But sometimes a member of a constellation could very well be in an entirely different galaxy millions of light years away. But we like to do this, and even I once read something that I never believed any human being had ever thought, but during the eighteenth century, when Western man had a peculiar passion for symmetrical order, somebody wrote an essay saying that the stars had been very poorly disposed, and that if they had been arranged in geometrical patterns it would have been far more consistent with the divine reason than this haphazardly scattered affair.


So our world is wiggly. All of us are wiggly objects. Trees are, rocks are, clouds are, waters are, the outlines of islands and so on—it’s all wiggly. And so, in that sense, the universe is rather like an enormous Rorschach blot. Now, a foundation of artistic creation is to see things in blots. For example, if you examine the animal paintings in the caves of Lascaux, which are probably the earliest artforms in existence, it is apparent that the painters of those images first looked at the rock, at its contours and at the smudges and various changes of color in it, and saw the animals and creatures that they painted just as you might see something in a Rorschach blot. And then they brought it out. Leonardo da Vinci spoke of using his imagination on a dirty old wall in which he could see landscapes and battles and all kinds of things. And there was a very great Zen painter in China in the Sung dynasty who used to paint as follows: he’d get very drunk and then—he had long hair—and he’d dip his hair in ink, and then he’d wave his head over a piece of paper. Then, when he’d sobered up a little, he’d look at this and do a Rorschach blot on it, and he would see a landscape which could be brought out for all to see by just a few extra touches of the brush. And, you see, by that method you create a gorgeous landscape.


So this curious ability of the mind of man to pick out significant things in any kind of a wadge is what we call consciousness. Con-scio. The basic root in Latin means, con: “together with,” scio: “to know.” “To know together.” And so from the root—scio, you see, is connected with “cutting.” “Science” is the same root. And “schizm,” see? It’s the same word: to cut. To cut things up into bits, to recognize, to pick out what is significant from what is not. Because conscious attention as it exists in man is a kind of radar, or a kind of spotlight, whose function is to warn the whole organism of significant changes in the environment. If things don’t change, consciousness goes to sleep; it gets bored. But the moment anything changes, consciousness notes it at once. That is why our attention is won or captured by a moving object rather than still backgrounds, by easily enclosed and recognizable figures as distinct from vague and diffuse spaces. Although, as a matter of fact, our organism responds to everything that is happening in the environment, but consciousness only notices those things that are thought to be significant.


So then, consciousness is constantly active in trying to make sense and pick out the significant separate bits of a wiggly and fundamentally bitless and thingless universe. And that is one of the meanings of māyā. So, for example, if we have some wiggles like that, that immediately creates something problematic for us to describe. How can we say anything exactly about that shape? How can we deal with it? Well, the answer is: to deal with that shape—which is essentially wiggly—we’ve got to measure it in some way. There are various ways of doing that. For example, we might refer to certain significant elements in the shape. This can be interpreted either as a promontory or an inlet, whichever one you want. But it seems to be a thing. We can catch hold of that. It’s something that sticks out like a nose. Or here’s another one, you see? We can mention that. Or we can liken this to certain other things we’ve seen and say, “Well, at the point where there’s a pear-shaped inlet, there’s something significant.” That’s one way of doing it. The other way of doing it—which is more exact and more scientific, and which we use for purposes of navigation and also for plotting the stars—is to superimpose over the wiggly shape a uniform pattern, and the fundamental one that we use is, of course, the grid. You see? Now, superimpose that over the wiggliness on cellophane, and then we can number the spaces down and the spaces along. And we can say: this point is number one down and two across, and so give every point a number on our grid, see? And that begins to give us an accurately describable but nonetheless somewhat caricatureish version of the wiggle.


Imagine for a moment—you see, if you examine a newspaper photograph under a magnifying glass you will find that it is an amalgamation of dots, some light and some dark. In other words, the whole thing has been reduced to a sort of pointillist amalgamation of bits. And under the magnifying glass this doesn’t look at all like the thing—like the human face, for example—that is supposed to be represented. But put away the magnifying glass, look at it from a distance, and it approximates to the human face that you recognize.


Now, in a way, all conscious knowledge does that to the world. It reproduces it in terms of some kinds of bits. Words are bits. We arrange words in lines so as to describe events, but we’ve got a limited number of words that we use: the words in the dictionary. And they are the bits. And words, in turn, are composed of letters. And these are, again, the bits. Or much more so when, for example, we transmit television: what is actually coming into our set is a series of impulses, of bits, in certain rhythms. And these, when they affect the television tube, do more of this kind of newspaper jazz on the screen. And so, in that way, a picture is arranged—but again, in terms of little bits. So, also, you see, this was all related to the fundamental way in which, from the earliest times, the study of physics approached nature. From Democritus on, the physicists wanted to know: what are the fundamental bits out of which everything is made? And so they thought at first there were atoms. The square ones were for the element of earth because cubes would all hang together, whereas water would be made up of balls, because it flows, you see, and doesn’t stay put. And so on. Fire was made of pyramids and so on. I forget what air was made of. But they wanted to analyze it. And that is because consciousness itself is an analytical faculty. Consciousness is a bright light which illuminates the world one bit at a time; in series.


So that is one fundamental meaning of māyā: the illusion that the world consists of separate things which can be isolated from each other and regarded as being independent. Now that is a colossal illusion. It’s a very useful illusion, but it simply isn’t so. But it looks as if it were so because we are so accustomed to looking at it that way. You see, as a matter of fact, we’ve all been kind of hoaxed by our culture, by the way we’ve been brought up, into looking at the world in this way, and to picking out those things which the culture has told us are important and ignoring the things which it doesn’t think are important. Now, for example, most people are completely unaware of space. Space means where there isn’t anything at all. There may be air, but you can’t see air, and you can only feel it if you move very quickly. So space is nothing. It’s not important. And so we tend, you see, to be unconscious of the field, the area, the setting, the background, the space, in which so-called things and events happen, and so to pretend that things and events are not influenced by their space. But every architect knows that space is immensely important; that the kind of room you live in, the kind of house you move around in influences your behavior enormously, just as the frame makes all the difference to the picture. I’m thinking, for example, of photography. Where does the photographer frame the subject? How does he shoot it, how does he sight it? And then, when he’s developed the print, where does he cut the edges? Upon how he does that depends the whole significance of his picture.


So we could say, then, it is a māyā, an illusion, that we all imagine ourselves to be living inside our skins separated from the rest of the cosmos. We’ve been taught to ignore this enormously significant relationship. Because if we ignore it, we can play the game “who started it?” That is: who is responsible? Who shall we praise and who shall we blame for things being thus and so? I was given a riddle the other day—I’m not going to go through the whole riddle, it’s a complicated story of a woman who got murdered, and because she had an assignation with a lover and so on and so on, and there’s a whole lot of people, and her husband, a lover, the friend, the woman. And they asked me: who is responsible? And I thought and I said, “Well, this isn’t the question. The whole situation is responsible because the parts that everybody play in the thing are defined by the other people. You can’t have them playing these parts unless they’re all in relation in a common group.” So it’s the group, you might say, as a whole, that is responsible. And to play that the individual members of it are responsible is a game, an illusion. And note, please, that the word “illusion” is related to the Latin ludere, of which one part is lucus, the perfect. Ludere: “to play.”


So playing that we don’t go with our environments, our surroundings—that is to say, the whole cosmos in which we are discovered—is a big game. You can do lots of things with it. But we’re all going around unconscious of this marvelous interdependence between what we call “ourselves” on the one hand and what we call “the universe” on the other, and therefore don’t notice that, as a matter of fact, our real self is the whole cosmos. We’ve forgotten that. That was rapidly expunged from our minds in very early infancy. And we’re all something the cosmos is doing, just like the water is waving and the wind is blowing. The whole wind is blowing, but it blows through this window and that window and the other window. It isn’t a separate wind that blows through each window. So, in the same way, we’re all something, we’re all wavings of the universe—only, we’ve forgotten it. That knowledge was never verbalized. We had it in a nonverbal form in infancy. But as soon as we were taught words, the words hypnotized us—one always hypnotizes with words—they hypnotized us out of that realization.


Now, that doesn’t mean to say that individuals just aren’t there; that if you were awakened and free from illusion this room would suddenly turn into a formless void. The void doesn’t mean that in Buddhist philosophy. What it does mean is something like this: we are individual in the sense that you can see separate and clearly formed waves or whirlpools in water. Now, here is a whirlpool swinging around. The actual water is constantly flowing through the whirlpool and there is no stuff permanently in the whirlpool. All that the whirlpool is is a pattern: it’s something the water is doing. And so, in exactly the same way, we are a constant current of electronical phenomena. At a more obvious level we are a current of beefsteak and potatoes and eggs and milk and water all flowing through us. And we know that the cells in the human body are completely changed within at least seven-year periods. So who are you? In the same way as a university may change not only its student body every four years, but its faculty every ten years and its buildings every hundred years, and is still known by the same name: the university. Well, what is the university? The university is a particular kind of behavior, you see? It’s a particular kind of doings. And there we are. But, you see, when you don’t notice that and the behavior changes slowly enough—like the behavior of this building—so one thinks of it as a thing rather than a process, then we get into our heads that the world is full of things. But it ain’t!


So now, let’s just retrace our steps a moment to clarify some of the ideas about māyā. The first was “measurement:” making sense out of the apparent formlessness of the world—the wiggliness of it; it’s a better word than formlessness—making sense out of the wiggliness of the world by cutting it. As the grid cuts, or as the consciousness cuts out certain things that it deems as significant. That’s measurement. The second is related to it: playing the game that things so cut are really separate. Now, further than that, māyā means also “magic.” Magical power. Power to evoke. Power to create dramas. Now, all magic is related to drama because the art of the dramatist is to convince the audience who’ve come to see the play that what is happening on the stage is real. The audience hopes to be convinced of that almost, but not quite.


Now, the conventions of drama provide a certain setup that we are all familiar with—in our culture at any rate—that there has to be a certain arrangement. There’s an auditorium for the audience. There is a stage for the play. There is a proscenium arch that divides the stage from the auditorium. And behind the stage there is a green room for the actors to change their clothes. Now, there it all is. There’s the whole box of tricks. Because what the proscenium arch says is, to the audience: what goes on behind this arch on the other side of the footlights is not real, it is a play. And the actors have a place to go off and hide in the green room so that we won’t see them changing their costumes or their masks or their personalities from plain Mr. Smith on the one hand to the role of Hamlet on the other. He will walk into our view as Hamlet. And although we know in the back of our minds that this is only in play, the skillful actor will put everybody on the edge of their seats in suspense because he half-convinces them that it’s real. And so he makes magic.


Now, the Hindu doctrine of the creation of the universe is, if I may put it in extremely naïve terms, that the lord God—who, in Hinduism, doesn’t have a beard and things like that, as he does in the West, but is something unimaginable; however, he is represented often in human form with many arms and so on—but the lord God is playing that he’s not himself. And in the Western version, the first thing that the lord God said in creating the universe was, “Let there be light.” But the Hindus would have said: the first thing he said was, “You must draw the line somewhere.” That is this action of cutting; of māyā, see? And that’s the whole of life: you must draw the line somewhere. See? If we’re going to draw a line at all, you see, there’s going to be a difference between this and that, between good and evil, between the pleasant and the painful, between the modest and the immodest. Whatever you will, you see? You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. So the whole of life is the game of where are we going to draw the line, see? And how far can you go? And you can be way in or you can be way out, but still you’ve got to draw the line somewhere.


And then that was māyā. And then he decided, you see—the second thing he said to himself was: “Get lost!” Because he was bored with being God. And he thought, “Everything is possible. There is no obstacle in any direction. Nothing is happening. So… let’s get lost. Let’s pretend we are not God.” And so he’s pretended that he’s all of us. And every one of us is the Lord in disguise making a big scene that you’re just “little me.” And it’s very embarrassing when a good, skillful guru calls your bluff on this and says, “Listen, Shiva, stop kidding me! You know, I know who you are perfectly well, and all this come-on that you’re just you, and that you have these problems, and so on and so on—that’s a lot of bullshit! Come off it!”


So the person is very embarrassed by this and makes out that they really don’t know what the teacher’s talking about. But just like the audience in the skillfully acted play knows in the back of its mind that it is a play, so every individual in the back of his mind—hardly and barely conscious—knows who he is. And he may insist on “little me” just like, you know, when—have you ever enjoyed being in a state of grief? Or hating someone? You know, there’s a fundamental zest in really hating someone. And you know you don’t really hate them: somehow, you wouldn’t want to give it up. Even though it’s an unpleasant feeling to hate someone, you see? And so they have a sort of attitude of, “Oh, come off it!” You can sometimes penetrate through these negative emotional states.


So then, you see, in the green room—behind the stage—this corresponds to the back of the actor’s mind. Because it’s in the green room that he doffs his mask and changes his costume and drops his role, see? So it’s interesting, isn’t it, that the word “person” is a dramatic word, because the persona was the mask worn in classical drama. It is shaped with a mouthpiece, like a megaphone, so that in the open air stage the sound will travel. So “that through which the sound comes:” per sona. The masks. So the dramatis personae in the beginning of a play is a list of the masks which are going to be worn by the actors. And by a very, very curious and significant subversion of the meaning of this word: how to be a real person. Think of that! How to be a genuine mask. A really successful fraud! That’s māyā! Magic.


The next meaning of māyā is “art.” “Art” or, indeed, “skill.” I wonder—there’s an old Greek tale that there was a competition in painting. And two very great painters were the final runners up in the competition, and they had to do paintings that were going to be judged at a great affair. And the first one painted a vine with grapes on it. And it was so convincing that birds kept banging into it trying to pick at the grapes. And the bees were coming around, and, you know, wasps, and so on. And everybody thought, “My! Isn’t that fantastic! How clever this man is.” Well, they said, “We’d better have a look at the other painting.” And they said to the artist, “Unveil it. Draw the curtain and let’s see it!” He said, “What curtain?” His painting was the curtain. So he was awarded the prize because it was considered more remarkable to deceive human beings than to deceive the birds.


So that story lies at the beginning of a world of art, a philosophy of art, which has prevailed—certainly in the West—for many thousands of years, really. The sense that the skill of an artist is to make art look like nature. And so the highest reach of Western technique comes with people like the great Flemish masters—Pieter de Hooch and van Dyck and van Eyck, so on—who represent what you might call the peak of photographic realism, which eventually deteriorated into the sentimental painting of the nineteenth century with all its luscious nudes and historical mythological scenes done like colored photographs. And for most people living today, the vast majority of Westerners, that is art and anything else doesn’t look like a picture.


But, however, what is not appreciated about this (except by painters and people who understand the techniques involved) is that the camera has a prejudiced point of view. The camera does not see things as they are, it sees things as it is constructed to see them. The camera has been bewitched. And the lens is made the way it is made in order to conform with a certain philosophy of how things are supposed to look. For example, if you show a so-called primitive person a photograph of himself or of a friend, he will not recognize it. He will turn the picture over and look at the back and wonder what happened to the back of the person’s head. He will not understand why it’s flat. He will not understand perspective. Why are the trees in the distance smaller? They’re all the same size. When an American G.I. in Paris—during the war or just after the war—met Picasso, they got into a discussion about modern painting and Picasso’s painting, and the G.I. said he simply couldn’t make head or tail of it. He said the world doesn’t look like that; women don’t look like that. Picasso said, “Do you have a girlfriend?” And he said, “Yes.” “Well,” he said, “let me see her picture.” And he pulled out his wallet, and he had a little photograph in the thing, and showed the picture. Picasso stared at it and said, “Is she so small as that?”


So, you see, it’s a very instructive exercise to look really carefully at the surrounding world and not jump to conclusions about the colors of things. You see, a person might walk into this room and be asked, “What color is it?” and he would jump to the conclusion, “Oh, it’s a sort of off-white.” Now, it’s nothing of the kind! Watch this wall carefully and you will see that it’s myriads of colors. Pearly grays, golds, blues, purples—all kinds of shadows play along it. But these shadows are not gray things, they’re all colors. And luminous. So just to say it’s off-white color is to have an idea in one’s head and not to be using one’s eyes at all. And to have an idea in one’s head and not to be using your eyes is, in a way, to be a victim of māyā.


But then, you see, art and māyā have a kind of a curious relationship. Because one is not merely a victim of māyā. There’s good māyā and bad māyā, as it were. There’s a way of creating a world. And in this sense an artist or a poet is a great creator. The word “poet,” from the Greek poiesis, means “to make” or “to do.” The poets, then, are those who give us an imagination—that is, the power of building images—and so also painters teach us to see things that we never saw before. They evoke them. They see creatively. Because we can see this Rorschach blot of the universe in many different ways just as the ordinary Rorschach blot is seen in many different ways by different people. And if I can convince you to see this Rorschach blot my way, I’ve not necessarily pulled the wool over your eyes, but I have given you a new possibility of imagination.


There’s a place in a national park called Inspiration Point, and everybody goes there and they say, “Oh, ain’t it just like a picture!” That is because they have seen the kind of landscapes that are reproduced on the tops of candy boxes and so on, and they know that this is supposed to be beautiful. Now, ask the question: of what is a landscape itself a picture? Are the clouds like anything? You know, do they reproduce something? Do the trees mean something? Are they symbols? Are they figures? Are they about something? No! So when an artist paints a landscape in a kind of chocolate-box style, he’s actually painting a painting of an abstraction, of a non-objective dance—which is the tree or the cloud. See? Or the foam on the waves. It’s just become a little corny, that’s all. It’s been done so often.


So instead, painters thought, “Let’s not do that. Instead of copying the dances that nature is doing, let’s just make dances directly on the canvas.” And so Jackson Pollock and everybody starts leaping around all over the place doing different things. But then, in a few years to come, people walk down a street, and there’s an old board which has been splattered, and they’ll say, “Oh, ain’t it just like a Pollock!” See? “Ain’t it just like a picture?” Because they’ll have been taught to see the marvel of these particular colors and forms. So again, some artist has done māyā, and so made a new universe to see.


Now, however, here comes the interesting point. Is it all a projection; māyā? That’s to say—look, when we look at someone who’s tested on a Rorschach blot, we assume that the story he tells about it is a projection. That is to say, it is only in his mind. And because it’s only in his mind, the story he tells you about the Rorschach blot is symptomatic of his particular psychological condition. Are we then going to say that the external world has no order and no sense in it intrinsically, but that is something purely projected into it by human beings? And since human beings might differ from each other—as, say, one artist differs from another, or as one might have different kinds of brains or different sense organs—does that mean that according to the differentiations in the individual the external world is changed?


Let’s say this: when astronomers use their telescopes and they discover that the stars are not angels, or they’re not lights being carried in crystal spheres, but they discover these galaxies—when they discovered the galaxies, did they invent them? Were there galaxies there before anybody looked at them through telescopes? That’s the same question as: when there is a noise, is it noisy if there’s not anybody around to hear it? And, of course, we know from a physical point of view of that old problem about the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it is very simple. It’s a problem of relativity. In other words, the vibrations in the air do not become noise until they hit an eardrum. Just as light going through space is not manifested as light until it falls upon a reflecting object. Just as a thing is not moving unless it can be shown to be moving in relation to something comparably still. So, you see, in a way there are no galaxies until they arise as a situation responsive to them. Nothing exists by itself, but only in relation to other things.


This is a rough point. But remember this, though: this isn’t pure projection. Because the ability of the human being to have these sensory responses—to hear sounds, to see lights, and to know about galaxies and stars—the ability, the brain which makes that possible, is in itself a member of the external world. The brain is a member of the same world it’s looking at. It has something in common with the universe that surrounds it. See, that was the thing that (in the beginning) we screened out: nobody realizes that he’s in the external world. Everybody else is, but I’m in the internal world. Oh no, I’m not! I’m just as much in the external world as you. And my consciousness, my thoughts, my so on, can be regarded as something in the external world. So I go with it. The external world, as I pointed out in the beginning, does me. Therefore, there are correspondences, there are transactions, there are relations between what I call “me” and “everything else” in the external world. Only: I’m under the illusion that we don’t go together. I’ve forgotten that I create the galaxies in the same moment that I’ve forgotten that the galaxies create me. It’s mutual. Like two sides of a coin: they go together. You can’t separate them. Otherwise you have no coin.


So then, in sum, let’s go back. These are the principal meanings of māyā: “measurement” through cutting, “play,” “magic,” “drama,” and “creative art.” All fundamentally resting on the idea that the universe is not finally serious. And so the man who has penetrated māyā is a man who doesn’t take life quite seriously, you see? Now, there’s something unnerving about that, isn’t there? Because we use the word “serious” in two senses. When somebody says, “I love you,” and the other person says, “Are you serious?” the answer is, “No, I’m sincere.” Heavens, you don’t want to be loved seriously, do you? I mean, do you want a Sturm und Drang, a kind of Tristan and Isolde relationship? Surely not. I mean, if you go in for that kind of thing, maybe that’s your dish.


But do we really want the world to be serious, you see? Is God serious? Now, in Christianity it seems that God is serious because nobody ever imagines that the one who sits on the throne of grace is sort of laughing. He may be a very sad expression, a very kind expression, a very severe expression, but it wouldn’t be laughing. No. Because we feel, you see, that anything that’s in play and that isn’t serious is in some way trivial. But that’s not the case. You see, we have to get over that idea and realize that the Lord—or whatever It is that all this is about, that’s doing all this—is having a ball; is playing. Even though the play sometimes involves scaring itself out of its wits. The universe creeps up behind itself and says, “Boo!” And it jumps and all sorts of catastrophes happen, but ultimately they all change and disappear, and it all starts over again, see? This constant flowing in and out. And if things come they must go. See? Going and coming are the same sides of one coin, you see? If they live, they must die. It’s all one. And after all, here we are, thinking we are living, but going around chewing up animals and vegetables and creating death in every direction, see? And we say this disappearance of those forms into this form, we think it’s a good show. But imagine what a pretty girl’s pearly teeth look like to an oyster!

Alright. Now let’s have an intermission, and then we can have questions.

Part 2

Prickles and Goo: Not Really Two


Well now, you know that one of the great problems that has arisen out of the Western study of Indian philosophy as well as out of the tradition of Western philosophy in relation to the whole problem of illusion is the question of what is called (in the technical jargon of Western philosophy) subjective idealism. This is the theory that all reality is mental. And we have to start by making a clear distinction between subjective idealism and solipsism. Solipsism is the doctrine that you are the only person who exists and everybody else is your dream. And you can see there’s a certain analogy between that and the Hindu idea that all this cosmos is the dream of the godhead. But the difference here is that, in the solipsistic doctrine, it is just you as you more or less know yourself from a conscious standpoint as a finite individual, and not much more than that, having this dream that all these other people exist. There’s no way of really producing an argument against solipsism because you can always say to a solipsist: what evidence, if someone could produce it, would you regard as disproving your idea? That’s a very disconcerting question to ask anybody, and I give it to you if ever you get involved in philosophical oneupmanship. Ask a Freudian: “What evidence, if it could be brought forward, would you consider to disprove the oedipus complex theory?” You find he can’t think of anything at all. Or ask a theologian: “What evidence would you find conclusive as disproving the existence of God?” And he can’t think of any. Whereas other people, if you ask them that question, will suggest an experiment and say, “Alright, if this experiment is negative then we’ll accept the evidence.” And one of the classic experiments of this nature is the Michelson-Morley experiment which disproved the existence of the aether—at any rate, in the form that people had conceived aether. And it’s been generally accepted. Somebody thought out what would happen if there were really aether. So this is always one of the problems of solipsism, and we’re going to see it’s one of the problems of subjective idealism.


But the difference between solipsism and subjective idealism is contained in the famous double limerick:

There was a young man who said, “God,

I find it exceedingly odd

That a tree, as a tree,

Simply ceases to be

When there’s no one around in the quad.”

And the reply:

“Young man, your astonishment’s odd.

I’m always around in the quad.

So the tree, as a tree,

Never ceases to be,

Since observed by yours faithfully, God.”

And the great subjective idealists in the tradition of Western philosophy are, of course, Berkeley the bishop, and Bradley. And it’s in some ways difficult to make out exactly what they were saying when they said that everything is in the mind, because they could never say clearly what they meant by the mind.


But if you will be a little naïve for a moment and seem at least to understand what you mean when you use the word “mind,” they will pitch the argument in the following way: you do not know anything except in your own mind. The whole existence of an external world is something known to you in your mind. The distance of other people and other objects from you is a distance that exists in the mind. You cannot possibly conceive any world existing unless it be an experience. How could there be an unexperienced world? That would not be a world for anyone or anything, therefore it would not be at all. Because being is always being for something. It is, in other words, relational. The sun is light for eyes. Eyes are organs of vision for a mind. If there are no eyes, the sun gives forth no light. If there are no nerve ends, it gives forth no heat. If there are no muscles, nothing is heavy. And if there are no soft skins, nothing is hard. Because it’s only in relation to a certain softness that something hard can be said to be hard, only in relation to a certain degree of measurement performed by the neurons that things can be said to be relatively hot or cold. Hot and cold are the impact of energies on a nervous system. Energies at all are recognized as energies by their impact on something.


So the Zen poem says:

The tree manifests the spiritual power of the wind,

The water the miraculous energy of the moon.

So the tree is waving. And we wouldn’t know there was any wind around, you see, unless there were a tree or something like it to wave in it. And in the same way as the moon, when the water ripples, breaks up into a thousand fragments and shimmers all over the place, you see, we wouldn’t know that the moon had this miraculous power to duplicate itself, to triplicate, quadruplicate, multi-millionaire itself, were it not for the water. So these are the foundations of the idealist theory. You must distinguish between philosophical idealism and ethical idealism—they’re two totally unrelated ideas. Philosophical idealism means that the ideal world is the real world; that is to say, the world in the mind.


Now, the theory is incredibly plausible as it has been stated by people like Berkeley and Bradley and the Western idealists, but today it is about the most unfashionable philosophical theory in the academic world that you could follow. Because Western philosophy has undergone a great revolution since about 1914. In that year, there was published Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and Wittgenstein came from the so-called Vienna school or was influenced by the Vienna school of people who called themselves scientific empiricists, sometimes logical analysts, sometimes logical positivists. And they said only statements that are empirically verifiable have meaning. They never verified that statement. But that was their point of departure; that’s their basic assumption. Everybody has a metaphysical assumption which he can’t prove. Watch out for it. It’s basic to all thought. For example: you must be consistent. Try and imagine a system of logic that isn’t consistent.


But at any rate, this school has had immense influence in the twentieth century, and it argues, basically, that in order to say something meaningful—he’s having fun!—you must be able to verify it. That is to say, to verify things by prophecy. If you make a prediction based on your statement and it comes true, you verified it. If it doesn’t come true, you haven’t verified it. You de-verified it. A statement which was de-verified, shown to be untrue, might be meaningful, but untrue. But a statement that you can’t think any way of verifying it is in this theory meaningless.


Now, so, you say, “The world is ruled by God. Everything that happens happens under the governance of God.” So the logical analyst says: “You’ve made a statement now that says everything is affected by X; God. Suggest a way of verifying this. What difference would it make if it weren’t so? Would it make any difference to the way things are going on if they weren’t governed by God?” This is a problem because it’s just the same as if you had said, “All bodies whatsoever in the universe”—that includes all stars, all galaxies, all planets—“are moving in a certain direction.” Now, there’s no way of verifying this because you can only verify movement in a certain direction by comparison with something that’s relatively still. But there will not be any still body with reference to which all the other bodies move, because you said in the beginning all bodies in the universe are moving in such and such a direction. So you could only say everything in the universe is governed by God if you made an exception. “But there are certain things that are not.” You see? Then, according to logical analysis, you could’ve made a meaningful statement. But when you start making statements about everything, there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t prove it, you can’t disprove it. And so they say although you think you have said something, you haven’t really said anything at all. You made a statement that was actually as nonsensical as asking, “Why is a mouse when it spins?” This statement about God doing or ruling all things sounded meaningful because we’re used to it, but is really pure nonsense. And this has been so persuasive in the climate of academic philosophy today that idealism of all kinds is, as I said, extremely unfashionable.


But there are considerations that might cause us to reflect on this more carefully. Because we can think of situations analogous to the idea that all things are ruled by God, or all things exist only in the mind, there are situations analogous to that in our everyday experience. Only, we can be aware of these situations because we stand outside them. Now, first of all, consider a mirror. A mirror will reflect all kinds of shapes and colors. And when you look at the mirror, the mirror itself will be the ground, or the underlying element, common to all those shapes and colors. And it is not meaningless to say that they are all reflections in a mirror. Because the mirror has an edge, and you can see other things around the mirror which behave in a different way from the reflections. You can’t put your hand out and pull the necktie of a reflection in the mirror, but you can reach your hand out and pull the necktie of somebody standing beside the mirror, you see? But nevertheless, within the context of the mirror all the things that are there are reflected in it. And if the mirror weren’t there, they wouldn’t be there; those reflections.


Now supposing, similarly, everything that exists has its being in a mirror called the mind, only there is no way of seeing the edge of this mirror—is that meaningful? Is that possible? The positivist, logical analyst will say no, because the statement makes no difference to anything. It makes no difference to anything in this thing you call the mind that it’s in the mind. It makes no difference to anything in the mirror that it’s in the mirror. For example, your face is not immediately changed by being reflected in a mirror. The mirror doesn’t exercise influences—or so they say—upon the reflections. But it very well could. Let’s consider what we were discussing last night. Lenses in cameras influence the kind of world they photograph. A convex lens will give you one thing, a concave lens will give you another thing. And one can think of all sorts of wonky lenses: prismatic lenses, bent lenses, squarely lenses. Now, you see, if the lenses of your eyes could be said to distort the physical world, you would take that distortion as normal. Because there would be no way of setting up a standard and saying: by that standard, my eyes are wrong. Unless you simply took some other kind of a lens and said this is right, and the eye is distorted. You would’ve always seen things that way. So nevertheless, whether the eyes are distorted or not distorted is impossible to decide. So according to this way of logic that is a meaningless question. There is no way of deciding the answer, and it makes no difference whether it is or whether it isn’t—or so they say. But I think that they have neglected certain kinds of difference that these things do make.


First of all, there is a difference of feeling, and very often a difference in behavior, between a person who is aware of an underlying ground or continuum for every experience and every reality, and a person who is not aware of it. The person who’s aware of it feels at home in his surroundings, the person who’s not aware of it doesn’t. The first belongs and the second doesn’t feel he belongs—he feels he’s engaged in a contest. Furthermore, one of the difficult ideas to get across and express well in any language which wants to assert a pluralistic universe—in which there is no unifying ground—any language based on that assumption is going to have difficulty talking about relationships. Let’s go back in the history of philosophy and look at former instances of this difficulty.


The thing that really bogged Descartes down and that puzzled him—he never could answer—was the relationship of mind and matter, or spirit and matter. He had inherited from Platonism and from Christianity the theory of the two worlds: the natural and the supernatural, the material and the mental, the real and the ideal. And what never could be explained by the philosophies of the people who believe that way was how the one influenced the other. How does the spiritual world influence the material? As is well known, all ghosts, all well-behaved ghosts, walk straight through walls without budging a brick. Now, if my mind is my ghost within me, how on earth does it lift my arm when a ghost doesn’t budge a brick when it walks through a wall? See, this is the real problem. It all sunk on this. They couldn’t explain that.


And, you see, in just the same way as the cartesian cannot explain the influence of mind on matter, so a person who works according to the theories of logical analysis can’t really explain relationship between so-called things. If he’s going to take a pluralistic theory of the universe in which there is no unifying continuum, but there are just these events, you see—there are these things we can talk about in a scientific descriptive manner. How are they related? They obviously are related. They obviously influence each other. But how? Put it in another way of historic philosophical problem: how does a cause influence an effect? Kind of amazing, you know, that they do. We say there are causes and effects. But how does a cause lead to an effect? Is it something like a row of dominoes that stand on their end, and you flip down the first one and they go clickety, clickety, clickety, clickety, and all knock each other down? Or a row of billiard balls—that was the idea of Newtonian physics. Of course. That the atoms were things like billiard balls, and they bang each other around, and so you got results.


But this really won’t do. For very many reasons. One is, of course, that things influence each other backwards. A future event can change a past event. A lot of people aren’t aware of that, but it can. If I say, “The bark of the dog and the bark of the tree,” what happens to “bark,” the former event, is very seriously influenced by the later event “dog” or “tree.” Although the word sounds the same and is spelled the same, it has a different meaning according to what happens later. So, in the same way, in music. What is happening at this moment may be changed altogether by something happening later. A note has one meaning in one context, another meaning in another context. So what is the cause-effect relationship between them when, apparently, the earlier event seems to be causally affected by the later event? You see how puzzling all that is. But it’s very easily illustrated by certain phenomena of music. When a person is tone deaf—that is to say, he cannot hear melodies, he only hears noise and he can’t understand why other people find music attractive. What is his deficiency? Where is he blind? His blindness is that he cannot hear relationships. Or rather, in musical language: he doesn’t hear intervals. If you are musically sensitive, what you hear in a melody is not a string of notes. You hear the steps between them. You recognize the major scale of C as ascending. Why do we think of that as up? What does it mean that one sound is higher than another? That’s nonsense to a person who’s tone deaf. There are just different sounds. There are boomy sounds and squeaky sounds, but they don’t rise. You see, he hears no motion in him. Because, you see, each note is static, and he doesn’t hear the lede from one to the other; the step.


Well so, a person who’s a logical positivist is a tone deaf philosopher, see? And you can’t explain. There’s nothing you can do to a tone deaf person to explain how you hear music, just as there’s absolutely no way of making a congenitally blind person understand color. We may find out one, eventually, when we find out a lot more about our senses. But in the ordinary way he just can’t get it. And so in exactly that same way, there are people who cannot get certain things. We say of such people, “You know all the words but you don’t know the music.” And you may as well not waste your energies trying to convince, but there are, alas, these poor, afflicted souls who just aren’t functioning on a certain wave band.


But now I don’t want to say, you know, make a kind of a esoteric scene out of this. A lot of people are trained to pretend that they are not on that wave band. You may be perfectly capable of understanding the relationship between a cause and effect. Do you know what the relationship is? It’s very simple: they are the same event, only divided into two parts. If you see a cat walk by a very narrow window, you see first the head and then a little later the tail. If you speak in cumbersome philosophical language, you’re going to start talking about the event “head” being the cause of the event “tail.” Well, it’s all one cat. And that’s it. So when you see causes and effects, what you’re saying is this: “Aha! I realize at last my perception is limited. And when I saw one thing that’s invariably followed by something else, what I hadn’t noticed is that they’re continuous with each other. So that when one part of this pattern arises, I should expect the other part.” They’re one pattern. They’re not cause and effect. They’re not something that is an action and a response to that action, an action and a reaction. They’re a single action. That’s why they’re related in this way.


Alright, so I’ve got these two discrete events, and I’ve called them “cause” and “effect,” but I find they are really one. Okay, in exactly the same way, I’ve got the two discrete events: “you” and “I.” We could equally well, couldn’t we, just say that there may be some sense in which they are one. Or the organism and the environment: it’s becoming plainer and plainer that they are one.


Now, what this goes back to—again, we are looking at philosophical history—is the Western debate between the two schools of thought called the nominalists and the realists. And the modern logical philosophers are nominalists. Their fight is as follows: the realists say there are real—this is how they get the word “realist.” It’s not what we call a realist today at all, it’s quite different. The realist says there are, in reality, substances which could be called matter or spirit or humanity, just to take an example. Every individual human being is an instance of something called “mankind.” And mankind is a real entity. You could say, too, the United States of America is a real entity. And all these individual examples of it are, as it were, members of a body constituted by the real mankind, or the state, or the society, or the church, or the whatever. In contradistinction, the nominalist says all your so-called real natures are abstractions. There is no such thing as mankind. There are simply these individual people, and calling them all men is a way of identifying them, but there is no such thing as mankind. In the same way, there is no such thing as the United States. There are all these people living here who imagine that they’re the United States and call themselves that, but the United States as such has no physical existence. Because when you say the policy of the United States towards Russia is thus and so, you don’t mean the policy of the geographical territory.


And nominalism, you see, is a very big thing for the followers of Korzybski and for all logical analysts and so on, because they take the point of view—the whole think in Korzybski is that you mustn’t just go ’round calling things “dogs,” but you must recognize there is Fido1, Fido2, and Fido3. And so this helps you, as the song says, to see each doggy differently. The idea in semantics is this tremendous, precise accuracy; of getting the details clear, seeing that not every colored man is a [censored], not every Chinese is a [censored], not every Italian is a [censored], you see?


Now, of course, yes, there is the richness of detail. But these are philosophical fashions that go back and forth between the prickly-minded people and the gooey-minded people. The prickly-minded people are the nominalists. They like to emphasize the details, the atomic, discontinuous structure of things. The gooey-minded people like to emphasize the great connected generalities, the way things form into bodies. But you see very clearly what happens if you press nominalism to its logical conclusion: the answer is there are no people, there are only amalgamations of cells. What you really are ,are these cells. Or you want to go further? Say what you are is only these electrons. That’s all there is, you see? And this idea that they add up in some way to a person is just an abstraction. You’re not really there, you see. They’re just all that. Now wait a minute, Mr. Nominalist! Suddenly, you are beginning to turn into a believer of māyā. Watch your step, you see? If you push anybody far enough philosophically, they all arrive at the same place. You suddenly tell me you don’t believe human beings really exist, there are only these atoms. Well, well, well!


So I suppose we can argue the same thing about connections in time. Melody is then an illusion. There are only the individual notes. After all, if you’re going to be a nominalist, a melody is something that just doesn’t exist at all. Okay. That’s almost what the Buddhists say. When I was explaining to you this morning the moment, moment, moment, and you don’t connect the moments, there is only one moment? You see? Well, that’s just saying the same thing the same way, and saying that all the connections are an illusion. So you’ve pushed your nominalist right into the corner. You say the only things that exist are the multiplicity of atoms. And actually, they only exist now. See? Because only the wi-no-egh—can’t even say it! Only this moment is real. The ultimate hairline, you see? Zhhwwwt! That’s why the precisionist is making watches that have hairlines narrower and narrower and narrower and narrower, so they can only be seen by amazing microscopes. Exactly they want to know when does that thing cross that thing? Boing! See? So eventually they’re going to get down and down and down, and the universe has no time to exist in. Therefore it doesn’t exist. Therefore it’s an illusion.


That’s what bugged Zeno when he got the paradox of motion. Now, either an arrow is somewhere or it isn’t. If it’s moving, it isn’t anywhere. But it’s obvious: if it isn’t anywhere, it couldn’t exist, you know? It’s the same problem as Achilles and the tortoise. Manifestly, Achilles, in a race, overtakes the tortoise. But you can talk about this race in such a way that he can’t. Well, how do you do the trick? What you do is this: although Achilles in the physical world overtakes the tortoise, in the intellectual world which you are using to measure the process, you measure his approach to the tortoise by a narrower and narrower scale as he approaches the tortoise. Although he runs right by it, your measuring process gets more and more minute. You take longer and longer to think about it because you’re counting more units. So that you can indefinitely subdivide the distances he is passing in his approach to the tortoise. And you can go on talking about their subdivisions forever. So that in terms of your talking, he never gets by the tortoise because you’re drawing the lines finer and finer and finer and finer and finer.


So now who’s making the abstractions? The nominalist was telling the realist: you’re making the abstractions. You’re talking about these vast generalities called humanity and America. Now who’s making the abstractions? I thought you were the prickly fellow who was so precise and said only these specific, particular details exist. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, you see? But he disappears into abstraction. So the pot calls the kettle black. So, you see, that fight goes out the window. Because they’ve both, if you push them far enough, they come back to each other. Push a realist far enough and he comes into a nominalist, push a nominalist far enough and he turns into a realist. What does that mean?


Well, it means the same thing as if you investigate matter thoroughly, you turn up with mind. If we investigate mind thoroughly, you turn up with matter. If you investigate yourself: what do you mean by “you?” How do you know you exist? In terms of what? What do you discover if you push that? Why, you discover everything else that you thought wasn’t you. You only know you exist because you’ve got things to feel and other people to talk to, and because you’re going yooee-yooee-yoooingg. You reflect the external world. So investigate “you” and you get the “external world.” Now what happens when you investigate the external world? Well, you get you.


That’s what happens, you see, when finally the physicists wanted to know: how are things like when we’re not looking at them? That’s the great question. You see, in order to see how electrons behave, I’ve got to put them in a process which influences their behavior. I’m really bombarding electrons with electrons. Now, what is the electron doing when I’m not looking at it? See? Does the light really go off in the refrigerator if you close the door? So you find, you see, that knowing—the act of knowing—changes what you are knowing. Knowledge of something is the same as action upon it. You do not know that a ball is rubber until you bounce it, and that acts upon the ball. And that’s so with everything; all knowing. It’s not [that] you merely are a passive spectator. All knowing is the result of experiments on things. Only in the most trivial instances are you ever—and even then, if you go into the neurology of it, the electronics of it, you’re not a passive spectator. You may just observe things and write them down, although when you do it’s pretty trivial. The really good knowledge is always accumulated by an action upon the world to see what changes that action makes.


So, for example, we take certain fields of science—let’s take medicine and antibiotics. Now, antibiotics are something, first of all, done in very carefully restricted experiments. They were found very useful, and so they were spread over the social world so that almost everybody has had antibiotics by now. But the problem now arises is this: that the people as we studied them before they ever had antibiotics are different from the people we are studying now who’ve had them. What we knew about people before antibiotics has a little less value. We’ve got to re-study them every time because we’ve changed them. And the insects, you see, the germs, also adapt to this. They say: these human beings are throwing down all this jazz, and confusing us, and killing us off—we’ve got to do something about that. And so they changed themselves. So they have to be studied again to know how to attack them the next time.


Once upon a time, a spaceship arrived on a strange planet, and they came down and there didn’t seem to be anything living on it. And they put a lot of stores in, and finally they found that some little bugs were eating the grain that they had stored. So they got insecticides and fixed those bugs. Later they found they had mice, and they were nibbling up some things, so they got some cats sent on the next big ship from Earth, and the cats took care of the mice. Well, lo and behold, dogs turned up, started making trouble for the cats. So they decided that they’d better shoot the dogs, and they did. And one day they saw, suddenly, a man coming over the horizon with a gun, and they said to the chief, “Look at that! There are people on this planet after all. And he’s got a gun. Should we shoot him?” And he said, “No, because I have no way of knowing what it will turn up as the next time.”


Well, now look here. What I’ve been trying to show is that you cannot use the language of illusion—that is to say, the language of accurate, separative description—too far without getting into confusion. Push your nominalism and it becomes realism. Push your scientific materialism and it turns into mysticism. I love doing this. I’ve had great fun. I gave a lecture at Harvard some time ago on B. F. Skinner. And B. F. Skinner is the arch behaviorist. He is Mr. Mechanist-Psychology. And I took many, many passages from his works and said, “Now just see what he’s really saying is so and so and so—he’s a mystic.” He really believes in the unity of the universe and all that jazz, you see? The individual organism is a function of the cosmos. And if I say that—you see, I say that he’s a mystic—does this ruin his scientific reputation? What does it do? But, you see, that’s the great game to play. Just push it along its logical lines, and you arrive up in that predicament. One way or the other, and it really doesn’t matter which way you do it. You either show that nothing exists at all on their terms, or else that it’s all one.


So, in this way, then, we have to resolve the problem of mind and matter by what I referred to this morning as looking at these as dimensions of each other, or as different languages for talking about the behavior of the same thing. What the thing is that’s doing this behavior, or the behavior that has no thing doing it, really, no one can say. You can’t say what it is for exactly the same reason that you cannot touch the tip of this finger with this finger. To the tip of this finger, the tip of this finger is always inaccessible; to its own touch, you see? And that’s the problem of every nerve end. A nerve end can tickle another nerve end and say, “Hi, are you there? Am I here?” And it says, “Yes, you’re here.” “Oh.” But it needs another to do it. Now, the whole universe hasn’t got another to rub itself against, so it can’t define itself. So the basic self in you can’t define itself. That’s why the highest attainment in Zen is no attainment, why it involves no idea, why Buddha, when he talked in the Diamond Sutra to Subhūti—he says, “Subhūti, when I attained complete and unexcelled awakening, I didn’t attain anything at all.” But you can see, I think, that this “nothing at all” is a statement of the same kind as when a logical positivist says, “In making your metaphysical assertion you said nothing at all.” And if you’re Zen you say, “Correct. I entirely agree with you.”


And yet, you see, that “nothing at all” was all in all. That was the thing. That was the big thing. You know, you lost everything and gained everything in one fell swoop. As having nothing, but possessing all things. Because obviously, you see, if the mirror weren’t there, the images wouldn’t be, and there’d be no connection between them. They couldn’t jostle together. If the water weren’t there, how would the fishes get around? If the air weren’t there, how would the birds fly? If consciousness weren’t there, how would experiences occur? You see? If being weren’t there, how could there be beings? So there are in Buddhist philosophy what are called the four inconceivables: water to the fish, air to the bird, consciousness to man, and enlightenment to the ignorant—that is to say, to the ignorant in the sense that a melody is inconceivable to the tone deaf person; in the same way that color is inconceivable to the blind man, sound to the deaf man.

Part 3

Fluidity of Identity


I was discussing the plausibility of two essential features of the philosophy of illusion. The question that we have to decide whether to take life seriously or not—that is to say, whether the plot is comic or tragic. And if it’s tragic, you see, must we say that it’s ultimately tragic? And the question of: who are you? And are we to say that I, myself, right down at root, am just a little kind of jerk of some kind that really has nothing to do with this cosmos, but just arises in it, and is here on sufferance for a short period, and then absolutely nothing follows, you see? Or, the alternative to that: is what I really am the same as the whole thing—that is, the works, the It, or whatever you want to call It: Brahman, God, the Tao, the great void, the Buddha nature, I don’t care, the Self. Anything, any name you want. And whereas that attitude—you can look at it from various points of view in judging it. You can say it’s wishful thinking, you can say that it’s insufferable pride, but the point of the matter is—as I tried to show—any other way of looking at things is kind of schizoid. It looks at human beings as if they’ve arrived in this world like a bunch of birds on the branches of a barren tree. And they just got settled there, you know? They don’t belong. The sense of being strangers and pilgrims from another domain altogether. Where is this other domain? And how does it relate to this one? Are they separate? I showed you that even when we say that two domains are the poles apart, the very fact that they’re poles shows that they have a hidden connection. And the hidden connection is the big thing in life. All you junkies know that!


And so, in other words, we get a pattern of organization that is radial rather than an assemblage, as if the universe were really a multiverse: a lot of things that got collected together out of the infinite wastes of space and sort of began to maunder around each other. Whereas the other pattern, which is so much more sensible, is central and radial, and I showed you how the crystals and the stars and the octopuses and even the human beings are all radial structures. Of course, we don’t see our radial relationship to the totality of the universe because it isn’t obvious. It’s obvious that a tree is an arm of the Earth reaching up and waving at the sky. And a mountain is another kind of radiation from the Earth. And so is a leg from a body, and hair, and things like that. But what makes human beings, as the highest of the mammals, so conscious of being independent is that they are topologically an enclosed surface, you see, which wanders around independently of the ground. What we don’t notice is that we are not independent of the ground at all; that wandering around is something that is entirely related to there being some ground. In other words, when you run up a hill, the hill also runs you up it. The hill rises and lifts you as you run, you see? And if you understand that you don’t take a hostile attitude to mountains and hills, you are grateful to them for lifting you up so high in the air—because that’s presumably why you went up: that the thing was high. It was lifted up. You wanted to be lifted up. It lifted you up. You had to cooperate, of course.


I always like the illustration that I’ve used before—perhaps you haven’t heard it—of the thistledown. The thistledown comes moving through the sky. I once was playing with the thing, you know? It just came out of the blue sky and I caught it, like that. Pulled it under my nose. And it started to pull, to get away, see? Looked as if it were a butterfly or something that pulls away when you catch it by the leg. And I thought, “Oh no, of course that’s not the thistledown. It’s the wind.” Well, which was it? You know, in a famous debate that was settled by the sixth patriarch of Zen, there were two monks arguing when a flag was flapping in the wind whether it was the wind or the flag that was moving. And he said, “It’s neither. It’s the mind.” And so, in a way, the same thing was true about the thistledown. The mind is the moving thing, because which point of view will you take? Which attitude will you take towards this? Is it the wind moving the thistledown? Or is it the thistledown that is moving itself with the wind? After all, when you see a sailing boat, and there’s a man in the sailing boat, who is moving the boat? Is it the wind moving the boat, or is it the man moving the boat because he was smart enough to put up a sail? Much smarter way of getting around than rowing! You don’t have to work. It’s intelligence, you see: the mind that moves the boat. And so in the same way I thought, you know, this thistledown has some kind of intelligence. It’s radial, it’s organized, it’s beautiful. And it’s used that to sail itself with the wind, to enable itself to pull like a little organism playing with the wind. And so, in just the same way, each one of us uses the universe to get around, and the universe uses us to play with, and to make games and patterns, and to do its stuff. So because we seem to be disconnected and entirely sealed within our skin, that is a very deceptive thing because the skin is not really the boundary of man.


You will notice that, in various periods of art, human beings have been shaped in different ways and have been more or less transparent at some times, at other times opaque, and at some times the emphasis has been on the state of mind which this human being is in, at other times the emphasis is on the bodily confirmations, and so on. In the work of painters today, one sees images that at first sight one doesn’t recognize as being human. There was an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York some years ago called The New Image of Man, and these things didn’t look like human beings at all. Some of them did. But that’s because, what does a human being look like—that depends on your point of view. You see, if you are prejudiced that a human being is only what is inside his skin, then you think that when anybody paints the human being beyond those boundaries that he’s lost the image of man. He hasn’t necessarily lost it at all.


You see, there’s an old feeling that the shape of the universe is the shape of man. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that said. That man is the microcosm, and that the universe as a whole is the macrocosm. Now, as you plumb out into the universe and explore it astronomically, it gets very strange. You begin to see things in the depths that at first sight seem utterly remote. How could they have anything to do with us? They are so far off and so unlikely. And in the same way, when you start probing into the inner workings of the human body, you come across all kinds of funny little monsters and wiggly things that bear no resemblance to what we recognize as the human image. Look at a spermatozoan under a microscope; that little tadpole. And how can that have any connection with a grown human being? It’s so unlike, you see? It’s foreign-feeling. And you get the creeps sometimes about yourself if you feel your own pulse, or if you’re able to look at an x-ray of some way of your inner organs working. See? They’re all strangers to us. We don’t know about them. And they give us the creeps as if they were… you know, coming across some weird insects in the dark. That sort of feeling.


But what we will always find out in the end, you see, when we meet the very strange thing, and we look into the distant reaches of space, there will one day be the dawning recognition: that’s me! Why, that’s me! And the whole game of the universe, you see, is to appear as strange to itself as it possibly can. That’s hone how keeps variety going, that’s how one keeps wonder going, and all kinds of exciting developments. How different can you get? In the beginning the Lord said “get lost” to himself, see?


So we shall find, for example, that space that you see all around you and containing you—and you can feel space in many ways. Space is not only something that comes through the eyes, the movement of your arms; if the clothes [???] for a blind person is his way of knowing space. And you can hear space audibly. Lots of sounds appear to be in restricted spaces or ample spaces. And the silence that goes with sound corresponds to space. And even Saint Thomas Aquinas, that old Catholic theologian, said that good derives its virtue from evil, just as it is the silent pause that gives sweetness to the chant. But space, you see, that seems to contain—space is one’s mind. This was common sense to people living in the early Renaissance, for example, at the time of Dante. There are many references in Dante’s poetry to the identity of mind and space. And likewise, in the eighth century texts in China, the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch: he likens the nature of mind to the nature of space. He says, “Just as space contains all the sun and the moon and the stars and the people and the mountains and the forests, so the nature of mind, the nature of consciousness, the nature of one’s self contains all these things.”


So you see that if you think that way, you have an image of man that is global. That is very different from the image in which man is defined as bounded by his skin—that’s a prejudice. We think now, for example: “I have my own private thoughts.” Well, nobody has private thoughts, because one thinks in images and words, and these words and images are derived from the whole thought structure of the society in which you live. We think thoughts, the domain of mind, is very similar to the grid structure of an electric power supply system. You know what happens is: there’s a network of power stations and transformers so arranged that, if one of them gives out and fails to supply a certain area, immediately the grid connects them with other sources of power. Well, in rather a similar way our minds are connected.


Let’s take one very obvious example of it; what Northrop Frye calls the order of words. The order of words is all existing literature, both rhetoric (what is spoken, of course) and what is written down. Now, it’s his theory that, as a scholar of literature and a history of literature, he can take any piece of writing of a reasonable length and tell you when it was written. Because everything that is written and said is inescapably related to the whole order of words. And it’s amazing what little things you might not notice would give you away. Because he can say, “Well, obviously, he has read this”—thinking, say, of a particular novelist or poet—“so it must come after the date when that novel was published.” But he couldn’t possibly use an expression like that to say—for example, that “it was a capital day”—he would never use that expression living, say, in contemporary twentieth-century America. That’s a Victorianism, or is an Edwardian way of talking. And so, by all sorts of little clues like that the scholar can pin down a piece of writing to when it was written, you see? That is because every individual piece of writing is a function of all writing that’s being done.


Well, now, that’s a very specific and almost crude illustration of something that’s going on in a far more complicated way than that. It isn’t only all writing—all thinking is being done in relation to the total order of thought. And in a still more subtle way, all living is being done in relation to the total order of life; to what de Chardin calls the biosphere. And it goes way beyond that because of the vast interplay of what we now call gravitational and electrical fields, which embrace everything that there is.


That is why the ancients, when a person was born, cast his horoscope. That was a map of the universe at the time of that person’s birth, and therefore it was a drawing of his soul. Because the soul is not inside the body, the body is inside the soul. The soul, your soul, is the whole universe as it is focused upon your organism. Now, of course, astrology is a very primitive science, and it interpreted the influence of the universe upon the individual in very crude ways, and it works mostly by good guesswork on the part of the astrologer. If you know how to tell fortunes at a fair you will find out a great deal about how all these predictive psychic sciences work. Because the client invariably gives himself away either by his anxiety to be told the truth or by his anxiety to conceal it. They work equally well.


Now—but there is, you see, underneath the astrological notion, a sound idea: that the true map of the soul is the picture of the universe surrounding the individual. It isn’t necessarily your soul is not the picture of the universe just at the moment when you were born, you see. It goes along all the time you live. Because the whole thing expresses itself through you. And therefore, in that sense, the map of the stars, the horoscope, et cetera, was an image of man in just the same way as we regard a picture of a human body as an image of man. And it’s an image from a different point of view. It’s a bigger image. It shows, in other words, that your mind is very largely outside your body. After all—it’s inside, too. It’s simultaneous. You see, I cannot think, I can’t have a mind, without seeing, feeling, and relating to other people without all the social institutions—not only language, but the laws, the customs, the gestures, the rituals—by which we relate to each other. All those things compose the mind, for the mind is a huge network of relationships and interconnections at a high level of sensitivity.


Mind and matter are, of course, polar. They go together, they’re two ways of thinking about the same thing—or, shall we say, two dimensions of the same thing, just like length and breadth, or just, shall we say, as shape and color. You see, nobody ever saw a shape that wasn’t colored. Nobody ever saw a color that wasn’t shaped. And yet, we can see there’s a very clear difference between color and shape. But they always go together. They are always found together. Well, that’s the same sort of relationship between mind and matter. And the difficulty that people have in trying to reduce one to the other, and saying, well, the world is only material, or saying on the other hand that it’s only mental, is the same difference you would have in trying to reduce all shapes to colors or all colors to shapes. And shape and color are made for each other like a marriage made in heaven. They go together so perfectly, and yet stay so marvelously different. That’s why the Buddhists say difference is identity, identity is difference. It sounds goofy, but it makes a great deal of sense, because what it’s saying is a relational thing: that you don’t know what identity is unless you know what difference is, and you don’t know what difference is unless you know what identity is. That relationship between so-called opposites is called in the Chinese technical Taoist vocabulary “mutual arising.” So they say “to be” and “not to be” arise mutually, “high” and “low” are mutually posited, “long” and “short” are mutually delineated, and so on.


Now, what we see, then, is the totality of the cosmos focused at each point, you see, gives rise to the illusion of the independence of the point from the whole. Just as the human being, by virtue of having an enclosed epidermis, and to be able to walk instead of having to be rooted to the ground, presents the illusion of being separate. And so that’s why I asked Varda to do these demonstrations last night: because he showed visually the interdependence of the figure and the background, and how the two play together, how you can switch from paying attention to one to paying attention to the other, and in each case it’s significant. That is an art that we have lost in our day to day perception of life, and it leads (practically speaking) to the serious problem of ecological blindness—that is to say, to the ignorance which most human beings seem to suffer from, especially in our culture: that they are inseparably related to their physical environment. It looks as if we aren’t. It looks as if we can go out with bulldozers and insecticides and every kind of a gadget and make over our physical environment as it suits our whims. But then we discover to our consternation that we’ve upset all sorts of balances. That the house we made such a nice, flat lot for on the hillside suddenly slides down the hill when there’s a rainstorm, because we took away all the shrubbery that was binding the hill together. And, you know, this happens in Hollywood every day! And nobody ever seems to learn.


That’s, you see, this immense importance of overcoming the illusion of separateness. But people are afraid of that because they think it’s communistic. They think that—the grand style, the great thing about Western civilization is its stress on individual personality and its value, and that we have created the ideal of personal integrity. That is to say that the most important thing in the world is the individual. All collectivities—corporations, states, and so on—exist as servants of the individual. And if they get in his way and they interfere with his private enterprise (whatever that may be), it’s a bad thing. Man, the individual, is the crown of creation from this point of view, and therefore, when anybody suggests that individual man is not what you thought was an individual, but is in some way united with, grounded in the totality, then, if you’re of this kind of rugged individualist, you mix up your vocabulary and you call the totality the collective.


Now, the collective and the totality are two completely different things. The idea of collectivism is based on individualism. It’s the idea that the society of mankind and the physical environment beyond it is a collection. Well, it’s nothing of the kind! That’s the idea of cosmic flotsam and jetsam that all floated together into a collection. And that’s the obverse of individualism. You know, American individualism is the same philosophy as Marxist collectivism seen from the other side, because they’re both based on the same erroneous sensation of individuality. Now, what people don’t understand is that a complex and interesting personality is not a matter of being isolated, it’s a matter of being deeply connected with and aware of one’s relationship to the whole surrounding cosmos.


Let’s suppose that I’m preparing to make a date with some lady, and she’s such an individualist that her thoughts are only occupied with herself. She never thinks about anything that isn’t herself. Well, she’s an awful bore. She has nothing to say, she’s not interested in any books, in any landscapes, in any works of art, in any literature, in any other people. She’s a total bore. But the more, on the other hand, she would be interested in all those things that are supposed to be not herself, the more of a colorful personality she becomes. So the rule is to get away, you see, from these ideas of the individual as finding his individuality and uniqueness through independence, but rather finding his individuality and uniqueness through being related.


Because, you see, that’s what makes a—look at the word “relation” from another point of view: when we talk about our friends and relations. Supposing I come across some individual who I can’t make out what kind of a thing he is. I can’t make out where he came from. His accent isn’t American, it isn’t British, it isn’t particularly Midwestern, it certainly doesn’t have the overtones of New York or New England, he just talks flat. And as to his style of clothing, it’s utterly nondescript. Well, I think this is pretty much a bore. What I like to see in an individuality, in a physical individual, is ways that I can relate him to his ancestry. That he has this subtle little accent, or this mannerism, or this eccentricity, or whatever it is that connects him with the great background, you see? But it’s his connections with his background that makes him so significant. If I can’t see that connection he becomes uninteresting.


So there is no thought in this approach to devalue the individual. What really does devalue the individual is any kind of religious or political philosophy that overstresses his isolation. And this is something that Californians in particular need to take note of. Because many people feel, you see, that the development of technology and of centralized government is a direct threat to the value of personality. Well, in some ways it is. But that is only because technology is being developed by personalities who don’t understand what personality is. You know, working on the old individualist–collectivist point of view. They’re the same.


So then, you see, this is then the illusion created that the individual is operating all by himself, that actions and thoughts and deeds proceed solely from inside his skin, so that we can say: there’s where it started. You see? Well, that’s the game of praising and blaming, the game of who started it, who can we give candy to, who can we bang on the head? In other words, somebody has to be “it,” as in The Farmer in the Dell, you know, and find you get at the end “the cheese stands alone, the cheese stands alone, hi-ho, the derry-o, the cheese stands alone.” Well, why? Who started it? The group.


Well, another fear about this is that it absolves people of responsibility if they see through the illusion of separateness. The truth of the matter is, actually, that no philosophy of history has really succeeded in making anybody more or less responsible. In other words, let’s say that you are a Christian, a Catholic of the old-fashioned medieval type, who believes that you’ve got an individual soul with free will, and that you’re under responsibility to God, to obey his law, and that if you don’t, the most disastrous consequences will befall you; you’ll fry in hell forever. There’s no evidence whatsoever that believing in that made people any more virtuous than they are today. None at all. Indeed, clergy who believed in all this owned whore houses and all kinds of things. They were just as discontemptuous of law and order as anybody could be now. And part of the reason was, of course, that the threat of hell was an unimaginable penalty like the H-bomb. It’s just too big to think about, and really brings justice into disrespect. Because it uses such crude and clumsy methods. You know, it’s like using a steam hammer to drive in tacks.


Responsibility is a thing like a nice face, which you either have or haven’t. Certain backgrounds, certain interests, certain awarenesses of relationship create responsibility in some human beings. And they live that way not because they are giving themselves sermons and telling themselves all the time that they ought to be responsible. It’s because they’re intelligent enough to see that being responsible makes things very much easier for everybody all around. That’s all there is to it. And, of course, that’s all a big all, but you won’t, in other—what I’m saying is: the people who are frightened that other people will abandon responsibility never did have any way of thinking that would guarantee that people would be responsible. There is no such guarantee. If there were, we should be automata.


Now, I want to switch of another aspect of illusion. The quickness of the hand deceives the eye. And that is, of course, the great illusion of what we call matter and density, impenetrability, opacity. I find it hard to talk about the illusion of matter because I’m a materialist—that is to say, I like material. And so I may seem to you to be quite self-contradictory. For example, a wine should have body. Pure alcohol doesn’t. And it’s terribly important in human character for there to be a blend of materialism and mysticism, between sensuality and spirituality. You see, people who are purely sensuous and materialistic get very boring. You can fill your lives with all good things—with Alfa Romeos and hi-fis and wonderful cameras and girls with beautiful bodies and crisscrafts and dry martinis and Chanel № 5, you know? And after a while, if that’s all you’ve got, it gets sickening and the bottoms begin to feel like plastic and the martinis taste like medicine, and… and it’s somehow bleagh. You get a distaste for life, and even for mountains and trees and waters. And then, on the other hand, the purely spiritual approach to things is too rarefied, too earnest, too abstract, too purely euclidean. And the people who are intensely spiritual and don’t have any sensuality are always desperately serious, colorless, lacking in humor, and never are able to meet one as man to man with a kind of a friendly leer in the eye. That’s terribly important! They live at a level of frantic intensity. Now, you see, these two extremes need each other. Say, spirituality needs a beer and a loud burp, and sensuality needs a rough blanket and a hard bed and a cold night with the stars to wonder about. The sensualist as such, the materialist as such, has no wonder. And the mystic, the pure mystic, has no body. He’s pure alcohol; spirit.


So if, then, one should say that material is an illusion, this seems to be selling out to the spirit people and to the mystics. And so Christian scientists are—generally speaking, as personalities—totally lacking in materialism. They’re prissy and lacking in color, and their churches are very, very disagreeable. They’re all reading desks and they’re too bookish, and they have no ritual, no ceremonies, no verve, you see? It’s all cerebral. And likewise, when people get the wrong idea about Hinduism or Buddhism, they go in for this same ultra-mysticism. They start disbelieving in all material pleasures as crutches, and it’s very bad to have crutches, you see? You shouldn’t take aspirin when you’ve got a headache. You shouldn’t wear glasses. You shouldn’t show dependence on anything. You mustn’t like your food too much, because that’s becoming gluttonous. So you eat very plain food which is not spiced, and you eat it out of a sense of duty—that is, to keep the body functioning. You drink only water because other drinks might cause certain dependencies and give you too much pleasure. Because the idea is, you see, you’ve got to control your mind and keep it absolutely calm and still so that you are not dependent on matter. And that’s altogether the wrong approach, because—well, I mean, it is a game you can play. It is one of these possible things. I mean, you can play the Jehovah’s witness game, you can play the Three-Seed-in-the-Spirit Baptist game. All these are various things which you can play just as you can take up a hobby for bridge or fishing or something like that.


But what happens is, you see, that the notion that the material world is an illusion is turned into a judgment of value. It’s an illusion, therefore it’s bad. I ought not to be under this illusion. Well, the reality of the matter is that, if you see the material world is an illusion, you can enjoy it a great deal better than if you think it isn’t. A true materialist, therefore, is one who knows that material is an illusion. Then he’s not afraid of it. Then he can enter into the dance of material with real zest. Because, you see, if you’re a false and a fake materialist—what’s happened? You’ve borrowed money to buy yourself a Cadillac, an impressive house, ranch style with a picture window and a patio and a swimming pool, and you’ve bought a lot of stock, and you’ve somehow wangled the money and borrowed it. And you keep lying awake nights wondering if you’re going to make the payments. Well, there’s no point in that at all! How can you possibly enjoy all this jazz—if that’s the kind of jazz you want to enjoy—if you’ve got to worry about whether you’ve paid for it or not? And you get hopelessly involved; you’ll get commitments here, commitments there. And finally you have a nervous breakdown and shoot yourself. The only way to enjoy material is to disbelieve in it, just as one can disbelieve in money. Then you can have zest for it, you see? Otherwise it’s much better to be poor. I mean, if you have no tastes for this kind of life and no real interest in it, but feel that somehow you ought to have it for status reasons, it’s much better to stay poor and not have any of that stuff at all.


So then, this is the important thing I’m trying to say: material is an illusion, but a great illusion, and the point is to swing it and not to run away from it on the one hand, or to get stuck on it on the other. Then you can play with it. It’s just like a wheel going ’round: if the wheel too loose on the axle, it wobbles all over the place; if it’s too tight, it won’t revolve. But you kind of sit loose, you see, to this thing—not too loose, though.


Now, in what way, then, is the material world an illusion? Well, we know a lot about this now from our physics. And we know that what we call solidity is force; contained force. The agitation of particles—or wavicles, or whatever they are—at such an immense speed that they become impenetrable to other agitations. So that when I put my foot on the floor, the reason it doesn’t go through the floor is that the floor is coming into existence and going out of existence so rapidly that there is no interval through which my foot can penetrate. Like an airplane propeller: you can’t put your head through it without getting it chopped off. Only, if it were going faster still, it wouldn’t even cut your head off. It’d just be like banging your head against a brick wall. And it has to be going fast, too, within an extraordinarily small and restricted space. The airplane propeller is whizzing around through a considerable space in relation to the size of a head. But if it were going much faster, but through much smaller spaces, you see, then it would be like banging your head against a brick wall.


So what we’ve got in our so-called physical objective world is a behavior of energy where matter arises from it through its behavior in restricted spaces. Density is a quality of space rather than a quality of matter. You see what I mean? I gave the illustration of the airplane propeller to try and show that. So that all this is an electronic, diaphanous world, very similar to other creations of electronic patters—the dance of forms on the TV screen, the rainbow, the aurora borealis. It’s all fundamentally like that. Only, we are of the same kind of jazz, you see? Our bodies are this dance, too, and therefore the physical world feels real to us—in other words, it feels solid—because we’re something of the same kind. If we were on a different wavelength, we’d walk right through it in the same way as radio waves come right through the house. They are of such a nature that they can penetrate the spaces, the interstices, or in some way jazz signals through. But we are on the same wavelength, you see, as the wall, and so don’t go through it. But nevertheless, the whole cosmos is therefore a function of energy—or you could say of light; something like light—and therefore we and it are all diaphanous.


Now, it’s easier to see that if you live in a medium where things aren’t so dense. There’s only one other creature as intelligent as man, and this lives in a medium that is less dense, and this is the dolphin. The dolphin is a mammal, and many millions of years ago it seems that dolphins were living on the land. But they are very clever. And they decided that the land was no place to live. Because getting food was difficult, and you had to lug yourself around, and there were many, many bad shows about the land. It had very curious changes of temperature, it became unspeakably cold and unspeakably hot. And you had, in fact, to work. Well, no sensible person ever works! I never work. I get paid for playing. And everybody should do that. That’s the mark of an educated man—is that eventually he gets a job where he’s paid for playing. And a worker, or a proletarian, isn’t necessarily a poor man. A poor man like, say, Selig Bogenrath [?] or Eric Barker around here, they’re not proletarians. A proletarian is a person who is fettered to the process of work. That is to say, to doing chores every day that he really doesn’t like and that aren’t in the least interesting, in order to go on living. So the dolphins decided this is ridiculous, this land existence, and they went back to the water. And it’s pretty easy to fish, you see? There are plenty of fish in the water and things to eat. As we know, the ocean is the greatest food supply of the world. And when they’ve eaten a few fish, or whatever they need, they decided just to have a ball. So the dolphin can get abreast of a ship, get one of the wakes coming out of the side, can set its tail at an angle of 26 degrees, you know, and be pushed along by the ship. And it’s not going anywhere. There’s no reason to go along there, as if it had to get to another part of the sea. The sea is pretty much the same all through. But they’re just going wlllbbllp! and wheeee! and poooom! And they chatter and dance, and they’re really highly civilized beings. And so please don’t anybody ever kill any dolphins or be unkind to dolphins, because they’re exemplary, high-minded creatures. And we shall soon discover this. As soon as we can set up communication with them they will tell us all about it, and we will then invent a new style of civilization based on frolic. But, you see, they dance in the mode of water.


Now, human beings, as Toynbee has pointed out, as their civilization progresses, they begin to lose their roots. And they are less and less tied to the land. They go into the air. And what’s going to happen if man develops without blowing himself to bits—he can get over the hurdle, you see, that dangerous point—is that, gradually, all roads are going to disappear. And the Earth will have centers of human habitation, you see, but no roads. They’ll be as obsolete as railroad tracks. Because everybody will fly. And once—the medium of air is much more fluid than the medium of water. And as we fly, you see, on the land, your values are all values of permanence, solidity, firmness. They’re architectonic in the sense of our great stone structures, pyramids, and things like that. But in the air and on the water, all values are fluid. And what you have to know to be a good airman is, of course, stars. Like, whitethroats and other migrating birds migrate by the stars. Imagine! But once you start relating yourself to the stars, you realize that you’re living in a universe where directions are all relative. And you become a being capable of existing in non-solidity.


And that’s why Buckminster Fuller, you know, believed that all technics and really all culture came from the sea. The men who first learned to sail were the wise men. He has a fantastic idea that there were initiates, great priests who were ship’s captains. And although some of their seamen didn’t know all the secrets, but these priests were the first people who knew that the world was round. And that gives one an entirely different theology, you see, than if you believed that the world is flat. And so, from the priests of the ocean the landsmen learned how to use cranes, blocks and tackles, how to build, what a good house an overturned ship made. And so to this day a cathedral has showing the connection between ships and the first temples. And so Fuller goes on to say: now, if you’re a good architect, as the ancient architects learned from the ocean, the first thing you should do when you get through architectural school is go and work in an airplane factory, and understand the beautiful thing that man has made in a fine, fine airplane, you see, which is as great as a bird in its own way. Because that’s the architecture of insecurity, and that really lives with insecurity.

Part 4

Yoo-Hoo, I’m Here!


Just a short résumé about this morning. I was discussing the various meanings of the word māyā, which in Sanskrit means “illusion,” or at least that’s the way it’s generally translated. And I was trying to explain that it doesn’t necessarily mean illusion in a bad sense. When we say a person is suffering from delusions, hallucinations, and so on, it’s always a put-down word. But māyā is not so necessarily. So I showed you how it has the meanings of “measurement,” as when we pretend that the world is divisible, actually, into feet or inches or hours or seconds or degrees, and divide things from each other by these measurements—that is to say: by the cutting power of thought. Thought, from the Latin scio, means “to cut.” And so thought is—you see, what you have to understand is that every thing is really a think. A thing is a unit of thought in the same way as an inch is a unit of measurement. We divide the wiggly, continuous, wobbly, wild, Rorschach blot of the physical universe into things so that we can think about it. And one thinks by a process which is essentially the calculus. Calculate. Calculus—what was it originally? Using pebbles to count. So the word calculus means “a pebble,” originally. So I count, I remember something, one, two, three, four times. Four pebbles. Like using your fingers. Rosaries have been used for this purpose. And so, later, the abacus is a kind of amazing rosary. That’s calculation, you see: pretending that the world is a collection of bits.


But the world isn’t a collection of bits. The world is continuous in the sense that every bit of it is interrelated as much as a human body. You realize, you know, if you magnify the human body to an enormous degree so that you are looking at its individual molecules—one molecule of our body is the size of my fist, say; you know, magnified to that size—the next one would be on the other side of the room. Now, what joins them together? I move my hand, all those vastly separated molecules all move together. They haven’t any strings tied between them. And it’s the same way when the little birds fly. In my boat in Sausalito we have a lot of little, tiny sandpipers, and they fly having one mind. They become a total organism when they fly, and they change direction instantly. I mean, it isn’t that they turn like this and follow the leader. They’re going like that and then they go like that. And they’re only individuals when they start pecking on the mud. Then they wander around all over the place and ticketty-ticketty-ticketty-ticketty. But the slightest movement and BAO! they’re all in the air again and going as one mind. Now, that’s how your molecules move in your hand.


But so, calculus pretends that the molecules are separate. They’re not. They’re related to each other by the space between them. Space is relationship. Space is order. I remember this once very vivid illustration. I had a friend who was giving a lecture, and she wanted to use her studio for the lecture, and she had those canvas chairs that you pull open like that, and they have arms, canvas back and canvas seat. You know, movie director’s chairs. And she’d got them all lined up across the room this way, zhht, zhht, zhht, zhht, zhht, and she said, “I can’t possibly get all the people in here.” I said, “Wait a minute. Space is order. You say don’t have enough space. You do.” So I put the speaker at that side of the room, and I arranged all the chairs around the wall like that, coming across like that. Then the next row, then the next row, and the next row. And there were far more seats in there than they had before, you see? So space is order. And space is terribly important to it. But the māyā that I pointed out, you see—we ignore it. So māyā is “measurement.” Thinging. Chopping things into bits so as to count them.


Number two: māyā is “play.” That is to say, it’s a game. It’s hide and seek. The universe is playing peek-a-boo with itself: now you see it, now you don’t. And the basis of that is the throb or vibration. Up and then down, up and then down. Male, female. Positive, negative. Light, darkness. This side, that side. See? Everything is going nyooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing-ooing, and it’s going so fast that it seems to be continuous. But now you see it, now you don’t. See? Solid, space. Here and gone. Everything is that. See, if I put my hand on your knee and you leave it there, you cease to remember I’m there. But if I do this, you know I’m there all the time. Because each time it’s renewed. So it’s play.


Māyā is also “magic.” And I gave the illustration of the theater: of creating the illusion that the drama is reality. All the illusory possibilities of the theatrical art. Then I meant, specifically: māyā is “art,” māyā is “skill” in creating something. And I showed how the artist can give us all kinds of different visions of the universe—from the vision of, let’s say, Giotto with its amazing transparency, to Rembrandt with its density, to the great Flemish painters like van Eyck, who begin photographic realism, on to the similar painters of the nineteenth century, and then through Picasso and so on to splatterers like Jackson Pollock, who are all enabling us to see the world in different ways by their revelation. And so the possibilities of artistry are infinite. More and more artists will come and notice the world in different ways. And there are probably infinitely ways in which the world can be noticed. Only, the human mind works at a certain pace. It seems incapable of bringing in more than a few at a time. It doesn’t assimilate them.


And then I discussed the final question: does that mean that the world is nothing but our imagination? That is to say, going back to the analogy of the Rorschach blot: we say, in testing a person on a Rorschach blot, that he projects a story or a picture into the blot, and that reveals not something about the nature of the blot, but about the condition of his psychological structure. Are we going to have to say that, in the same way, all scientific knowledge about the universe is a projection? You see, that’s been very cogently argued. It’s argued, for example, that laws of nature do not exist in nature, but are methods of measuring nature. In other words, to say that stones always fall downwards to the center of the Earth, we invent for that the law of gravity.


Now, is that a law? Is there something called the law of gravity which stones obey? Well, many scientists would say no. If the stone didn’t fall to the ground, it would be a balloon. It obeys no law, it does that. And we make a law out of it simply because it happens regularly. If I regularly do what you tell me to, that becomes—in human affairs—a law. But nobody tells the stone it’s got to fall down, it just does so because that’s part of the definition of being a stone. If it didn’t, it’d be a balloon, you see? Or a feather in the wind. So laws of nature are regarded by some scientists as tools invented by human beings. And to say that there is a law of gravity is neither more nor less true than saying there are three feet in a yard. Because we arranged it that way. Or there are 24 hours in a day. Laws are simply observed regularities, and we make these regularities by the way we look at things. We might not even notice that stones fell to the ground unless it was significant to us.


But the difficulty of pushing that theory too far is that it makes the human mind ridiculously independent of the physical world. Saying that everything is a projection out of the human mind would be to say that the human mind isn’t really part of the world. But it is. Our being is continuous with the being of the whole universe. As I explained: each one of us is something the whole universe is doing, just as every wave is something that the sea is doing. Well, we are waves of the universe, and it’s waving and saying, “Yoo-hoo, I’m here! And I’m called Alan Watts right now.” But it’s called so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so all around the room, but it’s all the same thing doing this jazz. And I explained how we have been taught to ignore that and to be under the illusion that we’re all doing it separately.


Now, that was what we were talking about this morning. Now I want to press one aspect of this theme particularly this afternoon, which is the aspect of play. The distinction… you see, the whole point is that a man who knows a woman—is it objectionable to you that we have to use “man” as the general word for human beings? Anyway, there’s a person who knows that this is māyā is, as I said, somewhat disconcerting because we know that he doesn’t take life seriously. That is to say, he doesn’t take it absolutely seriously. He takes it seriously up to a point. But as we might say, when it really comes down to it, he doesn’t. Now, you might think that such a person would be extremely undependable, and therefore he’s ethically suspect. If he knows that all the distinctions between good and evil, and between life and death, between the valuable and the non-valuable—if he knows that all those distinctions are illusory, would he not be, we’re afraid, a very dangerous person? Would he fail to keep his contracts? Would he steal when he felt like it? Would he bump somebody off when it suited his convenience, you see? Isn’t it more trustworthy for human beings to believe that there are absolute laws, that it matters absolutely that you never kill anybody, et cetera?


Now, this is a very fascinating question. And I want to suggest to you, first of all, that a person who believes in absolute laws is liable to be quite dangerous. Because he puts rigid structures in a place of higher honor than—oh, such a good old word, but no longer used—inwit. What is inwit? Ahhh! The Chinese have a word which has to be the gift and the essential virtue of a good judge; a good judge in the law courts. This word—like this, you know —is pronounced . There are several kinds of in Chinese, but this one means an innate sense of fair play, of equity, which can’t be written down in laws. It can’t be formulated. They also have a word for laws that can be formulated, which is ze. Looks like that . Because that character was originally this, when they had picture writing. Two bars across, that’s right. And that’s a picture of a bronze cauldron with a knife beside it. Because in very ancient times, when people brought sacrifices to the sacrificial cauldron, the rulers caused the laws to be engraved on the cauldron so that they would read them. And the sages said that was a bad idea, because the moment the people know what the laws are in literal terms, they will develop a litigious spirit and they will start haggling over words. Although there has to be the ze, the formulated law, a good judge must know a lot more than the written law. He must have a sense of equity. Because every case that comes to his attention is really different. There is no way of describing exhaustively all the possible relationships between man and man, and so a judge has to have this sort of rule of thumb—like a good gardener must have a green thumb, which is something beyond anything you can read in a book.


So is the sense of justice. Ze would be belief in absolutes, in that you must never do so and so or you must always do so and so. Thou shalt, thou shalt not. So a person who holds to absolute rules will be an inflexible fool when it comes to the test. He is reliable up to a point. But this is what you get in bureaucracy. I’m sorry to say it, but there is a specially offensive kind of usually female secretary of some government department who is utterly unreasonable, totally goes by the book, and will not under any circumstances do anything one way or the other beyond the letter. Well, people like that have a certain use, but they have the same sort of use as machinery: machinery which is foolproof that does the same thing every time and it can’t be changed. But there must always be some boss over this kind of person who can consider the case from a different point of view and say, “Well, obviously, in this case the rules are unreasonable and they have to be altered.”


So, you see, a person who takes the laws absolutely seriously becomes inflexible, and therefore mechanical, and therefore inhuman. You know, it’s like the Roman Catholics when they get on this bit about birth control or divorce or something like that. They get utterly inflexible, and they seem to enjoy being inflexible because they think it’s a mark of tough-mindedness. You know, I’ve been most amused. There’s a tremendous theological controversy going on these days. I don’t know if you know it. Perhaps some of you don’t read these things. But I have a certain interest in Christianity and I love reading the theological controversies. Well, there’s a character called the Bishop of Woolwich in England, who’s written a book that stirred everybody up. There’s not really anything new in it, but he’s just suggesting that God isn’t an old gentleman with a beard. And it seems to have created a terrific turmoil.


And people, though, who stand in the opposition to all this want to say all this liberal thinking is vague, and therefore wishy-washy and gutless. To prove that you have guts you’ve got to believe something absurd and stick to it! See? Come hell or high water, you believe that the Virgin Mary was sucked up bodily into heaven. You know? Really went up! See? And brrrr, all these other people are weak-minded because they’ve reduced these eternal dogmatic truths to mere myths and symbols, see? And they get a sense of masculinity out of this just in the same way as some people get a sense of masculinity out of being classists. You know, they believe we’ve got a real tough political theory; Colonel Damnit-Shoot-Em-All we used to call them in England. And they stick to this and say, “Ah! I feel like a man.” You see? Or, “I feel like a real businesswoman,” like Ayn Rand, or whatever. They like to be ugh! I’m an individual! You see? Krrrk! Like that.


But these people are inflexible fools because they have no give. They don’t know when to give. And the whole art is to have a certain rigidity in life, but always to know when to give. That’s judo. So, in the same way, a person who takes life absolutely seriously doesn’t know when to give. And he has this idea, you see, that life is a contest, and that we’ve got to win. And we’ve got to win! Now, if you go into battle with the idea that you’ve got to win, you get nervous. It’s like walking across a wall with a big drop on one side, feeling that you’ve got to stay steady. You start worrying. And like someone once told me when I was a boy: there was a certain examination, and I simply must not fail it. I just had to get it, you know? I was just absolutely nonplussed by the whole situation. Because, you see, you’ve got to have a certain flexibility so that, when you know it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, then you can really play. This is the secret of all gamesmanship. To play golf, you know—shwww. Stop caring. You’ve got to learn some technique first, whatever it is. But then stop worrying. How do you think you drive a car? You learn the basic things to do, and then you go zooming along. It’s terribly dangerous to drive a car. Much more unsafe than taking a ride in a plane. But yet, we all do it. Nobody seems to worry much about it. Well, that’s how to drive. But if you get nervous on the road you react too fast, and you’re all over the place, and you’re a mess and a nuisance. So you mustn’t take it quite seriously.


So then, the fellow who regards life as fundamentally an illusion would, on the whole, then, be more reliable than the person who is in dead earnest. Because he has basically, at his heart, the most valuable human trait, which is the ability to come off it. You know, you say to someone, “Oh, drop it!” You know? And in the end, you see, a man who can come off it—who may make a terrific case for some point of view, but has a certain twinkle in his eye—you see, this is a true human being and has what Confucius would call ren (spelled “jen” for some reason): this is human-heartedness. And it is human-heartedness because it is at the heart of the nature of things, and the nature of things is play.


Now, we contrast here, you see, the two fundamental views of life as set forward in the drama—you remember: the comic and the tragic masks. The tragic view of the world is that the world is—you can take it from two points of view; they really come to the same thing—but one of the points of view in the tragic idea: the world contains the possibility of an irremediable disaster. Things can go wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and the most vivid representation of the tragic view in all history is, of course, Christianity. Orthodox, old-fashioned Christianity, in which there is the possibility of eternal damnation. See, that is things going wrong always. It isn’t just that it’s a failure that you die and cease, but that you are tortured forever without hope of respite. Forever and ever and ever. That’s the maximum tragic view of the world. So in that view of the cosmos, things are very serious indeed. Because that might happen to you. And you must not let it happen. That’s absolutely necessary to be avoided.


Now, on the other hand, you see, although the Hindu and Buddhist mythologies have their various purgatories rather than hells—there’s one called avīci, which is the deepest of all these purgatories, and souls that get lost in avīci are there for an unendurable long time; many kalpas. And a kalpa is 4,320,000 years. But in the end they get out. In other words, when they’ve paid for their bad karma that gets them there, they get out and begin again. So it isn’t quite serious. It’s very serious, but not absolutely serious, you see? That’s the difference. So in this Hindu view, the Lord, in his māyā creation of the world, creates terribly serious situations. He scares himself out of his own wits by playing that he’s all of us, and forgetting who he is, you see, or what he is, and imagining that he’s us. And he is terrified—or thinks he is—by all the situations of life, and nevertheless, in the end, it turns out it was all a game. It was all hide and seek.


Now what about that, you see? When we think of that as a point of view, let’s not ask whether or not it’s true. No serious philosopher asks anymore whether things are true or not, he only asks whether they’re plausible. We can say no more. It would be arrogance to say more. Truth is a dimension where we stop talking, you know? We know things in another way than words. But it’s plausible because we could say: well, does a thing have to be absolute to be important? It’s important that we make a distinction between good and bad. It’s not good to murder people, generally speaking. You see, that’s important. But to make it important, do we really have to make it absolutely important? See, I tell you, the religious mentality—or not only the religious mentality, but it’s the kind of mentality you find around—what the real secret of it is: it loves to have something to condemn. One of the biggest kicks a person can have is to feel righteous indignation. And also, people who go to church love to be lectured and scolded. A real scoldy sermon from a Baptist preacher is a big, big bang! And they come out feeling so satisfactory. So supposing, then, we say: well, in the end all the sinners and the dreadful people who lived in the world will realize that they were manifestations of God like everybody else. Some people stop and think about that and say, “Oh dear! Very dangerous doctrine.” What they are really worrying about is that they are not going to have the satisfaction of seeing those people they don’t like writhing in torment forever and ever. Now who ought to be fried in hell? You know?


And so this is saying, you see, that if a thing is not important when it’s not eternal—say there was no point in singing a song because it came to an end. You know? There was no point in marrying this girl because she eventually died. There was no point in anything that’s finite in time, you see? That’s the argument. But it obviously is important that a song be sung even though it ends, that a person live even though they die, because that’s the rhythm of life. So people, you see, who take this point of view that what isn’t ultimately serious isn’t serious at all are simply crude in their thinking. They just plainly lack judgment. They’re like children who have to believe that two and two are always and invariably four because they might say one day they were five. Many children are a little whimsical.


So then, the idea of māyā suggests two things, really, which are very difficult things for most of us to accept because they’re so outrageous in comparison with our accustomed viewpoints. The one side of what it suggests is that life is not ultimately serious. If you fall far enough, you will find there’s no concrete to hit because you are one with a free-floating universe that has nothing outside it. I sometimes say, you know, that when God created the world, what he really did—I gave you one other version of it this morning—but he said: “Have a ball!” See, what are you going to do with this ball? There’s nowhere to put it, nothing to bounce it on, it can’t get lost. There it is! It’s a ball of being, you see? Have a ball! See? So the thought that all this life—which is so intensely involved and tragic and struggle—is really diaphanous: it’s like a dream. Would you dare believe that? This is a test of nerve.


The other side to the doctrine is that you, in your heart of hearts, are really the Lord being you. Will you dare believe that? I mean, we often say that’s the touchstone of madness in our culture: a person who thinks he’s God is really out of his wits. Only, of course, it depends what kind of a God you’re thinking about. If you’re thinking about Mr. Know-It-All who can explain how everything’s done, that would be one story. You’d be pretty much a megalomaniac. But God as the Hindus and Buddhists think of God—it’s really wrong to use the word “God,” perhaps, for this being, or both neither being nor non-being—but in their idea, you see, the Lord doesn’t have to know how things are done. He just does them. Just the same way you grow your hair without knowing how to. And so a person who realizes he is the Lord in disguise does not therefore claim to know all the answers to all possible scientific questions. But the conviction, you see, that you are somehow, in the inmost depths of your being, the works, the reality of everything that there is, you see? You are It. Tat tvam asi it said in Sanskrit: “that art thou.”


Now, is that—see, these two things, “it isn’t serious” and “you are It,” we react in our cultural background against these things because they seem to be haughty, they seem to be fantasy, fantastic, claiming too much, getting too big for one’s boots. Because we’re used to feeling that we are right if we cringe. The moment we start talking ourselves down and saying, “Well, I’m just a little fragment of dust, I’m nobody. I come into being. I disappear. I’m a mess. I’m imperfect. I don’t know anything.” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We feel safe when we do that. It’s like feeling that you’re right when you hurt:

Oh, I bless the good Lord for my boils,

For my mental and bodily pains.

For without them my faith all congeals

And I’m doomed to hell’s ne’er ending pains.

How very good it is for me to hurt so much! See? We’ve been brought up to feel that way. And also to be very careful about letting anyone know we’re happy. Because the gods might overhear. And it’s not good for you to be happy. You might get uppish. You might have hubris, pride, and start boasting to the heavens. And then the old gentleman will get annoyed, because the old gentleman’s pretty insecure, and he doesn’t like the children rushing around and stabbing their feet. Something might happen. They might go too far, you see? So uuugh! to you!


So then, if we think, “Oh, but I say excuse me. Excuuuuse me!” Pardon me for having the disgusting effrontery to exist. Well, you see, this is fake. It’s as fake as it can be. It’s phony. It’s another kind of pride: how good I am at being humble. And it’s terribly dishonest. But it is something that our cultural attitudes take very seriously. And the touble is that, having taken this seriously and having felt for so long—through literature, through schooling, through attitudes of teachers and preachers and parents—that it’s good for us to be humble, when we revolt against it, we go make the opposite mistake, you see, of being unnecessarily cocky. Because that’s compensation. There is no need, you see, to take on the universe and say, “I’m man. I’m the works. I’m the Lord in disguise,” and all this. Get lost. You don’t need to do that if you really know—you see, as I said at the end of this morning’s talk: to believe that you are the disguised Lord is unnecessary. It’s a form of doubt. So, in the same way, to assert it in a kind of defiant way is also a form of doubt. Although, please, remember you’re perfectly free to do that. Don’t get caught in it by feeling that you oughtn’t to.


You know, I remember when I was a child we used to read that the sin against the Holy Ghost was unforgivable. I always wondered what the sin against the Holy Ghost was. And there’d be a little thing at the back of your mind whispering: “Damn the Holy Ghost! To hell with the Holy Ghost!” You know? Just, you know, you’re absolutely sucked into it by the very prohibition; a kind of vertigo where a person looks over a precipice and he’s got to throw himself down. That’s a funny thing in human psychology.


So in many forms of symbolism that you find in the Orient there is the idea of the liberated man (who knows who he is) as the man who can’t be phased. You know, for example, that Bodhidarma, who’s supposed to have brought Zen to China, is made into a toy in Japan, which is like a Shmoo, only it’s this shape, and it’s weighted so that you can’t knock it over. Push it down, but it always springs up. And this is the sort of figure of this. It says a poem:

Seven times down

And eight times up,

Such is life.

Or it may be the image in Hindu literature of the tightrope walker: the man walking the path of the razor’s edge. It’s balance again, you see? But the Bodhidharma is, in a way, more flexible. He can be pushed right to the floor, but the minute you let go he’s back up. Or the Taoist image of water: you can squeeze it, you can jump on it, you can cut it, but you can’t hurt it. It always comes together again.


Look, for example, I gave the illustration this morning of a human being as something like a whirlpool in water. Constantly changing, but always the same. Now, what happens if you chop up a whirlpool? You know, you can smash it, you can put your fist through it, and you can make it disappear for a while. But after a while, there’s the pattern again. See? So, in the same way, we think we can solve problems with violence. We think that killing people is an answer to a problem. It’s only temporary. Because if you knock out, say, a Hitler, another one comes up. Because you haven’t understood the problem of this sort of manifestation. Anything that’s destroyed with violence eventually recurs again. Because the persistence of life and its continuity is a persistence of patterns. So long as, for example, the principles of surface tension hold true, or the principles of crystallization, you’re going to get crystals everywhere. Anywhere in the universe you’re liable to get a crystal of something or other. Well, life is the same kind of thing. It’s a pattern which is going to keep cropping up. It doesn’t matter how long it has to wait. A million years is nothing. You blot it out here, it’ll turn up somewhere else. It’s only a matter of time. Because it’s in the nature of the patterns.


So in this sense, then, let’s review these two ideas. It’s, first of all, seriously speaking—sincerely speaking, I should say—is it demoralizing to believe that it’s all play? That at the last minute, you know, when the screaming meemies are right on and everything’s awful, at the last minute, will you wake up and find it’s a dream? You could say, “I hope so. I hope so.” But life sometimes gets so black that it’s impossible to hope so. You know it’s the end.


Now, I remember once a marvelous conversation with Count von Dürckheim, who is a kind of German Zen master. And he said, “You know, during the war people have the most utterly soul-searing experiences.” He said, “There are three general kinds of experience. Of course there are the air raids, when you heard the whistling bomb right above you and you knew that was the end. But sometimes it was a dud and it didn’t go off. But you resigned yourself, because you heard that scream and completely accepted the fact that you were about to cease to exist. Or else you were in a concentration camp and you saw absolutely no hope of ever getting out alive. Absolutely none whatever. And you gave up. Or,” he said, “you were displaced. The town where you worked and you had your occupation was erased, and you were a person with absolutely no background, no career, no future, nothing. And you accepted it.” Now he said, “So often, all these cases, the individual concerned had the most extraordinary experience.” They had, in other words, the cosmic consciousness; satori. They woke up. They realized suddenly that there was really nothing to worry about at all. That I—the real I, not the superficial ego; the real I—is the whole cosmos. Then he said, “They tried to explain this to their friends afterwards, and their friends said, ‘Oh, you’re crazy. You were under such strain that you got a little tetched.’” And so they would try to forget it and put down this experience. He said, “Most of my work is in reviving this and telling people that this is an authentic experience.”


So that’s what I mean: the gamble that it isn’t really serious if you don’t, at the last moment, you see, as it were, call in the police; if you don’t scream for help—I’m using that as a metaphor—to accept: “Well, I’m going to die.” See? That’s it. There’s nothing to hold on to, you see? The moment you really stop holding on to anything, because you see there is nothing to hold on to, what happens? You become the ball. Have a ball! It has nowhere to bounce, you see? You become the ball. There’s nothing to hold on to. But you can only see that when you’re not holding on to anything anymore and you’ve given up. Resignation, or whatever it is. In other words, that urgency to succeed, to be something, to get there, to make it, to be right—when you see you can’t and you give up, you get reborn. Because that’s the death. The real meaning of going to heaven after death has nothing to do with literal death, it has to do with this death.


Now the other side of the picture: what about the notion that you’re It? Tat tvam asi. Not only that it isn’t serious, but that fundamentally, right at the root of things, you are the ultimate reality? Not you, as I repeat, as this apparently separate ego that is a kind of phantom (like the equator; the social institution), but the you which, as I say, grows the hair and blues or browns the eyes, and so on. Now, the difficulty that this presents to our common sense—and it does present a difficulty to our common sense—is that we’ve all been brought up to feel alienated from the world in the sense that it is something we came into, and it is something that we confront. A meeting. We face it. So we face facts, we face reality, we encounter. Martin Buber’s emphasis on dialogue, on I–thou. The confrontation, you see? This is a silly notion. At least, it’s silly if it doesn’t have something undergirding it. You can’t have a dialogue between two people who don’t speak the same language. In other words, you can’t have a relationship without an underlying unity. You can’t have a battle, even, between the tiger and the shark, because they have no common ground. And Tweedledum and Tweedledee agreed to have a battle.


So underlying all conflict in nature is common ground, unity. Because even when we say that two things are the poles apart, that’s a way of saying they’re connected. Because the whole Earth joins the two poles. The whole magnet joins the north and the south poles. So just as we have been taught to ignore the background behind the figure, the space behind the solid, so also we’ve been taught to ignore the joining link between the two poles. I once said that the way most of us think—somebody asks for a banana, he ought to be satisfied with just the two ends of the banana. See? When you—

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—so there’s no point going to New York. But just if there’s a distance between them, if there’s some difficulty in getting from one place to the other, so that not everybody in New York can go to San Francisco, not everybody in San Francisco can go to New York, then they’re different places and it’s worth going there. So, also: for the two ends of the banana to have any significance, you’ve got to have the banana of which the two ends are ends. So, in the same way, each individual isn’t something that comes into the world from nowhere and confronts it—or from somewhere else altogether—and the universe is not a kind of heap of flotsam and jetsam that happened to collect in space like a bunch of old rubber tires and broken logs in some little nook on the San Francisco Bay. Of course, there was the bay underneath the whole thing, you see, actually?


So, in the same way, to think—you see, the Christians and the Jews, to some extent, have got over this idea that we are created out of nothing. Now, of course, there’s an esoteric sense to that. In a way, a māyā, an illusion, is a creation out of nothing. Suddenly, the magician makes a phantasm appear in the empty room. In a way, that’s a creation out of nothing, see? He does it, say, by hypnosis; magic. But this idea of being created out of nothing has certain psychological and moral overtones, or undertones, in which you are supposed to be nothing down to the marrow and core of your existence. See, what that means is, psychologically, that there’s someone wagging his finger at you and saying, “Never forget that you are really a jerk,” you see? That you’re a little worm. You don’t deserve anything. You exist entirely by the grace and pleasure of another. And the sooner you grovel suitably to acknowledge this, the better. Because the consequences of saying this and the meaning of saying this is: what’s going to be done about it?


So there’s the choice, you see, in your thinking, in your myth-making, in your imagination: do you want to settle for a completely schizoid universe in which there is a gulf between the Lord and the illusion, the Brahma and the māyā, so total that forever and ever the one is not the other? Or would you rather have a unified, integrated universe in which the māyā is something that the Lord is doing; it’s his act, his play? Or Its act, if you don’t like the masculine personal pronoun. Her act; the great mother. And it seems to me that these two views are sort of like this, you see: you can diagram them.

Beings separated from existence
Beings separated from existence

You see, one person is looking at the universe this way. Here’s the domain of existence; being. And everything comes into it thus; from nowhere, see? That’s one way of looking at things. How this ever got together, you can’t even think. You have to turn your mind inside out and get this kind of collected flotsam and jetsam idea.

Beings radiating from existence
Beings radiating from existence

The other diagram is this. Here, again, is the domain of being, but it’s like a star. It radiates. The whole of it radiates each individual point of focus, you see? Now, there you’ve got an integrated situation. And that’s what things look like. Stars look like that, crystals look like that, octopuses look like that, spiders look like that, human beings stick out like that. It all works that way. Because underneath the differences—there are the differences, all the way around—is the unity. If you don’t know unity, you don’t know you’re different. They go together.

Alan Watts

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