Transcending Duality


Alan Watts explores the male and female symbolism of Tantric yoga and explores the unity of polar opposites as a form of resonance.

References:
00:00

Now, I want to go, today, into the subject of the male-female symbolism in tantric yoga. You will find that, in the tantric art forms, every Buddha or aspect of the Buddha has a feminine counterpart. And that not only do they have feminine counterparts, but they also have various levels on which they’re represented. In other words, we started out—you remember—I described in the last seminar there were the idea of five so-called dhyani buddhas. And these five—who represent, as it were, the center of a rose: one’s in the middle and four surround—then each one has a corresponding bodhisattva form. And then each bodhisattva has, in turn, a corresponding heruka form, but they’re all forms of the original five. Then, whether they’re in the form of a dhyani buddha, or in the form of a bodhisattva, or in the form of a heruka—which is a kind of wrathful and weird, far-out kind of a character; often with bulls’ heads. This one, here—which we can look at—is a little statue that Kim has brought over. They’re all reducible to the original group.

01:37

And all have these female counterparts, and they are represented—as in sexual intercourse—touching at all points in a complete embrace. And the idea is that this embrace lasts for ever and ever and ever and ever, and never ends. Because this is a way of representing the nature of life. What is fundamentally involved in this system is self-knowledge. You see, without resonance, nothing happens. If there are no echoes, you can’t hear anything. Supposing we get a room in which we blanket all the walls—and blanket the floor, sound-proof it in every possible direction—you can hardly hear anyone talk. Because voice requires resonance. That’s why people enjoy singing in the bathtub: they suddenly discover they’ve got a good voice. Because, suddenly, the bath and the structure of the room which is all non-soundproofed, resonates their voice. That’s why you use a violin—or a cello, or a base fiddle—[that] has a big wooden structure to make the sound resonant; to play back to itself. And that’s why we are all so fascinated with recording things; taking photographs, writing them down, and—above all—remembering: it’s a form of resonance.

03:31

Because, you see, if you don’t remember anything you don’t know you’re there. A person who had total amnesia and lived in a split second only wouldn’t know he was there. We could conceive (and perhaps there are) some forms of life that don’t know they’re there. I don’t know whether my particular cells—constituting my body—I don’t know whether they know they’re there. Maybe they do. Maybe they have some wonderful system of resonance that I know nothing about, and they’re all worried about what I’m going to do with them, and having conferences and meetings and their policy-decisions, and so on and so forth, because there’s this person in charge. You know, it might well be that—when I die, or when we all die—all our cells suddenly say, “God is dead.” And they have their big theological conferences and say, “Well, we just have to fend for ourselves from now on.” And that’s called corruption: where they all go off on their own. So I don’t know—it may be that we’ve got some kind of a system like that. But certainly, to know that you’re there you need an echo. So I invented this limerick:

There was a young man who said “Though
It seems that I know that I know,
What I would like to see
Is the ‘I’ that knows ‘me’
When I know that I know that I know.”
05:11

So this is the thing, you see: not only do you remember what happened and say, “It made an impression on me”—which means “it made me remember.” Like your retina remembers whatever is seen so that it sticks there a little. In other words, that’s why you get the illusion of a circle of fire when you revolve a cigarette in the dark: it makes the impression of a circle because your retina remembers and holds, as it were, the impression of the flame. So then, beyond that we’re absolutely fascinated with the whole principle of remembering. And so then, when there’s some gathering of people and we say, “Well, this is a great day! What a wonderful picnic (or whatever it is) we’re having. Pity somebody didn’t bring a camera. It should have been photographed.”

06:10

Now, do you see that in this whole thing there is both a gain and a loss? What one school of people are saying [is], “It should be photographed.” The other school of people are saying, “Let go of it.” When you go around—we had so much experience of this in Japan because all our students brought cameras and were constantly photographing things. And I had a camera and I was constantly photographing things, but I felt that—so long as I had a camera with me—I was somehow distracted from actuality. I had a little box with which I went around grabbing life. Of course, it’s great to come back and look at it in the form of photographs, but there’s something about the photograph that is inferior to the actual experience that you’re photographing. But there is an immense fascination in photography, in painting, in reproducing. And reproducing, you see, is the same thing as sexuality: it is reproduction—only in another way. Because it tells you you’re there, you’re alive; the thing bounces, it echoes.

07:36

So the duplicity in all this is, you see: one school of religious people say, “Let it all go. Don’t be attached.” In other words—and they also say, “Live in the moment.” Like Krishnamurti’s doctrine of “stop trying to remember everything.” You may need a kind of factual memory for your name and address, and telephone number, and things like that. But don’t linger over memories, and treasure memories, and say, “Well, I’m going to keep my girlfriend’s lock of hair, and I’ll take it out every now and then and look at it, and feel wonderful,” you see? That’s clinging to life because that memory has got you hooked. It holds you to the past, and it holds you to death. But then there’s the other school of thought, you see—quite opposite to this—which says, “Remember to remember.” Title of one of Henry Miller’s books. Hold on to it all. Get involved. Keep your girlfriend’s hair. Keep all the photographs. You know how, in some houses, the piano—everything—is completely covered with photographs and reminiscences? I went to visit Gloria Swanson once. I’ve never seen such a house full of memories. Everything, in all directions, was Gloria Swanson. Photographed on this occasion, signed on that on occasion, presentation this…. I went to visit once to the wife of a former archbishop of Canterbury. And the whole house was memorials. I mean, it was a complete clutter of tombstone furniture with little brass plates on it presented on the occasion of this, that, and the other.

09:26

Well, you say, “Look, that person isn’t really living. And they’re all in the past”. But on the other hand, what is life, you see, except there is a memory, except there is an echo. So what I want to point out, you see, is the duplicity of all this. That, if you’re a wise man, you don’t take sides in this issue. You do both sides. And that is the meaning of the unity of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa. On the one hand, you let go of everything and you live in the eternal now, because that’s all there is. See, memory is an illusion; it’s all gone. So everything you know about, that makes an impression on you, is no longer there. That’s the meaning of māyā. There is only the eternal now. There is only the present moment, and never will be anything else. Because even what you’re remembering is happening in the present, the memory is in the eternal now, isn’t it? See? So it’s all really absolutely here. But, on the other hand, what fun to drag it out! And to make it echo, and to get involved, and to fall in love, and to become attached. Once R. H. Blyth wrote and said to me—I may have told some of you this story before—he wrote me a letter and said, “What are you doing these days? As for me, I am abandoning all kinds of satori and enlightenment and I am trying to become as deeply attached to as many people and as many things as possible.” Because these are the two sides, see?

11:19

So, the thing is this: it’s just like riding a bicycle. It’s a balance trick. You suddenly find yourself falling over one way—well, you balance that: you turn into that direction and you stay up. And so, in the same way, when you find yourself becoming too attached to life, you correct that with the realization that there is nothing except the eternal now. Then, when you feel it’s alright now—you see, you’re safe again because there’s only the eternal now—once more, you go and get attached. Or you get involved, you get concerned about some enterprise—social, political, amorous, familial, scholarly, artistic; whatever it is, you get involved. And the two always go together. So this is the meaning of this symbolism. Because the male only knows he’s there if there’s a female. It’s the echo. And she only knows she’s there if there’s a male. Nobody ever came into existence without a couple of parents, see? And there’s simply no other way into this universe.

12:50

Now, this is simply—I’m using this simply not as the main point, but as a sort of illustration of the simultaneity of attachment-detachment; involution and evolution. Involution is how you get involved, evolution is how you get out. Well now, this tantric yoga represents all of this in the most extraordinary symbolism, which is basically the human body. Again, it’s not simply the sexual functioning of the human body, it’s the whole nervous system. If you really dig into this, you will find that there is a psychic anatomy. And this psychic anatomy, in yoga philosophy, belongs to what I explained yesterday as the subtle body. You must not expect to find this in the physical organism, nor must you expect to find that there is—in addition to the physical organism—a sort of spook that goes around with us. The physical body is the body as examined by others. The subtle body is the way you feel your Self.

14:20

Now, there is an anatomy of the subtle body which consists of the process of involution and evolution. There is a spinal tree, and it’s represented as having two paths down it. It is represented as a canal called the suṣumṇā. And then, in this canal, there are two routes. One is called the iḍā and the other is called the piṅgala. And on one current something is going down, and on the other something is coming up. And you will recognize, I think, the familiar image of two serpents on a rod: the caduceus, carried by Mercury. And alchemically, you see, mercury—the mirror substance—is the void; is the pure, clear light. The same thing as the Buddhist diamond.

15:28

Now, down at the base of the spinal column, according to the cakra system, there is what’s called the kuṇḍalinī, which is the serpent power. And the symbol of the serpent power is an inverted triangle with a phallus, upright and erect, and a sleeping serpent coiled all the way around the phallus. That is, in other words, involution—to be absolutely involved. And the sex symbol is used again because sex stands for symbolically complete involvement. Now when you’ve got in, the trick is to get out. See? So then, the process of yoga is represented as waking up that sleeping serpent who is under the sleep of māyā—who is captivated by illusion—and thinks that the world really exists. In other words, the female echo of himself or the male echo of herself, has captivated you. Memory has caught you. And you think it’s all really there, and you don’t realize there’s only the eternal now. And you need to know that in order not to get quite lost. Because if you go out to any one end of the spectrum, you forget you’re there. That’s sort of a non-existence; you can’t really non-exist, you’ll always come back eventually. But if you get one extreme too much, you don’t know you’re there.

17:13

So then, the symbol is that you draw up the energy located in the kuṇḍalinī, which is the sex center. And you send it back up the spinal tree to the top again, from which it came. Now, this is the theory of sex yoga. The theory is that the male and the female partners—who, as I explained yesterday, are husband and wife or some kind of spiritual marriage—what they do is this: the male sits in the normal meditation posture and the female sits on top of him, wrapping her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck, and he holds her around the waist. And in this position they arouse the sexual force. Now, the theory goes on to say this: that, instead of dissipating this energy in the ordinary way, having aroused it, they send it up the spinal tree—back into the brain. Now, don’t take this literally. This is a symbolism. It’s just the same kind of superstition as thinking that heaven is somewhere up in the sky, and that there really are streets of gold and angels wandering around in nighties with harps. All this is a way of talking about inner anatomy; psychic anatomy. The kingdom of heaven is within you. And when Jesus ascended into heaven, he went right into the middle of himself and disappeared. You know? Like the gates of heaven: they are pearls. People think the pearly gates are gates covered in pearls—there’s nothing of the kind. The gates of heaven are pearls. Each one is one pearl. And, you know, a pearl has a very thin hole through it for the thread to go in. And that’s why a camel can’t go through the eye of a needle: because you have to become no one to get through that hole. That’s why the idea of many incarnations is likened to beads strung together on a thread. And this thread is called the Sūtrātman. Sūtra is “a thread,” Ātman the “Self:” “the threading self” that hangs all the beads together. But it’s so thin, you see, that it’s like nobody. The real you. You have to divest yourself of all hangups, you see, to discover the real you. Well, we’re back again to the thing of pulling the snake up the tree: the serpent power. You have to let go of the hangups and realize that there are no possessions. Everything’s falling away. All your memories are holding onto illusions. And then, when you thoroughly understand that, you can go back in.

20:45

So you’ve got a marvelous picture of the world, of the sort of systole and diastole, Of attachment and detachment, attachment and detachment. And this takes us right back, you see, to the bodhisattva who is liberated, who has let go and is no longer attached, given up memory. And this is the meaning of giving up woman, who is your resonator. Give that up, see, and you find you’re free. There’s only the eternal now. So the bodhisattva, instead of staying there, goes back in. And there are all sorts of funny symbolic stories about bodhisattvas appearing in the world as whores, and using every conceivable kind of device in order to liberate other beings.

21:47

But this takes us completely back, you see, to the original Hindu image of the world as the Pralaya and the Manvantara. The Manvantara is the period in which Brahma manifests himself as multiple beings for 4,320,000 years. And the Pralaya is the period in which he withdraws and everything disappears. And then starts all over again. And this goes on for ever and ever and ever, in not only our kind of time but in many other kinds of time, and in all sorts of different kinds of spaces. But it’s the same fundamental myth recreated in another form.

22:38

Now, you may say this is pretty monotonous. And that is one of the basic feelings underlying Buddhism: “Must we go ’round again?” You see? So, indeed, you say, “Oh, enough of this! Let’s go to sleep. Let’s stop. Time must have a stop.” And so you stop. Well, when you do that, you forget that it ever happened, you see? This is a marvelous arrangement, because then it can start all over again without your knowing that it happened before. So you’re never bored! And this is a cure for being tired of it. Because if you didn’t know—I mean, that’s where the memory goes, you see? And so, when you come back, there’s no problem. At least, no problem of boredom, of remembering the past. There are going to be all sorts of new problems. But you won’t know you’ve had any problems before, so that won’t worry you. Until you begin to accumulate memories again, and you’ve had these problems, and it’s becoming a bore dealing with problems, and then you get rid of yourself. It’s called death. It’s a beautiful arrangement for keeping everything young and new, and for keeping the universe running without getting tired of itself. And that’s the definition of keeping on.

24:19

So, you see, these are the two motions. Fundamentally, then, represented by the male and the female, the in and the out, the now-moment and the memory. See, memory, remember, creates the future as well as the past. You wouldn’t know you were going to have anything happen tomorrow unless something had happened yesterday. You figure because the sun rose yesterday and yesterday and yesterday that it will arise again tomorrow. If you didn’t remember it, you wouldn’t know there was going to be any tomorrow. Because there isn’t. Tomorrow is an illusion. So was yesterday. Simply isn’t here! Where is it? Bring me tomorrow’s newspaper. This is a perfectly marvelous arrangement, you see?

25:11

So that you may feel, as you think these things over, that you are almost on the verge of going mad. I sometimes feel that when I get involved in the sort of contemplative state. It is so weird and so far out that I think I’m going to lose my mind. But don’t worry. You see, just like being dead. Just like… just let go and swing with it. Because it’ll always bounce. And what gives you the sense of going mad is that you think you’re not in control and that it’s all lost and someone else is going to take over. Or something else is going to take over. Well, of course it has to! Because, like you say, when you’ve driven long enough in the car you say to your wife, “Will you drive for a while, please?” You want relief. Something else has to take over. But it’s all you. So do you see that the nature of being is constructed in this extraordinarily fascinating way? So that it constantly renews itself, and therefore is worth going on by eternal forgetting and getting rid of itself.



Find out more