Unserious Wisdom

(Buddhist Mysticism)

While Pure Land Buddhism promises easy enlightenment through faith in Buddha Amitābha, Alan Watts explains how its eccentric followers, the myōkōnin, found wisdom by goofing off. With playful tales of the monk Ryōkan’s antics, from imitating tigers to forgetting letters mid-juggle, Watts shows how these rascal sages attained childlike wonder by ditching spiritual bootstraps for carefree acceptance of their flawed humanity. For the myōkōnin, the path to Buddhahood involved more fun and games than pious efforts.



Just this month, a new book has been published by Dr. D. T. Suzuki called Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. I’m not intending to devote this program to a review of this book as such, but I call attention to it. Incidentally, it’s published by Harper’s in New York for $3.50. But I rather want to call attention to a particular theme which the book deals with, the theme of a peculiar type of Japanese… mysticism, I suppose you’d call it, associated primarily with the type of Buddhism which is called Shinshū. Shinshū—or, to know it by another name, Jōdo, or Pure Land Buddhism—is one of the most popular forms of Buddhism in the Far East, spreading over China and Japan, it’s found in Tibet, originally had some following in India, but has undergone a very marked and special type of development in Japan.


And what makes it so popular is that, in contrast (or apparent contrast, I should say) with other forms of Buddhism, it stands as a kind of easy way, as distinct from a difficult way. In Japanese technical terms, the two types of Buddhism are respectively called jiriki and tariki. Now, ji means “one’s own” or “self,” and ta means “other,” and riki means “power.” And so the schools of Buddhism which call themselves jiriki are ways of deliverance which one follows by one’s own will, one’s own power, one’s own strength. Whereas on the other hand, the type of Buddhism called tariki is where you rely on the power of another. And this other is, usually speaking—if I may put it in somewhat mythological terms—a great supra-mundane Buddha, known as Amitābha, or in Japanese as Amida. And the story goes that, in incalculable ages in the most distant past, this great Buddha made a vow that he would not enter into the state of complete Buddhahood until any human being upon the face of the Earth who pronounced his name in faith would, after his death, be reborn in the western paradise over which Amitabha presides, and find therein far greater ease of spiritual development, of awakening, of becoming a Buddha, than is to be found on the face of this difficult Earth.


And all this, of course, derives from the ancient Indian idea that the present epoch of the world’s unfoldment is the darkest of dark ages, called the kali yuga. And in the kali yuga (or the mappō, as Buddhists call it) it is peculiarly difficult to advance towards any kind of spiritual development, because it’s an age of decadence, the end of which will witness the total destruction of the world prior to its re-manifestation at some future time. And therefore, the story goes on to say that this great Buddha, Amitābha, did in course of time attain to complete Buddhahood, signifying fact that his vow is fulfilled and that anyone who simply repeats the formula namu amida bhaya in Sanskrit (or, in Japanese, namu amidabhutsu), which is roughly translatable in English as “the name of Amitābha Buddha.” Or namu is used in, the formula is used in Sanskrit or Japanese, somewhat as the French say, en nome, en nome, en nome, why they just say “name,” meaning “hail,” I suppose. In English we have no real equivalent of it.


But the idea is that anybody who repeats the name of the Buddha Amitābha in perfect faith will, without any other effort, any other kind of spiritual endeavor on his own part—however evil, however depraved he may be—he will be reborn after death in this spiritual state in which the task of becoming a Buddha is rendered so easy as to be, as we should say, a perfect cinch. And of course all commentators on Buddhism say, “Well, this of course is how religions degenerate.” They become popular pie-in-the-sky-selling organizations where absolutely nothing is required of the faithful except an occasional contribution, and the easier you make it in contrast to the other sects which make it more difficult, the more people will flock to your following, and the fatter the contributions will be, and it all ends up with a prayer wheel. Well, all you have to do is make the thing revolve, you don’t even have to think about it, and incalculable supernatural merits are stored up on your behalf.


But it’s very dangerous to jump to conclusions of this kind about this type of religious or spiritual manifestation, because in practice the Shin school of Buddhism has had some of the most remarkable adherents, and produces a type of personality which is known in Japan as a myōkōnin. Literally translated, myōkōnin means “a wonderful and fine man.” That’s just a literal translation which doesn’t at all convey the sense of this kind of personality; the myōkōnin. But the myōkōnin—a man like Shinran himself, who founded the Shin school of Buddhism in Japan—is a man who has, in a way, understood the profounder meaning of the doctrine of this school.


And perhaps before I talk about the personal characteristics of the myōkōnin, I should try and indicate what may underlie, what may be the deeper meaning, of this seemingly decadent, highly popular, and easy form of Buddhism. Perhaps the best way to do this is by means of the critique which this particular school uses against those who follow the other way—who follow the way of jiriki, or self-power. The followers of the Shin school would say that a person who attempts to make spiritual progress by his own efforts is battling against the worst possible obstacle to any progress at all. And that is that, in thinking that he can do it himself, he’s like a person trying to lift himself up by his own bootstraps—or, to put it in another way: he suffers from the pride of imagining that his own will, his own energy, is sufficient to change himself. After all, if he needs changing at all, it is precisely the character and the motivation of his own will and his own energy that needs changing. And how is this change going to be achieved by that very will which so stands in need of change?


To put it in the more usual language of this school of thought, they say that the average human being is so weighted down by karma—that is, if we put it into more modern terminology, we would say: he is so fundamentally conditioned by his upbringing, by his social environment, by the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. But there’s really nothing he can do to make himself any better. And everything that he does do is simply a manifestation of this same conditioning, masquerading like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Therefore, if the human being cannot transform himself, if he is to be transformed at all, he must rely on some power greater than his own.


Now, of course, this other power may be represented, figuratively speaking, like we represent God in the Christian tradition as a spiritual entity or force or intelligence quite other than and apart from Man. Or it may be represented, on the other hand, as other than us in just the same way that the functioning of our own bodies (the beating of the heart and the operation of the lungs) goes on quite independently of the conscious will, and is other in that sense—although in another sense those unconscious and automatic or spontaneous functionings of our organism could be understood as more fundamentally and truly ourselves than the things that go on in our rather superficial consciousness. And if you interpret it in that latter way, the idea of tariki, or reliance on the power of another, is really reliance on something deeper in yourself than your surface consciousness. And that, I think, is the sense in which the profounder followers of this school of Buddhistic thought understand the doctrine.


So the myōkōnin—or, as I said, literally, “the wonderful fine fellow”—is the kind of personality which this doctrine engenders. Now what is he? He’s the kind of person who has realized through and through the fallibility of his own humanity. He’s the kind of person who knows himself thoroughly, who has a rather wry and humorous view of his own… oh, shall we say, his own high motivations and ideals. He knows himself thoroughly for the rascal that he is, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. And this, if that were all there were to it, is a very likable form and fellow from my point of view. I always feel uncomfortable with people who don’t have this realization of their own inherent rascality—the people who have pretensions to holiness and righteousness, who are so deceived as not to know that, in their heart of hearts, they are after all rapacious and selfish human beings. But the myōkōnin makes no bones about this. He knows that’s what he is. And he knows that, by the exercise of his own will, of his own intention, and his own conscious effort, he can’t be anything else. And so there is in him a kind of fundamental honesty and sincerity from the start.


What he goes on to be beyond this is something a little different. Because a myōkōnin is called a “marvelous fine fellow” because, somehow or other, he does seem to transcend the ordinary kind of human rascality to become a truly unselfish, a truly human being, loving others, understanding others, sympathizing with others, a wonderful compassionate man, because he has been enabled to love himself, to accept himself in the profoundest possible way. For if you translate into more modern and less symbolic language this idea that, by the mere repetition of a formula, by the mere act of faith in the power of a transcendent divine being, one is able to be saved, or made a Buddha, or perfected—just as you are—by an act of magic which lifts you up and transfers you to another realm. If you translate that, as I said, into a more contemporary way of talking, it would be to say something like this: that the intent of this symbology is to say that the condition of growing psychologically and spiritually is to let yourself alone, and not to fight against what you are. The more you try to make yourself great, to make yourself unselfish, to make yourself loving, you are simply tying yourself psychically into a knot—a kind of paralyzed state which makes it impossible for you to be anything except, as we might say, all balled up. But if, on the other hand, you let go of yourself and do not try to change yourself, you relieve yourself from this inner tension—you, as it were, unblock the conduits of psychic energy within yourself by not straining on them—and are therefore enabled to grow naturally like a tree or a plant. And this is exactly the attitude of the myōkōnin.


I think that one of the most fascinating of these characters is one who, as a matter of fact, did not actually belong to the Shin school of Buddhism, although he has in many ways entirely the same spirit. Because in root there is not so much difference between this profounder understanding of the Shin school and other types of Buddhism, such as Zen. Zen is ordinarily understood to represent the extreme of the jiriki way, of fighting along by one’s own strength. But the intent of the jiriki emphasis of Zen—the self-powered, the willful, striving sense—is something like this: to exert one’s will to the utmost in order to realize its futility, to make the most desperate attempts to change one’s motivation and one’s conditioning, in order to discover that in the last analysis it can’t be done, and that it is merely the futile struggle to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.


And so, as a result of this, the jiriki form of Buddhism produces very often the same type of personality as the tariki. And one of the most marvelous examples of this spirit is a monk—or I’d rather call him a hermit and poet—by the name of Ryōkan, who lived between 1758 and 1831. A man who is extraordinary in all the annals of sagehood and sanctity for the reason that everybody loved him. I don’t think he had any enemies at all. And this is really a very remarkable achievement. After all, it’s so easy to be so holy that you’re a challenge to the world, and that everybody feels uncomfortable in your presence, feels accused by your sanctity and given a bad conscience. And as a result of that, you get loathed, you make all sorts of enemies, and finally you get crucified. But it’s really a very remarkable achievement indeed to be all that, and lovable, too. To be without enemies, the friend of everybody—and yet involving absolutely no compromise with one’s integrity and honesty. Such a man was Ryōkan. Really marvelous.


And many, many stories are told about him, and I think these anecdotes about him describe his personality more delightfully than anything I could say by way of a character analysis or comment in that fashion. First of all, it must be understood that the myōkōnin, or type of person like Ryōkan, is one who has truly become again as a child. He’s not senile. He’s not in second childhood in that sense, but a person who is really full of a genuine wonder for life; who has so accepted himself, so let go of himself, is so not pretending to be anything, who gives himself no airs and graces, that he can relax and be perfectly natural.


And so the story is told that, one day, Ryōkan was going along, begging his food, and he met a friend who invited him to spend the night at his home. Well, in the room where he stayed there was a picture of a tiger hanging on the wall. And Ryōkan looked for a long time at the picture, and was so intrigued by it that, after a while, he came to feel that he himself was a tiger. And he fell to the floor, and running around on all fours, he growled at the tiger in the picture. Rawr, he said. And the tiger seemed to look at him and answer him. Ryōkan again shouted: rawr, rawr, rawr! And the tiger seemed to answer and appeared to be going to approach him. And Ryōkan, getting a great deal of fun out of this game, repeated it many times. But just then a maid of the house appeared, and was quite astonished when she saw the priest on the floor. For a moment she didn’t understand what had happened and was very frightened. And then she recognized him. “Oh, Ryōkan-sama! So it is you who frightened me so much! What are you doing there?” Startled by her voice, Ryōkan stopped his game of imitation, and shame-facedly spoke to her on his knees: “Oh, did you see what I was doing?” he asked. “You did? Oh, that annoys me very much. But, good maid, please keep it a secret. Otherwise I won’t know what to do, for people will think I’m crazy.”


And then there’s another story, which tells of a servant boy who came to the little hermitage where he lived in the mountain, bringing a letter from one of his friends. And, just at that moment, Ryōkan was absorbed in trying to juggle his begging bowl on the top of a pole. When the messenger called out and delivered his letter, Ryōkan stopped his juggling for a brief interval, glanced over the letter, and wrote his answer. The bearer made his departure and Ryōkan resumed his play. His bowl, time after time, slipped down to the floor. But, again and again, he’d set it up on top of the pole. Many hundred times did he struggle to accomplish this feat. And, after some time, the messenger returned. Ryōkan was so engrossed at his play that he felt annoyed at this interruption and did not pay any attention to his visitor. Well, the boy waited for some time, and finally called out in a loud voice, “Ryōkan-sama! Look here! What does this answer mean? My master is angry with me, and has ordered me to ask you to take back the letter you wrote before, and give me your real answer. Please do so.” Ryōkan then had pity on the intruder, and opened the letter he had written only a short time before. And what was his surprise, when he read, “The bowl turns round and round.” He broke into laughter. “Oh, dear me, excuse me, I’ve made a mistake,” he exclaimed. He then wrote another letter. But as his mind was filled with thoughts of the bowl and its play, the answer didn’t come easily.


The great delight of Ryōkan was playing with children in the village, where he went down to beg his food. And one fine autumn day, when he was going quietly through the village, he was suddenly disturbed by the sound of a voice, apparently coming from the persimmon tree. And, turning his eyes to the place where the sound came from, he discovered a boy clinging in great fright to the topmost branches, and crying for help. “Oh, wait a moment, my boy,” he said. “I’ll help you down, and then I’ll pick some of the fruit for you.” Ryōkan brought the boy safely to the ground, and then began to pick the coveted fruit. He plucked one persimmon, and was about to hand it to the child, when he decided that it would be well to taste it first, in order to give away the very best. The first persimmon was therefore thrust into his own mouth. “Mmh, how sweet!” he exclaimed. He picked another, and again stuffed it into his mouth. “Mmh! Good!” Again and again, persimmons found their way into his mouth, accompanied by the exclamation, “Oh! Mmh! Sweet. How sweet!” Meanwhile, the boy was waiting with open mouth at the foot of the tree, growing more desperate every moment. Ryōkan, lost in rapture over the persimmons, had entirely forgotten him. Only when the boy shouted out did Ryōkan come to himself. “Oh, dear me,” he said. “Pardon me, do forgive me. I shall pick the best for you now. The very best of all, and as many as you like.” Saying this, Ryōkan dropped persimmons to the boy, one by one, all red and very sweet.


And then there was once someone who told him that, if you picked up money on the road, it made you feel very happy. So one day, as he was traveling back to his hermitage, he thought he would try to see what it was like. Accordingly, he took some of the coins which he had begged from the villagers, and let them drop to the ground. He then picked them up one by one. But though he did this many times, he didn’t experience any particular feeling of joy. “I can’t understand it,” he said. “They told me that it is pleasant. Surely they wouldn’t deceive me.” He tried it again and again, but always without any result. In the process of dropping and picking up his money, he gradually lost all he had in the grass. For a long time he had to search for the money. But he found it at last, and then with a cry of joy he exclaimed, “Ah, I understand now! To find money is suddenly a delight.”


And once, when he was invited to stay in the home of some friends, they had to go out, and they asked him to watch the house. And he got kind of sleepy; a cat was going to sleep on his lap. And suddenly he heard a funny noise. He thought it was the cat, but there was the cat asleep on his lap. What was that sound? He stole quietly to the paper screen which separated the veranda from his room, and peeped through it with childish curiosity. And there, in his room, he saw a shabbily-dressed man searching in a chest of drawers and taking clothes out of it. “Uh-oh! He’s a sneak thief,” thought Ryōkan. Of course, Ryōkan didn’t want a thief to take clothes from his friend’s house, so he made up his mind to frighten the robber and drive him away. He therefore crept into the room and stood behind the thief. And the robber, utterly ignorant of this, went out of the room with a package of clothes and hastened into another room to look for more. And Ryōkan followed stealthily, stepping always about ten feet behind him. And when the robber turned to the left, he also quickly went to the left. And if the thief turned to the right, Ryōkan did the same, always just behind him. Another slight turn brought the robber almost in Ryōkan’s direction, but the priest was so quick that the thief didn’t see him. It seemed to Ryōkan as if he were playing a game of blind man’s buff. So absorbed did he become in the game that, before he knew it, the thief had slipped away with a stolen package. The priest suddenly came to himself and realized what a serious mistake he had made. But his concern was not so much over the lost things. His heart was full of pity for the thief, as he thought of his shabby clothes at his sad face. Late in the evening, when the family returned and were full of dismay when they saw what had happened. But Ryōkan just sat in silence and smiled as usual.


And then, among his written effects, was found this curious little document. It just said: “Favorite things. Cotton cap, towel, paper, fan, money, ball, and marbles. Necessities. Bamboo hat, gloves, stick, bell. Things for travel. Some clothes, an oil-paper cape, a bowl, and a bag. Don’t forget to read this before starting, otherwise you will suffer from want.”


He liked to smoke, too. He was very fond of tobacco. And he always had a shabby old skin tobacco pouch, which he kept his tobacco in. Very often it was emptied. Then he would go out on the streets with his tobacco pouch tied at the end of a long string down his back. People knew at once what he meant when they saw the pouch dangling behind him, and would hasten to fill it with tobacco.


Among other things, Ryōkan was very famous as a calligrapher. His handwriting was greatly prized. And there was a barber to whom he used to go to be shaved, who very much wanted a specimen in his writing to hang on a kakemono,—a hanging scroll on his wall—but Ryōkan just wouldn’t give it to him. Well, one day, in the middle of shaving his head, the barber stopped and left—

Unserious Wisdom

Alan Watts


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