Way Beyond Seeking

With charm and wit, philosopher Alan Watts unpacks key principles of Taoism in this lecture. He muses how even a fruit fly sees itself as the pinnacle of creation, much as we humans do. Opposites like yin and yang depend on each other, Watts reminds us, like two sticks balancing upright. He warns of the limits of words to capture life’s complexity. Yet through stories and logic, Watts nudges us to embrace non-action, cultivate intuition, and realize our unity with nature. Trust your brain, he cajoles, but avoid overconfidence. Taoist perspectives to ponder and enjoy.


Part 1


One of the first things which everybody should understand is that every creature in the universe that is in any way sensitive, and in any manner of speaking conscious, regards itself as a human being. That is to say: it knows and is aware of a hierarchy of beings above it and a hierarchy of beings below it. If you take such a tiny creature as a fruit fly which lives only a few days, it is aware of all sorts of weird little animals and objects and spores floating in the atmosphere which we don’t even notice unless we’ve got a microscope around (and very few people have). And it criticizes them as being inferior animals and all that sort of thing, whereas human beings are things that it doesn’t comprehend. They’re as much outside its intellect as a quasar is outside ours. And we see these far off objects floating in the heavens and we have only the vaguest idea of what they may be. Actually, we may all be some kind of atoms within the hair on somebody’s nose in another dimension, and all these galaxies being the constituent elements. Who knows!


But there is, I think, a fundamental principle that everybody must understand in order to know what is the meaning of the Tao, or the Chinese sense of the course of nature, and that is the principle of relativity. It’s absolutely fundamental to an understanding of Taoist philosophy: relativity. That is to say that, wherever you are and whoever you are and whatever you are, you’re in the middle. You know: pig in the middle—that’s the game. And just in the same way as when you stand, say, on the deck of a ship and you can see a horizon all around you to exactly the same distance: you’re in the center of a circle because your senses extend a certain direction in all directions, and therefore give you the impression of being in the middle. Everything in the world feels like that. And also, it has its own kind which look natural to it.


You see, spiders and hydras and sea urchins and so on don’t look very natural to us. We say, “Well, I wouldn’t want to look like that!” But they say, when they see us, “Well, what kind of an awful thing is that? And what a lot of nonsense it does!” You see, if your dog watches you when you’re typewriting, it cocks its head at you and says, “These human beings…!” Especially cats. Dogs have tried to catch on to human beings in a sort of a funny way, but cats look at you and think you are out of your mind. You’re absolutely crazy! What do you sit there all day for, feverishly pecking away at a typewriter, say, or doing something busy like that, when you could sit and curl up and and purr. You just—from the cat’s point of view—you don’t understand what life’s about all.


But all cats and cat company—cats in cat company—they feel that they are people. Because the definition of a person is where you look from. And of course that is the meaning of the very interesting Buddhist idea: you can only become a Buddha—that is to say, you can only become enlightened, liberated, aware of your unity with the universe—from the human position. And Buddhism calls itself the Middle Way because it is the way for someone in the middle, and that’s everyone. So there is, believe it or not, a form of yoga (ways of liberation) for worms, for fruit flies, for snails, for spiders, for birds, for everything. And they, you see, in their situation, feel just as cultured as we can possibly feel. And they have their distinctions and their snobberies just in the same way that we do.


Because, you see, they dig all sorts of things that we don’t even notice. We think a person is cultured because they play the piano or the violin, or they read poetry and they have a big library, and they have paintings all around, and they have a fancy house, and so on. And we say: “Well, there’s a person of culture.” And we can see at once that this is really some rather elegant human being. But when you get down into the world of fishes, they have exactly the same thing—only, instead of depending on collecting a lot of books and things like that, it is the precise way, the very subtle wiggles of a tail, the little tremors of vibration, that makes one fish a very superior fish as compared with other fish. And all the other fish look at that one and say, “Oh my! To be like that. What a genius! To be able to do just that little extra thing!” See? Because they’re very sensitive. Even airplanes in formation can’t begin to do what birds and fish can do in their communal swirling dances that they do.


Now, let me just interject something here that is rather important. Biological existence is such that you have to kill to live. And vegetarians have no way out because plants also are forms of life—to the degree that they are aware (and they are aware to a certain degree) they think they’re human. And when you chew up plants, you are making a very painful experience for cabbages and carrots and things like that, and you can’t get out of it. And the only possible solution of the dilemma that we are in ethically—that we have to eat in order to to live; that being is killing—the only possible solution to this dilemma is to reverence food, and to cook it as well as possible, and enjoy it to the full. There is no other ethical response that is in any way possible to this situation. And also: you must, as a human being, remember that you aren’t the only pebble on the beach. That you belong—just as much as the fish and the cows and the apples—you belong to a mutual eating society, and something (in the end) is going to eat you.


Now, human beings are not, as a rule, eaten by large creatures. We’ve got rid of them. Things like lions and tigers that chew up on human beings. There are not many of them around. We are eaten instead by tiny creatures. And the morticians are a very vicious group of people, because they are trying to deprive all those microorganisms of the proper human food when they bury them in formaldehyde and encase them in concrete things with complicated bronze caskets where—instead of giving the worms a ball—they just do nothing; they just rot there, you know, and become, slowly, more and more sort of attenuated and parchment-like, instead of continuing into the flow of the course of life—which is the proper thing to do: to make an act of respect to the Earth from which you have gained all this life, and give yourself back to it when you die. After all, it’s only courteous, and this keeps the thing running. So we should start a campaign at once to abolish the whole mortician business and put it in entirely new lines where dead human beings are buried in a great fields about three feet underground, which are left for a long time until all stinks and everything have vanished, and this is the most beautiful soil for growing corn and lettuce and artichokes and vines and everything beautiful. So you go back into the cycle.


But now, here is a very strange thing. That every creature, therefore, which feels that it is human, and which knows that it’s there in the same way as you know you’re here, experiences being here as constituting a sort of blockage. Now, practically, there are very few human beings that don’t feel this, and I’m sure there are very few creatures that don’t feel it in some way, too. The sensation of a certain tension which constitutes the feeling of I-ness, of there-ness: of being here. Because, after all, every creature is a particular form. Everything is individual. Not only you, as a total organism standing here, but all the components cells of your body. Each one of them has some sort of a feeling of its own. And it is individual. You can look at a microscope at the right level of magnification and you can see that thing there with its own little life. And if you examine the stream of your blood you’ll find it full of all kinds of organisms that are having all sorts of conspiracies and games and plots and eating each other and doing these things like we do. Only, we realize that we wouldn’t be healthy as a total organism unless there were all these wars and fights and plots and politics going on between the various cells in our blood. But from their point of view, you see, they feel a little bit put out because they’re being organized.


And we’re in the same situation because, very slowly, the human beings on the surface of the planet are realizing themselves into a total planetary organism with an electronic nervous system. You see, in science fiction which was published round about the 1920s it was always expected that future human beings would have enormous heads, because they would have very big brains and they would be very wise. It didn’t work that way. What happens is that the human race is building a brain outside its body. That is to say: an interlocking electronic network of telephonic, television, radionic communications, which is rapidly being interlocked with computers. So that you will, within a few years, be able to plug your own brain into a computer. You will have a little gadget here, behind the ear, that is slightly like a hearing aid, and that will be integrated with your brain in such a way that you can plug in right here. That will only be an intermediate stage. Because just in the same way as when we thought that all communications by electricity had to go through wire, and then we got rid of the wires and got radio and television, so in exactly the same way we’ll eventually get rid of telephones and radio and television, and we’ll communicate by some entirely new method that is at present called ESP.


But that will mean that absolutely nobody has a private life anymore. Everybody will read, automatically, everybody else’s thoughts. You won’t be able to defend—you’ll have no defenses: everybody else will see right through you. And some people will protest and say, “Well, this is terrible! There’s no privacy anymore. That means there’s no me!” Well, that’s what’s happened to your own cells and your own neurons. And they objected at some time in the course of the evolution: “We’re getting our private life taken away. We’re being organized into a body.” And we’re doing the same thing. Only, we have got to try and see if we can be clever about it, and that is to say to do two things at once: to have this tremendous openness to each other whereby I don’t care if you read my thoughts and you don’t care if I read yours, but at the same time, nevertheless, each one of us retains a peculiar individuality. Almost in the same way as: nothing could be more unlike a stomach than a heart, and nothing could be more unlike a kidney than pituitary gland, and nothing could be more unlike intestines than a rib cage. You see, there’s a lot of differentiation inside the body despite the fact that it is, completely, an organism functioning all together.


So then, the problem, though, as I said, is that for each individual which is outlined, which is a separate thing—or rather, I would, instead of using the word “separate” I would like to use the word “distinct.” “Separate,” as I use the word, means: disjointed, cut off from. “Distinct” means a feature of something, where an absolutely distinguishable pattern is part of a larger pattern of a whole. So something can be distinct without being separate in just the same way as back and front can be very different and yet inseparable. So then, there is, then, this sensation of practically every living being of constituting a center of tension and of resistance. That is to say: of being a little bit blocked or, shall I say, of being in the way; being in one’s own way.


Imagine the opposite. Let us suppose, for example, that you got up in the morning with a feeling of total transparency. There’s no resistance in your organism to the external world. You just float through it. You’re part of it, it’s part of you. And just in the same way, for example, that when you see—if you see well—you aren’t aware of your eyes. But if there’s something wrong with your eyes, when you see spots in front of you, then you are looking at your eyes and your eyes are getting in your own way. So the Taoist sage Zhuang Zhou says that “when clothes fit well you are not aware of them.” When your girdle or belt fits properly, you are not aware of it. Good shoes you’re unconscious of. And so, in exactly the same way, the perfect form of man is unaware of himself because he doesn’t get in his own way. He is, in this sense, completely transparent.


Now, you’re thinking I’m trying to sell you a bill of goods; that I’m going to teach you some technique so that you can feel perfectly transparent, and that this is the proper way to feel, this is the way you ought to feel. It’s not that simple. Point is, to begin with: if you do in a really rather natural way feel alone and feel a little bit vulnerable—that you’ve got a soft skin and you’ve got a weak heart and you’ve got, you know, all those ills that the human body is heir to going on inside you. Let’s begin with that. Let’s begin with the way in which we do, in fact, constitute a sort of block in the middle of things, and that fact we hurt a bit, and through hurting a bit we know we’re here.


See, people go very often to extreme measures to know that they’re there. I was in Mexico two years ago, trying to find out what was really behind all the blood and gore in Mexican Catholicism, why they love these pictures of Christ sold in the little shops where he’s green, and his face is contorted with horror, and blood pouring down, and a crown of thorns, with the longest spikiest thorns you ever saw all sticking in, and these crucifixes where they have carefully modeled sores on them, and all that kind of thing. And then, at Guadalupe, these girls kneeling-walking for a mile right down the avenue to the altar in that thing—what is it all about? Why, the answer is quite simply: if you hurt, you know you’re there. And this is part of the whole meaning of penances, and all sorts of trials that people go through, and all kinds of adventures, and all sorts of very, very difficult massage experiences, and so on, is that, as a result of this, it becomes quite apparent that you do truly exist. You are there. You are a kind of an obstacle to the flow of life. And as life impinges upon you, whammo! You rebound and you hurt a bit, and so you you are there.


Now then, although people cultivate this, they say, in general, they rather it would be not that way. We would like to forget ourselves. And so ever so many people say, “Well, I want somebody to lose myself in.” “I want something to belong to.” “I want to join a religion where I can sort of feel that I take part; I mean something.” Or: “I go to the movies to forget myself.” “I read a mystery story to forget myself.” “I get drunk to forget myself.” Because a peculiar quality of the drug called alcohol is that it turns you off. It makes you increasingly insensitive to pain, and to being, and so on, so that you can get a certain vague sense, a rather misty sense, of floating. When Gurdjieff had a boy that he was training, he was making him wait table one evening, and he suddenly (before dinner) filled him with an enormous amount of vodka. And the boy went around all evening in this sort of floating state. And Gurdjieff said to him afterwards, “Now listen: when you can feel like that naturally all the time, you’ve learned my discipline.” But here it is.


So as things stand, one ordinarily doesn’t feel that way, and therefore takes alcohol or something in order to disappear; in order to feel less this sensation of resisting the world. Do you know if you study your body and its dynamics, you will find that you are fighting all the time? Most people are. Some aren’t. But most people are fighting the external world all the time. My friend Charlotte Selver often tries an experiment where she makes a person lie down on the floor and says to them, “Now look: the floor is solid and it will hold you up. You don’t have to do anything to stay where you are. Just lie on the floor.” And then she looks at the person, or may touch them slightly, and say, “Do you realize you’re making all sorts of efforts to hold yourself together? Because you’re basically afraid that if you don’t do that you will just go bleeah and disappear into a kind of formless goo all over the floor. But you won’t. You see? Your skin, your bones, your muscle tonus and everything, is all there naturally, and it will hold you together. There’s nothing to worry about. And all you have to do is lie on the floor. And you don’t have to make any special efforts to stay together.”


But very many people are afraid that they will fall apart or somehow disintegrate if they don’t make efforts to hold themselves together, or else that they will be disintegrated by some outside agency if they’re not constantly on the alert, like this: dee tch tch tch tch tch tcha tcha tcha all around, you see, to protect themselves. Now, I’m not a preacher. That’s the most important thing to understand about me. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that. But I’m inviting you to become immensely aware of the fact that if you do that at all, that you do it. And that you have therefore this sense of being alone—of being a particular separate form that is unlike any other form on Earth, that’s just you—and concentrate on that. After all, for many people, they define this as their problem. So you ought to be able to feel it without the slightest difficulty. It isn’t as if I were asking you to feel some transcendental sensation or something of that kind. This is just a very ordinary sense of being you and being alone.


Now, as you focus on that sensation of distinctness, we’ll even call this one separateness, because we do: we have been brought up to feel separate, we have been brought up to feel actually disjoined from the external world—although that is pure mythology and doesn’t exist at all. You are as much part of the external world as a whirlpool is part of a stream. But we are brought up not to notice that. But if you’ve been brought up that way, and you don’t notice that you’re as much part of the world as a whirlpool is of a stream, you feel this intense separateness. The thing to do with all feelings that you don’t like is to experience them as deeply as possible, and go into the inmost depths of loneliness, and indeed, let us say, the inmost depths of selfishness. Are you selfish? You know, lots of people try to pretend they aren’t and say, “Well, I try not to be, but I guess I don’t succeed all the time.”


And so, Krishnamurti, you know, is a very devil because he always roots it out. He shows all the people who are very good and have the highest ideals and who are doing everything, that they are really doing it for the same sort of motivation as other people are robbing banks. Only, they’re giving it a name so as to conceal it better. See, that’s like culture: culture is a way of more cleverly concealing the fact that you have to eat. See, like the Queen of Spain who, in the days of the 1860s, came on with these enormous skirts and floated into the room, and, you know, was sort of coming on like she was an angel. And somebody, when they were first invented, gave her a present of beautiful silk stockings, a dozen pairs, and sent them to the Queen. And her majesty’s chamberlain replied with a better returning the stockings and saying, “Her Majesty the Queen of Spain does not have legs.” Like: “Look mama! No legs! I managed to float along just the same because I’m an angel.”


So you see the way in which all kinds of high culture are subtle ways of concealing and pretending that we do without the things that the lower classes—whether of humans or of animals—do. See? We pretend that we don’t. Just like you don’t go around crudely taking a bull and banging it on the head with a mallet or sticking a knife through it and tearing it apart and eating it. All that’s done from way off in the stockyards, and it comes to us in the butcher’s shop as a completely neutral looking thing called a steak. Steak has absolutely nothing to do with a cow! A steak is something wrapped up, packaged like that, and they’re all tch-tch-tch-tch-tch down like that. And nobody, when they pick up a steak and test it, thinks, “Poor cow.” It doesn’t even look like a cow! It doesn’t remind you of one in any way. So that’s culture.


But you see, however much you mask it under lofty ideals—I mean, the most religious people in the world, the greatest saints, are nefarious rascals. I’ve known lots of them. I must tell you in confidence: I’ve known a lot of clergymen, and the filthiest stories I have ever heard in my life were told me by clergymen! So in Hebrew theology, incidentally, there is a thing called the yetzer hara. And in the beginning of time, when God created Adam, he implanted in him the yetzer hara. And the yetzer hara means the “wayward spirit.” He put something funny in man so that man would be a little odd. And it was a result of the yetzer hara that Adam was tempted by Eve, who was tempted by the serpent, to eat that famous fruit. But the Hebrew believes that everything that God created is good, including the yetzer hara. Because if it hadn’t been for the yetzer hara, there would have nothing ever happened. Everybody would have obeyed God, and God would have said, “Well this is kind of a bore.” But, you see, you can’t just get up to someone and say, “Disobey me!” because if they do, there are varying you. See? That’s a double bind, to say to somebody, “Disobey me.”


But God is much more subtle than that. He didn’t tell Adam to disobey him. He told him to obey. But subtly he put this yetzer hara thing in, like that, so that God could say, “Well, I’m not responsible. This thing’s going to happen of its own.” Because what everybody wants is something to happen on its own. And everybody wants that. Because, you see, the sensation of being you—this curious, lonely center of awkward sensitivity, subject to the most peculiar feelings and pains and anxieties and all that sort of thing—all that is an essential prerequisite for feeling something else. These two experiences go together. In other words, if you want to be omnipotent and you want to live in a universe where nothing happens except exactly what you will to happen—in other words, you say: “I would like to be God” (if you think that’s the way God is)—and everything is therefore totally under my control, everything is absolutely transparent to my intelligence. I have no problems. A lot of people coming on like they think they’ve attained the state. Well, that’s a lot of bunk! Nobody wants to be in that position. Because there wouldn’t be anything to it. Because once everything is under your central control—well, just nothing is happening. It’s a bore from beginning to end. So what any one, or any being whatsoever—who has a sense of centrality, who has a sense of self, who has a sense of identity—that sense of identity is inseparable from something else going on that is defined as not being me, as not being under my control, and that may jump at any time. It might even eat me.


So what I want you, first of all, to understand is that these two sensations—one of being the lonely, central, sensitive, vulnerable self, living in the midst of a world that feels other, that is not under your control—I want to try and show you that these two sensations are really one sensation; or rather, two aspects of one sensation. You couldn’t have the one experience without the other experience. Now, this is a rather good thing to know, because it means that you won’t panic if you discover this. People who suffer from chronic anxiety are always in doubt, you see, about this relationship between what I feel as myself and what I feel as something else. Let’s suppose you are anxious about your relationship with other people. You walk into a room like this restaurant here, and you sit down at dinner, and some stranger opposite to you, and you know nothing about the stranger, and you begin… maybe you feel a little reluctant to open conversation. You don’t know whether this person is going to be sane, or some kind of a crackpot, or some kind of awful stuffy square, or you don’t know what it is. So you start tensing around a little.


But you get the feeling, you see, of—now, I better watch myself, because I do after all want to make a good impression. I don’t want to make an enemy. So you watch yourself, and this funny thing then begins called self-consciousness. And people say sort of, “Heh, heh” to each other and... you know, the usual way in which strangers come on. Also, there is involved in this encounter the secret games that people are playing all the time to defend themselves by putting other people down. This is really a very wicked game. But, you see, every living being, if the truth be told, is a manifestation of everything that there is. It’s what we call “God” in old-fashioned language. Every human being is. And every one, as I look around, I can see every one of you as the divine being coming at me in a different way. Crazy! But the thing is that what we do is to try and prevent people from realizing that this is so by pointing out to them in the most subtle ways their limitations, and seeing if we can phase them: put a person off a little bit, make them uncertain, make them unsteady. It’s like all sorts of games you can play where, if a person wavers, he loses. But people play that with each other all the time. And the reason they do it is not the reason they think. It is that if everybody were perfectly clear that they were a manifestation of the divine being, nothing very much would happen. But so as to keep everybody a little bit unclear about it, the whole thing bugs itself and creates these little doubts. So what we are beginning with is little doubts, you see? These sensations of blockage; of not being very sure of yourself, but knowing very much indeed that you are yourself, and that you’re alone, and it’s all up to you. The terrible feeling of responsibility.


But what I’m trying to point out to you is: if you intensify that feeling and bring it to its highest pitch, you will immediately realize that you are aware of it only by virtue of the entire sensation of something else, something defined as “not you.” So the feeling of “not you” and the feeling of “you” are relative. They go together. And you can’t have the one without the other. And if you can’t have the one without the other, that means there’s a secret conspiracy between the two. They are really the same but pretending to be different. Because the whole idea is: if there wasn’t a difference, you wouldn’t know anything was happening. I mean, if it was all the same, it’s like that song of Bob Dylan’s which says something like, “Well, I’m just a guy like you. I’m just like anybody else. No use me talking to you, because you just like me.” You know? So the whole point is, then, if everybody of us all were the same, and all shared the same ideas exactly, and so on, there’d be nothing to talk about because everybody would be a bore. There’d be just yourself echoing back at you, you see? You’d feel like a madman and a hall of mirrors. Where everywhere you went was just yourself, you see, in all directions. Just you. Well, that’s not fun.


But you may think that I’m speaking in favor of some kind of schizoid pluralistic universe. No. The whole point is this: that difference and every kind of variety of differentiation is the way through which unity is discovered. I mean, this business about vive la petite différence is very important. And the fact that men and women, for example, as a primordial kind of difference, never can really understand each other is tremendously exciting. Because that’s a way by which something happens. If it makes a difference then it’s there. If it doesn’t make a difference it doesn’t matter. And what doesn’t matter doesn’t exist, because it has no matter. So, however, wherever you notice a difference, the difference has two sides: what it is and what it’s not. And these two sides—since you can’t have the one side without the other side—they’re really one. Because they go together inseparably. So when you get this extreme sense of your own existence as a rather painful fact in the middle everything else, the “everything else” feeling and the “you” feeling are two poles of one and the same process. So that the real you is what lies, as it were, between these poles and includes both of them.


Now, this is the fundamental principle of the whole way in which ancient Chinese thought developed. The philosophy of the yang and the yin. This is one of the oldest ideas in the universe. I mean—no that’s rather too big language. On this planet. Ands the philosophy (which I shall have occasion to speak of a little bit more later) of the Book of Changes, the I Ching, is based entirely on this. That the universe is the interplay of difference, and the primordial difference is between up and down, back and front, black and white, is and isn’t, male and female, positive and negative. So the word “yang” in Chinese means or refers to the south side of a mountain, which is the sunny side. The word “yin” refers to the north side of the mountain, which is the shady side. Did you ever see a south-sided mountain only, with no north side? Or “yang” may also refer to the north bank of a river which gets the sun, and “yin” to the south bank of the river, which gets the shade. And so, you will remember this—


—and one half, of course, is colored dark—as it were, two fishes interlocked. And they are chasing each other. They actually form now—you can see more complicated symbols in which they form a helix. This is a helix. And the spiral nebulae are shaped this way; in the form of a helix. And this is the position of man and woman making love, fundamentally: where I am trying to get inside you, and you’re trying to get inside me, and we’re trying to get into the middle of each other, but there’s somehow or other a difference and we can never quite get there. Just like if I want to see the back of my head I can go ’round and ’round and I can chase it, but I never quite catch up with it. But that’s what makes everything work. It is said in the the Vedanta sutras that the Lord, the supreme knower of all things, who is the knower in all of us, doesn’t know itself i the same way that fire doesn’t burn itself and a knife doesn’t cut itself. So nothing—to God, even, you see?—would be more mysterious than God.


Do you know, somehow, how you surprise yourself? For example, when you feel your own pulse, and you suddenly feel this life going on in you which you’re not willing. There are all sorts of ways in which you can—say you have the belly rumbles, and you didn’t intend to have the belly rumbles, and suddenly it happened. Or you had hiccups. And now: are you having hiccups or not? Is this something you’re doing, or is it merely something that’s happening to you, as if it was raining and the rain was happening to you? This is a very debatable question. Consider breathing: are you breathing, or is it breathing you? Well, you can feel it either way. You can decide to breathe and feel that you’re breathing in just the same way that you walk when you want to. On the other hand, when you forget about breathing altogether it still goes on. And so it seems to be something that happens to you. Which is it? Do you grow your hair or does your hair just grow by itself? What enables you to make a decision? When you decide, do you first decide to decide, or do you just decide? Now, how do you do that? Nobody knows, you see?


When Zhuang Zhou tells this story that one philosopher asked another: “How can one get the Tao” (which is the power of nature) “so as to have it for one’s own?” And the other philosopher answers: “Your life is not your own. It is the delegated adaptability of Tao. Your offspring are not your own. They are the outputs of Tao. You move—you know not how. You are at rest—you know not why. These are the operations of Tao. So how could you have it for your own?” And there’s a funny thing then. We can experience ourselves through and through as something that just happens.


Look at it this way: if you feel your body, your skin, and the solidity of you, and regard what marvelous eyes you have, which are the power which generate light and color out of all these electrical quanta in the external world. And these ears! These beautiful shells that you wear on the side of your head, with their little spiral bones, the cochlea inside—you know, all that? It’s marvelous! But you don’t feel responsible for this. You don’t know how it’s made (if it is made). But it’s you! That’s what you are: that extraordinary pattern—beautiful, gorgeous, wonderful arabesque of tubes and bones and cartilage, and myriads of interconnecting electronics and nervous systems, and everything wonderful. See? But the point is: most people don’t own this. They don’t say, “This is me.” They say, “Well, it’s some kind of very clever machine which the lord God made out of his infinite wisdom and put me in it.” And this is a very limited view.


Because the extraordinary thing is, you see, that this is you. This extraordinary marvelous goings on, see? But you can feel it—all of it—as if it was just happening to you. But if you want to feel it that way, then you’ve got to go the whole way and you’ve got to feel that your decisions just happened to you. And that the thing that you call “yourself,” to which things happen, is just something that happens. See? You don’t know how you managed to be and ego; how you happen to be conscious. That just happened, too. So happenings happen to happening. And so you can feel yourself completely irresponsible. Like that, see? There’s nowhere. When you get that way, that’s a very interesting road to run.


But you can try the other way. You can extend it and say, “Now look here: if, if, if, if I really am my eyes”—and although I don’t understand them… I mean, let us say I can’t describe it in lines, in words.—“this is me.” It’s an extraordinary thing, but it is. Well, I don’t understand how it happens. But then, you see, that’s the whole point as I made a little while ago that the very lord God himself doesn’t understand how he happens. Because if he did, hat would be the point? There’d be no mystery, there’d be no possibility of surprises. That’s why there has to be yang and yin. Yang is bright and it understands everything. Yin is dark and damned if she’ll be understood! But they are two phases of the same being. So your yang side is your conscious attention, all the bright things you know, and all the information you have, and all the know-how that you know what to do. And your yin side is the other side of the yang, which enables the yang to function. Because you don’t know why the yang inside of you functions—that is: the conscious, bright, intelligent side of you. It all depends on something you don’t understand at all. Because if it didn’t, it wouldn’t be there. Just like you wouldn’t be here unless there was something else. So they move together.


And therefore, if you will accept the idea that you are your own eyes, and your own heart, and your own ears with that wonderful little spiral cochlea inside, and all these amazing gadgets here—you’re all that, but you don’t know anything about it, but you are it. Now, therefore, by a little extension of the imagination, you can very well see that if all those the bones and subtleties inside you feel other than your conscious ego, but nevertheless are one with it, the same argument will go for all the other things going on around you. The sun shining, the stars twinkling, the wind blowing, and the great ocean restlessly pounding against these cliffs—that’s you, too. You don’t control it, of course, because there has to be something about you you don’t control, or you wouldn’t be you. Now, you see, all that is lesson elementary in relativity.


And relativity—I’ve talked about it in this way which is kind of unscholarly and so on, but I want to get the message across, the idea across—because to understand the principle of relativity is the absolute foundation of the philosophy of the Tao. Lao Tzu takes it up in his second chapter, when he says: “When all the world understands beauty to be beautiful, there is already ugliness. When all the world understands goodness to be good, there is already evil. Thus to be and not to be arise mutually. High and Low are posited mutually. Long and short are compared mutually.” And he goes through a whole list of opposites, and shows how they create each other. It’s like that wonderful little parable: the Chinese character of “man” (人) looks more or less like an upturned V. And Lafcadio Hearn, in one of his books, tells the story of a Japanese girl telling her little sister the meaning of the character for “man” by taking two sticks of wood and balancing them together on the ground—two sticks of firewood—so that they form the upturned V. And she says to her little sister: “This is the character for ‘man’ because neither stick will stand up unless it has the other to help it.” And so, you know, we we must dig each other.


But the profounder meaning underneath this is: there’s no self without other. And no man—and to get back the original point—every creature in the world feels it’s a man. I don’t mean a male, but a human. And that is because it is in this situation where the thing it feels as its “self,” as its separate identity, is supported by the equal and opposite sensation of “other.” Center/periphery. Here/there. Now/then. Is/isn’t. Or whatever. These two, the yang and the yin, the two poles, that hold each other up. So the Zen poem says:

When misfortune comes, treat it as a blessing.

When fortune comes, treat it as a disaster.

Part 2


Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer who lost a horse—ran away. And all the neighbors came around that evening and said, “That’s too bad.” And he said, “Maybe.” The next day, the horse came back and brought seven wild horses with it. And all the neighbors came around and said, “Why, that’s great, isn’t it?” And he said, “Maybe.” The next day his son was attempting to tame one of these horses, and was riding it, and was thrown and broke his leg. And all the neighbors came ’round in the evening and said, “Well, that’s too bad, isn’t it?” And the farmer said, “Maybe.” And the next day the conscription officers came around looking for people for the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And all the neighbors came ’round that evening and said, “Isn’t that wonderful!” And he said, “Maybe.”


This—in a way, in a certain sense—reflects a fundamentally Taoistic attitude, which is that the whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it is really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad, because you never know what will be the consequences of a misfortune, or you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune. I know a woman who was quite happy until she inherited two million dollars, and then she became absolutely miserable because she was afflicted with paranoia that everybody was going to take it away from her—especially the government. And, on the other hand, you’ve all known cases where some sort of ridiculous inconvenience or accident preserved you from a worse one, or else it was an occasion on which you met someone you fell in love with, or formed a fast friendship with. You never know what is the chain, the pattern, the connection between events.


And it is for this reason that the Taoist has been critical of two things. One: of words, and two: of interference. He criticizes words because, among the Confucians, who were always literary people, they had a thing going called the rectification of names. Now, I have to introduce this by a little observation about Confucians in general, because they have their positive and their negative side. But their negative side is their rather exclusive interest in matters literary. In the history of Chinese civilization, no kind of really scientific advance came through Confucian studies, because they were scholastics—that is to say, a scholastic is one who knows what’s in the book and believes what the ancient texts or the ancient scriptures say, and he studies them and becomes proficient like a rabbi or a Christian theologian. But mystics are not interested very much in theology. All mystics have been interested in direct experience, and therefore—although you may laugh at them as mystics and say they are not scientific—they are empirical in their approach. And the Taoists, being mystics, were the only great group of ancient Chinese people who seriously studied nature. They were interested in it from the beginning, and their books are full of analogies between the principles of the Taoist way of life and the behavior of natural forces of water, of wind, of plants, and rocks.


In many, many passages, Lao Tzu likens the Tao to water—in the fact that it doesn’t resist and yet nothing is stronger, in the fact that it always takes the line of least resistance, that it always seeks the lowest level which men abhor. And many, many things are said about water. Many things are said about plants. Many things are said about the processes of growth. About wind: how wind plays music with all the orifices and openings in nature, and blows through them, and brings out their particular hum. So it was, strangely enough, from the Taoists that Chinese people developed as much science as they did develop. But, you know, they never developed anything like Western technology. And this is because—or in part because; there are many, many reasons, some of them purely geographical—but one of the reasons why the Chinese did not go on to develop an advanced technology had to do with names, and it had to do with a certain attitude to nature. Now, so far as names are concerned, the Taoists always laughed at the idea of the rectification of names. Because they said, “Now, look: when you compile a dictionary, you define your words with other words. Now, with what other words are you going to define the words with which you define the words, so as to be sure you’ve got them straight?”


I remember when I was a small boy I wanted to write a book which would preserve forever the fundamentals of human knowledge. And so the first thing I wrote down in it was the alphabet. And then I scratched my head as to how I would write down how to pronounce each of these letters. And I tried to spell out in letters how to pronounce letters—not realizing, of course, that this was a completely vicious circle. You have to have something—in order to understand words, you have to have something else. And that is a very mysterious matter: the kind of understanding that we have of things, which we then go on to describe in words. And one realizes how much one learns (as a child, especially) from other people which is never explicitly stated. How do you know, for example, whether somebody who says something to you is serious or kidding? A great deal of confusion is caused by that, even among adults. And the processes have been examined and analyzed and studied which are required for understanding the simple sentence, and we don’t yet know how the brain of a child accomplishes this extraordinary task—which, when an analyst looks at it, is extremely complicated. But of course you must realize that analysis is a way of making things complicated that were not complicated in the first place. And it was like my task that I set myself as a child: the amazingly complicated task of how to write down how the letters were pronounced.


Now, a great deal of academic energy goes into this task of proving things that everybody knows. But they want to say precisely: what thing is it that you know? How can we delimit it? How can we pin it down exactly? And this, of course, is very much involved also with law. And that’s why you devise, bequeath, and… you know, you got a whole long list of words: “I devise,” “bequeath,” “give,” et cetera, et cetera, so that there can be absolutely no doubt about what you mean. But, as a matter of fact, the trouble is: the more definite you become with words in describing something, the more doubt you create. And so the Taoists took a profoundly humorous attitude to the Confucians’ interest in spelling things out. Because they said you can never do it.


Do you ever play a game—any of you—called vish? The rules of this game are: you get—say there are five people playing, and you appoint a referee. And each person has a copy of the same dictionary (say, Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary), and then you have many words in a hat or something, and the referee draws out a word and he says, “escalator.” And then you turn it up in the dictionary. And then you get a definition, and you look up an absolutely key word in the definition. Has to be a really crucial word. Not “the” or “a” or something. And then you look that up. And then you take a key word in that definition. And then, when you get back to the word “escalator,” you raise your hand and call out “Vish!” which is short for “a vicious circle.” And thereby you have won the round. And the referee is there to decide that you played fair and that you did take key words from each definition, and so on, and you didn’t cheat.


So this shows you, you see, how a dictionary—unless it has little pictures in it which give you another way of understanding things—a dictionary is an entirely circular process. It’s simply a self-defining affair. So that when you encounter—say I pick up a Chinese dictionary, or better still for my purposes, supposing I pick up a Finnish dictionary which has nothing in it but Finnish language—it doesn’t tell me a thing! Because I haven’t got the key. And the key to this language is not altogether communicable in language. So for this reason, then, the Taoists were thoroughly skeptical of the power of words to describe the processes of the physical world. Now, the Chinese language as such is a rather peculiar language, unlike most other languages, in that it neither declines its nouns nor conjugates its verbs. There are certain ways, sometimes, of showing whether a verb indicates the future or whether it indicates the past. But in general, literally translated Chinese reads like a telegram.


And so, the opening of the chapter of the Lao Tzu book on —that is to say, on power or virtue—says in literal English:

Superior not , thus this has .

Inferior (or virtue) not let go of virtue, thus this not virtue.

And this says it so succinctly. And we have to go bubbling around and saying:

The superior form of virtue is not conscious of itself as virtue, and thus truly is virtue.

But the inferior form of virtue so insists on being virtuous that it’s not virtue.

And that’s a very complicated way of saying things as the Chinese says it’s so pithily.


But, on the other hand, the Chinese language—which is not specific in this way that we can be, by declining nouns and conjugating verbs; exactly what, how, and to whom—we have a better language. And so do the Japanese, because they have an arrangement for using Chinese in such a way as to decline the nouns and conjugate the verbs. We have a better language for describing technological processes. You know how it is when you get a set of instructions to put something together: first do this, then do that, then do the other thing. Well, boy! You should get some kind of a Chinese product from Hong Kong with put-together instructions. And you’re just nowhere! You have to know how it’s done before you read it.


[???] both English and Chinese, and I couldn’t read Chinese. I had to look at the English [???].



Yes. So—you mean on these sort of emergency instructions? Yes, yes. But the compensatory delight of this language is that you can say several things at once and mean them all.


However, the point, now, that we go on to is a second one. With this realization (that language is a net which will never succeed in capturing the world) goes a reluctance to interfere with the processes of nature. Because what you think may be a good thing to do may be good only in the short run. It may turn out to be disastrous in the long run. To give the very simple example which is very close to the hearts of all Chinese and Asian people: the problem of population. What on Earth are we going to do about that? Because, in times past, the huge populations of India and China were pruned by perennial outbreaks of cholera and other diseases which wiped out millions of people. Famines. And so the population was pruned. Now, however, with the methods of modern medicine, we begin to stamp out these plagues. But then a new plague turns up in the form of human beings: too many of them. Well, you can’t just can’t go around in cold blood shooting down people or getting rid of people who you regard as not making up to certain standards. It was somehow better if the cholera did it, because that was impersonal and it bore you know spite. But when human beings have to decide to get rid of each other, then there’s real trouble.


So a Taoist would be, on the whole, inclined not to interfere with the course of events. Because he feels that they are of a complexity so great that he, with his verbal interpretations—because all that we call scientific knowledge is a verbal interpretation of what’s going on, and of a certain selection of things that we call good and a selection of certain things that we call bad—well, he feels that he doesn’t really know in terms of words whether a given event is good or bad. He may feel badly about it, but he may feel that this is the proper and appropriate way to feel in such circumstances, and that it will go over. It will pass. For as Lao Tzu said, “The fierce gale does not last the whole morning, nor does pelting rain go on all day.” Maybe you haven’t lived in Big Sur—but still, in general. Then he goes on to say, “If heaven and earth cannot keep up these things for long, how much less can mankind?”


So this, then, is a basic attitude in Taoist philosophy which goes by the name of wú wéi. And that is this. That means ; that means “negative.” And wéi means “doing,” “interfering,” “busyness,” “poking into things.” So wú wéi means “don’t interfere,” “don’t strive,” don’t… really, the best meaning of wú wéi is “don’t force it.” As when, for example, you’re opening a lock and the key doesn’t seem to turn: if you force it, you’ll just bend the key. So what you have to do is jiggle: pull back and forth. Jiggle, jiggle, jiggle until you find the place where the key turns. And that’s wú wéi.


Wú wéi doesn’t mean total passivity. Because, you see, on the other side of the picture about interfering with nature is that you must interfere. There is no way of not interfering. Even when you look at something, you interfere with it. Your very existence is an interference with the environment, from a certain point of view. So there you are. You’re stuck with it. Everything you do alters the balance. Even if you sit perfectly still: you’re still breathing, and that alters the nature of things going on around you. You’re exuding temperature, and that changes something. And then, when you start eating and doing all sorts of things like that, you really do start changing things. So you can’t avoid interfering, and yet the the maxim is: don’t interfere. But it means bestly translated: don’t force it.


So then, what do you do? Well, you have to interfere as wisely as possible—that is to say, you have to find out how to interfere along the lines in which things are already developing. This is like sailing a boat. It is much smarter to sail than to row, because it takes less energy. You simply use the wind by putting up a sheet. But then, supposing the wind isn’t going where you want to go: then you learn to tack. But you keep the wind in your sails all the time, and you use the wind to go against the wind. And therefrom comes the idea of judo. Judo is the Japanese way of saying “the gentle Tao,” “the gentle way.” And in judo the basic principle of the whole thing is that you are not an attacker. Underneath judo is a deeper philosophy called aikidō: “the way of aiki.” And aikidō is that you can never be attacked, because when somebody attacks you, you’re not there. Or you are there, but in the form of a vacuum, so that the attacker get sucked in so fast by his own force that he falls over.


So in judo one always uses the strength of the opponent to bring about his downfall. You may add your own strength at a certain point. In other words, when you’re throwing someone in judo, there is a point when his own strength has taken him beyond the peak. You know, when a thing is falling over, it reaches a certain peak where it’s gone, you see? It’s on the way down. It is at this moment that you add your strength and say, “Wowee!” You see? When there’s a curious throw in judo where you get a fellow, you’ve been holding him, and you get him up on your foot like this, you see, and then he is moving in this direction. So, just when he is off balance, you whoops! with your foot, like that, and send him way over on the floor that direction. But he has to be beyond the falling point, you see? And then only do you use your strength. Because all you’ve done now in executing this throw was that you fell backwards with your own weight and he was pushing at you. You see? At a moment when he was pushing at you like that, it is entirely opportune to put your foot up and fall over backwards and wheezh!. He goes way over. And that’s quite a throw to get involved in, I can assure you!


But judo, you see, is a development out of the Taoist philosophy by, probably, Japanese people. Judo is relatively modern. But it comes out of all sorts of understandings going back to Chinese ways of doing things, and gradually amalgamated into the form in which we know it today. But it is a basic demonstration of this principle of wú wéi, which Jafu has written now in cursive characters. So it isn’t an attitude of total passivity. It isn’t just doing nothing—as it literally says: “not do”—but it’s really “not force.” So you need always in every situation to find out which way the wind is blowing. Trim your sails to the wind. This is the meaning of it.


Well now, then, how do you know which way the wind is blowing? Obviously, a scientist would say to you: “Well, we have to make a very careful analysis of the situation and find out just what’s going on.” And then, this becomes extremely interesting, because now scientists are doing this very seriously, and they have devised the very important science that we call ecology. And in ecology we study the whole complex of relationships which lie between any organism and its environment. And when we get to the ecology of mankind it is simply fantastic. When you study, for example, the ecology between man and the world of microbes, and you try to decide what are good guys and bad guys among the microbes, how to get rid of the bad guys without getting rid of the good guys, and then realizing you need some of the bad guys, otherwise the good guys fall apart. And some of the killers we use are on the level of medicine very much like what DDT is on the level of agriculture: it’s too indiscriminate and it gets too many of the good guys along with the bad guys. You become, after a time, very doubtful as to the precise definition of a good guy and a bad guy.


Because, you see: every group, every species, has to have an enemy. That’s part of the whole mutual eating society arrangement of life. If you don’t have an enemy, then you start multiplying too much. Nothing prunes you. Then you start getting in your own way because there are too many of you. You start eating up your all your own supplies of foodstuff. Also, you get soft. You’re not on the qui vive. You develop flabby muscles because you never get involved in a fight. And so, gradually, the successful group fails. The group which managed to obliterate all its enemies will fall apart.


So what are we to do about that? See, part of the whole joke of present-day international politics is that the United States—with its vast prosperity and enormous facilities for living the lazy life—must have an external enemy to get excited about. And so, even though the Cold War is, in a way, total nonsense, and everybody who is in the know about anything knows it—that for example, an atomic war between Russia and the United States will simply end of the human race—but the populace has to be kept bamboozled. And we keep fighting wars, like in Vietnam, in order to keep everybody excited and in order to make a fracas and to give the soldiers practice. It’s a horrible business, but that’s the way things run.


And the question is, you see: can we run the human race without awful bloodshed and murders and tortures and all that kind of thing? Can we somehow introduce a new kind of gamesmanship as a substitute for war? It’s the same thing in business, exactly: if you wipe out your competitor, then you have no reason to produce anything but a lousy product. And then you may make lots of money, because you’ve wiped out your competitors; you’ve got the whole market. And then you’ve got this money—what’re you going to buy with it? Well, there’s nothing to buy except other people’s lousy products, who wiped out their competitors, or who cheated the public by packaging the thing to look elegant, but it was nothing inside. That’s all you got to buy. So naturally, if you’re a success in General Motors, you go and buy a Rolls Royce from England, or you go buy a Mercedes from Germany, because they happen to be better cars. Or if you want to make a lot of money in the clothing industry here, making wretched prints, and you want some good clothes, what do you do? Well, you have to go to Mexico and buy the things peasants wear, because they’re still substantial, solid, damn good clothes. So you see, there’s something always self-defeating in these attempts to succeed. You could say nothing fails like success.


So for this reason, then, the Taoist always had an attitude of caution. “Cautiously,” as Lao Tzu says, “as one who crosses a river in spring.” That means either because of the spring floods or because the ice is still there, and you’re not quite sure how strong it is because it’s beginning to thaw. So what the Taoist tries to develop is a sensibility to the situation. He tries to feel out intuitively what kind of action is required under these circumstances, because he feels that he can never discover it analytically; with his conscious attention alone.


Well, now, to talk in modern Western terms about how this is done, we must realize, of course, that we are equipped inside our heads with an absolutely fantastic thing called the brain. With its millions and millions of neuron cells it is, as it were, the most amazing computer ever devised. Basic to the Taoist attitude to life is that you have that within you—and you may, if you don’t know anything about brains very much, call it intuition or something of that kind—but you have within you the most amazing logical analyzer that exists in the known world. And the point is to get it to work for you. And instead of trying with conscious attention alone—which can only think of about three things at a time without using a pencil. That is to say, keep three variables in mind at once. Very few people can do four without using a pencil. You can do four if you’re a trained musician, where you’re playing for different lines of a fugue, say. You’re keeping four variables in mind at once. With an organist you can go from four to six, because you’ve got your two feet, and they’re playing, too. But that requires a high amount of training to be able, with conscious attention, to keep these many variables in mind.


But the world around us has infinitely many variables going in it. And you can reason out something with your conscious verbal thinking—say you want to make a contract in business, and you figure out how to make it, whether it will be a good contract, whether it will work, et cetera, et cetera. And you think of all these things and write them down and you make the contract, and you think that’s fine. But one of the variables that you couldn’t possibly include in the contract was that your partner would slip on a banana skin and break his neck. All sorts of things. I mean, the contract might make provisions in it, if your lawyer was thoughtful, for what was to be done under the case of the disability of any of the parties thereto, et cetera. But eventually there are so many possibilities that can occur that you cannot think of them all.


So then the question arises: is it within the power of the human brain to comprehend, because of its immense complexity, in a kind of un- or subconscious way, what the surface consciousness can never grasp? And the Taoist would say: certainly it can. But you’ve got to learn to use your brain by allowing it to go to work on your problems without interfering with it. And then it will deliver you a decision. And this is why, when you get to the real study of Taoist and Zen Buddhist practice, you get to the point where you learn to act without making decisions—or rather, to use a more exact word: without choosing. Krishnamurti talks a great deal about being choicelessly aware, and he says freedom is precisely the state of not having to choose.


Now, that sounds quite paradoxical, because we’re always talking about freedom of choice. But choice is not a form of freedom in the sense of the word. What is choice in this sense of the word? Choice is the act of hesitation that we make before making a decision. It is a mental wobbling. You know some people, when they take up a pen to write, they don’t just write, but they jiggle the pen around indecisively like this, and then start writing. Or a person comes into a room and wonders who to talk to, and sort of is in doubt, you see? In that moment he’s choosing. Whereas a person who comes into a room and decides who to approach—he doesn’t wait to choose—we say he is decisive. But that’s a funny saying, because it means he doesn’t stop to decide.


So in the training in Zen Buddhism—which is simply a Buddhist extension of Taoism; Zen Buddhism arose out of the marriage of Buddhism and Taoism in the fifth century AD and over the following centuries—so they have a way of training you so that you always act without choosing. For example, there was one day a leaky roof, and there were a couple of monks attending the Zen master, and he said, “The roof is leaking.” One monk disappeared and came back instantly with a sieve and put it on the drips. Another monk, after some time, came back with a bucket. And a master praised the one who brought the sieve. Now, the action wasn’t exactly appropriate—I mean, you know, to catching rain—but the point was that he was in the spirit of the Zen discipline by acting without choosing. And you’ll notice this with certain people. Certain people never hesitate. They always seem—if something needs to be done—they seem somehow simply to grab something and do it. You know? Which is a kind of a Zen capacity.


So what happens is this: the teacher of Zen constantly throws curves at his students and puts them in dilemma situations where they have to act immediately. One of the things, of course, that you mustn’t do is rush, because rush is a form of hesitation. When a person rushes to get a train he starts to fall over his own feet, see? So it really holds him up. It’s like trying to drive at high speed through the water with a blunt-nosed boat. That’s rush. But now, what he’s trying to get is a kind of a smooth, unhesitating, flowing action that is the response to the challenge. And it must be done in what is called another use of this word mu. This is called wuxin in Chinese or mushin in Japanese. And this word, nyen, is composed of the character meaning “now” (無) and the character meaning “mind-heart:” xin (心), and so has the meaning of “a thought”—but, especially for us, it is well translated by the psychological term “blocking.” “You’re blocking,” you say to someone when they hesitate, when they dither, when they stop to choose. So the attitude of mushin or wuxin is the unblocked mind, where it doesn’t hesitate ever. Just as the river doesn’t hesitate when it flows, and just when you clap your hands the sound comes out without hesitation, and when the moon rises the water doesn’t wait to reflect it, it reflects it instantly. So that instant reflection—or it’s a kind of resonance—is what is looked for as a response of the individual to his environment. And he does this to the degree that he knows himself to be one with his environment. Then his capacity for response increases in according to the way in which he feels that he is simply all of a piece with it, and not something that is in it, and with a barrier around him through which messages have to get, and then those decisions have to be made up and sent out. So then, you could say that a kind of extremely subtle sensory awareness has to be developed between the individual and his environment so that he feels it out.


Now, today, this sort of talk is very unpopular, because scientifically-minded people—especially academics scientists, those who teach in universities—are exceedingly suspicious of intuitive reactions. They say, “Oh, wah, wah, wah, wah! You can get into all sorts of trouble that way.” But the thing that they neglect to realize is that everybody uses it. Even the most meticulously careful, analytical, rigorous, sound scientist uses intuitive judgment after a certain point. Why? Because you may accumulate data forever, and you may decide that this is, on the whole, taking all due things into due consideration, and procedures having been worked out, that this is the right thing to do. Why do you decide then? Mostly because time’s up and somebody’s pressing for a decision, or else you’re bored to death with bringing in data. Because you never know how much data you need to make a certain decision, and therefore you may go on collecting data till all is blue, but in the last analysis you’ll work on hunch. And so much is actually, in the end, decided by flipping coins.


And the pity of flipping coins for making decisions—it gives you only two choices: heads or tails. One way or the other. The Chinese have a more subtle way of flipping coins. They have a method of a 64-sided coin to flip. So that, instead of just heads or tails, there are 64 possibilities of coming to a decision when you don’t know what to do. This is called the I Ching, or the Book of Changes, where the symbols of yang and yin—that is to say, for yang a straight line, undivided; for yin a line broken in the middle—there are 64 ways of combining six of these lines in a hexagram. And so there is a complex method, when you have to make a grave decision, for tossing (you do it by tossing sticks or coins), and it gives you one of these 64 figures.


Now, if you are very wise and have studied the Book of Change for a long time, you don’t need to use the book. You just look at what the figure is and you can tell what it means. Because, you see, these figures are made up of—each hexagram figure is made up of two three-fold components. That has two components, of which this one is water and this one is heaven. So you will have water over heaven. And a person very skilled in the interpretation will feel out the meaning of water over heaven. But actually, if you’re not so skilled, there is the book. And for each of these hexagrams the book has an oracle. And it tells you in curiously vague and yet curiously precise terms the meaning of this hexagram. And then you, in the light of your own situation, make up your mind what it’s saying to you. In the light of the problem that you’ve raised, the question that you’ve asked, the decision that you had to make, you will find invariably that these 64 choices, one of them, or indeed all of them—but you have to pick one of them, because you are after all tossing a coin. But it has some peculiarly appropriate thing to say to you under your circumstances, and is just like having a conversation with a very very wise old gentleman. And you must realize that today, in Asia, this book is still widely used for making business and political decisions. Although people who are Westernized wouldn’t let on, perhaps, that they use it. And so anybody who does politics or does business with Asia should be completely versed in this book. To know what sort of thinking, what sort of approach, might be expected under any circumstances. If you could ever find out what hexagram had fallen when a certain politician had made a decision, it would be immensely enlightening as to his future course of action. In the same way, for example, in dealing with Hitler. Our strategists (I don’t know if they did) should have been students of astrology. Because he was always consulting astrologers. And therefore, astrology would be much more easy to penetrate than the I Ching, because you can know Hitler is looking all the time at his own horoscope. Well, we have access to Hitler’s horoscope, and so we know what he’s thinking about it. But you don’t have access to what hexagram Mao Zedong threw when he decided to do something or other. So it’s a little bit more subtle.


Well then, I’m making the point, then, that our scientists are very suspicious of the intuitive judgment. But nevertheless, they all use it in the end. And so, this suspicion that science has of intuitive judgment has filtered down to the average person in terms of a mistrust of his own intuition, of the marvelous analytical powers of his own brain. And so we are always in a dither of doubt as to whether we are behaving the right way, doing the right thing, and so on and so forth, and lack a certain kind of self-confidence. And if you see you lack self-confidence, you will make mistakes through sheer fumbling. If you do have self-confidence, you may get away with doing entirely the wrong thing.


The British have an enormous degree of self-confidence. They know they’re right. They don’t even question it. There are certain kinds of British types who are absolutely… their aplomb is unbelievable! And you can’t shake them. They wouldn’t dream of it. They’re not even defending themselves, they know they’re so right. And therefore, they can allow any kind of political revolution; total free speech. All sorts of things can go on which make Americans very nervous, because Americans don’t have the same degree of aplomb. They’re not quite sure, you see? When you’re an aristocrat and you’ve been brought up for generations in the right schools, and there’s never any doubt whatsoever, you don’t even have to mention the fact that you’re an aristocrat. See? I mean, that’s why aristocrats know how to treat servants. But they never take it out on their servants in the sense of having to emphasize their own superiority. Because they know they’re superior. They don’t even question it. See? Well, this is an extraordinary kind of nerve that they’ve built up.


And so the only way you know you can do this is—first of all, in Zen practice, the thing that you have to understand is this: you have to regard yourself as a cloud in the flesh. Because, you see, clouds never make mistakes. Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave? No. They always do the right thing. So, as a matter of fact, do we. Because we are natural beings just like clouds and waves. Only, we have complicated games which cause us to doubt ourselves. But if you will treat yourself for a while as a cloud or wave, and realize that you can’t make a mistake whatever you do—because even if you do something that seems to be totally disastrous, it’ll all come out in the wash somehow or other—then, through this capacity, you will develop a kind of confidence. And through confidence you will be able to trust your own intuition. Only, the thing that you have to be careful about is—and many people who have not understood Zen properly fall into trouble here—is that when they take the attitude that “I can’t possibly make a mistake,” they overdo it, which shows that they don’t really believe it. So a lot of people come on and say, “Well, in Zen anything goes. You’re naturally with it anyway. You are a Buddha anyhow. And I’m going to prove I’m a Buddha anyhow by breaking all the rules.” And so you put on the weirdest, filthiest clothes, and you go and steal things, and all kinds of things like that. That’s overdoing it. That shows that you haven’t learned. You’re overcompensating. Because before you were told to do this, do that, and the other, and watch, and be self-conscious, and nervous, and so on, and so you just go to the other extreme. But this is the middle way: of knowing it has nothing to do with your decision to do this or not. Whether you decide that you can’t make a mistake or whether you don’t decide, it is true anyway. That you are like cloud in water.


And through that that realization, without overcompensating in the other direction, you will come to the point where you begin to be on good terms with your own being, and to be able to trust your own brain. But at that level, you are supra-personal. That is to say: when you realize that you stand here as a body. It’s as if, you see, there was (according to certain cosmological theories today) a primordial explosion which blew up and created the universe. And you know how it is when you take a bottle of ink and you throw it at a white wash wall, smash, like that, and it goes splat all over the place? There’s a big blob in the center. And then, as it goes out, it gets all sorts of little curlicues and wiggles. So, you see, the cosmic explosion is still happening. It takes a long time from that big essential bang for the whole thing to go whoosh. Takes billions of years for it to happen, and it’s still happening. And we’re the little curlicues out on the edge, see? And we are connected. We are part of the central explosion that originally happened. That, in a certain sense, is in you. You are still manifesting it, you see?


So when you consider yourself as a physical being—consider this hand: it is very ancient. Just like you pick up a stone and say: how old is this stone? Well, scientists will say, “Well, it’s about… comes from the Pleistocene age, and it’s probably, you know, four million years old.” But then you think, “Well, now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. What do you mean, four million years old? Where did it come from? What was it before it was a stone?” Well, it was something or other. And that goes back, back, back, you see? So everything you touch, including yourself, is incredibly ancient. It goes back to the very beginning of time. So if your mind awakens, you suddenly see all your friends sitting around you looking incredibly ancient—I don’t mean in the sense of old and haggard, but like angels; like eternal beings who were always there from the beginning.

Alan Watts


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