Relevance of Oriental Philosophy

Alan Watts discusses the limitations of Western theology, contrasting it with Eastern philosophies. He argues that the Western concept of God as a separate, authoritarian figure is problematic and that true faith involves letting go of fixed ideas about God. Watts suggests that Eastern ideas, such as the unity of opposites and the illusory nature of the ego, can provide a more meaningful understanding of spirituality and existence.



Theology has not, as a matter of fact, had a very distinguished record in promoting the study of other than the Christian religion. And this is rather puzzling. Most study of comparative religions that goes on in theological schools has historically been missionary-oriented: to find out the weird ideas of the prospects so as to be able to undermine them. Because, you see, if you know in the first place that you have the true religion, there really is no point in studying any other one, and you can very quickly find reasons for showing them to be inferior because that was a foregone conclusion. They had to be. And therefore, all arguments about the respective merits of various religions—especially where Christianity is involved, and often where Judaism is involved, and sometimes Islam, too; all of which are essentially imperialistic religions—in all such discussions the judge and the advocate are usually the same person. Because if, for example, you get into discussions as to whether Buddha was a more profound and spiritual character than Jesus Christ, you arrive at your decision on the basis of a scale of values which is, of course, Christian. And in this sense the judge and the advocate of the same.


And I really do marvel at this Christian imperialism, because it prevails even among theological liberals. And it reaches its final absurdity in religion-less Christianity—the doctrine that there is no God and Jesus Christ is his only son. Because, you see, there’s some anxiety here that, even though we don’t believe in God anymore, somehow we’ve still got to be Christians, and obviously because we have a very curious organization which must be understood. The inner meaning of the church as it works in fact. A society of the saved, you see, necessarily requires outside it a society of the not saved. Because if there is not that contrast, you don’t know that you belong to the in-group. And in this way all social groups with claims to some kind of special status must necessarily create aliens and foreigners. And Saint Thomas Aquinas let the cat out of the bag one day when he said that the saints in heaven would occasionally peer over the battlements into Hell and praise God for the just punishment visited upon the evildoers.


Now, as you know, I’m not being very fair and very kind to modern theology. But there is this strange persistence of insisting that our group is the best group. And I feel that there is in this something peculiarly irreligious, and furthermore it exhibits a very strange lack of faith. Because I believe that there is a strong distinction between faith on the one hand, and belief on the other. That belief is, as a matter of fact, quite contrary to faith. Because belief is really wishing. It’s from the Anglo-Saxon root leaf, “to wish,” and belief stated, say, in the Creed is a fervent hope that the universe will turn out to be thus and so. And in this sense, therefore, belief precludes the possibility of faith because faith is openness to truth to reality whatever it may turn out to be. “I want to know the truth”—that is the attitude of faith. And therefore, to use ideas about the universe and about God as something to hang onto, in the spirit of “Rock of ages cleft for me”—you know, hymnal imagery is full of rocks and mighty fortresses are God.

In vain the surges anguish shock,

In vain the drifting sand,

Unharmed upon the eternal rock

The eternal city stands.


And there’s something very rigid about a rock. And we are finding our rock getting rather worn out in an age where it becomes more and more obvious that our world is a floating world. It’s a world floating in space where all positions are relative, and any point may be regarded as the center. A world which doesn’t float on anything, and therefore the religious attitude appropriate to our time is not one of clinging to rocks but of learning to swim. And you know that if you get in the water and you have nothing to hold on to and you try to behave as you would on dry land you will drown. But if, on the other hand, you trust yourself to the water and let go, you will float.


And this is exactly the situation of faith. This is surely all implied in the New Testament. When, for example, Jesus began to foretell his own death his disciples were very disturbed because it is written in our law that the Messiah does not die, and he replied, “Unless a grain of corn fall into the ground and die, it remains isolated and brings forth no fruit.” Or rather, “If it die, it brings forth much fruit.” And on another occasion he said to the disciples, “It is expedient for you that I go away, but if I go not away from the Paraclete”—the Holy Spirit—“cannot come to you.” But we have reversed all this. Jesus—to me it was one of those rare and remarkable individuals who had a particular kind of spiritual experience which in terms of Hebrew theology he found most difficult to express without blasphemy. “I and the Father are one.” In other words, I am God. And that is something, of course, if you are a Hindu—that is a rather natural statement to make. You see, in our culture (which has Hebrew theology in its background) anyone who says “I am God” is either blasphemous or insane. Because our image of God—and the image, don’t forget, has far more emotional power than any amount of theology and abstraction—it is our father which really influences us as a conception of God, not necessarily being Tillich’s decontaminated name for God: the Ground of Being, or Professor Northrop’s undifferentiated aesthetic continuum. These aren’t very moving, even though subtle theologians prefer this kind of thing and will tell us that when we call God the Father, we don’t have to believe, literally, that there is a cosmic male parent, and still less that he has a white beard and sits on a golden throne above the stars. No serious theologian ever believed in such a God.


But nevertheless the imagery affects us, because the image of the monotheistic God of the West is political. The title King of Kings and Lord of Lords is the title of the emperors of ancient Persia. The image of God is based on the Pharaohs, the great rulers of the Chaldeans, and the kings of Persia. And so this is the political governor and Lord of the universe who keeps order and who rules it from, metaphorically speaking, above. So anyone who would say “I am God” is therefore implying that he’s in charge of everything, that he knows all about it, and therefore everybody else ought to bow down and worship him. But in India if you say, “I am God,” they say, “Congratulations, at last you found out!” Because the image is quite different.


See, our image of the world is that the world is a construct. And it’s very natural for a child to say to its mother, “How was I made?” as if, you know, you were somehow put together. But that goes back to the imagery of Genesis, where God creates Adam and makes a clay figurine. And then he breathes the breath of life into the nostrils of this figurine and it comes to life. So there is the fundamental supposition which even underlies the development of Western science that everything has been made and then someone knows how it was made. And you can find out. Because behind the universe there is an architect. This could be called the ceramic model of the universe. Because there’s a basic feeling that there are two things in existence one is stuff—material—and the other is form.


Now, material like clay by itself is stupid. It has no life in it, has no intelligence. And therefore, for matter to assume orderly forms, it requires that an external intelligence be introduced to shape it. And therefore, with that deeply embedded in our common sense, it’s very difficult for people to realize that this image is not necessarily for description of the world at all. Indeed, the whole idea of “stuff” is completely absent from modern physics, which studies the physical universe purely in terms of pattern and structure. But the Hindu model of the world—and I’m speaking of Hindu mythology, the popular imagery. I’m talking about the popular imagery on both sides. I’m not at the moment getting into theological technicalities. The Hindu model of the universe is a drama: the world is not made, it is acted. And so behind every face—human, animal, plant, mineral—there is the face on face of the central self, the Ātman, which is Brahman, the final reality which is not defined because, obviously, that which is the center cannot be made an object of knowledge anymore than you bite your own teeth or lift itself up by own bootstraps. It’s what there is. It’s the basis. And you are it—which is a colloquial translation of the Sanskrit adage tát tvam ási; “that art thou.” The idea being, you see, that the nature of reality is a game of hide-and-seek. Because that’s really the only game there is: now you see it, now you don’t. All nature is vibrating. It’s a wavelike motion of crest and trough, pulse and interval, pulse and interval. Only, we don’t always notice that because our senses respond slowly—say, to light. And light appears to be a continuous energy without interval.


So there’s the idea that goes like this: that for endless cycles of time this supreme reality, the Self, plays hide-and-seek with itself. That, for a period of a kalpa (which is four 4,320,000 years) the Self is awake to itself and knows that it’s It. But for another kalpa it gets lost. It says to itself, “Man, get lost!” and pretends that it is a vast multiplicity. That’s exactly what you would do if you had the privilege of dreaming any dream you wanted when you went to bed at night. This would enable you, of course, in one night, to dream 75 years of clock time. And what you would do, first of all: you would have marvelous adventures. You would have every conceivable delight and satisfy every wish. And then, as time went on, that would get a little boring and you would get more daring. You would have adventures: you would rescue princesses from dragons. And then you would get even more daring, and you would dream that you weren’t dreaming. And then you’d get into really serious messes—because wouldn’t it be a surprise when you woke up! And eventually you would be dreaming that you were sitting here in this auditorium listening to me. You would eventually get around to that, for your sins. Well, maybe that’s what’s happening anyhow, you see? And in Sanskrit this dream is called māyā, but it’s a word that means more than “dream” or “illusion,” it means “creative power,” “magic,” “skill,” “art,” and “measurement.” Laying down the foundations is making a māyā.


So then, the world is a big act. It’s play—not in the sense of something trivial, but in the sense of a stage play. Hamlet is a play. You play the organ in church. That’s not trivial. And so the actor of this play (being the best of all possible actors) takes himself in totally—almost. Because everybody knows in the back of their mind that there’s something funny about being a self. So, you see, when you go to the theater you know, of course, that the proscenium arch tells you that what’s going on behind this arch is not for real. But somehow the actor almost persuades you that it is real. He wants to get you sitting on the edge of your chair. He wants you laughing, crying, he wants you in a state of anxiety so that he almost persuades you. But, you see, if the actor is as good as the supreme Self, the audience is taken in thoroughly and they believe the play is real. What skill! How marvelous! But, you see, in all acting there is, behind the stage, a green room. Out on the stage the Lord does not come on as the Lord, he comes on as you and I; heroes and villains. But off-scene, he assumes his true nature and doffs his mask, which in Latin is his persona. In classical drama the persona was the megaphone mouth mask worn for the open air theater. And by a curious degradation of words the word “person” has come to mean the real individual. And when Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote How to Be a Real Person, the real title of his book should have been How to Be a Genuine Fake.


Well, now, this image, this model of the universe, is disturbing to Christians. What is particularly disturbing is the element in it of what’s a very special theological cussword called pantheism: the feeling that, if every part is being played by the supreme Lord, then all the real distinctions between good and evil are obliterated. Now, that is the biggest nonsense ever uttered. Distinctions between good and evil do not have to be eternal distinctions to be real distinctions. It is really: to say that a distinction which is not eternal is not real is a highly un-Christian thing to say, and certainly a very u- Jewish thing. Because one of the fundamental principles of the Hebrew attitude is that all finite things that have been created by God are good. And therefore, a thing doesn’t have to be infinite to be good. All finite things come to an end. Furthermore, to invoke the authority of heaven in matters of moral regulation is like putting a two million [Volt] current through your electric shaver. It ended in the final asininity of the notion that if you went against the will of God, since evil is eternal, you would fry in hell forever and ever and ever. And as the Chinese say: “Do not swat a fly on a friend’s head with a hatchet.” Like all kinds of judicial torture and harsh justice, such ideas bring law into disrespect. And such a fierce God and such an unbending attitude resulted in the fact of people disbelieving in God altogether and, shall we say, throwing out the baby with the bathwater.


So this is among many reasons why people are saying God is dead. It’s very inconvenient to have the kind of God who is this authoritarian boss of the world, prying down over your shoulder all the time, knowing your inmost thoughts, and judging you. It’s a very uncomfortable feeling and everybody’s happy to be rid of it. It has never significantly improved anybody’s behavior. In the so-called ages of faith people were just as immoral, if not more so, than they are today. Because, you see, all this fixed notion of God is idolatry. If thou shalt not make to thy self any graven image of anything that is in the heaven above, et cetera, the most dangerous and pernicious images are not those made of wood or stone—nobody takes those seriously—they’re the images made of the imagination and conception and thought. And that is why, in the fundamental approach to the Godhead, both the Hindu and the Buddhist (and, for that matter, the Taoist) take what is called the negative approach, which used to be known long ago in the Middle Ages as Apophatic theology. As Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “To proceed to the knowledge of God it is necessary to go by the way of remotion,” of saying what God is not—since God, by his immensity, exceeds every conception to which our intellect can attain.


So then, of the Godhead the Hindu says: all that can truly be said is neti neti, “not this, not this.” And when the Buddhist uses such a term for the final reality as śūnyatā, which means “voidness” or “emptiness,” then textbook after textbook on comparative religion that I read by various theologians say this is terrible negativism. This is nihilism. But he doesn’t realize that it’s nothing of the kind. If, for example, you have a window on which there’s a fine painting of the sun, your act of faith in the real sun will be to scrape that off so that you can let the real sunlight in. And so, in the same way, pictures of God on the window of the mind need scraping off, because otherwise they become idolatrous. They become substitutes for the reality.


Now, I’m hoping that this sort of understanding will issue from God-is-dead theology. I’m not quite sure whether it’s going to. Because, as a matter of fact, there are precedents within the Christian tradition for an intelligent God-is-dead theology, for what I would call atheism in the name of God or agnosticism in the name of God. The word “agnostic” has a curious history. It’s based on the Greek word agnosia (ἀγνωσία), which we used to translate into English as “unknowing.” And there’s a very interesting mystical treatise of the fourteenth century called the Cloud of Unknowing, showing how the highest form of prayer, contemplative prayer, was that in which all concept of God had been left behind. Where, in other words, one completely let go of clinging to God. And this was the supreme act of faith. So that you don’t any longer need an image, because this gets in the way of the reality.


But the moment you insist on an image, then you have the church as a huge imperialistic vested interest organization. After all, if the church is the body of Christ, isn’t it through the breaking of the body of Christ that life is given to the world? But the church doesn’t want to be broken up. By Jove, no! It goes around canvassing for new members. See, the difference between a physician and a clergyman is this: the physician wants to get rid of his patients, and he gives them medicine and he hopes they won’t get hooked on the medicine. Whereas the clergyman is usually forced to make his patients become addicts so that they’ll pay their dues. The doctor has faith in turnover. He knows that there’ll always be sick people. And the clergy also need faith in turnover. Get rid of your congregations! Say, “Now you’ve heard all I’ve got to tell you. Go away!” If you want to get together for making celestial whoopee (which is worship), alright. But when I was a chaplain in the university, I used to tell the students that if they came to church out of a sense of duty, they weren’t wanted. They would be skeletons at the feast. It would be much better if they went swimming or stayed in bed. Because we were going to celebrate the Holy Communion—and I meant: celebrate.


But somehow or other, you see, we take religion in a kind of dead earnest. I remember when I was a boy at school how wicked it was to laugh in church. We don’t realize, as G. K. Chesterton said, that the angels fly because they take themselves lightly. And as Dante said in the Paradiso, when he heard the song of the angels: it sounded like the laughter of the universe. What are those angels doing? They’re saying Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, which doesn’t really mean anything. It’s sublime nonsense. And so, in the same way, there are Buddhist texts and Hindu texts which are the chants of the Buddhas or the divine beings which don’t mean anything at all, and never did mean anything. They are just glorious lolling; glossolalia.


So the point that I wish to make most strongly is that, behind a vital religious life for the West, there has to be faith which is not expressed in things to which you cling—in ideas, opinions, to which you cling in a kind of desperation. Faith is the act of letting go, and that must begin with letting go of God. Let God go. But, you see, this is not atheism in the ordinary sense. Atheism in the ordinary sense is fervently hoping that there isn’t a God. It has become extremely plausible that this trip between the maternity ward and the crematorium is what there is to life. And we still have going into our common sense the nineteenth century myth which succeeded the ceramic myth in Western history—I call it the myth of the fully automatic model of the universe—namely: that it’s stupid, it’s blind force. Haeckel’s gyration—fortuitous congress of atoms—is of the same vintage as Freud’s libido, the blind surge of lust at the basis of human psychology. But when you consider this attitude, you know, what is the poetic counterpart of it? Man is a little germ that lives on an unimportant rock-ball that revolves about an insignificant star on the outer edges of one of the smaller galaxies. Gosh, what a putdown that was. But on the other hand, if you think about that for a few minutes, I am absolutely amazed to discover myself on this rock-ball rotating around a spherical fire. It’s a very odd situation! And the more I look at things, I cannot get rid of the feeling that existence is quite weird!


See, a philosopher is a sort of intellectual yokel who gawks at things that sensible people take for granted. And sensible people say, “Existence is nothing at all! I mean, it’s just basic. Go on and do something.” See, this is the current movement in philosophy. Logical analysis says you mustn’t think about existence. It’s a meaningless concept. And therefore philosophy has become the discussion of trivia, and philosophical journals are now as satisfactorily dull as any other kind of purely technical inquiry. No good philosopher lies awake nights worrying about the destiny of man and the nature of God and all that sort of thing because a philosopher, today, is a practical fellow who comes to the university with a briefcase at nine and leaves at five. He does philosophy during the day, which is discussing whether certain sentences have meaning, and if so, what. And then he would, as William Earle said in a very funny essay, he would come to work in a white coat if he thought he could get away with it. The problem is he’s lost his sense of wonder.


Wonder is, like, in modern philosophy, something you mustn’t have. It’s like enthusiasm in eighteenth century England. It’s very bad form. But, you see, I don’t know what question to ask when I wonder about the universe. It isn’t a question that I’m wondering about. It’s a feeling that I have. Imagine if you had an interview with God—everybody was going to have an interview with God, and you were allowed to ask one question, what would you ask. And don’t don’t rush into it. You will soon find that you have no idea what to ask. Because I cannot formulate the question that is my wonder. The moment my mouth opens to utter it, I suddenly find I’m talking nonsense. But that should not prevent wonder from being the foundation of philosophy. Well, as Aristotle said: wonder is the beginning of philosophy. Because it strikes you that existence is very, very strange. And then, moreso, when this so-called insignificant little creature has inside his skull a neurological contraption that is able to center itself in the midst of this incredible expanse of galaxies and start measuring the whole thing. That is quite extraordinary! And then, furthermore, when you realize that in a world where there are no eyes, the sun would not be light, and that in a world where there were no soft skins, rocks would not be hard, nor in a world where there were no muscles would they be heavy. Existence is relationship, and you are smack in the middle of it.


So there is obviously a place in life for a religious attitude in the sense of awe, astonishment at existence. And that is also a basis of respect for existence. We don’t have very much of it in this culture, even though we call it materialistic. A materialist is a person who loves material. And I suppose in the Christian tradition, and in the Jewish, one would say that the lord God is the greatest materialist. Because, you know, as William Temple once said, “God is interested in many other things than religion.” Were God only interested in religion the world would consist of nothing but church buildings and Bibles and clergyman. And that would be pretty boring.


So in the culture that we call materialistic today we are, of course, bent on the total destruction of material and its conversion into junk and poisonous gas as quickly as possible. This is not a materialistic culture because it has no respect for material. And respect is, in turn, based on Wonder, on feeling the marvel of just an ordinary pebble in your fingers. So I’m afraid, you see, for the God-is-dead theology, that it will sort of drift off into secular do-goodery in the name of Jesus. And this is, I think, where we can be strongly revivified and stimulated by the introduction into our spiritual life of certain things that are Oriental.


Now, you see, it must be understood that the crux of the Hindu and Buddhist disciplines is an experience, not a theory. Not a belief. If we say that religion is a combination of creed, code, and cult—in other words, this is true of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; and if they are religions, Buddhism is not—because the creed is a revelation, a revealed the symbolism, of what the universe is about, and you are commanded to believe in it on the divine authority. The code is the revealed will of God for man which you are commanded to obey. And the cult is the divinely revealed form of worship which you must practice. Commandment—because God is boss. He’s ruler. King of kings and Lord of lords.


But the disciplines—say, of yoga in Hinduism, or of the various forms of Buddhist meditation—do not require you to believe anything. And they have no commandments in them. They do indeed have precepts, but they are really vows which you undertake on your own responsibility, not in obedience to anybody. They are experimental techniques for changing consciousness. And the thing they are mainly concerned with is helping human beings to get rid of the hallucination that each one of us is a skin-encapsulated ego. You know, a little source, a little man inside your head, located between the ears and behind the eyes who is the source of conscious attention and voluntary behavior.


Most people, you know, don’t really think that they’re anything but that and that the body is a thing you have. “Mommy, who would have been if my father had been someone else?” See, the parents give you the body and you pop the soul into it at some period—conception or parturition; nobody could ever decide. And this attitude stays with us: that we are something in a body; that we have a body and we are not it. So we experience the beating of the heart as something that happens to me, whereas talking or walking is something that I do. Don’t you beat your heart? Our language won’t allow you to think that. It’s not customary to say so. How do you think? How do you manage to be conscious? You don’t know. How do you open and close your hand? Do you know? If you’re a physiologist you may be able to say, but that doesn’t help you to open and close your hand any better than I do. See, I know how to do it, but I can’t put it into words. In the same way, the Hindu god knows how he creates this whole universe because he does it—but he wouldn’t explain it, that would be stupid! You might as well try to drink the Pacific Ocean with a fork.


So when a Hindu gets enlightened and he recovers from the hallucination of being a skin-encapsulated ego, and finds out that central to his own self is the eternal Self of the universe, and you go up to him and say, “Well, how do you do all this?” he says, “Well, just like you open and close your hand. And because we’re all it.” Whenever a questioner used to come to Sri Ramana, the great Hindu sage who died a few years ago, they said to him, “Master, was I living before in a previous incarnation? And if so, who was I?” And he would say, “Who is asking the question?” Who are you? And a spiritual teacher in both Hinduism and Buddhism is a kind of—well, what he does to awaken you, to get you over the hallucination of being the skin-encapsulated ego: he bugs you in a certain way. He has a funny look in his eyes as if to say, “Come off it, Shiva! I know what you’re doing!” And you say, “What, me?” He looks at you in a funny way. And finally you get the feeling that he sees all the way through you, and therefore that all your selfish and evil thoughts and nastiness is transparent to this gaze. And then you have to try and alter them. He suggests, you see, that you practice the control of the mind, that you become desireless. You give up selfish desires so as to cease to be a skin-encapsulated self.


And then you may have some success in quieting your mind and in concentrating, but then after that he’ll throw a curve at you, which is, “But aren’t you still desiring not to desire? Why are you trying to be unselfish?” Well, the answer is: I want to be on the side of the big battalions. I think it’s going to pay better to be unselfish than to be selfish. Well, Luther saw that. Augustine saw that. But there it is. Because what he’s done, you see: he’s beginning to make you see the unreality; the hallucinatory quality of a separate self. This has merely conventional reality in the same sense as lines of latitude and longitude, the measurements of the clock. That’s why one of the meanings of māyā, illusion, is “measurement.” Things, for example, are measurements: they are units of thought like inches are units of measurement. There are no things in physical nature. How many things is a thing? It’s any number you want. Because a thing is a think: a unit of thought. It’s as much of reality as you can catch hold of in one idea.


So when this realization of the hallucination of the separate self comes about, it comes about through discovering that your alleged separate self can’t do anything. It can’t improve itself—either by doing something about it or by doing nothing about it. Both ways are based on illusion. You see, this is what you have to do to get people out of hallucinations: you make them act consistently on the suppositions of the hallucination. People who believe that the Earth is flat cannot possibly be talked into seeing that it’s round because they know it’s flat. Because, can’t you see? So what you do is this: you say, “Let’s go and look over the edge. Wouldn’t that be fun?” But, you see, to be sure that we do get to the edge we must be very careful not to walk in circles. So you perform a discipline. You go steadily and rigorously westwards—along latitude forty or something—and then, when you get back to the place where you started, he is convinced that the world is at least cylindrical. By experiment. By reductio ad absurdum of his premises. And so, in the same way, the guru (whether Hindu or Buddhist) performs a reductio ad absurdum on the premise of the skin-encapsulated ego.


Well, what happens then? You might imagine —from garbled accounts of eastern mysticism—that one thereupon disappears forever into an infinite sea of faintly mauve Jello, and become so lost to the world and entranced that you forget your name, address, telephone number, and function in life. And nothing of the kind happens. The state of mystical illumination—although it may, in its sudden onset, be accompanied by a sensation tremendous luminescence and transparency—as you get used to it, it’s just like everyday life. Here are the things that you formerly thought were separate individuals, and here is you who you formerly thought was merely confronting these other people. When the great Dr D. T. Suzuki was asked, “What is it like to be enlightened?” he said, “It’s just like ordinary everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground.”


Because what is altered is not the way your senses perceive. What is altered is what you think about it, your definitions of what you see, your evaluation of it. So when you don’t cling to it, when you have no longer a hostile attitude to the world because you know the world is you—it is! I mean, let’s take it from the point of view of biology: if I describe the behavior of a living organism, I cannot possibly describe that behavior without simultaneously describing the behavior of the environment. So that I discover that I don’t describe organisms in environments, I describe a unified field of behavior called an organism-environment. It’s an awkward word, but there it is. The environment doesn’t push the organism around, the organism doesn’t push the environment around. They are two aspects, or poles, of the same process.


And so you have to understand that this attitude towards nature—seeing the fundamental unity of the Self which manifests it all—is not an attitude, as missionaries are apt to suppose, which denies the value of differentiation. You must understand the principle of what are called identical differences. Take a coin: the head side is a different side from the tail side, and yet the two are inseparable. Take the operation of buying and selling: selling is a different operation from buying, but you can’t buy unless somebody sells at the same time, and vice versa. This is what is meant by the underlying unity of opposites, what is called in Hinduism advaita, or “nonduality.” Or when the Chinese use the word Tao to designate “The Way” of operation of the positive and negative principles, the yang and the yin. It is not a unity that annihilates differences, but a unity which is manifested by the very differentiations that we perceive. Just as—it’s all polar. It’s like the two poles of a magnet: different, but yet one magnet.


So when we say oriental monism is a point of view towards life which merges everything into a kind of sickening goo, this is terribly unfair. It just isn’t so. If you argue that the sort of doctrine that everybody is really the Godhead destroys the possibility of real love between individuals, because you have to be definitively other than I if I am to love you—otherwise it’s all self-love—well, that argument collapses in view of the doctrine of the Trinity. If the three persons are one God then they can’t love each other, by the same argument. Hinduism simply uses the idea which is in the Christian Trinity, only it makes it a multi-Trinity instead of a three one. That’s all.


Of course, the thorn in the flesh is always (in approaching a doctrine which seems to be monistic or pantheistic): what about evil? Are we to make the Ground of Being responsible for evil? And we don’t want to do that because we want to keep God’s skirts clean. In spite of the fact that our own Hebrew Bible says, “I am the Lord, there is none else. I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, the Lord, do all these things.” And haven’t you heard the story about the yetzer hara? That, according to Jewish theology, the lord God implanted in Adam at the beginning of time a thing called the yetzer hara. It means “the wayward spirit.” I call it the element of irreducible rascality. And it’s very necessary to have this in order to be human.


You see, how it was done was: this prohibition not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. That was the one sure way of getting it eaten. But of course, when the Lord God accused Adam and said, “You have been eating of that tree I told you not to eat.” And he passed the buck to Eve said, “This woman that thou gavest me, she tempted me and I did eat.” He looked at Eve: “Now, what about it?” She said, “Well, it was the serpent.” He looked at the serpent. The serpent didn’t say anything. Because he knew too much and he wasn’t going to give away the show. Who is it that sits at the left hand of God? We know who sits at the right hand. But it’s hushed up. Because that’s the side where the district attorney sits. And in the Book of Job, of course, you know, Satan is the district attorney at the court of heaven. He’s the prosecutor. He’s a faithful servant of the court.


Because, you see, the whole problem is: it would be very bad indeed if God were the author of evil and we were his victims. That is to say, if we keep the model of the king of the universe, and the creatures are all subjects of the king, then a God who is responsible for evil is being very unkind to other people. But in this theory, God is not another person. There are no victims of God. He’s never anything but his own victim. You are responsible. And if you want to stay in the state of illusion, stay in it. But you can always wake up.

Alan Watts

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