I’ve been immerging myself in Alan Watt’s talks lately, plunging into his words and thoughts, and I seem to have reached a point in which, so to speak, my cup is about to overflow. In other words: his teachings, I suppose, are beggining to bear fruit in my inner gardens, and I’ve been wondering with myself, under Alan’s inspiration and spell: why don’t I open the gates to others to come and taste these fruits, even though they’re still in a process of ripening? What starts here, right now, is an attempt to write about my pilgrimages through Eastern Wisdom. Not from the perspective of an historian who looks at it like dead curiosities in a museum of ruins, but as something alive and kicking, which still has many possible lessons to teach us, the “Modern Times”. This is certainly a work in progress – but after all, is there any work that isn’t necessarily in flux, embarked on the cosmos’ ever-moving stream, and thus fated to wander and ramble on, constantly on the move?…
I cherish a lot Alan Watts’ attempts to teach to the Modern Times the keys to the unlocking of the treasures of Eastern (and ancient) Wisdom. Maybe he deserves to be considered alongside figures such as Aldous Huxley or Heinrich Zimmer as a very important figure in the history of bridge-constructing between the so-called “East” and “West”. A famous Zen proverb – quoted often in popular culture (in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film Le Fabuleux Destin D’Amélie Poulain, for instance) – states: “When the wise man points his finger at the Moon, the fools regard his fingers.” Alan Watts’ uses words in order to get beyond words, to point at the stars and moons, at the waters and the rocks, at the breezes and the streams, in order to invite us, invoke on us, depict for us, a way of experiencing the world in which we inhabit Nature instead of feeling alien (or alienated) from it.
I don’t listen to Alan Watts like he’s an irreproachable Awakened One, who has all the answers and final solutions, to be worshipped on my knees, but rather as some sort of pilgrim of wisdom, of witty beatnik poet, of “spiritual entertainer” (as he himself jokingly called himself). He demands of us, his listeners and readers, not credulity or obedience, but rather creativity and singularity. A guru who is deeply anti-gurus and who repeats to us: “Don’t respect any authorities or gurus without criticism, try to think and experience for yourself!”
Stuff like Nirvana – or other sorts of Ecstactic Awakenings and satoris and unio mysticas – aren’t fully describable in words. They are truths of lived experience rather than statements of representational verbal language. “Words are too clumsy”, Alan Watts loves to say, and he underlines frequently the simple fact we tend to take for granted: the mountains aren’t made with words, and neither are the stars. Do words flow in rivers? Do we breath words in the air? Does it rain words on our umbrellas? In our cosmos, words seem to be a very small part of it. As far as we know, it’s a recent extravagance of certain lliving organisms on a little corner of the Universe called planet Earth…
My plan is to begin a series here in Awestruck Wanderer’s vast cyber-spaces (I see plenty of room to keep on expanding it!) in which I’ll try to share some footprints of my own wanderings in the realm of Eastern Wisdom. The aim is not only to register a journey, but to invite others to add their own discoveries and different perspectives to this journey of quest for Nirvanic enlightenments and dispellments of burdensome illusions.
I enjoy very much the concept of Buddhism not as a religion, with fixed dogmas and rituals, unquestionable and always worthy with blind obedience, but rather as a collective effort, extending over several generations, to discover ways to transform states of consciousness. Sidarta Gautama, some may argue, is the world’s first great psychotherapist. The word “religion”, perhaps, doesn’t fit well when applied to Buddhism – Alan Watts calls it, rather paradoxically, “The Religion of No Religion” – cause Buddhism it’s the poles apart from Christianity, Judaism and Islam, to restrict ourselves to the world’s most popular monotheisms.
My perspective on this radical difference between Buddhism and the three major monotheistic religion is this: there’s a radical difference between concepts such as Nirvana and Samsara and concepts such as Heaven and Hell. Samsara and Nirvana are existential states, are different ways of experiencing reality, are ways to inhabit the world; Heaven and Hell are mythological places, imagined to be absolutely transcendent, alien to this world, supernatural, outside Nature. Samsara and Nirvana only have meaning inside the realm of life, considered as journey of transformation; Heaven and Hell are thought to “reside” in a separate territory, outside the Physical realm, and the access to it is granted only after the body’s death.
It would be quite absurd for someone to say: “I’ll reach Nirvana when I die” – such a statement would probably provoke a zen master either to hit the person with a stick or to laugh his lungs out, joyously aware of how nonsensical that pretension is. But it’s perfectly “normal” for a Christian, a Jew or a Muslim to say: ‘I’ll get to Heaven when I die” – and such a statement would be considered normal, trivial, in accordance with the predominant discourse of their particular communities, faithful to the main cultural trend.
Heaven, of course, is a place quite different from Earth: it’s imagined to be a place of pleasure without pain, life without death, existence without change (no disease, no decay; no old-age, no new-born-baby…). Buddhists look at this Heaven dreamed by the Monotheisms and say: your Heaven is but a phantasy and an ideal impossible to attain. The way of liberation, a Buddhist will state, lies not in dreaming another reality, “purged” of all the elements usually called evil, ugly or sick. The way of liberation lies in understanding the inter-dependency and inter-relateness of the fabric of reality in which we exist, each one a part of the same whole.
This I’ve learned from Alan Watts (and, indirectly, from the masters from which Alan himself has learned from…): in reality, there’s no eggs without chickens, no fingers without hands, no brains without stomachs, no planets without rocks, no black without white, no pleasure without pain, no life without death. I could go on forever: no seas without salt, no tears without eyes, no mind without matter, no life without bodies, no wisdom without folly. When we realize fully that the cosmos is in flux, filled by ever-moving processes, we begin to perceive ourselves not as separate egos, fixed in some sort of enduring permanence, but rather as whirlpools in the stream, interconnected beings in a web-of-evolution, boats embarked in cosmic change. Awakening or Nirvana refers to a state of consciousness in which the ilusion of separateness vanishes: in the Cosmos we plunge. The Whole, the All, Spinoza’s God, the pantheist’s object of adoration, we fill no longer apart from us – we’re in it. We’re one of its constituent parts.
To believe in Heaven and Hell – the first a realm of absolute enjoyment, pleasure, light, delight; the other a realm of terrible torture, un-ending pain, fiery darkness… – is pure folly, a Buddhist would argue, because it denies reality – it’s nothing but a ghost created by the human mind in its alienation from its existential position inside Nature’s bosom. The awakened one is not the one to preach fake promises, but rather someone who aims to free us from the burden of expecting reality to conform to a certain ideal that reality can never fulfill. In Lin Chi’s words: “MY DUTY IS TO BEAT GHOSTS OUT OF YOU!”
One of the best visual representations of Eastern Wisdom is the Yin & Yang dancing diagram. It means not only that black implies white, and figure implies background, but much more: it depicts reality’s eternal movement, in which are cointaned all differences. Just like it’s impossible to take a magnet and separate its North and South poles (if you chop off any of the poles of a magnet, Alan Watts explains, you won’t ever manage to get rid of polarity), it’s impossible to sever reality in separate chunks. Reality comes like this: all mixed stuff, intermingled beings, connected in inter-relationships and webs. Just like the apple-tree bears fruit, the Cosmos has made Earth it’s life-tree: our planet peoples, our Earth bears the fruits of life, and life bursts from the Cosmos not as something created by Transcendece but as a product of Immanence. Earth or Gaia, this flying sphere of multiplicity beyond words, locked in the embrace of solar gravity, dancing in the Universe’s immense dancefloor, has life as one its fruits. The Cosmos is doing each of us just like a tree is doing apples or the oceans are doing waves. Life: We must cherish it, enjoy it, love it, but always aware that Life is dependent on Nature, involved in it, part of it, plunged in it. Lives in the cosmos are like fishes in seas.
Alan Watts explains this beautifully in several of his talks and lectures – here’s one of the best of them: 1960’s Buddhism and Science, part of Watts’ TV-series Eastern Wisdom & Modern Life:
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You might also enjoy this South Parkianesque video
(it could be nicknamed Alan Watts For Dummies):
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“Man as an organism is to the world outside like a whirlpool is to a river: man and world are a single natural process, but we are behaving as if we were invaders and plunderers in a foreign territory. For when the individual is defined and felt as the separate personality or ego, he remains unaware that his actual body is a dancing pattern of energy that simply does not happen by itself. It happens only in concert with myriads of other patterns – called animals, plants, insects, bacteria, minerals, liquids, and gases. The definition of a person and the normal feeling of ‘I’ do not effectively include these relationships. You say, ‘I came into this world.’ You didn’t; you came out of it, as a branch from a tree.”
“The special branch of science which studies the relation of living beings to their environments – ecology – shows beyond doubt that the individual organism and its environment are a continuous stream, or field, of energy. To draw a new moral from the bees and the flowers: the two organisms are very different, for one is rooted in the ground and broadcasts perfume, while the other moves freely in the air and buzzes. But because they cannot exist without each other, it makes real sense to say that they are in fact two aspects of a single organism. Our heads are very different in appearance from our feet, but we recognize them as belonging to one individual because they are obviously connected by skin and bones. But less obvious connections are no less real…
Civilized human beings are alarmingly ignorant of the fact that they are continuous with their natural surroundings. It is as necessary to have air, water, plants, insects, birds, fish, and mammals as it is to have brains, hearts, lungs, and stomachs. The former are our external organs in the same way that the latter are our internal organs. (…) The sun, the earth, and the forests are just as much features of your own body as your brain. Erosion of the soil is as much a personal disease as leprosy, and many ‘growing communities’ are as disastrous as cancer. That we do not feel this to be obvious is the result of centuries of habituation to the idea that oneself is only the envelope of skin and its contents, the inside but not the outside. The extreme folly of this notion becomes clear as soon as you try to imagine an inside with no outside, or an outside with no inside.”
(ALAN WATTS. “Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality.” New World Library, California, 2007. Pgs. 20 and 36-37)
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A box of comments, in the Blogosphere, may well be used as a bridge [a meeting place, a cyber-symposium…] between humans interested in Wisdom Sharing. Anyone? “Hello… Hello… Hello… Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me… Is there anyone at home?”
Eduardo Carli de Moraes, Awestruck Wanderer
Toronto, 13/08/2014 (my last week in the Twenties!)