Taoist Way

This talk explores the Taoist philosophy of living fully in the present moment without attachment to the past or future. According to Watts, following the Tao involves acting spontaneously and effortlessly without forcing, appreciating the interconnected nature of all things, and seeing through illusions of the ego and continuity of self across time. The goal is to experience each instant purely without getting caught up in intellectualizations.


Part 1


The philosophy of the Tao is one of the two great principal components of Chinese thought. There are, of course, quite a number of forms of Chinese philosophy, but there are two great currents which have thoroughly molded the culture of China, and they are Taoism and Confucianism. And they play a curious game with each other. Let me start by saying something about Confucianism originating with Kongfuzi, or Confucius, who lived approximately a little after 630 BC. He’s often supposed to have been a contemporary of Lao Tzu, who is the supposed founder of the Taoist way, but it seems more likely that Lao Tzu lived later than 400 BC according to most modern scholars. Confucianism is not a religion. It’s a social ritual and a way of ordering society, so much so that the first great Catholic missionary to China—Matteo Ricci, who was a Jesuit—found it perfectly consistent with his Catholicism to participate in Confucian rituals. Because he saw them as something of a kind of national character as one might pay respect to the flag, or something of that kind, in our own times. But he found that Confucianism involved no conflict with Catholicism, no commitment to any belief or dogma that would be at variance with the Catholic faith.


So Confucianism is an order of society and involves ideas of human relations including the government and the family based on the principle of what is called in Chinese rén (仁)—although Josh will notice that I never get my tones right—which is an extraordinarily interesting word. I’m going to put some of these things on the whiteboard. This is the word rén in Chinese, and it’s often translated “benevolence,” but that’s not a good translation at all. This word means “human-heartedness.” That’s the nearest we can get to it in English. And it was regarded by Confucius as the highest of all virtues, but one that he always refused to define. It’s above righteousness and justice and propriety and other great Confucian virtues, and it involves the principle that human nature is a fundamentally good arrangement—including not only our virtuous side, but also our passionate side, also our appetites in our waywardness.


The Hebrews have a term which they call the yetzer hara, which means the wayward inclination (or what I like to call the element of irreducible rascality) that God put into all human beings—and put it there because it was a good thing: it was good for humans to have these two elements in them. And so a truly human-hearted person is a gentleman with a slight touch of rascality, just as one has to have salt in a stew. Confucius said the goody-goodies are the thieves of virtue—meaning that to try to be wholly righteous is to go beyond humanity, to try to be something that isn’t human. So this gives Confucian approach to life and justice and all those sort of things a kind of queer humor. A sort of boys-will-be-boys attitude which is nevertheless a very mature way of handling human problems. It was, of course, for this reason that the Japanese Buddhist priests who visited China to study Buddhism, especially as Zen priests, introduced Confucianism into Japan. Because despite certain limitations that Confucianism has—and it always needs the Tao philosophy as a counterbalance—Confucianism has been one of the most successful philosophies in all history for the regulation of governmental and family relationships. But, of course, it is concerned with formality. Confucianism prescribes all kinds of formal relationships: linguistic, ceremonial, musical, in etiquette, in all the spheres of morals, and for this reason has always been critted by the Taoists for being unnatural. You need these two components, you see? And they play against each other beautifully in Chinese society.


Roughly speaking, you see, the Confucian way of life is for people involved in the world. The Taoist way of life is for people who get disentangled. Now, as we know in our own modern times, there are various ways of getting disentangled from the regular lifestyle—say, of the United States. If you want to go through the regular lifestyle of the United States, you go to high school and college, and then you go into a profession or a business, and you own a standard house and you raise a family and you have a car, or two cars, and do all that jazz. But a lot of people don’t want to live that way. And there are lots of other ways of living besides that. So you could say that those of us who go along with the pattern correspond to the Confucians, and those who are Bohemians or bums or beatniks or whatever, and don’t correspond with the pattern, they are more like the Taoists.


Because the Taoist is really—actually, in Chinese history, Taoism is a way of life for older people. Lao Tzu, the name given to the founder of Taoism, means “the old boy.” And the legend is that when he was born he already had a white beard. So it’s sort of like this: that when you have contributed to society, when you’ve contributed children and brought them up, and you have assumed a certain role in social life, you then say: now it’s time for me to find out what it’s all about. Who am I ultimately behind my outward personality? What is the secret source of things? And the latter half of life is the preeminently excellent time to find this out. It’s something to do when you have finished with the family business. I am not saying that that is a sort of unavoidable, strict rule. Of course one can study the Tao when very young. Because it contains all kinds of secrets in it as to the performance of every kind of art or craft or business or any occupation whatsoever. But it does—in China, in a way—it plays that role of a kind of safety valve for the more restricted way of life that Confucianism prescribes. And there is a sort of type in China who is known as the old rogue. He’s a sort of intellectual bum, often found among scholars, who is admired very much and a type of character which had an influence on the development of the ideals of Zen Buddhist life. He is one, you see, who goes with nature rather than against nature.


Well now, first of all, I’m going to talk about ideas which come strictly out of Lao Tzu’s book, the Tao Te Ching. And of course the basic thing in the whole philosophy is the conception of Tao. This word has many meanings, and the book of Lao Tzu starts out by saying that “the Tao which can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.” Or you can—there’s a pun in there which you can’t quite put into English; you can’t give all the meanings. Because the word “Tao” means both “the Way” (or course) of nature, or of everything. It also means “to speak.” So the actual opening phrase of the book, following this word “Tao” is this. And the character is repeated again. You see? And this character means “can be,” or “can,” “able,” something like that. So: “the way which can be.” Then give it its second meaning: “spoken,” “described,” “uttered.” But it also means the way that can be wayed. You know, you have to invent that word. “The way that can be traveled”—perhaps—“is not the eternal way.”


In other words, there is no way in which the Tao, or following the Tao—there’s no recipe for it. I can’t give you any do-it-yourself instructions, A-B-C-D, as to how it’s done. It is like when Louis Armstrong was asked: what is jazz? He said: if you have to ask, you don’t know. Now, that’s awkward, isn’t it? But we can gather what it is by absorbing certain atmospheres and attitudes connected with those who follow it, and from the art and the poetry and all the expressions and the anecdotes and stories that illustrate the philosophy of the way.


So this word, then—“the way” or “the course of things”—is not… you must understand this: some Christian missionaries translated Tao as the lógos, taking as their point of departure the opening passage of St. John’s Gospel “in the beginning was the word.” Now, if you look up a Chinese translation of the Bible, it says: “In the beginning was the Tao. And the Tao was with God and the Tao was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by it, and without it was not anything made that was made.” So they’ve substituted Tao there.


Now, that’d make a very funny effect on a Chinese philosopher, because the idea of things being made by the Tao is absurd. The Tao is not a manufacturer and it’s not a governor. It doesn’t rule, as it were, in the position of a king. Although the book, the Tao Te Ching, is written for many purposes, but one of its important purposes is as a manual of guidance for a ruler. And what it tells him is essentially: rule by not ruling. Don’t lord it over the people. And so he says:

The great Tao flows everywhere, both to the left and to the right.

It loves and nourishes all things but does not lord it over them.

And when good things are accomplished it lays no claim to them.

In other words, the Tao doesn’t stand up and say: “I have made all of you, I have filled this Earth with its beauty and glory. Fall down before me in worship.” The Tao (having done anything, you know?) always escapes and is not around to receive any thanks or acknowledgement, because it loves obscurity. And Lao Tzu said the Tao is like water: it always seeks the low level, which human beings abhor. So it’s a very mysterious idea.


Tao, then, is not really equivalent with any Western or Hindu idea of God. Because God is always associated with being the Lord. Even in India the Brahman is often called the supreme lord—although that term [is] more strictly applicable to Īśvara, the manifestation of Brahman in the form of a personal god. But Bhagavān (the Lord); Kṛṣṇa, his song is the Bhagavad Gita, the song of the Lord. There’s always the idea of the king and the ruler attached, but not in the Chinese Tao philosophy.


The Tao is not something different from nature, from ourselves, from our surrounding trees and waters and air. The Tao is the way all that behaves. And so the basic Chinese idea of the universe is really that it’s an organism. And as we shall see when we get on to Zhuang Zhou—who is the sort of elaborator on Lao Tzu—he sees everything operating together so that nowhere can you find the controlling center. There isn’t any. The world is a system of interrelated components, none of which can survive without each other. Just as in the case of bees and flowers: you will never find bees around in a place where there aren’t flowers, and you will never find flowers around in a place where there aren’t bees or insects that do the equivalent job. And what that tells us secretly is that, although bees and flowers look different from each other, they’re inseparable. They (to use a very important Taoist expression) arise mutually.


This is one of the great phrases from the second chapter of Lao Tzu’s book, where he says—this character means “to have” or “to be.” And this next one is a very important character in Taoist philosophy. It means “no,” “negative”—wu (無) in Chinese—“not to be.” And then this curious expression for which we don’t have a really good corresponding idea in traditional Western thought. So: “to be and not to be mutually arise.” This character is based on the picture of a plant, something that grows out of the ground. So you could say: positive and negative, to be and not to be, yes and no, light and dark arise mutually; come into being. There’s no cause and effect, it’s not that relationship at all. It’s like the egg and the hen. So as the bees and the flowers coexist in the same way as high and low, back and front, long and short, loud and soft, all those experiences are experienceable only in terms of their polar experience. So the Chinese idea of nature is that all the various species arise mutually because they interdepend. And this total system of interdependence is the Tao. It involves certain other things that go along with Tao, but this mutual arising is the key idea to the whole thing. And it is—if you want to understand Chinese and Oriental thought in general—it is the most important thing to grasp.


Because, you see, we think so much in terms of cause and effect. We think of the universe today in Aristotelian and Newtonian ways, and in that philosophy the world is all separated. It’s like a huge amalgamation of billiard balls. And they don’t move until struck by another or by a cue, and so everything is going tock-tock-tock-tock, tock-tock-tock-tock, tock-tock-tock-tock all over the place—one thing starting off another in a mechanical way. But of course, from the standpoint of twentieth-century science, we know perfectly well now that that’s not the way it works. We know enough about relationships to see that that mechanical model which Newton devised was alright for certain purposes, but it breaks down now. Because we understand relativity, and we see how things go together in a kind of connected net rather than in a chain of billiard balls banging each other around.


So in in the philosophy of the Tao it is said—it’s always being said; you read this in every art book about Chinese art—that in Chinese painting man is always seen as in nature rather than dominating it. You get a painting entitled “Poet Drinking by Moonlight,” and you see a great landscape and, after some search with a magnifying glass, at last you see the poet stuck away in a corner somewhere, drinking wine. Whereas if we painted the subject “Poet Drinking by Moonlight,” the poet would be the most obvious thing in the picture. There he would be, dominating the whole thing, and the landscape off somewhere behind him. But all the Chinese painters put man—I mean the painters of the great classical tradition. There are Chinese painters who specialize in family portraits and do these very formal paintings of someone’s ancestor sitting on a throne. It’s quite a different category. But the Taoist-inspired painters, Zen-inspired painters, have this view of man as an integral part of nature—something in it, just as everything else is in it (flowers and birds), and not there, sent into this world, commissioned by some sort of supernatural being, to come into this world and farm it and dominate it. So then, the whole conception of nature is as a self-regulating, self-governing—indeed, democratic—organism. But it has a totality. It all goes together. And this totality is the Tao.

Part 2


When we can speak in Taoism of “following the course of nature,” “following the way,” what it means is more like this: doing things in accordance with the grain. It doesn’t mean you don’t cut wood, but it means that you cut wood along the lines where wood is most easy to cut. And you interact with other people along lines which are the most genial. And this, then, is the great fundamental principle which is called wú wéi: “not to force anything.” I think that’s the best translation. It’s often called “not doing,” “not acting,” “not interfering.” But “not to force” seems to me to hit the nail on the head. Like, don’t ever force a lock; you’ll bend the key or break the lock. You jiggle until it revolves. So wúwéi is always to act in accordance with the pattern of things as they exist. Don’t impose on any situation a kind of interference that is not really in accordance with the situation.


For example: we have a slum, and the people are in difficulty and so on, and they need better housing. Now, if you go in with a bulldozer and knock the slum down, and you put in its place by some architect’s imaginative notions of what is a super-efficient highrise apartment building to store people, you create a total mess. Utter chaos. A slum has what we would call an ecology. It has a very complex system of relationships going in it by which the thing is already a going concern, even though it isn’t going very well. Anybody who wants to alter that situation must first of all become sensitive to all the conditions and relationships going on there.


It’s terribly important, then, to have this feeling of the interdependence of every form of life upon every other form of life. How we, for example, cultivate animals that we eat, and look after them, and build them up, and see that they breed in reasonable quantities. We don’t do it too well, as a matter of fact; especially troubles are rising about supplies of fish in the ocean. All sorts of things. But you have to see that life, that the so-called conflict of various species with each other, is not actually a competition. It’s a very strange system of interrelationship, of things feeding on each other and cultivating each other at the same time—the idea of the friendly enemy, the necessary adversary who is part of you. You have conflicts going on in your own body: all kinds of microorganisms are eating each other up. And if that wasn’t happening you wouldn’t be healthy. So all those interrelationships, whether they appear to be friendly relationships (as between bees and flowers) or conflicting relationships (as between birds and worms), they are actually forms of cooperation. And that is mutual arising. You have to understand this as the basis, apply this “not forcing anything,” and you get spontaneity: a life which is so of itself, which is natural, which is not forced, which is not unduly self-conscious.


Now, another term that is important—although I’m not aware that this word occurs in Lao Tzu’s book; it’s found in greater use at a much later time in Chinese thought in a philosophy that is called Neo-Confucian, and it’s also used in Buddhism—but it is a very useful word for understanding the sort of order that all this constitutes. It’s the word (理), and this means, originally, “the markings in jade,” or perhaps “the grain of wood,” or “the fiber in muscle.” It is translated nowadays in most dictionaries as “reason” or “principle,” but this isn’t a very good translation. Joseph Needham suggested that “organic pattern” was an ideal translation of this word.


Now, you see, the markings in jade are always regarded as beautiful. You might say (if you look down at the water here) when you see the waves break: there are patterns in the foam. Now, if you watch those patterns you know they never make an aesthetic mistake. Never! But they’re not symmetrical and they’re very difficult to describe. They’re wiggly. So are the markings in jade. So is the grain in wood. But we love the grain wood. And, you see, [???] has done these paintings of rocks based on examples, I think, in a Chinese book called The Mustard Seed Garden. These all exhibit —that is to say, they are forms which we know are orderly, and we can distinguish them from messes quite clearly. And so, in the same way, the foam patterns, the rock patterns, the patterns of vegetation, are at once extraordinarily orderly, but they don’t have an obvious order. Nobody can ever pin it down. That’s what I’d like to say. You know that there is order there. There’s something quite different from a mess. But there’s no way of really getting it.


Now, in order to be able to paint that sort of way, or to live that sort of way, or to deliver justice that way (if you were a judge), you have to have it innately. You have to have an essential sense of , and there’s no way prescribing it. This is the very devil for teachers. Because, you see, all our universities and schools are trying to teach creativity. That’s the great thing these days, you know? And here at Esalen all sorts of people are giving courses and workshops in creativity. Now, the trouble is this: if we found out a method whereby we could teach creativity and everybody could just explain how it was done, it would no longer be of interest. What always is an essential element in the creative is the mysterious, the dark. It’s like the black in lacquer. The impenetrable, and yet the profound depth out of which glorious things come, but nobody can see why.


There’s a poem which says that:

When the bird calls

The mountain becomes more mysterious.

You imagine, for example, you’re in a mountain valley and everything is very silent. And suddenly a crow squawks somewhere. You don’t know where that crow is, and that little sound emphasizes the silence. Now, all those things have in them, you see, an element of mystery. There’s a Chinese poem which puts it this way. It is a poem written by a man who has gone to find a sage in the mountains, and the sage has a little hut at the foot of the mountain, and a boy there who is his servant:

I asked the boy beneath the pines

He said, “The master’s gone alone

Herb-gathering somewhere on the Mount.

Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.


So then we move to a second term that is extremely important. The expression zìrán is the term that we translate “nature” when we translate Chinese. But this term expresses this whole point of view. It doesn’t say “nature,” “natura”—which means, in a way, “class of things”—it means literally “self-so,” “what is so of itself,” “what happens of itself,” and thus “spontaneity.” And in the Tao Te Ching, early on, Lao Tzu says: “the Tao’s method is to be so of itself.”


Now, we might translate that “automatic,” were it not that the word automatic has a mechanical flavor. Zìrán, as this is called (or shisen in Japanese), means “spontaneous,” yes. It happens as your heart beats. You don’t do anything about it, you don’t force your heart to beat, you don’t make it beat. It does it by itself. Now, figure a world in which everything happens by itself. It doesn’t have to be controlled, it’s allowed. Whereas you might say the idea of God involves the control of everything going on, the idea of the Tao is the ruler who abdicates and trusts all the people to conduct their own affairs; to let it all happen. So this doesn’t mean, you see, that there isn’t a unified organism and everything is in chaos. It means that the more liberty you give, the more love you give, the more you allow things in yourself and in your surroundings to take place, the more order you will have.

Part 3


It is believed generally, in India, that when a person sets out on the way of liberation, his first problem is to become free from his past karma. The popular theory of karma, the word that literally means “action” or “doing” in Sanskrit, so that when we say that something that happens to you is your karma, it’s like saying in English “it’s your own doing.” But in popular Indian belief karma is a sort of built-in moral law, or a law of retribution, such that all the bad things you do and all the good things you do have consequences which you have to inherit. And so long as karmic energy remains stored up, you have to work it out. And what the sage endeavors to do is a kind of action, which in Sanskrit is called niṣkāmakarma. Niṣkāma means “without passion” or “without attachment.” Karma: “action.” And so whatever action he does, he renounces the fruits of the action, so that he acts in a way that doesn’t generate future karma, because future karma continues you in the wheel of becomingsaṃsāra, the round—and keeps you being reincarnated.


Now then, in that case, when the time comes that you start to get out of the chain of karma, all the creditors that you have start presenting themselves for payment. In other words, a person who begins, say, to study yoga is felt that he will suddenly get sick, or that his children will die, or that he loses money. All sorts of catastrophes will occur because the karmic debt is being cleared up. And it is in no hurry to be cleared up if you’re just living along like anybody, but if you embark on the spiritual life a certain hurry occurs. And therefore, since this is known, it’s rather discouraging to start these things. The Christian way of saying the same thing is that, if you plan to change your life (shall we say, to turn over a new leaf), you mustn’t let the devil know. Because he will oppose you with all his might if he suddenly discovers that you’re going to escape from his power. So, for example, if you have a bad habit—say, you drink too much—and you make a New Year’s resolution that during this coming year you’ll stop drinking, that’s a very, very dangerous thing to do because the devil will immediately know about it. And what will happen will be this: see, he will confront you with the prospect of 365 drinkless days. And that will be awful, you know? Just overwhelming. And you won’t be able to make much more than three days on the wagon. So, in that case, you compromise with the devil and say: “Just today I’m not going to drink,” you see? But tomorrow, maybe. You know, we’ll go back. Then, when tomorrow comes, you say: “Oh, just another day. Let’s try. That’s all.” And the next day you say: “Oh, one more day won’t make much difference.” So you only do it for the moment, and you don’t let the devil know that you have a secret intention of going on day after day after day after day.


But of course there’s something still better than that, and that is not to let the devil know anything. And that means, of course, not to let yourself know. One of the many meanings of that saying “Let not your left hand know what your right hand doeth” it is just this. And that was why, in the Zen discipline, the great deal of it centers around acting without premeditation. As those of you know who read Herrigel’s book Zen in the Art of Archery, it was necessary to release the bowstring without first saying “now.” There’s a wonderful story you may also have read by a German writer von Kleist about a boxing match with a bear. The man can never defeat this bear because the bear always knows his plans in advance and is ready to deal with any situation. The only way to get through to the bear would be to hit the bear without having first intended to do so. That would catch him. And so this is one of the great, great problems in the spiritual life, or whatever you want to call it: is to be able to have intention and act simultaneous. By this means you escape karma and you escape the devil.


So you might say that the Taoist is exemplary in this respect; that this is getting free from karma without making any previous announcement. Of simply—supposing we have a train and we want to unload the train of its freight cars. You can go to the back end and you can unload them one by one and shunt them into the siding, but the simplest of all ways of unloading is to uncouple between the engine and the first car, and that gets rid of the whole bunch at once. And it is in that sort of way, you see, that the Taoist gets rid of karma without challenging it. And so it has the reputation, you see, of being the easy way.


There are all kinds of yogas and ways for people who want to be difficult. And one of the great gambits of a man like Gurdjieff was to make it all seem as difficult as possible, because that challenged the vanity of his students. If some teacher, some guru, says, “Really, this isn’t difficult at all. It’s perfectly easy,” some people will say, “Oh, he’s not really that the real thing. We want something tough and difficult.” When we see somebody starts out giving you a discipline that’s very, very weird and rigid, people think: now there is a thing. That man means business! See? And so they flatter themselves (by going to such a guy) that they are serious students, whereas the other people are only dabblers and so on. Alright, if you have to do it that way, that’s the way you have to do it. But the Taoist is the kind of person who shows you the shortcut, and shows you how to do it by intelligence rather than effort. Because that’s what it is.


Taoism is (in that sense) what everybody’s looking for: the easy way in, the shortcut; using cleverness instead of muscle. So the question naturally arises: isn’t it cheating? When in any game somebody really starts using his intelligence, he will very likely be accused of cheating. And to draw the line between skill and cheating is a very difficult thing to do. You see, the inferior intelligence will always accuse a superior intelligence of cheating. That’s its way of saving face. “You beat me by means that weren’t fair.” We were originally having a contest to find out who had the strongest muscles. And, you know, we were pushing against it like this, this, this, this. And this would prove who have the strongest muscles. But then you introduce some gimmick into it—some judo trick or something like that, you see—and you’re not playing fair! So in the whole domain of ways of liberation there are routes for the stupid people and routes for the intelligent people. And the latter are faster.


This was perfectly clearly explained by Huineng, the six patriarch of Zen in China, in his sūtra where he says: “The difference between the gradual school and the sudden school is they both arrive at the same point, but the gradual is for slow-witted people and the sudden is for fast-witted people.” Can you, in other words, find a way that sees into your own nature, that sees into the Tao, immediately? And at the end of this morning’s talk I pointed out to you the immediate way; the way through now. When you know that this moment is the Tao, and this moment is—considered by itself, without past and without future—eternal, neither coming into being or going out of being, there is nirvāṇa. And there is a whole Chinese philosophy of time based on this. It hasn’t, to my knowledge, been very much discussed by Taoist writers. It’s been more discussed by Buddhist writers. But it’s all based on the same thing.


Dōgen (the great thirteenth-century Japanese Zen Buddhist) studied in China, and he wrote a book called Shōbōgenzō. A rōshi recently said to me in Japan: “That’s a terrible book, because it tells you everything! It gives the whole secret away.” But in the course of this book he says there is no such thing as a progression in time. The spring does not become the summer. There is first spring and then there is summer. So, in the same way, you now do not become you later. This is T. S. Eliot’s idea in Four Quartets, where he says that the person who has settled down in the train to read the newspaper is not the same person who stepped onto the train from the platform. And therefore, also, you who sit here are not the same people who came in at the door. These states are separate, each in its own place. There was the coming-in-at-the door person. But there is actually only the here-and-now-sitting person. And the person sitting here and now is not the person who will die.


Because we are all a constant flux, and the continuity of the person from past through present to future is as illusory, in its own way, as the upward movement of the red lines on a revolving barber pole. You know, it goes round and round and round, and the whole thing seems to be going up or going down—whichever the case may be. But actually nothing is going up or down. So when you throw a pebble into the pond and you make concentric rings of waves, there is an illusion that the water is flowing outwards. And no water is flowing outwards at all. Water is only going up and down. What appears to move outward is the wave, not the water.


So this kind of philosophical argument says that our seeming to go along in a course of time doesn’t really happen. The Buddhists say:

Suffering exists, but no one who suffers.

Deeds exist, but no doers are found.

A path there is, but no one who follows it.

And nirvāṇa is, but no one who attains it.

So in this way they look upon the continuity of life as the same sort of illusion that is produced when you take a cigarette, and in the dark whirl it, and the illusion of a circle is created. Whereas there is only the one point of fire.


The argument then is: so long as you’re in the present, there aren’t any problems. The problems exist only when you allow presence to amalgamate. There’s a way of putting this in Chinese. It is rather interesting. They have a very interesting sign. This. It’s pronounced niàn (念), and in Japanese nen. And the top part of the character means “now,” and the bottom part means the “mind-heart,” the xīn (心). And so this is, as it were, an instant of thought. In Sanskrit they use this character as the equivalent for the Sanskrit word śāna. Then, if you double this character (put it twice or three times, and I’ll write the Chinese for “ditto”) Niàn, niàn, niàn means “thought after thought after thought.”


Now, the Zen master Jōshū was once asked, “What is the mind of a child?” And he said, “A ball in a mountain stream.” “What do you mean by ‘a ball in the mountain stream’?” He said, “Thought after thought after thought, with no block.” So he was using, of course, the mind of the child as the innocent mind; the mind of a person who’s enlightened. One thought follows another without hesitation. The thought arises, it doesn’t wait to arise—as when you clap your hands, the sound issues without hesitation. When you strike flint, the spark comes out. It doesn’t wait to come out. And that means that there’s no block. So “thought, thought, thought”—niàn, niàn, niàn—describes what we call in our world the stream of consciousness. Blocking consists in letting the stream become connected, chained together, in such a way that when the present thought arises, it seems to be dragging its past, or resisting its future, saying “I don’t want to go.” When, then, the connection—the dragging, it’s better to call it—of these thoughts drops, you’ve broken the chain of karma.


If you think of this in comparison with certain problems in music it’s very interesting, because when we listen to music we hear melody only because we remember the sequence. We hear the intervals between the tones, but more than that, we remember the tones that led up to the one we are now hearing, and we are trained musically to anticipate certain consequences. And to the extent that we get the consequences we anticipate, we feel that we understand the music. But to the extent that the composer does not adhere to the rules and gives us unexpected consequences, we feel that we don’t understand the music. And if he gives us harmonic relationships which we are not trained to accept—that is to say, to expect—we say: “Well, this man is just writing garbage.” But of course it becomes apparent that the perception of music, the ability to hear melody, will depend upon a relationship between past, present, and future sounds. And you might say, “Well, you’re talking about a way of living that would be equivalent to listening to music with a tone-deaf mind. So that you would eliminate the melody and have only noise. And so in your Taoist way of life you would eliminate all meaning and have only senseless present moments.”


Up to a point that’s true. That is, in a way, what Buddhists also mean by seeing things in their suchness. What is so bad about dying, for example? It’s really no problem. When you die, you just drop dead. That’s all there is to it. But what makes it a problem is that you’re dragging a past. And all those things you’ve done—all those achievements you’ve made, all these relationships and people that you’ve accumulated as your friends—all that has to go! See, it isn’t there now. I mean, a few friends might be around you, but all that past that identifies you as who you are, which is simply memory, all that has to go. And we feel just terrible about that. But if we didn’t—if we were just dying, that’s all—death wouldn’t be a problem.


So, likewise, the chores of everyday life: they become intolerable when everything ties together. All the past and the future: you feel it dragging at you every way. Supposing you wake up in the morning and it’s a lovely morning. Let’s take today, right here and now: here we are in this paradise of a place, Big Sur, and some of us have got to go to work on Monday. Is that a problem? For many people it is. It spoils the taste of what’s going on now. When we wake up in bed on Monday morning and think of the various hurdles we’ve got to jump that day, immediately we feel sad and bored and bothered—whereas actually we’re just lying in bed.


So the Taoist trick says: simply live now and there will be no problems. That’s the meaning of the Zen saying:

When you are hungry, eat.

When you are tired, sleep.

When you walk, walk.

When you sit, sit.

Rinzai, the great Tang Dynasty master, said:

In the practice of Buddhism there is no place for using effort. Sleep when you’re tired, move your bowels, eat when you’re hungry. That’s all. The ignorant will laugh at me but the wise will understand.

And so, also, the meaning of this wonderful Zen saying. Tài (太)—that’s the character for the sun; tài—that is good day. Every day is a good day. On condition, you see, that tài, tài is like niàn, niàn. They come one after another, and yet there’s only this one. You don’t link them.


This, as I intimated just a moment ago, seems to be an atomization of life. Things just do what they do. The flower goes poof, and people go this way, go that way, and so on, and that’s what’s happening. It has no meaning, it has no destination, it has no value. It’s just like that. And when you see that, you see it’s a great relief. That’s all it is. But then, when you are firmly established in suchness—in that it’s just this moment—you can begin again to play with the connections. Only: you’ve seen through them. But now, you see, they don’t haunt you. Because you know that there isn’t any continuous “you” running on from moment to moment who originated at some time in the past and will die at some time in the future. All that’s disappeared. So you can have enormous fun anticipating the future, remembering the past, and playing all kinds of continuities. This is the meaning of that famous Zen saying about mountains are mountains:

To the naïve man mountains are mountains, waters are waters.

To the intermediate student mountains are no longer mountains, waters are no longer waters. (In other words, they’ve all dissolved into the point-instant; to the kṣaṇa.)

But for the fully perfected student, mountains are again mountains and waters are again waters.

Part 4


In so many athletic and artistic skills you will find a teacher who teaches you how to do it without forcing it. I once studied the piano—I am absolutely no good at it now because I don’t practice; I’m involved in other things. But I had an absolutely superb teacher for a while. He was a very, very great musicologist. You know, there was nothing sloppy about his standards. They were of the highest perfection. But when I first went to him he said, “Let me see what you can do so.” So I played him a [Scalahi ?] sonata. He said, “Yeah, but the trouble with you is you’re trying too hard. You’re hitting the piano, and you should never hit a piano.” He said, “Actually, all you’ve got to do in order to play a piano is to drop your hands on it. And you need to have relaxed arms.” So he made me practice for a while. He felt my muscles to see whether I was relaxed or not. And he said, “Now just drop your hand on the piano. I don’t care what notes you hit, but just drop your hand. Let it fall.” See, there’s enough energy in the weight of your arm to play as loud as you will or as soft as you will. But just let it drop. He said, “That’s all you have to do: drop your hands.” And kept feeling my arms. He said, “No, no, you’re getting too tense. You must pretend you are Lao Tzu.” He was a very educated man. He knew about these things.


Then he said, “Now, after dropping your hands, all you’ve got to do is hit the right notes!” And he said, “You know, the same thing is involved in making a very complex trill.” And he demonstrated. He just dropped his hand on the piano, and at the same time his fingers went flrripp, like that, and there was this magnificent ornamentation. Then we went on with practices for some time. He said, “Now let’s get around to hitting the right notes.” And he found immediately I had a block on reading music. Because when I was a small boy and studied piano at the age of roughly eight, I had a pestiferous teacher who was a mistress in this private school I went to in England, and she used to sit beside you and hit your fingers with a pencil every time you made a wrong note. Gregory Bateson, I think, was taught piano as a child in such a way, and he has a total block on reading music. He’s got a brilliant mind, you know. He’s a mathematician and great anthropologist, ethnologist, and so on. But he had a total block to reading music. And so this man had to teach me to overcome my block. And he said, “Now, first of all, feel perfectly free to make mistakes. Everybody’s going to make some mistakes, and it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake. And if you do make a mistake, don’t go back and do it over again, but just go on. So play as slowly as you like. Don’t hurry. Just so long as you keep the relative rhythm, the relative values of thing. Go slow and take it easy.”


Another thing is not to pay so much attention to the notes, but to the distances or intervals between them. Because that is the significant jump. And this sort of overcomes to the difficulty of key signatures. We started out learning music with this weird system that the lines on the stave really represent the major scale of C. And that therefore, when you put a key signature at the beginning, you remember that every time you—supposing you’re playing an F—every time you hit B, it should be B-flat. Well, that’s an extremely tedious way of learning music, and you just have to think in different keys (that’s the only way to adjust to a key signature), and play the thing according to the intervals appropriate for that key.


But, you see, in this instance this man—although he was a great perfectionist and was highly skilled in music—he used intelligence first of all to give you a shortcut, and then he also used relaxation to enter into a difficult thing by the easiest route. In Zen training, in its initial stages, the master discourages intellectualization. You know, you come in with a lot of ideas, but this difficulty you have is not going to be solved by ideas. It’s not going to be solved by talk and intellectualization. So, in the same way, this is discouraged. Because intellectualization sets up a kind of interval or lack of rapport between you and your life. You think about things so much that you get into the state where you’re eating the main you head of the dinner. You’re valuing the money more than the wealth. You are confusing—as Korzybski would say—the map with the territory. And what they want to do is to get you into the territory; to get you into relationship with what is as distinct from ideas about what is. And this is an important preliminary discipline.


But later on you can realize that the process of thinking is also what is. Thoughts, in their own domain, are as real as rocks. Words have their own reality as much as the sky and water. Thoughts about things are, in their own turn, things. And so they lead you eventually to the point where you intellectualize and think in an immediate way. Let’s go on and ask, then, a further problem: how about thinking about thinking? Wouldn’t that be pretty far off? Here is a person removed from life because he’s in the intellectual world, and he’s all living in symbols. He is a kind of a living bookworm. Now, what about a librarian? A person who writes books about books; a bibliographer? A classifier of classifications? That’s a pretty dusty occupation. And, as we know, sometimes librarians seem to be very dusty people. They seem way removed from life, all tied up in their categories and catalogues and musts and mustn’ts. And ugh! That too, you see, is also its own level of reality. And thinking about thinking can be lived with just as much direct, fresh spontaneity as just living without thinking.


But in order to live with full spontaneity you have to be in a position where you no longer feel the symbol—the thought, the idea, the word—as a block to life, no longer feel it as something you are using as a sort of means of escape. To be able to use the symbol not as means of escape you have to know, in the first place, that you can’t escape—and not only that you can’t escape, but there is no one to escape. There is no one to be delivered from the prison of life. The liberation of the mind from identifying itself with symbols is the same process—exactly!—as breaking up the links between the successive moments. The illusion of a continuing self that travels from moment to moment and picks them all up, corresponding to the illusion of the moving water in the wave, and the solid circle created by the moving cigarette point in the dark.


This is the meaning, then, that there is no one who perceives anything, no one who experiences anything. There is simply seeing and experiencing. We introduce all these redundancies through talk. We talk about “seeing sights,” “hearings sounds,” “feeling feelings.” All that is irrelevant. There are sights. There are sounds. There are feelings. You don’t feel a feeling. The feeling itself already contains the feeling of it. Do you see? It’s very simple. To have sight, you don’t need something to be seen on the one hand and a seer of something to be seen on the other, and then, on some mysterious way, they come together. The seer and the seen, the knower and the known are what we call terms. Terms mean ends. And they are what in mathematical language are called limits.


Now, when we take a stick, the stick has its two ends—they are the terms of the stick. But the ends of the stick do not exist as sort of separate points which encounter each other on the occasion of meeting at a stick. They are actually abstract points. The ends themselves, considered as themselves, are purely geometrical. They’re Euclidean imaginations. The reality is the stick, you see? So in the same way with that phenomenon called experience: the reality is not an encounter of the knower and the known, the reality is an experience which can be termed as having two aspects, two ends—the knower and the known. But that’s only a figure of speech.


Neurologically—this is true—everything that you see is yourself. What you are aware of is a state of your nervous system and there is no other knowledge whatsoever. That doesn’t mean that your nervous system is the only existing reality and that there is nothing beyond your nervous system. But it does mean that all knowledge is knowledge of you, and that therefore, in some mysterious way, you are not different from the external world that you know. If you see, then, that “what you experience” and “you” are the same thing, then realize also (going beyond that) that you are in the external world you’re looking at. You see, I’m in your external world, you’re in my external world. But I’m in the same world you are. My inside is not separable from the outside world. It’s something the so-called outside world is doing. Just as it’s doing the tree and the ocean and everything else that is in the outside world.


Now isn’t that great? You see, we’ve completely got rid of the person in the trap—the one who either dominates the world or suffers under it. It’s vanished! It never was there. And when that happens, you see, you can play any life game you want to. Link the past and the present and the future together. Play roles. But you know; you’ve seen through this great—they call it the great social lie: that one accumulates (owns) experiences, memories, sights, sounds, and from that other people, possessions, so on. Building up always this idea of one’s self as the haver of all of this. If you think that you’ve been had.

Alan Watts


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