Tag Archives: Alan Watts

Hinduism Explained — Alan Watts

Now, today I’m going to go into the very fundamental…the guts of Hinduism. But what I want to do is to begin with certain documents that are known as the Upanishads. And these documents constitute what is called Vedanta. V-E-D-A-N-T-A. And that is compounded of two words: Veda, Anta. Anta means end or completion or summation. Veda, of course is related to the Latin video—to see. Veda is the fundamental revelation of the Hindu way of life contained in its earliest scriptural documents which are generally dated in the period between 15 and 1200 BC.

The Upanishads has, being the summation of the Veda, are from…found from over a long period of time. Beginning perhaps as early as 800 BC. Some of the Upanishads are much much later than that. And the basic position of the Upanishads is that the Self is the one and only reality without a second—that all this universe is finally Brahman—and appears to be a multiplicity of different things and different events only by reason of Maya, which is illusion, magic, art, creative power. So then it is basic to the Vedanta that Brahman—this intangible non-objective ground of everything that exists—is identical with the ground of you. And this is put in the formula: tat tvam asi. T-A-T, tat, same as our word ‘that’; tvam, T-V-A-M, same as the Latin tuus—thou; asi—art. We should translate that into a modern American idiom as “You’re it.”

This, of course, is a doctrine which is very difficult for those brought up in the Judeo-Christian traditions to accept because it is fundamental to Christian and Jewish theology that whatever you are, you are surely not the Lord God. And Christians feel about the Hindu doctrine—that we are all fundamentally masks of God—that it’s pantheism, and that’s a dirty word in Christian theological circles because of the feeling that if everything is God, then all moral standards are blown to hell; because it means that everything is as good as everything else; everything that happens is really God and this must include the good things and the bad things. And that seems to them a very dangerous idea. Actually all religious doctrines contain very very dangerous ideas.

However, we won’t worry about that for the moment because what the Hindu means by God when he says Brahman is not at all the same thing as a Jew means by the Lord Adonai; because the Jew and the Christian means ‘the boss’ to whom divine honors are due as above all others. The Hindu, on the other hand, does not mean ‘the boss.’ He doesn’t mean the king, the Lord, the political ruler of the universe. He means the inmost energy, which, as it were, dances this whole universe, without, as it were, the idea of authority, of governing some intractable element that resists his or its power.

So if a Christian, or a person in a Christian culture, announces that he has discovered that he is God, we put him in the loony bin, because it is unfashionable to burn people for heresy anymore. But in India if you announce that you’re the Lord God, they say “Well, of course. How nice that you found out,” because everybody is.

So then why, the great problem arises, does it appear that we are not, why do we think, why do we have the sensory impression that this whole universe consists of a vast multiplicity of different things and we don’t see it all as one? Well, what would you think it would be like to see it all as one? I know a lot of people who study oriental philosophy hear about attaining these great states of consciousness: nirvana, moksha—which the Hindus use…liberation, satori—Zen Buddhist word for enlightenment or awakening. What would it be like to have that? What…how would you feel if you saw everything is really one basic reality?

Well a lot of people think that it would be as if all the outlines and differentiations in the field of vision suddenly became vague, melted, and we saw only a kind of luminous sea of light. But rather advisedly the Vedanta philosophy does not really seriously use the word “one” of the supreme Self. Because the word and idea “one” has an opposite, “many,” on one side, and another opposite “none,” on the other. And it is fundamental to Vedanta that the supreme Self is neither one nor many, but as they say non-dual. And they express that in this word advaitaa, is a negative word like non, dvaita is from dva, same as the Latin duo, two. So advaita is non-dual.

And this at first for westerners is a difficult conception, because you naturally as a western logician would say, “But the non-dual is the opposite of the dual! Therefore it has an opposite.” True, but the Hindu is using this term in a special sense. It’s like this, on a flat surface I have only two dimensions in which to operate, so that everything drawn in two dimensions has only two dimensions. How, therefore, on a two dimensional level can I draw anything but two dimensions? How in logic in human rationality can I possibly think except in terms of opposites?

All rational discourse is talk about classification. The classification of experiences, of sensations, of notions. And the nature of a class is that it’s a box. And if a box has an inside, it has to have an outside. “Is you is, or is you ain’t?” is fundamental to all classification. And we can’t get out of it. It’s almost as if, you see, whatever we see to be different is an explicit difference on the surface covering an implicit unity. Only it’s very difficult to talk about what it is that unifies black and white. Of course, in a way, the eyes do. Sound and silence are unified by the ears. So, you…you can see, can’t you, that if you can’t have one without the other…it’s like the poles of a magnet, North pole and South pole. You can’t have a one pole magnet. True the poles are quite different, one’s North and the other’s South, but it’s all one magnet. And some such idea is that is what the Hindu is moving into when he’s speaking of the real basis or ground of the universe as being non-dual.

Take it the fundamental opposition that I suppose all of us feel between self and other. I and thou. I and it. There is something that is me. There’s an area of my experience that I call myself, and there’s an other area of my experience which I call not myself. But you will immediately see that neither one could be realized without the other. You wouldn’t know what you meant by self unless you experience something other than self. You wouldn’t know what you meant by other unless you understood self. They go together. They arise at the same time. You don’t have first self and then other or first other and then self. They come together. And that shows, you see, the sneaky conspiracy underneath the two, like the magnet between the two different poles. And so more or less that sort of what isn’t classifiable but which lies between all classes, the class of elephants opposite the class of non-elephants, has as it were the walls of the box joining the two together, just as your skin is an osmotic membrane that joins you to the external world by virtue of all the tubes in it and the nerve ends and the way in which the external energies flow through your skin into your inside, and vice versa.

But, we do, don’t we, see and feel and sense, or we think we do, the world as divided into a great multiplicity. A lot of people would think of the universe as a collection of different things, a kind of cosmic flotsam and jetsam washed together in this particular area of space, and prefer to take a pluralistic attitude and don’t see anything underlying. In fact, in contemporary logical philosophy the notion of any basic ground or continuum in which all events occur would be considered meaningless, for obvious reasons. If I say that everybody in this universe, every star, every planet, is moving in a certain direction at a uniform speed, that will be saying nothing at all unless I can point out some other object with respect to which they are so moving. But since I said the universe that includes all objects whatsoever. Therefore, I cannot make a meaningful statement about the uniform behavior of everything that is going on.

True, but on the other hand every sound you hear on the radio, whether it be a honking horn, a Bach sonata, or a newscast is the vibration of the diaphragm in your loudspeaker. The radio doesn’t tell us this. The announcer doesn’t come on first thing in the morning and say “Ladies and gentlemen, from now until closing time all the sounds you will hear will be vibrations of the diaphragm in your speaker.” That is taken for granted and ignored. So in the same way your eardrum is basic to all that you hear, your lens of the eye and retina is basic to all that you see. What is the color of the lens of the eye? We say it is no color. It is transparent in the same way as a mirror has no color of its own. But the mirror is very definitely there, colorless as it may be. The eardrum, unheard as it may be, is very definitely basic to all hearing. The eye, transparent as it may be, is very definitely basic to all seeing.

So, therefore, if there were some continuum in which everything that is going on and everything that we experience occurs we would not notice it. We would not be able, really, to say very much about it, except, perhaps, that it was there. It wouldn’t make any difference to anything except the one all-important difference that if it wasn’t there there wouldn’t be any differences. But you see philosophers nowadays don’t like to think about things like that. It stretches their heads and they would rather preoccupy themselves with more pedestrian matters. But still you can’t help it, if you are a human being, you wonder about things like that. What is it in which everything is happening? What is the ground? Well you say obviously it’s not a what because a thing that is a what is a…is a classifiable thing. And so very often the Hindu and the Buddhist will refer to the ultimate reality as no thing. Not nothing, but no special thing. Unclassifiable. Can’t put your finger on it, but it’s you. It’s what you basically are. What everything basically is. Just as the sound of an automobile horn on the radio is in one way an automobile horn but basically it is a vibration of the diaphragm.

Okay. So you are all, in the Hindu view, vibrations of the entire cosmic diaphragm. Put it like that. That’s an analogy and I’m using sublunar language or cataphatic language from the point of Christianity. The best language is to say nothing but to experience it. How could you experience it? Well, that’s the whole thing as I pointed out last time. The nub of all these oriental philosophies is not an idea, not a theory, not even a way of behaving. But it’s basically a way of experiencing a transformation of everyday consciousness, so that it becomes quite apparent to us that that’s the way things are. But you…but when it happens to you it’s very difficult to explain it. So in exactly the same way, when somebody has that sort of breakthrough which transforms his consciousness, and it happens all over the world, it’s not just a Hindu phenomenon, somebody suddenly realizes it’s all one or technically non-dual. And really always coming and going and all this frantic living and dying, grabbing, struggling to…, fighting, suffering…all this is a fantastic phantasmagoria. He sees that! But when he tries to explain it he finds his mouth isn’t big enough because he can’t get the words out of their dualistic pattern to explain something non-dualistic.

Why is this so? Why are we under this great magnificent hallucination? Well, the Hindus explain this in Saguna language as follows. It’s a very nice explanation. A child can understand it. The fact of the matter is the world is a game of hide-and-seek. Peekaboo. Now you see it, now you don’t. Because, very obviously, if you were the supreme Self what would you do? I mean, would you just sit there and be blissfully one and forever and ever and ever? No, obviously not. You would play games. You would, in other words, for the very nature of the fact that I said no energy system is an energy system unless it lets go of itself. So you would let go of yourself. And you’d get lost. And you’d get involved in all sorts of adventures. And you would forget who you were. Just as when you play a game, playing poker. And although you’re only playing for dimes or for chips, you get absorbed in the game. And nothing really important to win, nothing really important to lose, and yet it becomes fantastically interesting. Who wins and who loses?

So in the same way it is said that the supreme Self gets absorbed through ever so many different channels, which we call all the different beings, in the plot, just like an artist or a writer gets completely absorbed in the artistic creation that he is doing or an actor gets absorbed in the part in the drama. At first we know it’s a drama. We go to a play and we say, “It’s only a play.” And the proscenium arch tells us that what happens behind that arch is not for real; just a show. But the great actor, he is going to make you forget it’s just a show. He’s going to have you sitting on the edge of your chair. He’s going to have you crying. He’s going to have you trembling because he almost persuades you that it’s real. And what would happen if the very best actor was confronted by the very best audience? Why they’d be taken in completely, and the one would confirm the other. So this is the idea of the Universe as drama. That the fundamental self, the Saguna Brahman, plays this game, gets involved in being all of us, and does it so damn well, the…the…it’s so superbly acted that the thing appears to be real. And we’re not only sitting on the edge of our chair, but we start to get up and throw things. We join in the drama and it all becomes whatever it is that is going on here, you see.

Then, of course, at the end of the drama, because all things have to have an end that have a beginning, the curtain goes down and the actors retire to the greenroom. And there, the villain and the hero cease to be villain and hero and they’re just that: the actor. And then they come out in front of the curtain and they stand in a row and the audience applauds the villain along with the hero. The villain, for having been a good villain. The hero for having been a great hero. The play is over. And everybody heaves a sigh of relief, “Well, that was a great show, wasn’t it?”

So the same idea, the greenroom, is the Nirguna Brahman. That, behind the whole show, where there are no differentiations of I and thou, subject and object, good and evil, light and darkness, life and death. But within the sphere of the Saguna Brahman all these differentiations appear because that’s out in front, that’s on the stage. And, no good actor, when on the stage, performs his own personality. That’s what’s wrong with movie stars. They try to cast the person to act a role which corresponds to his alleged personality. But a great actor can assume any kind of personality; male or female; can suddenly convert himself, right in front of the audience, into somebody who takes you in entirely. But in the greenroom he’s his usual self.

So Hinduism has the idea then, you see, it’s all the conventions of drama, you’re right along with it; that all this world is a big act. Lila, the play of the supreme Self. And it’s therefore compared to a dream, to a passing illusion, and you should not therefore take it seriously. You may take it sincerely, perhaps, as an actor may be sincere in his acting. But not serious, because that means it throws you for a loop. Although that of course is involved. We do take it seriously. But you see one of the great questions you have to ask yourself when you really get down to the nitty-gritty about your own inmost core is “Are you serious?” Or do you know deep within you that you’re a put-on.


In the last session of this particular course, which is an introduction to Oriental philosophy, I tried to condense the fundamental principles of what you can call the central viewpoint of Hinduism—Vedanta. The…not some much the doctrine as the experiential realization that what you are basically is the same as the root and ground of the universe. In other words in the formula atman, the self, is Brahman, the ground of being.

Now, today I want to relate this way of playing hide-and-seek with the very design of Hindu society. Because Hinduism is difficult to characterize as a religion. Especially because we belong to a religion where in its institutionalized form it can very well degenerate into a religion that’s for Sundays only; that doesn’t apply to every detail of life. In other words, when a Hindu brushes his teeth it’s a religious act. There is not such a way as a Christian way of brushing your teeth. But in Hindu life all the details of life are Hinduism.

So then, underneath all the presuppositions of Hinduism can be found a transition from one kind of culture to another: from a hunting culture to an agrarian culture. This explains a great deal about this way of life. Now, in a hunting culture, which is a culture on the move—nomadic, every man knows the whole culture. In other words, you do not get a high specialization—division of labor. A man who is a hunter has to know how to make clothes, how to skin animals, how to cook them, how to shoot them, how to trail them. He has to know every kind of skill because he’s often alone. And in a hunting culture you do not get a special division of priesthood from ordinary people. Every man in his own way is capable of being a priest, but some more so than others. Not by virtue of any ordination or schooling that they’ve received, but by their receptivity. Because the priest or holy man of a hunting culture is called a shaman.

A shaman is an individual who separates himself from for a certain period and goes alone into forests or mountains to commune with what he will usually call the ancestors. That is to say with his basic origins. And he will find something, by way of a spiritual experience, for himself. Not through any teacher, not through any previous authority. He finds it genuinely on his own. And the shaman, therefore, goes into solitude to find out who he really is. Because in society everybody is busy telling you who you are. And you rely on others to see yourself. But to find himself, in other words, to find out what all this really is all about, the spiritually minded man of the hunting culture goes alone. And so the culture of the American Indians is to a very large extent hunting culture and you will find the spiritual man of the American Indians is a shaman.

However, when a hunting culture becomes settled, it becomes agrarian, there arises farming, looking after the land. And then you get a completely different kind of society. Let me suggest that it is something like this. Where do agrarian communities settle? Where do they build a village? Usually at a crossroads. Especially if roads be crossed with water, a river. And where the crossing meets the agrarian village settles itself and protects itself by building a pale. We say, “a person is beyond the pale.” That means he’s an outcast. He lives outside the village. He’s a pariah. But in the village, notice that the pale, having been built around the crossroads, it divides the village into four sections. And oddly enough there are four divisions of labor in all fundamental agrarian societies. And these consist of one, the priests. You know the word “clever,” “clerk,” “cleric,” and “clear,” are all the same word. It meant someone who’s literate. Clever. Also clear—“put it down clearly”. You can’t do that unless you’re literate. And so if you’re a literate person you’re a cleric. And “clergy,” is the same word as “clever,” in old English. “Much conceit of clergy,” is an old English phrase meaning he’s intellectually snobbish. So that’s your caste number one. Caste number two: warrior, or incidentally, ruler. Three, merchant or craftsman. And four, laborer; unskilled.

So now what’re these? They’re four castes or four roles. And so…in society where there’s a division of labor, because an agricultural society is more complex than a hunting culture, we immediately get division of labor and we all play different roles. That is to say, assume different masks for purposes of living in this kind of community. All of you, you see, are essentially…we are essentially clerics. You are what the Hindus would call Brahmins, as you’re all being trained in the university. So the Hindu name for this caste Brahmana; for this caste Kshatriya; for this caste Vaishya, and for this caste Shudra. So those are the basics of the four castes. And…so if you are in the pale, if you belong to the community, you have to be typified. They say, “Is you is, or is you aint?” Into which of these do you fit? And you must fit into one of these.

Now caste is something, of course, which has got a very bad name. From a modern point of view, both modern point of view with us and with the modern India. Because they say once you get into a caste, you’re stuck. If you are born to a laborer, a laborer you must be. If you are born to a warrior you must be a warrior or a ruler. You could never become a cleric. And we think that’s pretty terrible. Because in our culture we work under the assumption that you as an individual are free to choose whatever occupation you will follow. But unfortunately this involves going to school. And for certain purposes, going to school is one of the worst things you can do.

For example, if you want to become a completely fantastic expert carpenter you have to begin the trade at the age of seven at the latest. And your father, if he is a carpenter, is obviously the best teacher you can have. In a very ancient form of agrarian culture as in India or as in Japan or China, a young man who was son of a carpenter would become fascinated with his father’s occupation. And that would mean a very special relationship would grow up between him and his father, which does not grow up in our culture because most of us do not know what our fathers are doing. They go away to a mysterious office or factory where they do something called making money as an inciden… as a…the main reason for the incidental occupation which they pursue there, but the children and the wife have no active part in that occupation whatsoever. They know papa only as a kind of clown who returns home in the evening having made money. And one dad’s money is the same as another dad’s money. It makes no difference, except that everybody wants more. They don’t give a damn how he gets it so long as he doesn’t complain too much.

So the child, instead of learning and participating in his close father relationship, in learning an occupation or a trade or an art is sent off to an impersonalized institution to be taught to be everything and nothing. And therefore, doesn’t learn early enough any craft so as to become a true master of it. What is happening for example in Japan, where a father can no longer apprentice his son at seven years old to become a carpenter because he has to send him away to school to learn to be an insurance salesman. He can’t teach his child and then comes high school. And then when the kid gets our of high school, he’s interested in girls. And it takes him until he’s about twenty-two to be able to settle down to learn carpentry. And it’s too late. Too late to attain real mastery. Because a great Japanese carpenter never uses a plan. He doesn’t need a drawing. Does it all by eye. And can fit the most complicated joinery together by eye. And it’s the same with the arts of weaving textiles, of making superb ceramics, jewelry. Any kind of gorgeous craftsmanship depends on beginning as a child.

And so, all right. We can’t buy it anymore, in this country. There is not on any kind of commercial basis great craftsmanship available here. We have to go abroad to get it, to so called primitive societies. We must be content with plastic simulation. So there is something to be said, you see, for the caste system. I just wanted to present the other side of it.

Now, however, in going through this system there are certain stages, whatever caste you’re in. There are three stages of life which are called ashramas. Ashram, means really an abode; a center for spiritual study; for practicing yoga, will be called an ashram. But an ashram also means an abode in the sense of a stage of life. And the three stages are one called Brahmacharya—that means the stage of being a student, two, Grihasta—household, and the third stage, Vanaprasta—that means forest dweller. Isn’t that funny? Grihasta, householder. Vanaprasta, forest dweller.

Because, you see, in this order of society you come into society and you go through one of its acts as a Grihasta or householder. But when you arrive at the point in life where you have got a son by birth from yourself or by the marriage of your oldest daughter, a son who will take over your work, you give up being a householder and you become a forest dweller. In other words, you go outside the pale and back to the forest with the idea of finding out who you really are. While you were in the community you were playing a role; one of the four roles or its subdivisions, and you came on as tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. But that wasn’t the real you. That was one of the masks of the Brahman, the true self behind everything. To find out the Brahman, who you really are, in order to get ready to die, you become Vanaprasta. Go back to the jungle having fulfilled your work to the world.

Now in practice in India this means the head of the house often moves to a cottage in the backyard. You know, in the course of time, everything becomes sort of going through the motions. But the original idea was that he became, what do they call it in Sanskrit, Shramana. It’s almost the word “Shaman”. A shraman is a person who has gone back to live in the forest. And therefore, he is in regard to society an upper outcast. There are also lower outcasts. Those are the Aborigines—the people living in India before the Aryan invasion, who later became the Untouchables. They are not even Shudra. They are outside caste altogether, like the Indians in the United States. They are true Untouchables in our caste system. Their plight is so much worse than the Negroes. It’s unbelievable. But they are outcasts. So in the same thing happened in India.

But the upper outcast is a man who goes wild. And in Hindu society you have a right to do that. You are respected if you voluntarily abandon caste. And of course, in doing so you give up your name and you take another name. Now taking a new name is taking a new identity. An Indian in society may be Mr. Mukhophadaya. And that would be a family name indicating membership in a family. When he becomes a shramana, however, he will take a name such as Brahmananda—bliss of God. He takes a divine name. And the original idea of a Christian name, when you were baptized, is that you gave up the name Julius, as you might be a Roman, and took on instead the name Matthew, one of the apostles, one of the divine beings of the Christian religion. Or you might take the name of an angel, Michael. Or in Spain or Mexico, even Jesus (Hay-soos)–Jesus. Jesus Maria would be a perfectly reasonable name for a man in Spanish culture. But you take on a divine name to indicate a transformation of the…your identity.

But in this case when you give up caste, you see, and return to the forest you become a nobody. And therefore, you take one of the names of that which is no one. Namely the Brahman—the supreme Self. Because it’s no one in the sense that it’s all ones, and therefore, in itself no one. So you abandon caste and you abandon name; you give up property; you give up both the responsibility and society is allowed to give up responsibility for you. If they give you alms, if they support you, that’s for gravy. They don’t have to do it, and you don’t figure that they owe it to you.

But this…this kind of society has a profound respect for people who leave it. And they feel that a society cannot be healthy unless it somehow pays respect to people outside the pale, to non-joiners and outsiders, who have indeed fulfilled some responsibility within society and then abandoned it. They would, I think, be a little uptight about hippies who would abandon society before having fulfilled a responsibility in it. But in a sense every shramana is a sort of elderly hippie. Now, of course, our hippies have a different problem in that they are critical of the very structure of the society in which they are asked to enter because they feel that it is a rat race, a game which has lost its quality. They might even prefer a caste like society of this kind in that it might have a bit more quality, because, you see, in our society one works not as a vocation.

In this scheme of things every vocation you perform is called a swadharma. And this word: the word “dharma” has many meanings. Dharma. It means a function in one sense. It means the thing that is right for you. Here swa is the same as the Latin suus. And so it is one’s own. Your own function. What we would call your vocation in life. Swadharma. As we say, “doing your own thing.” That’s swadharma. And so, you have to find, as it were, your own thing. Now, a job, which you do purely for money can never be called a swadharma because you are doing it for another end—to make money, which has a purely symbolic value. But when you do a certain work because that is what is your thing to do—you want to be a doctor because you are fascinated with medicine and all its problems, and you just…you like people so much that you want to heal them from their diseases or for the same reason you might want to be a nurse or you might be fascinated with problems of law and so become a lawyer or fascinated with religion and so become a minister—then you’ve got a vocation because you would do that thing whether it paid you very much or whether it didn’t because that’s the one thing you have to do. If you’re a painter, you have to paint. If you’re a writer, you’re one of those crazy people who just has to write. I’m a writer. I have to write. Whether it makes me money or whether it doesn’t I would still have to be a writer. That’s a swadharma. And every person’s vocation in caste is supposed to be your thing, your swadharma. But we feel in our culture, you see, that we have such a tremendous choice of swadharma that sometimes it’s what the French call embarras de richesse. It’s like embarrassment of riches when you’re confronted with one of those enormous menus in a restaurant which has so many things on it you can’t make up your mind which to pick.

Well now then, you see, as a person passes out of this he gives up the social order and becomes a nobody, he then, in that sense, he goes back to the forest. He goes back from the organization, the role playing of the agrarian culture to the solitude of the hunting culture to find out who he is alone all by himself. And so he becomes, in that sense, the upper outcast. The man who is respected by those people who are still in caste because they say without this kind of person we should lose our sanity. We should become confused with our roles unless there’s always the hermit in the forest to remind us that man is not his role, that he’s something deeper than that. And that they true end of man is to play the game of hide-and-seek for a while and to get lost in these roles. But then to return back to nature, back to the way of the forest. And in later life, as distinct from infancy, with all that experience behind him, find out again who you really are. So that when death comes, what a funny thing will happen. Death comes and will find no one to kill. For while you are identified with your role, with your name, with your ego, there’s someone to kill. But when you’re identified with the whole universe death finds you already annihilated. And there’s no one to kill.

Buddhism as Dialogue — Alan Watts

I was discussing last night the bodhisattva doctrine in Mahayana Buddhism and comparing it, or relating it to the two great tendencies in Indian spirituality: anti-worldliness, or other worldliness, and world affirmation, and showing how the idea that the highest kind of a Buddha is in a certain way a non-Buddha. The highest kind of a Buddha is like an ordinary person. And this comes out very very much in various tendencies in Zen where, for example, all the painting peculiarly characteristic of Zen Buddhism in Chinese and Japanese tradition is, as it were, secular. It has a peculiarly non-religious atmosphere. That is to say the painting of Shingon sect and Tendai sect, as you saw it in the museum today, was religious painting. You could tell at once that the subject matter of these paintings is religious. But with Zen painting the way of dealing with philosophical or spiritual themes is secular.

So that when an artist like Sengai[1][2], living in the 17th century Japan, paints the Buddha there is something slightly humorous about the Buddha. He wears his halo over one ear. There is an informality; a slight raffishness. And so this comes from China, from those great Sung artists like Liang Kai[3][4] who painted the sixth patriarch of Zen chopping bamboos looking like the most extraordinarily unkempt country oaf. So, also, the greatest Zen painting has as its subject matter not really religious themes at all. It uses pine branches, rocks, bamboos, grasses, everything of that kind. And you would never know that these things were icons. Likewise also in poetry which we will go into more extensively in the future. The superb expression of Zen poetry is derived from the Chinese poet Ho Koji who says:

Wondrous action
Supernatural power
Drawing water
Carrying fuel

Now that’s…that poem is a little bit too religious for Zen taste. And so preferable to that is Basho’s famous poem:

The old pond
A frog jumps in

Plop is the only possible English translation for the Japanese mizu no oto, which means literally the water’s sound—plop. That poem you see is very high style Zen poem because it has nothing in it about religion. There is a poem on the edge which also was written by Basho which says:

When the lightning flashes
How admirable he who does not think life is fleeting

You see, the flash of a lightning is a Buddhist cliché for the transiency of the world. Your life goes by and disappears as fast as a flash of lightning. That becomes a cliché. So all religion, all religious comments about life eventually become clichés. Religion is always falling apart and becoming a certain kind of going through the motions. A kind of imitation of attitudes as if one would…say we’ve got a book called The Imitation of Christ (it’s a terrible book), because everybody who imitates Christ is a kind of a fake Jesus. So in the same way there’s all kinds of imitation Buddhas. Not just sitting on altars made of wood…gilded, but just sitting around in monasteries. So one might say then that the highest kind of religious or spiritual attainment has no no sign about it that it is religious or that it is spiritual. And so as a metaphor for this there was used in Buddhism from the very beginning the idea of the tracks of birds in the sky. They don’t leave any tracks. And so the way of the enlightened man is like a track of a bird in the sky. And as one poem, a Chinese poem, says:

Entering the forest, he does not disturb a blade of grass
Entering the water, he does not make a ripple

In other words, there is no sign about him to indicate that he is self consciously religious. And this goes, too, for the fact that his not having any religious sign is also not something contrived. It isn’t like Protestant simplicity. You know all those Catholics with their rituals and how dreadful and insincere that is. The real reason you know why Protestants think Catholic ritual is insincere? You know? It’s expensive. Protestantism started in the Burgher cities of Europe—places like Freiburg, Hamburg, you know, and Geneva—because the merchant class, who were the foundation of the bourgeoisie, got annoyed, because every time a saint’s day came around, all their employees got a day of, because it was a holy day and they had to attend mass. There were so many of these nuisance holy days and all these contributions that were assessed by the Church: buying your way out of Purgatory and saying masses for the dead and so on and so forth, they found this not very economical. The priests were getting the money instead of the merchants. And so they decried as unbiblical and irreligious and wasteful all the finery of the Catholic religion and wanted something plain and simple. So it became in course of time a sign of being really religious to avoid rituals and to avoid colorful clothing and splendor in churches and to be as ordinary as possible. But that is not yet the real religion, of giving no sign of having a religion, because this simplicity and absence of ritual itself becomes a sign; a way of advertising how spiritual you are.

So the completely bodhisattva type of person doesn’t leave any track either by being religious overtly or by non-religious overtly. How will you be neither religious nor non-religious? See, that’s the great test. How will you avoid that trap of being one or the other? It’s like are you a theist or are you an atheist? See the theist is caught by god and the idea of god, the belief in god. But the atheist is equally caught. Because an atheist is very often an atheist because he cannot stand the idea that god is watching him all the time. That there is this constant all seeing eye prying on your most private life, and that there is this…You know how when you were a child in school and you’re writing something or doing arithmetic and the teacher walks around the class and looks over your shoulder. Nobody wants to be watched like that. Even someone who is good at writing or at arithmetic doesn’t want someone looking over their shoulder while they’re doing it. It puts you off. It bugs you. So the idea of the lord god who is watching us all the time; who is judging everything that we do puts people off, and they can’t stand it. So better be an atheist to get rid of teacher. So…But the atheist, you see, the man who advertises his disbelief in god is a very pious person. Nobody believes in god like an atheist. “There is no god, and I am his prophet.”

So then, the true bodhisattva state is very difficult to pin down as being either…neither supremely religious nor blatantly secular. And people who think that the height of Buddhism or height of Zen is to be perfectly ordinary have still missed the point, like the atheist has missed the point. But, for this reason then there is an element in the art, the painting, the poetry, etc. which has been inspired by this kind of Buddhism; this kind of art where the subject matter is non-religious nevertheless there is something about the way in which this non-religious subject matter is handled that stops you, and you know there’s something strange about it. This is how I first became interested in Oriental philosophy and all that kind of thing. I had an absolute fascination for Chinese and Japanese painting—the secular painting: the landscapes, the treatment of flowers, and grasses and bamboos. There was something about it that struck me as astonishing even though the subject matter was extremely ordinary. And I just, as a child practically, I had to find out what was this strange element in those bamboos, and those grasses. I was being, of course, taught by those painters to see grass. But there was something in there that one could never pin down, never put your finger on it. And that was this thing that I will call the religion of no religion. The supreme attainment of being a Buddha who can’t be detected; who, in this sense then, leaves no trace. You remember, some of you have seen those ten paintings called “The Ten Stages of Spiritual Ox Herding”. And the author…there are two sets of these paintings. There is a heterodox one and an orthodox one. The heterodox one has the…as the man catches the ox it gets progressively whiter until in the end it disappears altogether and the last picture is an empty circle. But the orthodox set of paintings doesn’t end with the empty circle. That…the empty circle arises two from the end; three from the end. It is followed by two others. After the man has attained the state of emptiness, the state in other words of complete iconoclasm, the state of of no attachment to any spiritual or psychological or moral crutch, there are two more steps. One is called “Returning to the Origin” which is represented by a tree beside a stream. And the final one called “Entering the City with Hands Hanging Down.” That means hands…giving a handout, as it were; giving bounty. And it shows a picture of the fat Buddha, Pu Tai, or in Japanese known as Ho Tei, who has an enormous belly, big ears; who carries around a colossal bag. And what do you think this bag has in it? Trash! Wonderful trash. Everything that children love. Things that everybody else has thrown away and thought of as valueless, this bum collects and gives it away to children. And so it says here that “he goes on his way without following the steps of the ancient sages. His door is closed,” that’s the door of his house, “and no glimpses of his interior life are to be seen.” So, in other words, it’s like when you erect a building, while you’re building it, you have all kinds of scaffolding up. That shows you that building is going on. But when the building is complete the scaffolding is taken down. To open a door, as they say in Zen, you may need to pick up a brick to knock at the door. But when the door is opened you don’t carry the brick inside. To cross a river you need a boat. But when you reach the other side you don’t pick up the boat and carry it. So the brick, the boat, the scaffolding, all these things represent some sort of religious technology or method. And in the end these are all to disappear. So that the saint will not be found in church. I…don’t take what I say literally. The saint can perfectly go to church without being sullied by church. But ordinary people when they go to church they come out stinking of religion.

There was a great Zen master once. And one of his disciples asked him “How am I making progress?” He said, “You’re alright, but you have a trivial fault.” “Well, what is that?” He said, “You have too much Zen.” “Well,” he said, “when you’re studying Zen don’t you think it’s very natural to be talking about it?” The master said, “When it’s like an ordinary conversation it is much better.” And so another monk who was standing by listening to this exchange said to the master, “Why do so specially dislike talking about Zen?” And he replied, “Because it turns ones stomach.”

So what did he mean when he said “when it’s like an ordinary everyday conversation it is somewhat better”? When the old master Jo Shu was asked: at the end of the kalpa when everything is destroyed in fire there will be one thing remaining. What is that? And Jo Shu replied, “It’s windy again this morning.”

So in Zen when you’re asked a question about religion you reply in terms of the secular. When you’re asked about something secular you reply in terms of religion.
So, “What is the eternal nature of the self?” “It’s windy again this morning.”

“Please pass me a knife.” The master hands him the knife with the blade first. “Please give me the other end.” “What would you do with the other end?” See? Here the disciple starts out with the ordinary–”please pass me the knife.” And suddenly he finds himself involved in a metaphysical problem. But if he starts out with the metaphysical he’s going to get involved with the knife.

So, now to go deeply into the religion of non-religion we have to understand the…what you might call the final ultimate attainment of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy. And this is contained in a school of thought which is called in Chinese Huayan, and in Japanese Kegon. Kegon is the intellectual foundation for Zen. And there was a great Chinese master by the name of Shumitsu, who was simultaneously a Zen master, and the fifth patriarch of the Huayan sect. Hua, mean flower; yan, garland: the garland of flowers. And it’s all based on a Sanskrit sutra called Avatamsaka. This is called simply the, in Japanese, Kegon Kyo; a very big sutra. And the subject matter of this sutra are what are called the four dharma worlds. And I must explain what these four worlds are so that you get the point.

First of all there is a level of being which we will call Ji. The word Ji, which is Japanese way of pronouncing the Chinese Chr, is the world of things and events. What you might call the common sense world; the everyday world that our senses normally record. This…the word Ji, the character in Chinese, has a multiplicity of meanings because it can mean a thing or an event. It can also mean business; an affair—not in a love affair, but something in the way the French say les affaire for business. Something important. It can also mean affectation; putting something on or showing off. And so a person who is a master in Zen is called Bu Ji, which means no business, no affectation, nothing special. The poem says:

On Mount Lu there is misty rain
And the river Jiang is at high tide
When you have not been there your heart is filled with longing
But when you have been there and come back it was nothing special
Misty rain on Mount Lu
River Jiang at high tide

But this nothing special is not a way of putting something down. Do you see that? I could say, “Well, it was nothing special. It didn’t really amount to anything.” That’s one way of saying it was very ordinary. Bu Ji, just as it doesn’t mean it was very ordinary in the same way that the person who has no religion is really the most religious, if you see. He’s not just a common ignorant moron. He looks like one, but he isn’t. And you have to know what he knows in order to see that he isn’t and to recognize him for what he is. So nothing special, Bu Ji. It doesn’t stand out. It doesn’t, as we would say, it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb. So the world of Ji then means generally the world of particulars; the world of multiplicity; the world we ordinarily feel we’re involved in. So that’s the first world.

The second world is called the world of Ri. Now Ri, in Chinese Li, is as I explained to you when we were discussing the idea of the law of nature. The character means the markings in jade, or the grain in wood, or the fiber in muscle. But in the Huayan philosophy the world Ri means the universal underlying all particulars. The one underlying all multiplicity. The unitive principle as distinct from Ji which is the differentiation principle.

So as it were like…it’s like this: when you see into the nature of this world you start from Ji. You start from noticing all the particular things and being baffled by their multiplicity and dealing with the multiplicity of things. But as you go into this you discover… as you understand things…What do you mean when you understand things? It means you become aware of their relationships to each other, and eventually you see the unity behind them. And it is as if the multiplicity of the world dissolved into unity.

So here you encounter a problem. I can see the world as a unity. I can see the world as a multiplicity. But how the devil am I going to put the two visions together.

If I’m to be a practical success in business, in family life, and so on, I have to observe the world of particulars. It’s particulars that matter. I have to know chalk from cheese. But if I become a saint, a monk, or a hermit, then I can…or even perhaps a poet or an artist, I will forget about the practical matters and contemplate the unity; the secret meaning underlying all events. But then every…all those practical people are going to say to me, “You’re…you’re falling down on the job,” you’ve escaped from life, because they feel that the world of particulars is the real world. But the other guy says, “No. Your particulars are not real. You make a success of things, yes, but it’s completely temporary. You think you’re an important person, that you’re really contributing to human life. But actually your success in doing this sort of thing lasts for a few years and then you fall apart like everybody else does. Where’s your success now, when you’re dead? What happened to the millions of dollars you made? Where are you? You’re all gone. So that isn’t real,” from the standpoint of the person who concentrates on the unity.

So then to perfect our understanding we have to go to the third of these worlds which is called Ri-Ji-Mu-Ge. Now that means between Ri: the unity, and Ji: the particulars, Mu: there is no, Ge: block. That means the world of the universal and the world of particulars are not incompatible. Let’s take two very different things and see how they can be united. Take shape and color. Never in a million years can you with a black pencil that can draw shapes make red. But if you have red you can draw a circle. You can draw a red circle even though the circle shape and the red color will never be the same. Yet red circle, they go beautifully together. So think of circle as Ji and red as Ri. The circle is the particular, the color is the universal. They go together.

So then we might say the properly rounded out person is both spiritual and material; both other worldly and worldly. This is the supreme attainment of a human being: to be both. Don’t get one sided. A person who is, what you might call, just a materialist ends up by being very boring. It’s…you know you can live the successful life of the world, and you can own every kind of material refinement: you can have the most beautiful home, delicious food, marvelous yachts and cars and everything. But if you have no touch mysticism, it eventually is all perfectly boring, and you would get tired of it. The on the other hand there are people who are purely spiritual, and they live in a kind of dry world where all luxury has been scrubbed away. And they are very intense people. When you’re in their presence…a very spiritual person, an excessively spiritual person, you feel inclined to sit on the edge of your chair, you are not at ease because you know the eye of judgment is looking through you and going down into your very soul and finding that you’re just a scalawag after all. And here’s this absolutely sincere, this dreadfully honest and unselfish person. This is something which is always puzzling to people brought up in a western environment because great spiritual people are often very very sensuous because they can’t be materialist in the ordinary sense; they can’t be straight open sensuous because for them the world is too wonderful for that; any human being is too marvelous to be treated as just a kind of sexual object. They may be very much a sexual object but so marvelous you have to stop with it and really go into the whole of that marvelous wonderful personality.

So there is a trouble, keeps coming up for the West. When you go to church and you suddenly go to a church where there is a marvelous clergyman and you think he is the very exemplar of life and you idealize him. And then suddenly there develops a frightful scandal that he has an affair with his secretary. And you think all is lost; that the faith has been sold out; that everything is going to wrack and ruin, because he was not purely spiritual. And he himself may be terribly confused and worried about this. Because in our world, you see, we make the spiritual and the material mutually exclusive. But Ri-Ji-Mu-Ge, this third world means that between the spiritual and the material there is no obstruction. So we might say this would sound as if it were the highest level, but its one more to come which is called Ji-Ji-Mu-Ge. This means then suddenly Ri has disappeared. But between Ji and Ji there is no obstruction. Between one event and any other event or events there is no mutual exclusiveness. Shall I put it that way? This is the doctrine, the highest doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, which you could call the doctrine of the mutual interpenetration of all things or the mutual interdependence of all things. And it’s symbol is the…what is called Indra’s net that is used in the Avatamsaka Sutra. Imagine at dawn a multidimensional spider’s web covered in dew. A vast vast spider’s web that is the whole cosmos. And is not only a kind of a flat thing, but a solid thing, and has solid in four, five, six and n dimensions covered with jewels of dew, all of which have rainbow coloring. And every drop of dew contains in it the reflection of every other drop of dew. And since every drop of dew contains the reflections of all the others, each reflected drop of dew contains the reflections, you see, of all the others and so ad infinitum.

Now this is the Mahayana vision of the world. Which is to say this is relativity. That whatever exists in this world, and is characterized as something particular, as a thing, as an event, as something or other, you see, as a unit, this does not exist without all other such things and events. So that you might say any one event implies all events, and all events, the total universe, past, present, and future, depends on every single member. In other words, you may say “I can understand that I depend on this whole universe. There could not be me unless there was everything else.” It is harder to see the corollary of that, that the whole universe depends on you. You might say “Well, how can that be? Because I come into being and then I got out of being. And when I’m…before I was born I’m sure the universe was here, and after I die I’m sure it will go on. How can you say then that the whole thing depends on me?” Very simply. It depends on your…supposing you’re dead, and we’re talking about someone in the past. Let’s say we’re talking about Socrates. And I’m going to say this whole universe depends on Socrates. I may put it more exactly. It depends on Socrates having existed.

You see your parents now…some of your parents may be alive but some of parents may be dead. Without your parents you would not have come into being. So you depend on your parents even when your parents have gone. So everything…even when you disappear, the universe will still depend on you. On your having been here. Or if you have not yet arrived, it depends on your going to be here. So we can say…obviously, going back to Socrates…the fact that Socrates existed tells us something about the kind of world we’re living in. This world once Socratized, and that Socrates and his wisdom was a symptom of the kind of universe we’re living in in just the same way as I showed you that an apple is a symptom of a tree, certain kind of tree; tells us something about that tree: what it functions, how it produces things. So a world which produced Socrates or a world which produced John Doe, who was nobody in particular and nobody ever remembered him or though to write his biography, nevertheless, for all his obscurity the whole universe depends on him and it depends equally on every fruit fly, every gnat, every vibration of every gnat’s wing, and it depends on every last electron, however brief its manifestation may be.

So that…what this is saying is that everything that there is implies everything else. And all those other things, collectively, in their totality, in which we the universe in turn imply each individual object, event, and so on. That’s the meaning of Indra’s net. So that, this is called in Zen, to take up a blade of grass and use it as a golden Buddha 16 feet high. When you have a chain and you pick up a link all the other links come up with it, you see, because it implies if this is a link, it is a link in a chain. If it isn’t, it’s just an oval piece of metal. But if it’s a link, up come all other links.

So if you are an event, every event…no…there’s no such thing as a single event. The only possible single event is all events whatsoever. That could be regarded as the only possible atom; the only possible single thing is everything. But the things that we call things all imply each other. We know what we are only in relation to what we aren’t. We know of the sensation of one’s self only in relation to a sensation of something other. So the other goes with the self as the back goes with the front. And your life, however short, everything depends on it. If that did not happen, nothing would happen. So in this sense the whole world bears your signature. It would not be the same world if it weren’t for you.

You’ve heard haven’t you, what is called the pathetic fallacy? This was a idea of the 19th century which said that it was false and wrong to project human feelings on the world. The wind in the pine trees is not sighing. It’s you who are sighing. The Sun is not happy. It’s you who are happy when the Sun shines. So don’t mix up your happiness with the Sun. The Sun has no feelings. The Sun is not human. The wind has no feeling, and is not human.

The poet says

The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;

And the logician says “No. The poet looks round with delight at the moon in the bare heavens.”

How awful. I mean if that’s what, if that’s the point, you see, better not say any poetry. Just have prose.

But actually the moon does look round with delight when the poet looks round with delight, because the world of which one symptom is the moon is the same world of which another symptom is the poet. They go together. A world where there is a moon implies a world where there is a poet. A world where there is a poet implies a world where there is a moon. So in this sense the moon can be said to look round with delight through the agency of the poet. ‘Cause you can’t separate poet and moon, just as you can’t separate head and feet without destroying the unity of the body.

So in that sense then, this whole world is a human world and we should not take this silly attitude or philosophy called the philosophy of the pathetic fallacy which says outside our skins it’s all inhuman and dumb and blind force, and only inside the skin is there the human world. All this world is human because it depends not only on the existence of humanity in general but on the existence of Mary Smith in particular. So the whole world is covered, as it were, with your personal signature. But at that moment when you suddenly seem to be everything, and to be Mr. A, you know, you suddenly see the obverse of this, that your particular personality is nothing at all without everything else; without everybody else.

I need, in order to be Alan Watts, I need every single other human being and the uncontrollable otherness of all those other human beings that I can’t do anything about. They’re going to be themselves whatever I do. And yet at the same time I, I depend on all their difference from me, and yet it…they all depend likewise on me. So that I’m in a very funny position. The moment I would be ego-less and say I’m nothing without you, then suddenly I find I’m, I’m the kingpin; they all depend on me. Then suddenly then when I get swellheaded about being the kingpin I find I’m nothing at all without them. So everything keeps going bloorp, bloorp, bloorp, bloorp. In other words, no matter how much you think you’ve got it in one state it transforms itself into the other. That’s the Ji-Ji-Mu-Ge.

Now, in Ji-Ji-Mu-Ge you see you got a vision of the world in which everybody is boss and nobody is boss. There is no one boss who governs the whole thing. It takes care of itself. It’s a colossal democracy. But yet every man, and every Uguisu, and every snail is king in this world, and at the same time is commoner. And that’s how it works. And there is no great king. Although in Hinduism they have an idea, a very strange one to us, called Ishvara. Ishvara means the supreme personal god; the top being in the Deva world. And they…many Buddhist believe that there is such a god; there is a ruler of the universe. But, he is lower than a Buddha. Because in the course of the endless cycles Ishvara will dissolve into nothing. All gods, all angels are within the round of being. It’s a very curious idea to our, our minds. And, therefore, although Buddhist believe in god in that sense, they don’t take it importantly. There are no shrines in Buddhism to Ishvara.

So then, it is through Ji-Ji-Mu-Ge, this idea of the mutual interpenetration and interdependence of all things that we have the philosophical basis for Zen as a practical non-intellectual way of life. Because of the realization that the most ordinary event, the charcoal brazier, the mat, soup for dinner, sneezing, washing your hands, going to the bathroom, everything…all these so called events, separate events, imply the universe. So this is why Zen people will use the ordinary event to demonstrate the cosmic and the metaphysical. Only they don’t rationalize it that way.

To see infinity in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour is still Ri-Ji-Mu-Ge and not Ji-Ji-Mu-Ge. Ji-Ji-Mu-Ge is when you offer somebody the grain of sand for god’s sake stop thinking about eternity. Here’s just the grain of sand. There’s no difference between the grain of sand and eternity. SO you don’t have to think about eternity as something implied by the grain of sand. The grain of sand is eternity. So in the same way exactly, our sitting here at this moment is not something different from nirvana. We are nirvana as sitting here exactly like this, you see. So you don’t have to say any philosophical comment on the grain of sand or one our sitting here. That’s called “legs on a snake” or “a beard on a eunuch”. You put legs on a snake you see and you embarrass the snake in its motion and eunuch doesn’t need a beard. We would say, in our idiom, “don’t gild the lily” or Zen would say “don’t put frost on top of snow”.

So all what you might call specifically religious activity is legs on a snake. Eventually this is going to be eliminated just as eventually we hope that government will be eliminated and will become unnecessary because every individual will be self governing and, therefore, relate properly to his brother. And the state will vanish. So, too, at the same time the church will vanish. And that’s why in the, in the book of Revelation, in the New Testament, it is said that in heaven there is no temple because the whole place is the temple. So in…when we achieve the fulfillment of Buddhism there is no Buddha, no temple, no gong, no bell, because the whole world is the sound of the bell and the image of Buddha is everything you can look at.

So a Zen master was asked “Mountains and hills, are they not all forms of the body of Buddha?” The master replied, “Yes, they are, but it’s a pity to say so.”

Further Reading
[1] Zen direct to you http://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2007/10/11/arts/zen-direct-to-you/ Retrieved 2017-08-07
[2] Zen Festmények Zen Painting https://terebess.hu/zen/sengai.html Retrieved 2017-08-07
[3] Liang Kai Paintings http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/painting-liang-kai.php Retrieved 2017-08-07
[4] Liang-Kaj Csan Festményei https://terebess.hu/zen/liangkaj.html Retrieved 2017-08-07