Alan Watts and associated thought


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Not really sure exactly where to post this, but here will do. Early on in my own rather stumbling "path" I had a brief fling with Alan Watts (literary, not physical.....) and then cast him aside as some sort of New Agey lightweight. However, a few years ago I dipped once more into a couple of his books on zen and was forced to reconsider. After my own indepth reading of such "eastern" traditions his books offered maturity and great insight.

Over the past few months I have been reading - and re-reading - his book "Beyond Theology: The Art of Godmanship" and find it illuminating.

One passage:-

Comparative religion” or “comparative theology” has hitherto been a strictly academic pursuit, and the better authorities on the subject have been competent scholars and subtle philosophers. To date they have done such an excellent job that no one can make crass or odious comparisons between religions without making it very clear that he is an ignoramus. To say, for example, that whereas Christians believe the Ultimate Reality to be a loving, personal deity, Buddhists maintain that it is only an empty void, is to show that one understands neither Christianity nor Buddhism. For as we go into the depths of these matters, making full allowance for cultural variations, for differences of language and metaphor, and for all the semantic confusions which they engender, it appears that men’s experiences of “the ultimate” are peculiarly alike. When they get down to negative or apophatic theology — the approach to God by the sculptural method of cutting away concepts — St. Dionysius and St. Thomas are speaking the same language as Nagarjuna and Shankara. At such levels the differences between sophisticated Christian theologians and Hindu or Buddhist pandits are mere technicalities.… But there are other levels.

Really, I am not here to argue or even to champion Alan Watts. In the past, on other forums, I have sought to open threads on the actual experience of Reality (God) and how such differs (if at all) between those who see themselves as theists and those who see themselves as non-theists. This in part taking the lead of Thomas Merton who said that he was more interested in the lived reality/experience of those in the monastic traditions than in comparing religions at the doctrinal level. As Alan Watts says above....there are other levels.

The book I cite of Alan Watts is in one sense simple saying that our "egos", the simple sense of self that we have most of the time, is purely temporal and will cease to be at death. That behind such is the "real self", the Hindu tat tvam asi (“That art thou”), which in effect is playing hide and seek with itself, "knowing" itself by knowing that which is "other".....contrast. It all seems a bit messy but in fact I find it more and more simple, and that such offers a clarity that is new to me.

Really, irrespective of all the guff written about "true self" and "false self" I really find it impossible to believe in any such superficial ego-self as having any final reality in any sense involving linear time. No "reconciliation of all things" involving all such "selves". I love history and reading of so many battles and conflicts involving slaughter of so many, young and old, I simply cannot look at some sort of "final" reconciliation as offering anything other than fantasy. That such egoic selves simply cease to be and "return" to the One Source offers far greater clarity.

What is this thread about? Whatever you like.

Whatever I like.........

Speaking of a lightweight Alan Watts and having to reconsider, I am reading through his Collected Letters. I have always loved letters - much like biographies of the poets and philosophers, but in a different way, they put real flesh and life onto ideas.

There is a fine essay on the nature of Reality to be found in "Raids on the Unspeakable" by Thomas Merton. Unspeakable? I'm not so sure, but forget that. Merton speaks of Mercy as being the hub of Reality, rather than Law or "consistency" or Justice. I think mercy and Grace go together, at the heart of Reality.

In the Collected Letters, early on is one letter to Christmas Humphries (one of the western "apostles" of Buddhism) after Alan Watts received a few of his poems in the post. Anyone considering Alan Watts a "lightweight" should read this letter, one of great depth and understanding, that stands alongside Merton's championing of Mercy.

In the letter, Alan Watts bursts through "principle and Law" and explains how genuine love and freedom can manifest - this in ways that I find deeply Christian.

This is what his daughter Joan said of the letter:-

I was moved by Alan’s descriptions of principles being derived from a deeper reality connected with elemental forces, the beauty of freedom, and irregularities that are grounded in order.

The letter is far too long to quote in full here, but I just had to mention it. But just a short quote:-

Sunyata is absolute freedom, and hence absolute life, all-inclusive, and hence all-loving. But what does it do? It fulfills its freedom by limiting it; it is free to be bound. Instead of remaining quiescent on the one hand, or bursting into crazy chaos on the other, it constricts itself in limited law and form. Zen sometimes speaks of sunyata as standing in the midst of a void with freedom to move in all directions. But this freedom of sunyata is not realized unless a movement is made in certain particular directions, not all directions at once, which would be chaos.

For me, this brings ever greater clarity. But, whatever, enough for now.

"Love has no why" Meister Eckhart.
Picking up on "Love has no why" as I reread "Beyond Theology", Alan Watts asks the question "Is it Serious", this in relation to "ultimate things." Is it serious? Are we living in a Cosmos where right and wrong are ultimate, where - as a conclusion and consequence - the "lost" and the "saved" are so perpetually, eternally. Or is there some point where the "play" is exposed for what it is? The opposites transcended/reconciled?

Alan Watts speaks of the Wisdom of God:-

Whatever may be the rule in practice, is Christianity theoretically and dogmatically opposed to the idea that the creative activity of God is playful? Fortunately we can call at once to our aid the massive authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, writing about the Wisdom of God:-
The contemplation of wisdom is rightly compared with games for two things to be found in games. The first is that games give pleasure and the contemplation of wisdom gives the very greatest pleasure, according to what Wisdom says of itself in Ecclesiasticus, “My spirit is sweet above honey.” The second is that the movements in games are not contrived to serve another end, but are pursued for their own sake. It is the same with the delights of wisdom.… Hence divine Wisdom compares its delight to games, “I was with him forming all things and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times: playing in the world.”
The personified Wisdom of God who speaks in the books of Ecclesiasticus and Proverbs (whence St. Thomas’s second quotation) is understood by the Church to be God the Son, the divine Logos “by whom all things were made.”

I find that the mind/heart can indeed rebel against any idea of ultimate "play", especially when seeing
some of the suffering of our world, yet I am with Alan Watts. In some sense we have to "see through" the seriousness, into another realm (that paradoxically is this one)