Alan Watts on Taoism

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laotan
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Alan Watts on Taoism

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One of the most accurate presentation of Taoism (the pholosophical one) is the book of Alan Watts Tao: the Watercourse Way, Pantheon Books, 1975. A quote from this book explains in few words what is Taoism:

Certain Chinese philosophers writing in, perhaps, the -5th and -4th centuries, explained ideas and a way of life that have come to be known as Taoism - the way of man's cooperation with the course or trend of the natural world, whose principles we discover in the flow patterns of water, gas, an fire, which are subsequently memorialized or sculptured in those of stone and wood, and, later, in many forms of human art. What they had to say is of immense importance for our own times when in the +20th century, we are realizing that our efforts to rule nature by technical force and "straighten it out" may have the most disastrous results.

I found another quote, more extensive, which must be posted here:

Taoism
by Alan Watts

In order to go into Taoism at all, we must begin by being in the frame of mind in which it can be understood. You cannot force yourself into this frame of mind, anymore than you can smooth disturbed water with your hand. But let's say that our starting point is that we forget what we know, or think we know, and that we suspend judgment about practically everything, returning to what we were when we were babies when we had not yet learned the names or the language. And in this state, although we have extremely sensitive bodies and very alive senses, we have no means of making an intellectual or verbal commentary on what is going on.

You are just plain ignorant, but still very much alive, and in this state you just feel what is without calling it anything at all. You know nothing at all about anything called an external world in relation to an internal world. You don't know who you are, you haven't even the idea of the word you or I-- it is before all that. Nobody has taught you self control, so you don't know the difference between the noise of a car outside and a wandering thought that enters your mind- they are both something that happens. You don't identify the presence of a thought that may be just an image of a passing cloud in your mind's eye or the passing automobile; they happen. Your breath happens. Light, all around you, happens. Your response to it by blinking happens.

So, on one hand you are simply unable to do anything, and on the other there is nothing you are supposed to do. Nobody has told you anything to do. You are completely unable to do anything but be aware of the buzz. The visual buzz, the audible buzz, the tangible buzz, the smellable buzz-- all around the buzz is going on. Watch it. Don't ask who is watching it; you have no information about that yet. You don't know that it requires a watcher for something to be watched. That is somebody's idea; but you don't know that.

Lao-tzu says, "The scholar learns something every day, the man of tao unlearns something every day, until he gets back to non-doing." Just simply, without comment, without an idea in your head, be aware. What else can you do? You don't try to be aware; you are. You will find, of course, that you can not stop the commentary going on inside your head, but at least you can regard it as interior noise. Listen to your chattering thoughts as you would listen to the singing of a kettle.

We don't know what it is we are aware of, especially when we take it altogether, and there's this sense of something going on. I can't even really say 'this,' although I said 'something going on.' But that is an idea, a form of words. Obviously I couldn't say something is going on unless I could say something else isn't. I know motion by contrast with rest, and while I am aware of motion I am also aware of at rest. So maybe what's at rest isn't going and what's in motion is going, but I won't use that concept then because in order for it to make sense I have to include both. If I say here it is, that excludes what isn't, like space. If I say this, it excludes that, and I am reduced to silence. But you can feel what I am talking about. That's what is called tao, in Chinese. That's where we begin.

Tao means basically "way", and so "course"; the course of nature. Lao-tzu said the way of the functioning of the tao is "so of itself"; that is to say it is spontaneous. Watch again what is going on. If you approach it with this wise ignorance, you will see that you are witnessing a happening. In other words, in this primal way of looking at things there is no difference between what you do, on the one hand, and what happens to you on the other. It is all the same process. Just as your thought happens, the car happens outside, and so the clouds and the stars.

When a Westerner hears that he thinks this is some sort of fatalism or determinism, but that is because he still preserves in the back of his mind two illusions. One is that what is happening is happening to him, and therefore he is the victim of circumstances. But when you are in primal ignorance there is no you different from what is happening, and therefore it is not happening to you. It is just happening. So is "you", or what you call you, or what you will later call you. It is part of the happening, and you are part of the universe, although strictly speaking the universe has no parts. We only call certain features of the universe parts. However you can't disconnect them from the rest without causing them to be not only non-existent, but to never to have existed at all.

When a one experiences oneself and the universe happening together, the other illusion one is liable to have is that it is determined in the sense that what is happening now follows necessarily from what happened in the past. But you don't know anything about that in your primal ignorance. Cause and effect? Why obviously not, because if you are really naive you see the past is the result of what is happening now. It goes backwards into the past, like a wake goes backwards from a ship. All the echoes are disappearing finally, they go away, and away, and away. And it is all starting now. What we call the future is nothing, the great void, and everything comes out of the great void. If you shut your eyes, and contemplate reality only with your ears, you will find there is a background of silence, and all sounds are coming out of it. They start out of silence. If you close your eyes, and just listen, you will observe the sounds came out of nothing, floated off, and off, stopped being a sonic echo, and became a memory, which is another kind of echo. It is very simple; it all begins now, and therefore it is spontaneous. It isn't determined; that is a philosophical notion. Nor is it capricious; that's another philosophical notion. We distinguish between what is orderly and what is random, but of course we don't really know what randomness is. What is 'so-of-itself,' sui generis in Latin, means coming into being spontaneously on its own accord, and that, incidentally, is the real meaning of virgin birth.

That is the world, that is the tao, but perhaps that makes us feel afraid. We may ask, "If all that is happening spontaneously, who's in charge? I am not in charge, that is pretty obvious, but I hope there is God or somebody looking after all this." But why should there be someone looking after it, because then there is a new worry that you may not of thought of, which is, "Who takes care of the caretaker's daughter while the caretaker is busy taking care?" Who guards the guards? Who supervises the police? Who looks after God? You may say "God doesn't need looking after" Oh? Well, nor does this.

The tao is a certain kind of order, and this kind of order is not quite what we call order when we arrange everything geometrically in boxes, or in rows. That is a very crude kind of order, but when you look at a plant it is perfectly obvious that the plant has order. We recognize at once that is not a mess, but it is not symmetrical and it is not geometrical looking. The plant looks like a Chinese drawing, because they appreciated this kind of non-symmetrical order so much that it became an integral aspect of their painting. In the Chinese language this is called li, and the character for li means the markings in jade. It also means the grain in wood and the fiber in muscle. We could say, too, that clouds have li, marble has li, the human body has li. We all recognize it, and the artist copies it whether he is a landscape painter, a portrait painter, an abstract painter, or a non-objective painter. They all are trying to express the essence of li. The interesting thing is, that although we all know what it is, there is no way of defining it. Because tao is the course, we can also call li the watercourse, and the patterns of li are also the patterns of flowing water. We see those patterns of flow memorialized, as it were, as sculpture in the grain in wood, which is the flow of sap, in marble, in bones, in muscles. All these things are patterned according to the basic principles of flow. In the patterns of flowing water you will all kind of motifs from Chinese art, immediately recognizable, including the S-curve in the circle of yang-yin.

So li means then the order of flow, the wonderful dancing pattern of liquid, because Lao-tzu likens tao to water:

The great tao flows everywhere, to the left and to the right,
It loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them.

For as he comments elsewhere, water always seeks the lowest level, which men abhor, because we are always trying to play games of one-upmanship, and be on top of each other. But Lao-tzu explains that the top position is the most insecure. Everybody wants to get to the top of the tree, but then if they do the tree will collapse. That is the fallacy of American society.

Lao-tzu says the basic position is the most powerful, and this we can see at once in Judo, or in Aikido. These are self-defensive arts where you always get underneath the opponent, so he falls over you if he attacks you. The moment he moves to be aggressive you go either lower than he is, or in a smaller circle than he is moving. And you have spin, if you know Aikido. You are always spinning, and you know how something spinning exercises centrifugal force, and if someone comes into your field of centrifugal force he the gets flung out, but by his own bounce. It is very curious.

So, therefore, the watercourse way is the way of tao. Now, that seems to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, lazy, spineless, and altogether passive. I am always being asked when I talk about things, "If people did what you suggest wouldn't they become terribly passive?" Well, from a superficial point of view I would suggest that a certain amount of passivity would be an excellent corrective for our kind of culture because we are always creating trouble by doing good to other people. We wage wars for other peoples benefit, and attempt to help those living in "underdeveloped" counties, not realizing that in the process we may destroy their way of life. Economies and cultures that have coexisted in ecological balance for thousands of years have been disrupted all around the world, with often disastrous results.
(From http://www.terebess.hu/english/watts4.html).

More about Taoism by Watts may be found at the same address as above.
Last edited by laotan on Tue Dec 09, 2008 7:43 am, edited 1 time in total.

Danae

Re: Alan Watts on Taoism/loatan

Post by Danae »

laotan wrote:One of the most accurate presentation of Taoism (the pholosophical one) is the book of Alan Watts Tao: the Watercourse Way, Pantheon Books, 1975.


Thank you laotan. I respect your opinion and enjoyed the quotes you posted. I had already heard about "The Watercourse Way" by Alan Watts. I had read reviews of it but could not decide if I should buy it or not. Now that I've read the quotes you posted, I plan to buy it.

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laotan
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Re: Alan Watts on Taoism/loatan

Post by laotan »

Danae wrote:
laotan wrote:One of the most accurate presentation of Taoism (the pholosophical one) is the book of Alan Watts Tao: the Watercourse Way, Pantheon Books, 1975.


Thank you laotan. I respect your opinion and enjoyed the quotes you posted. I had already heard about "The Watercourse Way" by Alan Watts. I had read reviews of it but could not decide if I should buy it or not. Now that I've read the quotes you posted, I plan to buy it.
It is the best book on Taoism I ever read. Alan Watts is the only Western author who understood the spirit of Taoism. You may learn a great deal from him. His book is easy and clear as it sould be. No philsophy for the sake of philosophy, no mystery, no speculations, no prolix phrases or pretentious such as those of other "authors", even Chinese! In short, it points to the Tao.

NonTien

Re: Alan Watts on Taoism/loatan

Post by NonTien »

laotan wrote:
Danae wrote:
laotan wrote:One of the most accurate presentation of Taoism (the pholosophical one) is the book of Alan Watts Tao: the Watercourse Way, Pantheon Books, 1975.


Thank you laotan. I respect your opinion and enjoyed the quotes you posted. I had already heard about "The Watercourse Way" by Alan Watts. I had read reviews of it but could not decide if I should buy it or not. Now that I've read the quotes you posted, I plan to buy it.
It is the best book on Taoism I ever read. Alan Watts is the only Western author who understood the spirit of Taoism. You may learn a great deal from him. His book is easy and clear as it sould be. No philsophy for the sake of philosophy, no mystery, no speculations, no prolix phrases or pretentious such as those of other "authors", even Chinese! In short, it points to the Tao.
One should be advised that Alan Watts thinking was heavily drug induced - he openly admitted using drugs in his search for religious and spiritual truths. He has written essays on using drugs and on the fact that the laws are confining and interfere with his work. The following is a DIRECT quote written by Alan Watts;

"I myself have experimented with five of the principal psychedelics: LSD-25, mescaline, psilocybin, dimethyl-tryptamine (DMT), and cannabis. I have done so, as William James tried nitrous oxide, to see if they could help me in identifying what might be called the "essential" or "active" ingredients of the mystical experience. For almost all the classical literature on mysticism is vague, not only in describing the experience, but also in showing rational connections between the experience itself and the various traditional methods recommended to induce it: fasting, concentration, breathing exercises, prayers, incantations, and dances.

The undoubted mystical and religious intent of most users of the psychedelics, even if some of these substances should be proved injurious to physical health, requires that their free and responsible use be exempt from legal restraint in any republic that maintains a constitutional separation of church and state. To the extent that mystical experience conforms with the tradition of genuine religious involvement, and to the extent that psychedelics induce that experience, users are entitled to some constitutional protection. Also, to the extent that research in the psychology of religion can utilize such drugs, students of the human mind must be free to use them. Under present laws, I, as an experienced student of the psychology of religion, can no longer pursue research in the field. This is a barbarous restriction of spiritual and intellectual freedom, suggesting that the legal system of the United States is, after all, in tacit alliance with the monarchical theory of the universe, and will, therefore, prohibit and persecute religious ideas and practices based on an organic and unitary vision of the universe."
Psychedelics and Religious Experience

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laotan
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Re: Alan Watts on Taoism

Post by laotan »

One should be advised that Alan Watts thinking was heavily drug induced - he openly admitted using drugs in his search for religious and spiritual truths. He has written essays on using drugs and on the fact that the laws are confining and interfere with his work.
When a common man (uninitiated) first encounter a master he/she looks at what the master wears, eats, drinks, and so forth. Thus he/she misses the master words and teachings. In this light Alan Watts may appear obscured and even dangerous.
I am basically interested in the teachings of a master and not in the way it looks! In this light, Alan Watts seems the only Westerner who really grasp the meaning of the Way. I really don't care about his alcohol and drugs experiences.

NonTien

Re: Alan Watts on Taoism

Post by NonTien »

laotan wrote:I am basically interested in the teachings of a master and not in the way it looks! In this light, Alan Watts seems the only Westerner who really grasp the meaning of the Way. I really don't care about his alcohol and drugs experiences.
I am not talking about how things 'look' - I'm talking about how thing really are. Do you really feel comfortable crossing a bridge built by a drunken person? Do you really think it is OK for a person using opiates to be teaching your children? There are reasons for drug and alcohol laws. Alan Watts was a huge proponent for the legalization of drugs. It seems you are implying the only way to grasp the meaning of Tao is to either be of Chinese ancestry or be on mind altering drugs.

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laotan
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Re: Alan Watts on Taoism

Post by laotan »

NonTien wrote:
laotan wrote:I am basically interested in the teachings of a master and not in the way it looks! In this light, Alan Watts seems the only Westerner who really grasp the meaning of the Way. I really don't care about his alcohol and drugs experiences.
I am not talking about how things 'look' - I'm talking about how thing really are. Do you really feel comfortable crossing a bridge built by a drunken person? Do you really think it is OK for a person using opiates to be teaching your children? There are reasons for drug and alcohol laws. Alan Watts was a huge proponent for the legalization of drugs. It seems you are implying the only way to grasp the meaning of Tao is to either be of Chinese ancestry or be on mind altering drugs.
Here we don't talk about alcohol and drugas - this is your interest - laws, education and so forth. We talk about Tao and I dont't mind what Tao "wishes" Alan to look like. It is your choice to "let" or not to "let" him to teach you the lesson. I, my self, choose to hear from his lesson. And I am gratified.

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laotan
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Re: Alan Watts on Taoism

Post by laotan »

djmileski2 wrote:Obviously the only reason that there are laws against drugs and alchohol is because the "bully" with that particular idea won over the others and it is now engrained in popular belief. But like Watts said, you shouldn't read while driving like being drunk while driving, or on drugs while driving. And so he wasn't on drugs or drunk while teaching. He mearly experienced other perspectives to realize that no perspective is the right perspective or wrong perspective. Do you drink coffee while teaching? But the Tao is beyond conception or words and before assuming u know what it is, try experiencing it by regarding what goes on inside your body the same as what goes on outside, etc.
Is difficult to common people to figure out a Tao which is not concerned with human morals, such a Christ or Bible.

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