Watts's It

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-10-08 23:00:00 No comments

Purchase on Amazon

I finally got around to reading Alan Watts's This Is It. Or maybe I should say I got around to reading it properly, since I have the nagging feeling I did read it ages ago and forgot it. I suspect any reading of such a work before I had my own experiences with Zen would have passed right through me and out the other side without leaving much of a trace. It's a short book, short enough to read all in as single sitting, as I did, but meaty enough that it inspires a lot of returning-to and reflecting-on.

One point Watts makes, if only in passing, is that the feeling of Suchness (as some people have used to describe the state of attainment/enlightenment), is "in no sense a philosophy designed to justify or desensitize oneself to the inequalities of life." In other words, if an enlightened man sees injustice and evil in the world, he doesn't merely shrug and think, to quote Unca Kurt, "So it goes." He does something about it, in whatever way is available. But he also knows better than to invest any particular ego-inflating attitude into the effort. He doesn't do this because he wants to save the world, he does this because saving the world needs to take place, to use a phrasing that would suit Dōgen.

Something else Watts discusses is how Zen's nondualistic attitude contrasts with Judeo-Christian dualism. People get uncomfortable with the idea that good and evil are points of view, because they need to know something will keep them from turning into monsters, or that there's a way to protect their children from people that go bump in the night. But the point being made is not so much that good and evil don't exist, and more that our ideas of good and evil are just that, ideas, while real good and evil continue on outside of whatever sensory and intellectual composites we render of them for our own sake. We "know" the map is not the territory, but we do precious little to demonstrate it.

There is one more point that Watts makes about all this, if only very obliquely and indirectly, one that I think would deserve a whole book unto itself, if only a book of about this size (158 pages). It is the notion of how to handle all this in an institutional way. By this I mean, is there any way to systematically promote the personal search for Suchness without it turning into a regimen imposed from above? Is there such a thing as a "society of Suchness"?

I've long felt that the minute you turn something as necessarily personal and private as spiritual insight into something institutionalized, official, or socially mechanical, you kill anything useful about it. My distrust of organized religion is all about this: it's tantamount to saying the sun must shine, or else.

Watts touches this idea from time to time, for instance when he notes how the institutionalization of Zen in Japan is potentially problematic, or when he talks about the problem of sincere love for God — of how willed spontaneity is a contradiction in terms. Likewise, there's no way to strong-arm people into enlightenment; the most you can do is provide them with as many opportunities as possible for spring to come and the grass to grow on its own. If they elect not to partake, fine. If they do, then they have to partake as only they will.

The only thing we really have control over is ourselves, but I am reluctant to create a society where such a view is mandated. That would amount to a contradiction: if such control is personal, why force people to have it? What seems most reasonable is to cultivate, within the frameworks we have now, as many places as possible for people to look into themselves without dogma, mystification, or judgment, the better to become comfortable with the contradictions both inside and outside of themselves, and the better to find ways to live in the rest of the world with those contradictions. The more spiritually advanced a society is, the more readily it'll promote such conditions.

Tags: Alan Watts Buddhism Zen