Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Watts: Yes, it's just that simple, and you can't get there from here



One of those great library experiences, browsing the shelf, led me to check out an early essay by Alan Watts, The Way of Liberation in Zen Buddhism (1955). The Libraries' copy is one of the original publications, pretty well-worn, a pamphlet really, but it's got a great feel. You can sense its history in the marks on the cover that show that it was earlier taped,

in the inscription inside that shows that Maud gave it to Nancy in June 1955, and in the simpleness of the layout and type.

Watts wrote the essay as the first in a series of monographs published originally by the American Academy of Asian Studies, established four


years earlier in San Francisco, and, in 1954, affiliated with the College of the Pacific. He intended to "clarify the experiential content of Zen Buddhism, in view of the growing interest in the subject among Western psychologists and philosophers" (preface).

This short essay packs a lot in. It's a marvelous description of the methodology of an Eastern undertaking that we in the West can't quite fit into any of our niches -- neither religion, philosophy, nor psychology. He describes it as a way of liberation, rather than any of those other things.

Liberation from what? Well, from "an idea which crops up repeatedly in the history of philosophy and religion -- the idea that the seeming multiplicity of facts, things, and events is in reality One, or, more correctly, beyond duality" (pp. 3-4).

But can an ordinary person experience the state of non-duality, given that our normal psychological way of perceiving anything is by contrast with something else, that is, through duality? How do we get from ordinary experience to the state of non-duality?

Watt describes the four paths down which Zen masters typically send aspiring adherents, and how it is our very linguistic dependence that leads us to the realization of non-duality. In other words, our logical, language-based, linear, left brain ways of understanding non-duality lead to rejection of the question because each path to understanding non-duality leads to a nonsense dead end. For example, the first path, "all things are in reality One," leads us to try to mentally obliterate all differences, to say yes to all experience, for example, to say to ourselves that there is no difference between the Buddha and a movie star, that all is Tao, which normally makes unity seem absurd, which also is Tao...

The path, "all is Void (shunyata)," leads us to say no to all there is. Mu, the sage's "does not have" answer to the koan question of whether a dog has Buddha nature, illustrates this path. The student simply says no to everything, including the saying of no. Again, nonsense.

The path, "just accept yourself as you are and make no effort" similarly leads to collapse. Even the desire to make no effort is an effort.

The typical fourth path turns the question back on the questioner, directing him or her to look at who is questioning, who is uncomfortable, to feel what feels, to know what knows, to make an object of the subject (p. 8). But this too proves impossible. The Buddha can't seek after himself.

In short, the root of the problem is the question (p. 9). If you do not ask the question, the problem will not arise.

Ultimately, trying very hard (to exhaustion!) linguistically to understand non-duality makes clear that what we seek is impossible for us. We come to understand instead the "radical impotence of the ego." We are truly helpless. When we give ourselves up for lost -- when we surrender -- only then, paradoxically, does our desire to know Oneness, our desire for relief from separation and duality cease of its own accord.

And in the midst of this relief we see that life is going on all around us, and there is no rigid boundary between that life and the ego-less me. The breath is an effective illustration of the essential unity between our voluntary and involuntary actions. Down goes our conventional distinction between voluntary and involuntary actions, between body and mind. Even our willing or deciding something, a clearly voluntary act, has an involuntary aspect (before conscious decision), or else we would have to infinitely decide to decide to decide...

From this perspective, the 'All is One' path makes sense, as do the other three. But not until we've lost ourselves first. It is an example of the, "you can't get there from here" conundrum. We really can't see the unity of all, or the void, or that we need make no effort, or that there's no self to question, with our left brain, because by nature it believes we are separate and in control.

Zen places the focus on experience always. Even the ultimate koan about whether 'the One is really it' prompts a right brain, non-linear, illogical answer: "When all dualities have been reduced to the One, what does the One reduce to?" -- the master says, "9 pounds of flax" (the weight of a linen robe). There comes a point when we must drop thinking about it and just see. For Westerners, reflection and action are another conventional duality. In Zen, they are essentially the same. We think and act, rather than get caught up in an infinite regression of standing outside our lives, reflecting upon reflections, upon reflections. "In acting just act, in thinking just think. Above all, don't wobble" (p. 15). We don't have to reflect about reflecting. "Zen is also liberation from the dualism of thought versus action, for it thinks as it acts -- with the same quality of abandon, commitment, or faith" (p. 15). The same is true of feeling.

Consider the question of when to stop thinking and to act. We can never be certain we've done enough or too much. Long story short: the only certainty is death. Other than that, all is uncertain. And that 'all,' that includes us. That uncertainty is our very nature. We, the knower, are, thus, the same as the unknown. Et voilĂ . "... [I]n the final analysis, we have to act and think, live and die, from a source beyond all knowledge and control" (p. 17).

From this point, when we see this, the life of the Bodhisattva begins. We need not strain to improve ourselves, for the effort to do so is just ego. Seeds lead to plants, which lead to trees, but by a process of growth and development, not of effort, or straining to improve. The tree is not an improved seed. (p. 19). Once we see clearly that it is our nature to grow in the same way, change occurs naturally.

Ok. Got that?

1 comment:

emcic said...

"The breath is an effective illustration of the essential unity between our voluntary and involuntary actions."

I have been thinking much lately about fate vs. freewill, and the balance of belief in the two being ideal...this metaphor is so beautiful and true to me.

Thanks!