Time and the Future

July 1967

Immerse yourself in a mind-expanding seminar, where Watts illuminates the illusion of time and history, how our fixation on the future breeds anxiety, and how to break free and find fulfillment in the elusive present moment.


Part 1

Blinded by Conventions


So this is the first of a series of four weekends devoted to the subject of the future, and each weekend is pretty much self-contained—there’s a certain continuity, but it’s moving towards a center point from various different points on a circumference—and in the first weekend, this weekend, we are considering the subject of time and the whole concept of the future. And the point of departure that I would like to suggest to you is that time is a social institution and not a physical reality. There is, in other words, no such thing as time in the natural world—the world of stars and waters and mountains and clouds and living organisms. There is such a thing as rhythm: rhythm of tides, rhythm of biological processes. But time as such is a social institution in the same way that language is, that number is, that concepts are, and all measurements—inches, meters, lines of latitude and longitude. All those things are social institutions or conventions. The word “convention” from the Latin convenere: “to come together,” “to agree about something,” to hold a convention. And thus, of course, in its deteriorated sense, when we say of something it’s purely conventional, that is to say: you needn’t take it seriously.


Now, of course, are we going to take time seriously? That is the big question. And it depends what you mean. If you don’t understand that time is a convention, of course you take it seriously and you are driven by time. “Time is money.” “Time is of the essence.” And we do—don’t we?—live in a culture (or complex of cultures in the Western world) where we are literally driven by time. If you read a book like Jules Henry’s marvelous work Culture Against Man, he documents in a most extraordinary way to what an extent this particular culture is driven, so that even the psychologists have altered the old-fashioned word “instincts,” and now they call them “drives.” Because there’s this feeling: you’ve got to make that deadline. There’s something there you’ve got to get to. And people feel driven even when—supposing something’s going to happen, you’ve got an appointment coming up, and some people find that in a strange way unsettling. They are so either eager to make this thing or so anxious about it, that in between time they can’t do anything else. They’re incapacitated until it happens—until the blessed event, or whatever it is, occurs.


But in the natural physical world there is rhythm and there is motion. And time, then, obviously, is a way of measuring motion by comparing motion with some sort of constant. Now, the constant in question of time is a circle marked out in 360 or 60 degrees. And that is time. We cause a hand, a pointer, to revolve around that circle at a regular speed, and that gives us a constant with which we compare all kinds of motions and rhythms. And so the clock is just like a ruler, and is as abstract as a ruler, and must be taken just for that—which means, in a way, not seriously, you see?


That doesn’t mean, of course, that you say: well, from now on we’re going to melt down all clocks and use them for something else. Because conventions—social institutions—are very valuable. Corresponding to the watch there is the compass, and that also is a circle divided four ways—north, south, east, and west. The Buddhist speak of ten directions, because they have not only the eight points of the compass, but they add to that “above” and “below.” And in their mythology they have guardian kings whose duty it is to guard the ten directions. And you see them at the entrances to temples and things like that, all of fearsome aspect—the cosmic traffic cops who are that fierce and are that firm about it all because it is, after all, important that I can meet you at four o’clock in the afternoon at the corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. Because if we couldn’t make that sort of agreement, that sort of convention, we couldn’t convene. And insofar as it is important to us to meet, we require these sorts of compasses and timers in the vast emptiness of the cosmos.


But we must recognize that these things are, as it were, written across vast emptiness. The ground of being—as Tillich calls god—has nothing in it where you can stand. You can’t catch hold of it. You can’t describe it. But you can imagine all sorts of things in it—indeed, perhaps the whole physical universe is such an imagination. But don’t take it for being ultimately real. There are, of course, sort of gradations of reality. One could say the clock, the lines of latitude and longitude, and words, and things like that—abstractions—have a rather flimsy kind of reality.


Next in order will come, of course, what we call ordinarily the physical world. And we say: well, that’s material. That matters. And so it has a little harder kind of reality. And most people stop there, and they think there’s nothing at a deeper level than that. And that’s simply because of the limitations of consciousness, of [Man’s] conscious attention. Conscious attention is so worked out that it tends to ignore all constants. In other words, when you move from the Middle West and come and live in California, at first when you get here you think, “Well this is a fantastic place!” See? It is so beautiful and so lush and so on. And you stay here; after a while, in a few years, you start taking the place for granted—because it’s a constant stimulation of consciousness. Also, for example, when you’re listening to recorded music, there is always a kind of electronic hum. But we screen that out and ignore it. And so it becomes unconscious. Well so, in a similar way, there is what you might call a continuum, a something or other, in which all physical phenomena exist. And you ignore it unless, in some way or other, you can make it hum.


And so various practices—like performing yoga exercises or Zen meditations or certain kinds of chemicals—can cause your entire sensorium to hum. And this draws your attention to the ground, the background, of everything that you’re perceiving which you ordinarily ignore. I think there is going around an entirely new religion called “Hum.” And Hum has no organization, no hierarchy, no doctrines, only music and ritual. And just hum. If anybody asks what’s it all about, they say, “Well, come and see! Come and hear! Come and hum!” That would be kind of nice to have something like that. I don’t know whether it exists or not, but it ought to.


But, at any rate, the continuum in which everything occurs is of course basically what you are—only, because we get absorbed in details, we forget all about it. Deep down, far, far within yourself, you know very well indeed that you are that, and that what we call consciousness and unconsciousness, coming and going, life and death, are changing modalities within this whatever it is we are. And your identities come and go, your forms, your bodies, your this, your that—it’s all oscillating, like everything oscillates. It wouldn’t hum if it didn’t.


And so, though, we are, each one of us, all this cosmos and all this universe; its ground. We don’t know it. Because we can’t make it an item of knowledge, a particular, and we think the only kind of knowledge there is is knowledge of particulars. A logical positivist will argue this to the death and say, “Well, because your thing that is common to all makes no difference.” It’s true in a mathematical equation. You cancel out as irrelevant terms that are equivalent on both sides of the equation: you remove them as redundant.


But, you know, these things aren’t redundant. While it’s perfectly true that a statement about the ground of being is (from the standpoint of formal logic) quite meaningless, it makes an enormous difference to the way a person actually feels and behaves—whether he’s aware of the ground of being or not. The ground of being isn’t a logical proposition, it enters into human life as an extremely vivid experience. And the difference between a person who sees that and a person who doesn’t is quite startling. They behave differently—it may not be the way you want them to behave, but it’s sure different. And so it’s like being in love. It’s quite unreasonable to be in love. But when you’re in love, you’re entirely changed and you behave differently, even though you may be crazy. So certain crazy things, like being in love or like being aware of the ground of being, are immense factors in human life—even though, from the standpoint from academic philosophy and a kind of scientic (I won’t say “scientific”, I want to say “scientismic:” kind of phony science), and they shouldn’t be matters of scholarly attention—nevertheless, they’re tremendously important.


So within this enormous so-called void—call it void not because it’s nothing in the literal sense, but because you can’t pin it down. But you can experience it. And when you do experience it, you wonder why the devil you didn’t see it all along, because it was so obvious. Nothing is more obvious than this. So within that void, you see, we set up these two great circles: the time circle and the space circle. And we notch them all the way around, and we use these concepts—which are really in our heads—as constants by which we regulate all sorts of events.


Now then, when you lose sight of the conventionality of these things because you are absorbed in details and have become unconscious of the totality, you begin to invest emotions in them. You may, for example, go to a game of some kind—football, basketball, or chess, you know—and you watch the game, and you know it’s only a game—at least that’s was what you understood when you went in), but as it progresses and you become more absorbed in the back and forth of the game, your emotions begin to be affected. And you start cheering for one side, or want to take the part of the underdog, or something of this kind. And that’s what happened to us when we were born. We got into a gaming room, and it was only a game—but we begin to take it all terribly seriously. And each one of us is given a part in the game. And people tell us who we are from babyhood up. They say: “This is the way you are.” “It’s not like you to do a thing like that,” see? That’s what your mother says to you. Because she establishes an identity for you, and this identity is something you have to make, because you’ve got to amount to something, you’ve got to be someone. I mean, as if—of course, in the beginning, I suppose, really, we are nobody. But that simply means “no body.”


But we are persuaded all along, and all through life we begin to build up this precious identity which is our part in the game. It’s like you play black, I’m playing white, or you’re diamonds, I’m clubs, or whatever it is, you see? And so we get a tremendous emotional investment in this identity, and its fortunes, on what kind of game—you know, like the old-fashioned Snakes and Ladders, when you land on a certain square and you have to go back, and so on—all this absorbs us. And then finally we discover that the props that we’ve all put together to constitute this identity are wearing out, and we’re not able to keep up this identity. And gradually we get old and we begin to fail. And then there’s all this thought that, well, it’s too bad it’s all over. Because we’ve got bamboozled into thinking that that was what was really going on. So one of the greatest hoaxes in this whole thing is the future. I don’t know why I should be giving a whole series of seminars on the future, but it’s important to understand thoroughly the nature of hoaxes.


Now, in talking in this sort of way, don’t take me too seriously. In all my writing and lecturing I exaggerate. Because if I don’t exaggerate no one will listen, because all philosophers who take a moderate turn of voice and say, “On the one hand this, and on the other hand that,” and “after all, we should realize that all points of view should be taken into consideration,” one reveres them for their calmness and their fair-mindedness. But when you listen to it all, have they stimulated you? Have they given you a new idea? No. Therefore, to teach in any way philosophy, you have to make outrageous statements—but with a warning to your listeners that you’re only doing this for effect, to get a point across, to provoke thought. Because my position as a philosopher is not a verbal position. My position as a philosopher is experiential. Not existential—experiential. That’s to say: the experience of the ground. And I will take any side. We’ve all kinds of patterns, but the whole point of doing that is: by showing you how various opinions cancel each other out you can come to the no-opinion, to the ground underneath, and experience that—which is as good, if not better, than falling in love.


But it’s important, then, to understand that to some extent this is a hoax: that we believe that the future is what we’re responsible for and what we’re supposed to live for, and that we say of a thing which we don’t think is any good “it has no future.” Now, when you contrast that—which is absolute common sense to most people living in the Western world; it’s the future we’ve got to work for—contrast that with the Indian Hindu/Buddhist idea of time, wherein which they feel that in the course of time everything falls apart, and that therefore there is nothing to be hoped for from the future.


Now, they would say to us: “Isn’t that obvious to you? Because, after all, don’t you see that all organisms, all entities whatsoever, fall apart in the end? Some go fast, some go slow. What do you mean, ‘the future’?” Individuals all fall apart. Eventually whole species fall apart. Something else comes, true—but for each thing that you can consider as an entity, as an individual, as a species, its future is death. And then they say to us furthermore: “You think of time as a progress, as something like a stairway or an ascending ladder, that goes on and on and on and up.” Maybe it has bumps in it where it occasionally goes down, but it’s like a graph of, you know, a successful business corporation looks like this. See? That’s how they want their graph to look. He says, “You’re absurd! The very thing you use for telling time is round! Don’t you see? It just goes ’round!” And so look at the stars: isn’t everything going ’round? Aren’t the galaxies going ’round? It is going ’round and ’round. It isn’t going anywhere, except ’round.


And we say to them, “Oh, you poor Hindus! The trouble with you is that you don’t have any technology, you have a terrible economy, most of you are starving, and you think life is just terrible, and therefore you have a pessimistic view of it.” Well, that makes them laugh themselves silly. They have a pessimistic view? Well, the point is: “We’re not pessimistic, because we know that the whole thing is a hoax. We know who we really are, and you poor Westerners, you’re bug-eyed! You rush around with long noses. You have deep-set eyes, and you go poking your noses into everything. You send out missionaries because you’re so uncertain of your own opinions that you have to convert everyone else to agree with you. And you’re quite mad. But you live for the future. And poor suckers! All you do, of course, by living for the future, is you create a great deal of trouble, because you’re involved in a process called history.”


Now here comes the nub of the very important matter: history. I’ve had the most amusing discussions with Orientals, and they have really no sense of history at all. For them, life goes around, and one year is pretty much the same as the next year. There are rhythms of birth and death, there are rhythms of rulers and revolutions, and this and that. But they don’t regard it as having some important progression in it. They have chronicles—at least the Chinese kept chronicles. But keeping chronicles is like keeping a diary or a day book. It’s a very different thing from writing history, where you’re trying to make out some sort of sense in the course of events. A chronicle is just: keep the records. And the Hindus didn’t even bother to keep chronicles properly. So it’s practically impossible to establish the date of a document from India unless it was quite recent, because every time they re-recited it or re-copied it, they’d update the names. Because the king in it was an archetypal king. Every king is an example of the archetypal king about whom this story is told. All these Hindu scriptures are like our fairy tales: “Once upon a time.” Who knows when. A million years ago? Twenty years ago? It’s all the same. Because the course of events and the rhythm is cyclic.


So we, on the other hand, from—St. Augustine was the real troublemaker—I’m not absolutely sure that the Hebrews had a linear theory of time. It’s questionable. They might’ve had one. Because they did look forward to the coming of the messiah, to the day of the lord. They had this apocalyptic idea that they were in such a wretched situation that there was going to come a day when the divine power would intervene in human events and set everything to right, and then there’d be a head-knocking session called the last judgment, and everyone would be put in order.


Well, what St. Augustine did with that, you see: he rejected the cyclic theory of time—not quite so much on account of the day of the lord, coming at the end of time, but on account of the incarnation. He was somehow fixed on the idea that, when Jesus was crucified, that was the one full perfect sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. It happened once. And if time is cyclic, he argued, this would have to happen again and again and again, and that couldn’t be. Therefore there is only one time, one progression of time, from the creation of the world, through its redemption by the sacrifice of the cross, and on to the final judgment. Then time would cease and we should be in eternity.


And from this, theologians increasingly began to think about the historicity of Jesus, and to emphasize that it was a historical fact, and that history (as worked out in the Bible stories from the creation through the fall, to the doings of Nor and Abraham, and the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt, and the giving of the law by Moses) all this was worked out as being the mighty acts of god which revealed the divine pattern for the course of human events.


And the funny thing is that, although many, many historians living today are not Christians and not Jews, and don’t believe in anything of that, they still think of history as a significant momentum towards progress—something that our children’s children’s children’s children are going to get. We all suffered and lived for them, but you’re going to inherit this goodie down the end of the line.


Now, we really don’t know and can’t talk about progress unless we know where we’re going, and are making progress towards that desired object. But most people involved in what they call progress haven’t the faintest idea where they’re going. I have found increasingly that businessmen and military men are astoundingly impractical. They just don’t know what they want. They think they know. I had a long discussion with Air Force strategic people, and they asked me and some other philosophers: what is your basis for moral behavior? So I pulled their legs and said: “The basis for my moral behavior is pure selfishness. A very practical selfishness. Of course, I’m talking like this because you’re all hard-headed people. I’m not going to give you any sentimentality and stupid stuff about love and so on, because you face reality. You’re military men, and you have to see that the United States of America, as a collective selfishness, is properly looked after.”


“Now,” I said, “of course, in my own personal life, when I’m selfish, I’m not too crude about it. I don’t run around hitting people over the head and telling them gimme, gimme, gimme. I pretend like I’m a public servant, that I’m out for their best interests, all that sort of thing. But that’s camouflage.” So then I said, “Now, the only trouble about this is that, to be effectively selfish you’ve got to answer two questions. The first is: what do you want? And the second is: what do you mean by ‘yourself’?” Well, you know, that just pulls the carpet out from under everything, because what do I want?


Well, if I answer as this kind of sensible human being—what do I want in life?—the really important thing I’ve had from the beginning, which is that I’m an incarnation of the ground of being like everybody else. That’s the most important thing, because you can’t get rid of that. The next thing is: of course I want food, I want friendship, companions, love, and general singing and dancing, and so on. And these are more or less attainable material realities.


But then I look at my very wealthy friends who ought to be able to have all these things, especially those who are extremely active in business, and I realize they don’t have them. They are the most miserable people. Here you’re a great executive of a very, very important corporation. To begin with, you are drowned in paper. You do nothing but scan paper and make decisions about paper all day. You may be the director of an oil company—you never get within sight of oil except when you drive your car! Mostly you’re surrounded with statistics about oil, finances about oil, and you are smothered in this. And you have to spend almost all day in a wretched office building in a place like New York. You dress like a funeral director. I’ve had lunch at the board of directors of a very important oil company that shall be nameless, and it’s like eating in a college cafeteria. The food was just… I mean, it was good food. It was extremely ordinary. But you would expect these great millionaires to be having caviar and glorious fish in aspic, and wines, and beautiful waitresses serving them, and to be lounging at tables like Romans. No, sir!


Then, if you’ve read an article in Look this week by Marshall McLuhan and George Leonard on the future of sex—fantastic—brings up some information that what they call the narrow gauge specialized male, that is the sort of guy that gets out there and sells, you know? And he mustn’t have any feelings, because that would be unmanly to have any feelings. Except he can have a kind of a rough ruh-ruh, you know? But so many of these men are like that. And it says that that role playing of that kind of male gives you ulcers and all kinds of complaints, and is more deadly than facing the bullets in Vietnam. And they all die before their wives. Because they are engaged in the pursuit of a completely fatuous goal.


This fatuous goal is the future. And it is symbolized above all by money. They make lots of it and have much more than they can even think about, and they have no idea what to do with it—except make more, except invest it in bigger and bigger units of something. And while they are harassed about that, and they wondering about the anti-trust boys, the Internal Revenue, their competitors, and all these ghouls who are involved in the game. They lie awake nights. They can’t go home and throw the whole thing off. They have to get completely boozed (that’s one way out) or tranquilized (which is another way out), or something or other in order to take it. And they call themselves realists. You see, they are utterly unrelated to the physical universe.


This is partly, of course, because of the education they’ve received. You see, if you go to an ordinary school such as we’ve had since the early nineteenth century, you discover that your education is purely cerebral. You are prepared to be an executive, a bureaucrat, some kind of clerk. You know the word “clerk” originally means “clergyman?” Because the clerics were the only people who were clever. Clever, clear, clerk, cleric—it’s all the same word originally, in English. They were the literate people, therefore they did all the bookkeeping and that kind of thing; the records. They got away with it, you see? And they convinced us that the records and the bookkeeping is more important than the actual goods being transacted. So that now people, you see, are much happier with money than with wealth—or think they are, try to persuade themselves that they are. But they bought a lemon.


So this guy—who thinks he works for the future—this great captain of industry condemns himself mostly to misery. There are a few exceptions, naturally. As I said, I always exaggerate everything. I know a few important businessmen who have some conception of how to enjoy themselves. I was amused meeting a young one a little while ago who had created one big corporation which had been bought up by another of the biggest shows going today. He was a member of the board of directors. And he said, “Now I’m 35 years old. I’ve made an awful lot of money and I’m going to drop out.” So he took off for India.


Well then, let’s go and look—we’ve had a little look at business. Let’s go an look at the military people. They don’t know what they want either. First of all, they invented a weapon which was completely insane, because it isn’t a weapon. It’s simply a contrivance for planetary suicide. Now, a weapon is a very specific thing. Now, a sword is a weapon. And notice it’s pointed and sharp and directional. Because when you learn, first thing you have to know about using a sword is where to put it, where to point it. And so it is selective. But things like biological warfare, poison gas, and nuclear bombs are not selective. And you don’t know when they’re going to blow back on you, or which way they’re going, what the consequences of them are. The only thing you can do with them is: you can pile them up and start playing lighting matches in a powder magazine. This is a very dangerous game that people might play with each other, where we’re both sitting in a powder magazine, and I dare you to drop that thing or we’ll blow ourselves both up if you don’t do what I want. Now, this isn’t strategy, it’s madness.


Beyond that, they don’t have any objective. It would be understandable if we were going to Vietnam because of all those gorgeous little Oriental girls. We were going to capture the whole lot and bring them back here. But we’re not. We are out to destroy something called Communism, and nobody really can figure out what it is. Because if Russia is a communist country, all it is is one great big corporate business. It’s one corporation instead of a cluster of corporations. And it works rather miserably, and I wouldn’t think you’d need to fight it. It’d just fall apart because it’s so boring. Of course, things in Russia—if you go back to the whole history of the thing—they were a lot worse when the brutal barons governed the country, and they are sort of better in a measly way. Like, in China, things are pretty terrible ever since the British and their friends made a mess of China many years ago, and China’s been an awful place. And things, again, in China, are kind of dowdy and uniform and dull. But it’s, so far as basic subsistence is concerned, it’s probably better than it was.


But my point is that we are fighting abstractions—for abstractions. Recently, the Congress of the United States passed an act against burning the American flag. Stiff penalties for burning the flag. And those same people who passed that act with a great flurry of patriotic speeches were actively burning up the country for which the flag stands! They are allowing every kind of scoundrelly use of the water, the air, the natural resources, and exploitation of the people, until the whole thing is being converted into a smog bowl. I flew a few days ago from New York right across the country to Los Angeles. And from New York to Denver there was smog over the whole country as far as I could see from 30,000 feet. And this is America the beautiful, you know? You burn up the flag, it’s terrible. Burn up the country, it’s quite okay. Because these people are completely confused between the symbolic world and the real world.


And so this historical thing, you see—which is a destiny in the future, always being pursued—is completely destructive. Because technology, clocks, instruments, measurements are fine for people who know how to use them; people who know what they want. But for people who don’t know what they want, and who think that the clock is the thing, you know, that’s what you need—I mean, the Russians are insane about this. The moment they move into a place with their army that has some kind of technical civilization, they capture all the wristwatches in sight, and they cover themselves with wristwatches like bracelets. Because they’re time crazy, too. But those things are very wonderful for people who, as I say, know how to use them. Because you can make significant plans for the future if—and only if—you are alive today and now, and know how to live now, and know what to do with now.


But if you don’t, you see, you never will. Because the only time to start living is immediately. Do it! I mean, you know, why wait around for something to happen? Let’s live it up now. Let’s have a ball, you see? But we don’t. Because we think that if we have it now, we won’t have it tomorrow. But if you’re always saving up to have it tomorrow, you never have it at all.

Well, let’s take an intermission.

Part 2

The Great Diversion


I was discussing this morning the way in which time—which is a measure of motion—involves us in certain illusions, principally what I call the historical illusion. That is to say that the meaning of life lies in living through a progression of events which culminates and finds its satisfaction in a future. And trying to show you how, in various ways, the illusion of history has been extremely destructive to people; how, for example, it fascinates us with symbols (they may be symbols of wealth such as money, or symbols of status), so that the people who are in our world highly successful cannot understand why their lives are so empty. Because they lack presence. They lack the full, rich relationship to the physical world in the here and now.


And because they don’t understand why they’re so miserable, they think they can cure their situation by more of the same—that is to say, by bigger and better futures, more money, more power, more status. And so they go on compounding the problem and still failing to understand why they’re increasingly miserable. And they don’t know what they want because their wants have, as it were, grown to dimensions where they’re inconceivable. And so they also don’t know who they are, because they have confused their true organic living being with the mask, the persona, the role constellated around the ego, which they have been taught to believe themselves to be.


None of this is to underrate the real uses of time—that is to say of clocks, because all time is a matter of clocks. There is no time in nature. There is rhythm in nature, yes. There is motion in nature. But the clock as a measure of motion is a human artifact. The world, as it spins on its axis, doesn’t tick.


And I also pointed out that the calibration of the clock—whereby we have hairlines to designate the point at which a certain second occurs—is symbolic of the emptiness of our moments. When the moment is reduced to a hairline, you feel that it’s here and gone, that you can’t every really be now because it’s all flying away, all flying away, and you can never sit down and be there. This was Faust’s problem, you see? When he attains his highest moment and is calling, “Ah, still delay, thou art so fair.” See?


The moment is a very curious thing. It isn’t fleeting at all. It looks as if it is, but it isn’t. The moment is always with you. And to understand this is the point of all those spiritual exercises which are concerned with concentrating on what you are doing now, and keeping your mind on it. For example, in the practice of the Japanese tea ceremony, the entire art of it is to have complete presence of mind, to be completely with doing just this thing. So, likewise, in all sorts of yoga exercises: try and be completely now. The whole training of a Zen monk day in and day out throughout his discipline—whether it’s meditation or whether it’s work or sweeping or cooking or eating, or whatever it is—they keep insisting: do what you’re doing. Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, and do that. But the point of that exercise is that, after you practice it for a while, it suddenly occurs to you—the great shock, which is a sort of satori—that there is nowhere else to be but the moment. You cannot be anywhere else. It doesn’t flow away. It’s always here. Maybe a lot of things flow through it: forms change, experiences change, rhythms change, so on, but it’s always there.


So you have plenty of time in the sense of real time, which is the moment. To have time is to have the moment. You remember the story that Florie told at the end of the last session, where the Dalai Lama’s brother says, “Yes, it was very nice to come to the United States. But the difference between here and Tibet was that here you have all sorts of power and whatnot, but you have no time. In Tibet you have a very primitive existence and lots of time.” And it’s so interesting to get into a culture that is so-called primitive. It’s very easy, because you can now take a jet plane to Puerto Vallarta. In a matter of very short time you can be in touch with a culture that is ageless, because you only have to go from Puerto Vallarta down, north or south, to the Indian villages along the coast which you can only reach by boat, or by a Jeep through jungle roads which are just terrible.


And you get out to these people, and suddenly uuuuaagh, everything stops. You know, where are they going? They’re doing the things they’ve always done. And we always say it’s a “sleepy village,” “not very exciting.” So actually, Zen is the art of combining an exciting life with living in the complete present. It’s very curious. It’s not sleepy at all. It’s not like you would think of a sleepy village. When you watch Zen monks walking, they don’t dawdle. They’re like cats. You know how a cat crosses a road? Whhzzt! It has a complete kind of—it knows where it’s going. It just goes like that. And that’s like a Zen monk walking.


It’s a most curious combination of what you would call the virtues of economy, of expertness in doing what you do, and at the same time not being in any hurry. This Zen master in San Francisco, Suzuki Rōshi, is particularly admired by his students for achieving an enormous amount of work without ever seeming to make the slightest effort. And he can move—they’ve just been working down at Tassajara Springs, and they have rearranged a rocky stream to make it look more natural. And he can move bigger rocks than any of the tough young men who are working along with him. Simply fantastic! But it’s all based on the real relationship to the material, especially to the material moment, and working in such a way that you never strain yourself because you never rush. You don’t have in mind the goal, and wanting to get there in the greatest possible hurry. You have in mind simply that every phase of doing the work (which will eventually arrive at that goal) is as much worth doing as when you’re playing music: you are involved completely in the production of the sounds as they go along without hurrying them to reach the end. It’s the same as sex. A lot of people are in a hurry to reach the end, and therefore they never have sexual satisfaction because they have nothing but orgasms. And although people talk a great deal about the importance of the orgasm—and that’s true and right and perfectly proper—it’s worth nothing without the buildup. You know, it’d be the same thing as taking dietetic pills, where you have a few pills which contain all the essential nutrition—throw ’em down, get on with real life!—or by having some substitute for sleep that you could take in a pill and not have to sleep.


Incidentally, I just want to put in a parenthesis here about the importance of sleep. There is a very special kind of sleep which the Hindus call suṣupti: sleep without dreams and very deep. And isn’t sleep funny? That you go to bed and time is totally eliminated until you wake up? And you seem to wake up immediately after you went to sleep—and yet, something happened.


Now, there is a way of getting into completely profound sleep, which I call—I don’t know where I got the word—I call it a temple sleep. And I found it best in a protected area out of doors on a sunny afternoon, or at night, where you get under a tree, and you get a suitable pad, and you lie on your back, and you simply open up like a cat does, or a dog does sometimes: you stretch in every direction like this, and you surrender to the Earth. And you sink, you let go, you imagine your body as extremely heavy, so that it’s dropping into the Earth, and you just let yourself go to the night with a kind of feeling that you are being moved through by an immensely powerful life energy, healing energy, or whatever, and you give, give, give, give to this letting go of everything, letting go of all control, of all consciousness, of all anxiety, of all care about anything. And you go right down into this immense depth. And then you wake up a little before dawn, and the sky is a deep, deep blue, and you can see the stars through the leaves, you know? And that feeling that you get when morning comes, and everything is awakening, and there’s a kind of extraordinary freshness to the world. When you really thoroughly get with the dawn, it’s a magnificent experience.


But do you see? The trouble is that sleep strikes our whole culture as a waste of time. Why have to take this out, you see? Why have to cut it out? But what I’m indicating by giving you this little imagery is how it’s possible to enjoy unconsciousness, and what restorative value unconsciousness can have. In just the same way: death. You know, Stevenson’s poem:


Under the wide and starry sky

Dig me a grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die

And I laid me down with a will.


If you can see death in that way—just as, when you went to sleep, you abandoned all the cares and so on, so in death you abandon all responsibilities. People in the moment of death have had great marvelous experiences with this, if they got with it. Just think: you don’t have to pay any more bills, you don’t have to watch the clock anymore, you’re not responsible for anyone, you don’t have to solve anybody’s problems, you don’t have to solve your own problems, you don’t have to avoid evil, you don’t have to do good. Nothing! The whole thing, the whole strain of being somebody, is abandoned. And when that happens, some people, before they die, have this enormous access of delight, and suddenly see the point of everything.


And so, for that reason, all forms of initiation in every place I can think of have invariably been connected with the art of dying in the middle of life. Die now and give up. Give up the compulsion to go on. Give up protecting yourself, looking for security, looking for all those things which, when you get them, hurt. Don’t you know that? That when you get security, it hurts? Because you’re worried you’re going to lose it. This is terribly true. And so, when you die in the middle of life, they used to have, of course, in some religions, ceremonies where you underwent a ritual death: you were put in a coffin, you went down into a deep pit—some symbolism of death. In Christianity you were drowned; it’s called baptism. And that’s what it’s supposed to be—but they’ve forgotten, you see, what it was all about.


And then, when you come up, you would think now: I have been relieved of all responsibility, I have been relieved of all necessity to be anything, because I’ve become nobody. So they give you a new name, but they give you a nobody name instead of a somebody name. In Christianity, when they baptized somebody, they gave him the name of one of the archetypal angels or disciples, so that you were no longer, say, [???], you became Peter. And Peter is one of the great nobodies, you see?


So I’ve noticed recently, I’ve met a few young people who have abandoned the ordinary idea of naming themselves. I met a young man just the other night, and they said, “What is your name?” And he said, “It’s you.” And I remember a story about Dr. Spiegelberg, when he visited my son-in-law when my son-in-law was very young, and he got this formidable professor, Friedrich Spiegelberg, and said, “I don’t know what to call you.” And Spiegelberg said, “Just call me hi you.” So this kid’s name was “you.” And I’ve found there’s a man going around who calls himself the plastic man. And that’s all anybody knows him by. Somebody came by the other day and suggested that it would really disturb the whole nation if an enormous number of young people all changed their names to Hare Krishna, so that their driver’s license—what you do is: you just go to the department of motor vehicles and you say, “I’ve changed my name. Would you issue this license for Hare Krishna?” Everybody would be Hare Krishna! But this, you see, is the thing of this death: death to the role that you thought you were playing, giving up all these responsibilities to amount to anything, to be something.


Now here, then, comes this absolutely critical point, which is why in every initiatic discipline there is a discipline. In other words, the individual is in some way nurtured for that moment. Because, obviously, the moment you have given up all the cares and responsibilities, you get an immense access of psychic energy. Because all the energy which you’ve been expending defending yourself is available for something else. So you become quite potentially dangerous. And so always this society has been concerned about what will become of free people. Will they use the energy destructively or constructively? But the first thing to realize, to understand, if one is concerned about this, is that there is a great deal of energy attached to this. One normally supposes that human beings are naturally lazy. They’re not. People we call lazy are just tired, or they’re undernourished, or their organism isn’t working properly for reasons that they’re either tired, they’ve been fighting themselves too much and they can’t stand it, or else they don’t have the right vitamins or something. A human being is not lazy, naturally. The human being is a very strange creature. It has an enormous amount of surplus energy. Also does the sickleback fish. This particular fish dances a great deal to get rid of its surplus energy. And so, in the same way, human beings have all this energy at their disposal, and the question is: how to canalize it in such a way that they don’t cause trouble with it?


So then, you have, in other words, to be ready was something to do with it, so as to canalize it and not just blow it all off. But it’s all contingent upon this huge gamble. Let me put it in this way: the initiation death is a gamble. Will you bet me that if you completely abandon all control—you know, the ordinary kind of ego-control, will-control. Give it up completely, see? You’re not responsible for any. Will you bet me that, if you make that gamble, you will suddenly discover that you are full of great stuff, great energy?


And a lot of people will not accept that gamble under any circumstances. They are scared to death of it. Some people will make the gamble, and then be like the guy who won the Irish sweepstake and was ruined for life, because they don’t know how to hanle it. And this is one of the great problems of today when mystical experiences and things like that are so easily and readily available for all sorts of reasons. That a lot of people who are very immature get hold of this kind of experience and don’t know what to do with it. Because they don’t have the skills with which, and in terms of which, this kind of experience can be beautifully and creatively used.


It isn’t just a matter of goodwill. The proverb says the road to hell is paved with good intentions. It isn’t enough to be a person of goodwill. It isn’t enough to be gentle as a dove. You also have to be wise as a serpent. So I say this in a general preface about getting out of history. This is the real drop-out situation. A Buddha, for example, in a certain way of talking, is a drop-out, because he dropped off the wheel of saṃsāra—the rat race of birth and death—where you are always living for a future. But, you see, nature abhors a vacuum. If you drop out of one situation, you drop into another. And so observe where you drop in when you drop out.


Well now, that brings me, then, to this point that I will call the great diversion: the future is something you cannot work for for exactly the same reason that you cannot work to be happy. Happiness, it’s always said, is a byproduct, and it will accrue to you through becoming absorbed in something else altogether and some other quest altogether—the quest for vision, the quest for doing something, anything, may bring happiness. And so, in exactly the same way, the good future, the great society, the grand tomorrow, is never going to be attained by working for it directly. When you’ve got that idea—which is embodied just as much in the five-year plan as it is in the great society—of working for that thing, you will never make it. The only way you can get the good future is by a diversion from time altogether at right angles to the course of history. So what is important now, today, is to create a diversion of such splendor that people will forget about the things they think are important—all their squabbles, all their ridiculous projects for destroying the planet in the name of progress—and give it up, because they see something else is going on which is a great deal more fun.


It’s like you would have gambling tables at Las Vegas, and in some great casino there’s been a terrible game going on all night where people are getting more and more emotionally upset, and they’re all involved, and there are tremendous stakes, and there’s a huge crowd gathered around it. And oh! What if that doesn’t come out? And so on. And suddenly, somewhere over in another corner of the casino, something starts up. And all the people here are threatening to shoot each other and so on. Over there, they’re all laughing. And someone sitting at the back of the crowd, a few characters of the big crowd—you know, the big, serious game going on—they’re all looking over, suddenly hear this thing going on, and they start turning over and looking at the other table. And they begin to peel off and go over there and start joining in that game. And finally, just at the moment when the immense crash is going to come out, and these two great gamblers have gambled the whole universe on what they were doing as if they owned it, and they’ve got the bomb ready to blow each other up—they suddenly look around and huh? Nobody’s watching! Uugh. And they start looking over there. What’s going on over there? You see?


So this is the only way in which we can do anything about the future at all: is to create a diversion of doing things and living in a way that is non-hysterical, and that is—instead of preparing to live the great life as a result of all sorts of preparations—use what capacities you now already have for living the great life to do it. Don’t wait. And this will create a fantastic diversion from history. Then, you see, Man can attain sanity once again by becoming non-historical—like the bees, like the ants, like the birds.


Now, we look at ants and say, “Oh, ants. We don’t want to be like that. That reminds us of communism.” But that’s only because we are not close enough to ants to see their different personalities. If there are a bunch of ants sitting around, and they’re apparently to us doing very, very simple things like nurturing eggs and milking greenfly, but the ants themselves all look different to each other. They have slightly different colorings, slightly different wigglings on their antennae—which are just as important to them as our facial differences are to us. And they have ways of communicating. And they think that this is the very, very good life. I mean, they have occasional troubles and wars and so on, but they’ve lived that way (so far as we know) for millions and millions of years without any progress. Now, you would say that could be very dull. Yes, it would be dull if you kept keeping records and reading them. Because then you would say: oh! Well, you would get too much memory.


Now, this is a very important thing. Again, let me warn you that I always exaggerate, and therefore you must take it with certain reservation which we call a grain of salt. A memory is a good thing, sure. But equally important is a forgettery. We have in the human organism fortunately and mercifully a hole at each end: one for nutrition, and one for elimination. And people don’t pay enough attention to the problems of elimination. At least they pay it in a certain way. They pay attention to whether they’re constipated or not. But that’s not really the thing.


Disposal has become one of the major problems of modern civilization. As a practical problem for the city of San Francisco, where to put the garbage is becoming quite critical. Mountains and mountains and mountains of garbage are arising, and it is almost as if the human being could be eventually crowded off the Earth by his own wastes. That’s because we haven’t really though about elimination and the problems of elimination. We’ve only really thought about the problems of keeping, storage, and the things we store. I’m appalled by the files that I’m required to keep, by the correspondence, by the increasing accumulation of records. This thing—I don’t know why I make these tapes. Some people like to listen to them. I never listen to them, because it would take me as long to listen to them as it does to make it, and I would simply be repeating the experience. Why do that? If some student wants to go through something more carefully, fine. But you can read a book so much faster than you can listen to a tape.


So there is a thing going on now called the information bomb, which is the proliferation of records. And this has reached such a pitch that it is plainly absurd. Let me give you some examples from a field that I’m well acquainted with: Oriental studies. You know, this is a small field of relative unimportance. But today, to be a serious scholar in the field of Oriental studies, you have to make like you’re a very, very meticulous scientist. Because if you publish an article in the Journal of American Oriental Society, which is one of the dullest journals ever conceived, and you make a slight mistake with a diacritical mark on a Sanskrit character, or a little line wrong on a Chinese character, you will next month be demolished in a footnote by some pesky scholar. And here they all are: they’ve got so much detail in their head, they know so much, so much information has been acquired. Nobody could possibly master it. The articles come pouring out. If it’s that way in Oriental studies, you should imagine how it is in electronics! It comes and comes and comes and comes.


And I was talking the other day to a man who’s done a great deal of work in this, and he spent fifteen or more years acquiring some Tibetan prints. And he could, out of this material, compile two enormous volumes to be published by a university press with every kind of commentary on these prints. And what would happen? They would be bought by a few big libraries and one or two scholars, and nobody would ever read it. So he said to me, “I am through with that game. I am an old man. I have seen enough. I have attained all the academic honors I ever could want, and I am now going to have fun. And I am going to publish these Tibetan graphics as far-out posters!”


But you see what happens: after a certain point this method of intellectual analysis which was always good and useful in the beginning and did some lovely things—after all, when you study… let’s say you take a course on Renaissance painting from somebody who really knows what it’s all about. Or on Baroque music, or on Lida, or something like that. It’s fascinating to see how those things were put together and why. It’s extremely beautiful. But if you go one step beyond that it’s like cooking the soufflé just a minute too long. The whole thing disintegrates into dust. And as it is, then, in the academic world today, where you have an intellectual market going on to do this thing, to turn out graduate students, to turn out professors, who have to put the new graduate students through the paces. And all the field has been covered, so they give them more and more minute and ridiculous things to do. And all the information—because some of it is information—piles in and piles in and piles in. Everybody, including the scholars, suddenly get around someday and say, “What on Earth are we doing?” Especially if it’s in a sort of historical humanistic subject that has no particular technical application.


When Aldous Huxley graduated from Balliol at Oxford, his tutor took him aside and said, “Mr. Huxley, you have a very distinguished record as a student.” He was in English Literature. He said, “You should very seriously consider an academic career in English Literature. You would make a very fine professor.” And Aldous Huxley said, “That’s most extraordinary, because I always thought literature was something to be enjoyed, not to be studied.”


And so it is, you see, that the capacity for the enjoyment of scholarship is not really known to these frantic scholars, terrified that they will be demolished in a footnote, and having to make that thing, and keep this thing going. You realize that the word “scholar,” “school,” means “a place of leisure.” It was where—the phrase “a scholar and a gentleman:” a gentleman meant somebody who didn’t have to earn a living because he owned land or something, and therefore he could devote his time to scholarship. And so a scholar and a gentleman would acquire, gradually, a beautiful library. And he would go into that library and read at an easy pace—no deadlines, no thesis to present at a certain time. He studied for the love of learning. And all those beautiful—like Bernard Berenson’s library at I Tatti in Florence: a gentleman scholar’s library where he loafed away many, many a good hour studying a subject he loved and got to know a great deal about it. You cannot produce scholarship by this method across the bay. It doesn’t work! It produces simply increased harassment, piling up of enormous quantities of irrelevant facts, yes—but a fact isn’t a sacred thing just because it’s a fact.


So you see, in this way, how a graded education system with goals, with aiming at god only knows what—aiming at a professorship of a higher rank, aiming at a higher salary, whatever it is—all that is irrelevant to the actual scholarship. And so, as a result, the academic world is a lot of political games—which, I say again, some notable exceptions. One knows certain still absolutely genuine scholars who are trying to avoid committee meetings and grading papers and all that kind of thing, because they still love learning for its own sake. But there are not many of them.


And they have amazing put-downs. If you love learning for its own sake and you’re not worried about all the fine little points that you could get caught up on, they say you’re a popularizer, you’re a dilettante, and above all an amateur. And you know what an amateur is as distinct from a pro? We’ve come to use the word “pro” for the man who’s very competent, and “amateur” the dabbler. “Amateur” meant the man who does it for the love of it. From the root amo in Latin. The professional: the man who earns his living at it. It’s curious how these things change.


So, you see, what we must be looking for is a diversion from that whole tendency which makes the professional instead of the amateur; that whole compulsion to use whatever it is that you do for some other end altogether. In other words: I’m baking bread not because I’m in a vocation to be a baker, but because it is making money. As soon as you do that, you see, you lose track. You lose the point. So the diversion this way, instead of going on with the course of history.


Robert Oppenheimer, shortly before he died, said, “It is quite obvious that the whole world is going to hell, and the only thing that could possibly prevent this is not trying to prevent it.” Because the minute you get meshed with that contest of—you see, nobody I know in this world is more hostile than a pacifist on a rampage. The bitterness, the vitriolic—once I got in an argument with Margaret Mead. Ugh! And she was talking about—she was in a very, very highly emotional state, as is perfectly understandable, about the bomb. I said to her, “I am a little worried that we could get so excited about this and so violently try to stop the bomb that we might inadvertently blow it off.” And she said, “You are a fake swami. You have no consideration for your children and your children’s children. You have absolved all responsibility for the course of destiny of history.” Whew!


Well, this is, you see, today a very big question: whether to take part in trying to save the world or whether to mind your own business and to do something else. I must say I wrestle with this question, because there’s still enough of the old conditioning in me saying, “You really ought to get out there and do something about it. After all, you’re responsible. You’ve got a hearing,” and all that kind of thing. And I have to tell you, it takes an enormous effort to be lazy! To say: “Now, wait a minute! Go back to Lao Tzu, and never forget it.” That when I see a man getting ready to put the world in order, I know there will be great trouble. Govern a great state as you cook a small fish.


You see, the puzzle in connection with all this is the problem of the sorcerer’s apprentice. You remember in this story which—what’s his name… Dukas? What was that musician who made this thing? Da-da-dee ding dee-ding dee-diddy-dee ding dee-ding? He used the magic to try and save the work, and it got out of control. And when the broom wouldn’t stop fetching water, he didn’t know how to stop the spell, he chopped it, and immediately it turned into two brooms; bring twice as much water, see? And as he hit it then, the fragments turned each one into a new broom bringing more water. And that’s the situation we’re in. See, we’re in an economy which has to expand or collapse. We talk about a growing business: it means one that’s making more and more and more and more and more. So everybody has got to be incited to want more and more and more products. And if you don’t do it you’re a bad consumer. And there are all kinds of ways of pressuring you into being a good consumer.


You come around here, and you live on a houseboat. Well, we don’t pay taxes because we’re a boat. And, well, that worries people. And they say, “Oh, don’t you have sewage here?” And everybody says, “No.” “Well,” they say, “that’s a serious health problem.” Well, it just isn’t, because everybody who lives around here is very healthy. And the main problem in the bay is industrial waste, chemicals, kill the fish. Fish like our waste, especially mackerel; they thrive on it. All you gotta do is bring a big shipment of mackerel and dump them in. And then what about the birds, you know? They deposit their excrements in the bay, and at certain times of year you can hardly see the water for birds. What are they going to do? Have posses going around shooting the birds because they’re fouling the bay? What they want in this bay is distilled water with a ten percent saline additive for realistic effect.


So the thing is, then, if you live in this sort of thing, eventually somebody says, “Well, we won’t insure you,” or “You’re doing this regulation wrong and that regulation wrong.” The real reason is that you’re not being a good consumer. You don’t own the right kind of appliances, the right kind of car, the right kind of anything. And so you are considered a bad consumer. And you’ve got to go on owning. Somebody made a fantasy a little while ago about the future where everybody is required by law to possess enormous flashy cars and fantastic expensive things, and only great business tycoons will be able to get away with riving jalopies and wearing old clothes.


But, you see, in that situation where you must, you must, you must increase, increase, increase, increase, increase like this, you’re simply not viable. What’s happening to you is the way you kill poison oak: you feed certain hormones, which you paint on the leaves, and this promotes the growth so excessively that they just blow up. And we’re in a situation like that. That’s where our progress is cancer and we’re going to blow up by sheer blwwwp! Unless, unless, you see, we stop the future—time must have a stop—and create a diversion.

Part 3

Worry Not for the Morrow


At the end of the question period yesterday I said we’d come to something which I would have to take up today, and this arose because we were discussing the problem of prediction—which is, of course, related to the problem of control. I had made a passing reference in yesterday’s seminar to the fact that the knowledge of time, the knowledge of the future—what Korzybski calls man’s time-binding ability—is an advantage for which we pay a very serious price. To know the future in a conscious way gives you, obviously, a survival advantage. But at the same time it gives you a survival disadvantage, so that what you gain on the roundabout you lose on the swings.


You gain the ability to plan your future, say, to invest, to take out insurance, to do all those things that’re called provident. But the price you pay for it is anxiety. And you pay this price because you know that you don’t know enough. Did you know, as it were, enough about the future to try to be provident? But you don’t know enough about the future to be sure that your providence was correctly done. Therefore, you worry. Therefore you are concerned with what will happen tomorrow. And it’s so extraordinary that that passage in St. Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus says, “Don’t make any anxiety about the morrow, what you’re going to eat, what you’re going to drink.” And I am amazed about that, because every minister I have ever heard discuss this passage says it can’t be put into practice. The church simply never did teach that. That’s the most subversive passage in the gospels, which is swept under the carpet. See?


In a way, of course, Jesus told all sorts of stories in order to make people think. This one; this image of the flowers of the field and the birds that don’t make any plans. And he did another one, for example: the story of the pharisee and the publican. This is very interesting. Because its effect is extremely funny. He says: here is the pharisee, who goes up to the front row of the church and stands up, and sort of memorializes god on what a good guy he’s been, that he’s fulfilled all the duties, and so on. Then there’s the publican who creeps into the back and beats himself on the breast and says, “Oh god, be merciful to me, a sinner,” see? Now, having told that story, the situation is completely reversed. Because then all the prigs creep into the back of the church and beat themselves on the breast and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And so now we would have to tell the tale exactly the other way around, and say: now the honest guy is the one who simply walks straight to the front and addresses god man to man.


But, you see, what people don’t realize in what I would call gurumanship, the art of teaching, is that the teacher tells tales not for their immediate obvious meaning, but for their later effects. What is the result of having told this story? This story has completely deflated fake humility where you try to be humble. It’s a kōan. So, in the same way, the passage on “be not anxious for the morrow” really asks you: why can’t you put this into practice? Here is a precept. Who can practice it? Nobody. They say: oh, it’s impossible. We cannot give up making plans, we cannot give up prediction.


Of course we predict, in a way, in a sort of unconscious fashion. The simplest act involves a kind of prediction. So in this case we are simultaneously aware of things which, if you do regard the present as a hairline, would be called past and future at once. But if you’re not hung up on the idea that the present is this hairline thing which is purely abstract, then you have no problem in accepting the idea that we are simultaneously aware of past events and future events. Because they’re all just like you’re watching from a traveling vehicle, and you can see where you’re going to be and you can see where you have been from where you are now. So in that sense, then, we have a knowledge of the future when I move to pick up my glasses. But that is a different kind of knowledge from when I speculate in an abstract way as to what I ought to do a month from now or what might happen a month from now, you see?


So then, the question then becomes: we predict those far futures which are not within our present vision by calculation. It may be astronomical navigational calculation, or as it was in old times, astrological. People thought they had in astrology the means to foresee the future and know what to do. And then the question arises: well, what of—supposing there is a fine science of prediction, whether it be scientifically respectable (like navigation or meteorology, which isn’t too hot), or whether it be something like astrology. Are these really profitable sciences?


Now, I pointed out the problem is (A) that when you know the future you pay for it with anxiety. You know: I am going to die. A creature that doesn’t make predictions, like a cat or a dog, when seeing another dead cat, will not necessarily infer “that’s going to happen to me.” Because, you see, a true animal, a truly functioning entity, is not self-conscious in that way. For example, you all know that only other people have heads. You don’t. Only, how do you become concerned with your head? Why, because you have been made conscious of your face. You’ve looked in mirrors, you’ve been talked about. It’s the only part of our body that we leave permanently unclothed, except the hands. Even when we put gloves on, you know, the hands are covered. But we always keep the face naked. And you learn that you’re there in terms of having a mask, you see? You can touch it. Put a good face on it. Lose face, save face—all these things indicate the importance of the face, you see, to one’s identity. Whereas inside, beyond the face, where are you? See? If you were living naturally, you would be as un-self-conscious as your head is. You know, even the brain is not sensitive to probes in it.


So you would live in terms of all this is going on is you. But you’ve been talked into the idea, you’ve been smashed back into your head, see, by social indoctrination. And your face has been made to stand for you. The real you behind the face is everything that you see and hear, touch and sense. So the headless man—to have no head, to go out of your head, to lose your mind, you see—is, in a way, always characteristic of the wise man, because he’s come back to his original emptiness which is behind the face. See, when you turn to see your head, you can’t. And what is behind the eye? It’s not dark, it’s not light. You just can’t apprehend it in any way at all. And that’s what it’s all about.


But so, then, when you start calculating and you resort to prediction, you are now trying to get hold of all this. But many people have an instinctive feeling, say, when confronted with a great astrologer who could tell them all their future: they say, “I don’t want to hear it. I’d rather not.” And this is, in a way, a wise if uninformed reaction for the simple reason—well, let’s put the other point of view for a moment. Another point of view would be a realistic person saying, “The trouble with you is: you don’t want to know your future because you’re afraid of life. If you would know your future, you could take practical steps to adapt things to it. If you knew you were going to die next Tuesday, you would immediately put your house in order and make less trouble for your friends and relations. Face it.” That sounds alright to begin with. It’s like all technology is initially a success.


But the real problem it finally comes to is this: when the outcome of a game is known, the game is cancelled—because the whole point of playing the game is that we don’t know the outcome. Because the known future is already past, and the higher the degree of certainty of knowledge as to the future, to that extent it has happened. You’ve had it. And we don’t want to put the future in that situation—not really. Because, you see, if you think of the cosmos as basically a game of hide-and-seek, where the lord god is creating the universe by forgetting that he’s god and imagining that he’s you, then this is the fundamental way of getting rid of the eternal boredom of knowing all about it, and of there being no surprises. The whole vitality of being alive is that it is always surprising. To be enlightened is to be surprised at everything, that it is a wonder, that everything is a miracle, that it is highly improbable and really shouldn’t’ve happened at all—but there it is, you see? If there isn’t that sense, there is no vitality in anything.


But again, of course, we have the problem that I discussed yesterday in another form: the problem of order and randomness, and drawing the line. You see? Where to draw the line between order and randomness? So, in the same way: where to draw the line between the known and the unknown? How much to predict? How much to say: well, I’d rather leave tomorrow to tomorrow. “Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof.”


So you see, again, it is all a question of where to draw the line, of how much to control things, and realize that when you go beyond a certain degree of control, when you go beyond a certain (what I will call) natural pre-vision—such as I described by the analogy of looking out of the window of a train—when you go beyond a certain degree of natural pre-vision, you encounter a law of diminishing returns: that the more you succeed, the more you fail. And then you get into this sort of—I described it yesterday from the academic point of view. When scholarship acquires an exactness and a highly detailed degree of information that constitutes an information bomb, and nobody can keep track of it, and the whole thing becomes a bore. Who wants to keep track of it any longer? Who gives a damn, you know, about those final details of Shakespeare’s use of the conjunction “if”?


So, in the same way, in practical politics: we have reached a stage today where law is out of hand, because it is too meticulous. There is too much paper, there are too many whereases, ifs, ands, and buts, subclauses, and so on, and nobody can keep track of it. And the whole thing is in a state of total confusion. And this confusion exists in the name of sanity, in the name of trying to set things in order, because everybody shouts when somebody does something wrong, “There ought to be a law against it!” And soon there is indeed a law against it. There’s a law against everything. We are all at this moment doing something illegal. I don’t know what it is, but it’s always there. And somebody can find it out and invoke it if they wish to make trouble for us. I’m quite sure that my entire situation is illegal! And it’s so for everybody.


And this is the result, you see, of wanting to pin everything down. In ancient China the Confucians had a thing they called the rectification of names. And they were—the Confucians are curious people, because while they have some marvelous ideas, they are certainly lacking in humor. And they’re rather ponderous and puritanical and stuffy. The Taoists, on the other hand, have humor and are always making fun of the Confucians. Now, the rectification of names was that Confucius said: we must be sure when we use words that their meaning is established. So this means the dictionary. And so they were the first real serious thinkers about dictionaries, about definitions, about laying down what the words mean. But the Taoists pointed out by saying: if you are going to rectify the words, what are you going to rectify them with? Well, they said: with words. Well then they said: how are you going to rectify the words you use to rectify the words? Well, they thought about that, and then they said: well, their words are self-rectifying. That is to say, you rectify words with words, and the words you use to rectify the words are rectified with the other words so that it’s a closed circle.


So you can play a game called Vish in which you supply the players each with a copy of the same dictionary, and then you have lots of words written on slips of paper in a hat. And somebody pulls a word out of the hat and everybody looks it up in the dictionary. Then they take the definition and they look up a key word in the definition and look that up, and so on, until they get back to the word they started with. The first person to get back to the word that everybody started with calls out “Vish!”—short for “vicious circle”—and then there is an umpire present to rule on whether they cheated—in other words, whether they looked up when they saw “knowledge,” “to observe,” “to record on,” looked up the word “to” instead of “record” or “observe” or whatever, you see?


So the dictionary only gets out of a vicious circle when there is a picture beside the word. Then it escapes. But otherwise, all attempts to pin down words are simply going in a vicious circle. So one uses words effectively by not trying to pin them down too hard. But we are always saying: “Put it in writing.” If we’re really serious about an agreement between two people: “Put it in writing.” Because I can trust the document, but I’m not sure if I can trust you. Do you exist? Prove it. Have your birth certificate, passport, card of identity? If you can produce this wretched piece of paper, you’re there. If you can’t, you’re not.


Well, obviously, it was a good idea to record certain things so that we could be sure that people wouldn’t be dishonest. But all this started from people being dishonest. And if we’re going to stop people from being dishonest, there’s only one way to do it, and that’s for people not to be dishonest. No other way that has ever been invented will prevent it. And if you think you can go on living by preventing people from being dishonest with you by rules and regulations and laws and policemen and all this kind of thing, you succeed in the short run, but once again, in the long run, you’ll run into a total tangle. The United States of America is the country in the world with the most laws, and yet our police are completely mistrusted by every sane person. They are crooks and scoundrels and violent fascist kind of people—with exceptions. You know, everything has exceptions. You have a nice cop on the corner sort of thing. But, by and large, through a state in which, say, people say, “Oh well, the law will take care of it”—the law won’t take care of it. You have to take care of it. And you can only be a law-abiding citizen by trusting your fellow men. And if you don’t do that, no one will trust you. And therefore, a system of mutual mistrust will exist, which of its very nature must fall apart. It cannot operate.


So once again, you see, this is a problem of the confusion between physical reality and symbolic reality. The law says this, therefore it must happen—and if it doesn’t happen, somebody’s there with a club to see that it does. Maybe, unless you wangle out of it, conceal it, find a loophole in the literature, get a good lawyer—that means a man who can say that the law didn’t say what it was intended to say! So that then, of course, everybody is accountable, and that means “keeps accounts.” I increasingly find that it’s difficult to operate because of all the records that have to be kept. One spends more time recording than one does doing.


So this is to say, then, that the symbolic method, prediction, recording—all prediction is based on recording. It’s like you take a graph of the movement of a stock or of anything you want to graph, and then you establish a trend to see where it’s going. So recording is the basis of prediction. But if you go into this beyond a certain point, the process cancels itself out because it’s no longer worth doing. So the wonderful Jewish idea of the year of jubilee, you know, when all debts are cancelled and let’s begin again. That’s what we need now. We need a new chemical. Or, like people talk about putting nerve gases in the air which will immediately paralyze the enemy. What we need is a gas that will destroy all paper whatsoever. I wonder what would happen. I’ve often thought about it. Even though I depend for my living to some extent on paper—writing books—I think on the whole the benefit to humanity from the complete disappearance of paper at this point—it wouldn’t’ve true, perhaps, at some other time, but now—I think that much would be said for it. And it would have to include plastic, celluloid film, and all that sort of thing as well. Zhwwt!



And records? Phonograph records?



Yes. All recording to disappear. In other words, the book of the recording angel is to be eaten up by god.






Yeah. This is the thing. Now there, of course—please understand, I’m being somewhat facetious, and that this mustn’t be taken quite literally. But it is saying that this point—look at a group of tourists. I take people to Japan every so often, and the Japanese are absolutely weird about this. Wherever you go, the tourist, the Japanese, everybody, they carry cameras. And it’s very nice to have a camera, and photography is a fine art, yes—but there is a certain kind of people who never, never look at anything except with a camera. They go around capturing reality in this box. Cha! And there was one man who was a magnificent photographer who came along with me who never did anything but photograph. And he was always late and dawdling behind the other people—even though we moved at a very leisurely pace—because he was interminably photographing, photographing, photographing, capturing the world (stopping it, making a still, see?) with his box. A movie is simply another kind of still. It’s a more complicated kind.


So the clutch box you go around with as a result I find that people do not relate to the environment. The only thing that you should ever carry when you’re strolling is a scarf or a cane to help you climb. Your hands should otherwise be completely free of encumbrances. So should your eyes and your ears and everything. Then it will really happen. But otherwise, if you go around with a recording instrument all the time, it won’t happen. The only good recording instrument would be one that you were completely unconscious of, that you didn’t have to focus and flip and krrr! study, instead of looking directly at things that were going on, participating directly with people, and social relationship.


So, in the same way, when you have not been just a tour where you’re seeing wonderful landscapes and works of art and antiquity, also when people have very good times, they have a picnic at the beach, and it’s delightful, somebody says, “Oh, someone should’ve brought a camera”—to prove that this really did happen. But what happens instead nowadays, when somebody gives a great party and all sorts of people are invited, they are sure that the society reporter comes from the press. And then they can read about it in the paper the next day and look back and say, “Now that really did happen. It’s in the papers.” Well, in the same way, a young adolescent who feels that he doesn’t really exist commits a crime in order to get his name in the papers. There you’ll be headlined as a great hero and villain. And he’ll know he’s there; he’ll be recognized.


It didn’t happen if it wasn’t recognized. Therefore, as some very bright person pointed out a little while ago, we have many pseudo-events: events that are created for the sole purpose of their being reported in the press. Like, Life goes to a party. You remember those things? All those parties were organized by staff of people who came out from Life magazine and said, “This would make a good party. Let’s set it up this way,” and they get various people to cooperate, and that’s all there, and they have the party. In the same way, publishers—instead of looking around for creative authors—think up books. Then they find a hack to write them. They say this would make a good book. And it’s a pseudo-book; a non-book. There is all kinds of work done like this. Foundations invent pseudo projects. Because instead of, you see—what happens is that instead of going around with a kind of field staff looking for what artists and scholars and people are actually doing that is creative, they stay in the office, and they get masses of applications come in which are too boring to read. So finally they sit around, think up, “What would make a good project to give all this money to?” And then they think up a project. And then they go around and try and find people to do it. And all those people they find are frustrated PhDs from Harvard and elsewhere who are sort of academically competent, but don’t have very much on the ball. They have to be told something to do, investigate it, research.


So it’s the same principle all along of allowing the recorder, which translates life into a system of symbols, to predict the future for us, then it makes us anxious—you see how the vicious circle operates?—and, having made us anxious, we turn back to it and say: “You solve this problem. We don’t want to be anxious. We want a foolproof system.” Alright, back to the recorder, back to a closer study of the symbols. How can we outwit the future? But do you see? It’s a complete vicious circle. The more it succeeds, the more it fails. The more you are quite sure where you’re going, and that the plane won’t crash under any circumstances—well, by the time you can travel from here to anywhere in the world in an absolutely assured won’t-crash plane, it’ll kill you. There’ll be no point in taking the journey. Because the place you will go to will be the same place you started from—at least it will look exactly like it. And furthermore, it will already—that journey in the completely foolproof plane, because it is absolutely planned, you will have already taken the journey. That’s why the place you are going to will be identically the place you came from. And so who will then pay for the airlines by traveling on them? Nobody will. There has to be the risk in it for there to be any point in taking it.


So this is the most important thing for all technologists to understand: that technology is a process like cooking, like polishing, which you must do for a certain time and then stop. Then it’s done, it’s ready. It’s created. But if you keep on, keep on, keep on, keep on, you—you know, supposing I have somebody I love very much, and I like to stroke her, you know? It’s very nice to stroke her. But if I keep on stroking her, I’ll rub her skin off!



Not really.



Up to a point it’s fine, you see? Beyond that, too much. It’s so simple. I mean, I feel like I’m talking in platitudes. But this is a thing that people have simply neglected when it comes to technology, when it comes to law, when it comes to the whole philosophy of prediction.

Well, let’s take an intermission.

Part 4

Finding Balance


Well, we come now to the most difficult part of this seminar, and by way of preface I want to say (to reemphasize a point that I’ve made already) that, in presenting ideas, I exaggerate. The reason for this is that insofar as I present ideas, whereas the actual content of the philosophy is not ideas, but experience. These ideas are intended to act as correctives. And so when you are walking a tightrope, you learn balancing. And so if you’re in danger of falling in a certain direction, you throw the weight the other way. And there are all sorts of funny tricks to balancing, as you know when you ride a bicycle: you turn the front wheel in the direction in which you’re falling. Whereas the person who doesn’t know how to ride a bicycle tends to turn the wheel the other way, so he falls over.


So in this kind of way, what I’m talking about is always a corrective to whatever is a dominant current idea. The end of that famous classic of Zen Buddhism, called the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch—or the Tánjīng, the Platform Sutra—in a chapter that people have virtually neglected, Huìnéng explains the whole technique of Zen teaching by saying, “If somebody asks you a question about metaphysical things, you answer in terms of everyday life. If somebody asks you a question about everyday life, you answer in terms of metaphysical.” For example, “What is the ultimate meaning of Buddhism?” Master replies, “The cypress tree in the yard.” Second example: master and student are working together in the fields, and the student says, “Please pass me the knife.” The master hands him the knife blade first, holding the entire handle in his hand. The student says, “Please give me the other end.” Master says, “What would you do with the other end?”


In the first case the metaphysical is answered in terms of the everyday, in the second case the everyday is answered in terms of the metaphysical. This is balancing. This is the whole meaning of when Buddhism is called the Middle Way. The Middle Way doesn’t mean the compromise, it means balancing out. The Upanishads refer to this as the path of the razor’s edge. So in this way, if I use an idea at all, it is for the sake of counteracting an idea that is current.


For example, Buddhists will explain that when the Buddha taught what are called the three signs of being, three signs of being are anitya (that all things are transient), anatman (that there is no self), and dukkhā (that everything is frustration and suffering). He did this not to say that’s the way it is, really. Now, finally, this is the dogma, this is my doctrine. He did it to counteract the idea that reality is eternal, he says it’s flux. To counteract the idea that there is a self that is the permanent witness of the transient panorama of experience, he teaches no self. And to counteract the idea that the aim of life is happiness, he teaches the fact of life is misery.


Buddhism is a dialogue. It is not a doctrine. This is terribly important: there are no such things as the doctrines of Buddhism. There is simply a dialogue between a teacher and a student. And the student creates the teacher by raising the problem. And so there is the back and forth in which, if the student tries to fix on this point of view, the teacher emphasizes that. And then, when the student says to the teacher, “Well alright, I’m going to agree with you”—whoops, nothing to stand on. He goes over here, or over here, or over here, or over here. So that, in the end of the dialogue, you get to a position where you’ve found that all opinions (all views, or dṛṣṭi) are inadequate, because every view of Mount Tamalpais is different, and so there is no, say, correct way of seeing Mount Tamalpais.


There was once a wonderful Zen master called Ikkyū, and he lived in Kyoto, and in front of his temple there was a very nubbly, knarled pine tree. And one day he posted a notice by this pine tree which said: I will give 100 yen (which was quite a sum in those days) to anybody who can see this tree straight. So soon there were all kinds of people standing around the tree, lying on the ground, trying to climb up on the wall above it, and find an angle from which the central trunk of the tree could be seen as a straight line. There was one fellow who knew there was some monkey business going on, as there would be whenever a Zen master poses a problem, and so he went to a friend of Ikkyū’s, who was a priest of another sect, but Ikkyū was very friendly with this priest. And this priest was called—what was his name? Something like Ryoman—and Ryoman said: “The simple way to see the tree straight is, of course, to look straight at it.” And so the man went back to Ikkyū and said, “I have solved the problem of the tree. To see it straight, you look straight at it.” And Ikkyū looked at him very suspiciously, because he wasn’t convinced that this man was a real understanding man. But nevertheless he forked out the 100 yen and said, “You must’ve been talking to Ryoman.”


So now, let’s against—as a corrective, you see, to our own fascination with time and our own obsession with the future—pose the counter-idea that there is no future at all, that everything we call the future is a complete mirage. So is the past. There is no future, there is no past, there is only this now. And you say, “Well, that’s ridiculous.” Because so far as the past is concerned, we are quite sure of it. We know, we’ve got every kind of historical records, we’ve got our own experience to prove that my mother, who is not alive now, really did exist at one time; that Socrates, that Jesus, that Alexander the Great—all these people really did exist. And there was a past that led up to now. It’s all in the history books. It’s been photographed, it’s been recorded, and obviously it’s real. And if that’s real, then it’s perfectly clear this process we’re involved in is going to go on, and there is going to be a future. This is such elementary common sense. But I want to challenge it radically.


And we will take as our beginning the act of throwing a pebble into a pool, and you will see concentric circles of waves created. And you see these actual waves flowing out across the pool. Now, the truth of the matter is that they don’t. That water goes up and down, but no wave travels. You get the same illusion when you see a rotating barber pole or a rotating screw: the thing is revolving, and it looks as if something is traveling upwards along. The successive red stripes of the barber’s pole are moving up. But they are not moving up. Now there’s the basic principle. This is the basic principle of the world considered as māyā, or illusion.


So then you might say, reasoning from this, that there is something going on that is history, that there was Socrates, and there was all these great figures and great movements and wars, and all these political shenanigans that we call history. But they are all what we’re doing now with simply the names changed. It goes on and on. I like to tell a story which is a German story, and it has German humor. There was a fisherman sitting on the banks of a river, and somebody came up and was watching him and said, “It seems to me that you’re doing something very cruel: putting those worms on hooks and using them as bait.” He said, “But they are used to it.”


In other words, what is going on is a constant repetition of the same thing, but appearing to be different all the time. The French proverb plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: “the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.” So that always we get the idea that every situation is completely new. New participants, new personalities, new children involved. And yet it’s the same old process going on. Or you get a similar thing, and this comes out of LSD experiences. If you look at a Rorschach blot under the influence of LSD, you have the very odd sensation that you are watching the watery ink flowing into position. It’s still moving as when—you know, you make the ink blot, and then you fold the paper across. So underneath your fold, all the ink goes blwwap like this, and finally fixes in a certain position. But you open it, and with LSD you can see it still happening. It is moving, but it’s still.


And this connects very, very importantly with the Zen philosophy of the nature of time. And I want to read you some quotations from Dōgen, who was a great founder of the Sōtō Zen school, who wrote a book called Shōbōgenzō, which has never been fully translated, we only have excerpts from. And it’s a funny thing. As I was talking about this book with a wonderful Zen master, who I think is really magnificent person, called Morimoto, and I had Gary Snyder as an interpreter, as he’s a magnificent interpreter, because he has a wonderful command of Japanese and an equally good understanding of Zen. And so the impression of the conversation that remains in my memory is that I had a direct talk with Morimoto, and the interpreter eliminated himself. It’s very strange. So we brought up the Shōbōgenzō, and he said, “Agh! That’s a terrible book!” He said, “It explains everything! It makes it all completely intelligible!” And we were discussing its translation, and we were discussing the translation of Zen texts in general, and he went on to say, “You don’t need to translate any Zen text into English. Not if you really want to understand Zen.” He said, “You use your own books. Use the dictionary. Use Alice in Wonderland, use the Bible, use anything.” He said, “You realize, the sound of the rain needs no translation.”


And a few days afterwards I went with Gary to the morning lecture given by the master of Daitoku-ji, and he was explaining a Chinese text. And in the middle of his explanation a tremendous rain storm occurred, and the thunder of the rain on the roof drowned out absolutely anything he had to say. But he didn’t stop. He went straight on with the lecture. Because there was the sound of the rain. You know, whatever was going on was it.


And there’s the funny lectures they have called teisho, where the teacher sits opposite the Buddha. See, he sits on this side of the room, Buddha sits over there, and then the monks sit on this side, and the visitors sit on that side. It’s a long rectangular room. And he carries on this dialogue with the Buddha, and everybody’s invited to listen. Well, you know, it’s a very funny thing. It doesn’t make any sense.


So this Shōbōgenzō—Dōgen has a lot to say in it about the nature of time and the nature of change. And the basic thought here is this—and I’m going to try and show you how the same experience can be conveyed by using language expressions that are formally contradictory. He says, for example, that the spring does not become the summer. And when wood is burned, the wood does not become the ashes. He says there is spring, and then there is summer. There is wood, and then there is ashes. And so by inference: you, now, who are sitting here with me and talking, you will never die—just as the wood will never become the ashes. T. S. Eliot plays the same idea in the Four Quartets poems when he’s describing the passengers who boarded the train are not the same people who will arrive at the destination. You, sitting here, are not the same people who walked in at the door. You have changed. And so you’re not the same.


So this is as if to say: time is created by the illusion that this state and this state and this state and this state are in some way connected. Now you would say, “Well, that is a kind of atomism.” That is saying that life is like a movie. That movie is a series of frames on film which, by being spun through the camera, create the illusion that it’s not a series of frames, but it’s a single frame, moving.


Now this is one way of saying exactly the same thing as could be said in the other way, and the other way of saying it is this: the notion that the movement of life is simply a succession of static states is a purely intellectual way of breaking things down. It’s like calculus. It’s like saying that a curve is a series of point instance. That when you hear a continuous sound—yoooeeeeee—if you analyze it, it’s a dat dat dat dat dat dat dat dat dat dat dat dat, but you hit it so fast going together that you can’t hear the intervals. Just in the same way as when the eye is deceived by the revolving cigarette in the dark.


Well, one school of thought will say the reality of the situation is discontinuous; it’s dat dat dat dat dat. The other school of thought will say: oh, that’s mere intellectualism. The reality of the thing is bleeagh, you know? It is a sweeping, curving thing, which has no cha cha cha cha cha in it. Now, both are right. Both are absolutely right. It’s just two ways of looking at the same happening. And as we can describe pain as a hot pang or a cold sting—formally opposed words—so the realization of the nature and movement of time can be looked at from these completely different ways. One, you can say: there is only now. And you say, well, now is this way. We happen to be sitting in this room, but at another now we have been driving down the highway. So “we driving down the highway” is not the same state as “we sitting in this room.”


But the point of saying that—that you driving down the highway, and you sitting in this room is something altogether different—the point of saying that is simply as a gimmick, or what is called in Sanskrit an upāya or “skillful means,” for getting people to realize what it is to be here and now, and to see that this is what’s important. Whenever you get into the meditative state—by whatever means you get in—you suddenly understand that the whole point of life is what you’re doing where you are. And this results in a kind of untightening of all your muscles, and you suddenly see that it really is worth looking around. That the chips of wood on the log, the funny markings on the concrete, the expressions and gestures of people sitting around, are what it’s all about. And there is no difference between the ecstatic state of union with Brahman or nirvana and the very matter-of-fact moment in which we are sitting around here in various postures, feeling various feelings throughout our bodies, thinking various thoughts, and just—because you’ve consented to do so—allowing the noises that I’m making to reverberate across your eardrums. This yooing-yooing-yooing-yooing-yooing-yooing-yooing-yooing-yooing that’s going on is the yooing-yooing-yooing-yooing-yoooing that everything is, you see? That’s what it is. That’s what it’s about.


And you sit back and you say, “Ah. That’s what it’s about. Listen to that man. Get that yooing-yooing-yooing!” Isn’t that marvelous, you know, that it does that at all? And that is called in Buddhism seeing things in their suchness—tathātā. In suchness. Tathātā is “da da da.” Da da da, da da da, da da da, da da da, see? Seeing everything as just that. This person goes this way, the other person goes that way. You have this style, I have that style. And so in the scenery of spring there is nothing superior, nothing inferior. Flowering branches grow naturally, some short, some long.


But however, it is an extraordinary experience to overcome the illusion that there really is time. Well, let’s begin this way. Isn’t it obvious—bearing in mind the point that I made this morning about our present not being a hairline, but a kind of fuzzy span which polarizes past at one end and future at the other—these are simply the two ends of the present as we perceive it directly. But beyond that, beyond what we perceive directly, beyond what you see now, hear now, feel now—where is the past? What has happened to the pop of a champagne cork which you heard last night? Well, it just isn’t there. And where is tomorrow’s edition of the San Francisco Chronicle? It hasn’t yet come off the press. It isn’t there.


So from a sensory, material, realistic point of view, there is no past and there simply is no future. Never was, never will be. Your conception of the past is very subjective. You’ve only to study history to realize how subjective it is, how many ways history can be written. Because every historian, what does he deal with? He deals with records and with memories, which are extremely fragmentary. Because he deals mostly with verbal records, and sometimes archeological records of the past. And not only are these records fragmentary, that they only record those aspects of what happened that were worthy of note to someone or other who recorded them. But then when he in turn gets the notes, he uses them like a Rorschach blot and he projects onto them his idea of what happened. Anybody who has a lot of experience in courts of law knows, for example, in cross-examining witnesses that their testimony as to what did happen is extremely arbitrary and confused. We are making sense all the time of this Rorschach blot.


So the history is much more an art than a science. It is a reconstruction by a historian who uses the materials of evidence in the same way that a painter uses paints. And in this way he reconstructs his version of the past. And if he’s sufficiently persuasive he convinces other people that that’s what happened. Various sneaky governments have caught on to this and realize that they can write their own official history about anything. And then they’ve got a doctrine that there is a kind of historical destiny, a historical compulsion, where certain things as a result of history must happen. And then they use this to justify what they’re going to do anyhow.


Nowhere is this more apparent in scholarship than in historical studies of the four gospels in the life of Jesus. If you study all the great scholars—say from 1850 to the present day—who have examined the New Testament from a historical point of view, you will find that every one of them has a different history, and that they have seen the texts from the point of view of their own particular way of wanting to present Jesus. They’ve got excellent reasons for rejecting all those parts of the text that don’t agree with their interpretation and accepting those that do. And they cancel each other out the whole way down the line.


So we know, then, from a sensory point of view that, just as you cannot point to the difference between your fingers, you cannot find the past. Equally, you cannot find any future. It isn’t here. And the future as such never will be here. As the proverb says, “tomorrow never comes.”


So then you have a situation which is eternal. From the beginning of any form of existence whatsoever—whether it was mineral or merely gaseous, whether it was an amoeba, whether it was a plant, an animal, a human being—it knew that it was involved in a process (or it was involved in a process, even if it didn’t know) where the individual form begins and ends. Or does it? Where do you draw the line?


Let’s say we have a vibrating curve like this. Yes, you can point to a tangent, you can draw tangents along the top of all the curves and along the bottom of all the curves. And where those tangents touch the wave you say: this is the crest, this is the trough. The rest is where it is most there, the trough is where it is not there. But you see at once that you can’t have the wave if you don’t have both the crest and the trough. And that every time it goes crest-trough, well, that’s a wave. What is a wave? Didn’t we see in the image of throwing the stone into the pool that there is no a wave? There is waving, but there is really no individual wave. You think you see this individual wave going out like that. Take a piece of cloth, spread it out on a table, and then push it together so that you get a fold across the center. See? Alright, now move your hands so that you make that folding happen all the way across the cloth. The cloth doesn’t move. The fold moves. The folding moves. But is this a folding? Can you pin it down and say it’s an entity? You can’t.


So, in exactly the same way, all our human history—from our earliest possible imaginable ancestors until now—is standing still in the same place, doing the same thing over and over again, but coming on each time in such a way as to give us the notion that it’s new. You are your fathers and grandfathers millions of years ago. You say they were sitting around in skins and using stone implements. From the point of view of somebody a million years hence, we are sitting around in skins using stone implements. The past people always were.


But, you see, when those people were sitting around in caves with stone implements and skins, they had ways of conversing and relating to each other which contained as much qualitative subtlety as we have. What we call “primitive people” have perceptions, ways of doing things, that we would not even know… we wouldn’t even know what to look for. And so they have, in fact, a very, very high culture. Only, it’s structured, say, in a different dimension, on a different wavelength, than ours. But it is just as human and just as authentic. But we have the illusion, you see, that it keeps changing—getting better, getting worse. One thing or another. But that’s the same kind of illusion as the apparent motion of the wave across the pool.


So let’s see how Dōgen puts it, because he’s got some vivid ideas.

If we watch the shore while we are sailing a boat, we feel that the shore is moving. But if we look nearer to the boat itself, we know then that it is the boat which moves.

When we regard the universe in confusion of body and mind, we often get the mistaken belief that our mind is constant. But if we actually practice Zen and come back to ourselves, we see that this was wrong.

When firewood becomes ashes, it never returns to being firewood. But we should not take the view that what is latterly ashes was formerly firewood. What we should understand is that, according to the doctrine of Buddhism, firewood stays at the position of firewood, and then ashes are the position of ashes. There are former and later stages, but these stages are clearly cut.

It is the same with life and death. Thus we say in Buddhism that the unborn is also the undying. Life is a position of time. Death is a position of time. They are like winter and spring. And in Buddhism we do not consider that winter becomes spring or that spring becomes summer.


Now another quote.

When a fish swims, he swims on and on, and there is no end to the water. When a bird flies, he flies on and on, and there is no end to the sky. From the most ancient times there was never a fish who swam out of the water nor a bird who flew out of the sky. Yet, when the fish needs just a little water, he uses just a little. And when he needs lots, he uses lots.

Thus, the tips of their head are always at the outer edge of their space. If ever a bird flies beyond that edge, he dies—and so, also, the fish. From the water the fish makes his life, and from the sky the bird makes his. But this life is made by the bird and the fish. At the same time, the bird and the fish are made by life. Thus, there are the fish, the water, and life—and all three create each other.

Yet, if there were a bird who first wanted to examine the size of the sky or a fish who first wanted to examine the extent of the water, and then try to fly or to swim, they will never find their own ways in the sky or water.


So what he’s saying now: space is as far as you can see. The farther you can see, of course the more space there is. The element of time is as much time as you can know. But this—I mean here direct knowledge: your perception of time which you call the present. To be concerned with the future, you see, would be like the fish who gets out of water. He would die.


So, to put it in another way, what you call time is not something into which you have been dropped, as if somebody had dropped you onto an escalator, and you suddenly found yourself carried by it. What you call the experience of time is you. It’s not something else altogether, you see, which is a trap for you. You are time. Alright, you want to go on? Okay, you create time by wanting to go on. Why do you want to go on? Well, you say: “Because, well, one must go on.” Why? Why must you go on? Do you feel compelled? “Yeah. It’s our duty to go on.” How did you learn that idea? “Well, we were taught it when we were children by our parents. They said: you must survive, you must live.” And they were taught that by their parents, and so they knew no better.


But if you live a life in which you feel you must survive, then your life is a drag. And you go on, and feel you must go on, because you are not fulfilled now. If you really understood the now, you would not feel that you had to go on. As Confucius even put it: “A man who understands the Tao in the morning can die content in the evening.” But if you feel, you see: “I must go on, I must go on,” it is because you have not lived. You’re always hoping to live.


So then, if you come to your senses—which will tell you there isn’t anything but the now, and that therefore, because there isn’t anything but the now, it is supremely important to rest in it, to get with it, to be one with it—you will understand the point; what’s going on. That you (in your way) are your fathers and your grandfathers come back. Myriads and myriads of past events are still going on in you. And you are doing the same thing, only it keeps looking different in the same illusory way that the wave appears to be moving across the surface of the water.

Alan Watts


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