Alan Watts discusses and reads from his book "In My Own Way"
BROADCAST: 1970 | DURATION: 00:56:16
In Alan Watts' autobiography, "In My Own Way," he explains that the song "Onward Christian Soldier" is militant, and of a militant religion, whereas Zen Buddhism is not militant at all. Watts also says that most of the troubles that go in the world are created by people that take life too seriously.
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Studs Terkel Alan Watts has written a book that Nancy Wilson Ross in "The New York Times Book Review" has called "a work about a phenomenon filled with enthusiasm," and I might add, the juiciness of life, and the phenomenon, of course, is the author himself, Alan Watts, who, perhaps more than anyone in this country, perhaps in the Western world, has helped popularize, but in the good sense, the nature of Zen, and Mr. Watts has written about, oh, 20 or so books, "A Way of Zen" his most popular, among others. His--the newest is about himself, his autobiography. It's called "In My Way".
Studs Terkel "In My Own Way", in own. You know, Alan, I was thinking, before I let you loose and you go off talking, as you will, in a very marvelous way, we hear you do onion chant. This is a recording some years ago that I have, you and your friends in a spontaneous happening. And the question I must ask as we hear this is, how did a good English boy come to do this? We're about to hear:
Alan Watts Be natural. The student tries everything to act in the master's presence without guile, with total sincerity, but he realizes the more he does it that in trying to be genuine he is split from himself. He's standing aside from himself looking at himself, criticizing himself, and then he begins to stand aside from the one that looks and criticizes and criticize that and so on and so on and so on. Eventually he reaches the point where he sees that he is absolutely incapable of doing anything natural. He is artifice in the sincerity through and through and through. But that is a great discovery, because in discovering that you are a fake, in discovering that the more you know about yourself, the more you are just a big act, you're something like an onion, you peel off skin after skin after skin until nothing left [unintelligible]. [Chanting]
Studs Terkel I was thinking the onion chant, and the voice of you, where it almost sounds Arabic, it could be Hebraic, Buddhist perhaps, I don't know, but here are you at the very beginning, this recording made some time ago, Alan Watts, from a middle-class English town, Chislehurst, some miles out of London, and you talk about trying to find who you are. Basically is what's about, a search, discover who you are.
Alan Watts Yes.
Alan Watts Yes. I love to chant. Everybody should sing. It's as good for you as exercise, running, sexual intercourse, vitamins, proper diet. Everybody should sing, but the trouble is we hear so much recorded music of real, talented singers that people say to you when you sing, "Why are you making that horrible noise? What makes you think you have a voice?"
Alan Watts All talented Englishmen have gone away from England. That was the real origins of the British Empire, that they were terrified of the climate, the cooking, and the 300 boring religions that the English practice. So all the talented Englishmen left England.
Alan Watts Yeah.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking about 300, you've gone through quite a few yourself. You became an Anglican priest here at Northwestern University some time ago, and it's the road you travel. We have to go back to the beginning, how you became the Zen apostle that you are, that seems removed from your own culture as this young English kid. Perhaps we could begin at the beginning. Your father writes a preface to it and he admires you very much. His way of life and you in your own way live different lives.
Alan Watts Yes. Well, my father was partly responsible for it and so was my mother. My mother taught at a school where missionaries abandoned their daughters while they went to convert the heathen in China and India and Africa. And when they returned as tank offerings for taking care of their children, they gave her glorious works of Chinese embroidery and pottery. And so as a small boy I was surrounded with these. And then my father used to read me stories from Rudyard Kipling, the "Jungle" books, the "Just So Stories", "Kim", and Kipling was a very strange fellow because although most people think of him as a jingoist, he was one of the major sources through which the high culture of Himalaya came back to the West, and people began to inquire into Buddhism and Hinduism and the things about which he wrote.
Studs Terkel It was this background, this is the beginning. There was an open door for you as far as your mother as far as reading is concerned, but you speak of a sort of an, even though the climate was out of what you would describe as fundamentalist Protestantism, you were aware of color, you speak of colors.
Alan Watts Because we, our family was Church of England, that is, Anglican, and it was not Baptist or Methodist, and our churches were very ancient and beautiful and they weren't sort of scrubbed tabernacles.
Studs Terkel But there's a marvelous observation you make in your book "In My Own Way" about the Anglican Church, so sure it's right. So sure it's absolutely right that now and then it allows eccentricity.
Alan Watts Oh, yes. When I was, I after all carried the Archbishop of Canterbury's train at his enthronement as a small boy of 13. It was Cosmo Gordon Lang, the one who dethroned Edward VIII. And I was in the very heart of the Church of England and brought up there and I declared myself to be a Buddhist at the age of 15, but all they reacted was, "Jolly what, the man's a sadist!"
Alan Watts Well, because I found the religion I was being taught was extremely oppressive. And I really didn't like the image of God the father that was being presented to me. It was authoritarian and bombastic, and the way the clergy, the kind of voices they used to read the scriptures and to say the prayers, I felt to be completely ridiculous. So I'd happened to discover the writings of Lafcadio Hearn about Japan, and I had always been interested because of the Oriental art around home and so I knew a lot about China and Japan. But when I discovered his writings and his descriptions of Buddhism, I was enthralled. I thought, "My goodness, here is some tremendously intelligent way of looking at things," instead of listening to people go on: "Dearly beloved, brethren, the scripture me with us in sundry places acknowledge and confess there are many faults, sin and wickednesses" you know, and all that stuff. So.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, you know, this is all of one piece, really, because at the beginning we heard just a fragment of your onion chant and your preface in which you were saying how difficult it is to find the real person. In your autobiography, and this book, "In My Own Way", that I'm delighted to see Pantheon, a very perceptive house is publishing, that Chislehurst is the town you remember and the people in it, that you remember with a great deal of fondness, and they wanted to be connected with nature. This is interesting. You found--I notice, I have, I made a note here, people and nature. You found them want to be connected what was happening and growing around, but the religion they were practicing sort of disconnected them.
Alan Watts Yes. I always felt that the religion they were practicing was disconnected with the natural universe in which we lived as if no one would attribute a composition by Bach to the Beatles or Shostakovich; different styles. And I felt that the style of whoever it was that was being worshipped in church was completely different from the style of whoever it was that had caused the birds, the bees, and flowers.
Studs Terkel Also you see, you speak of rituals, I suppose someone said ritual is the opposite of true religion. The rituals of ablutions, the rituals of going to the toilet, the rituals of prayers and hymns is quite a--and all the rituals of furniture, too, and their non-total use. Well, suppose you dwell on that, because this concerned your boyhood in this town.
Alan Watts Yes, I like ritual, but I--it's style and as Buffon I think it was, said, "Le style c'est l'homme." "The style is the man." And I don't do rituals or have anything to do with them because of the belief that they will work magic for me, but just for their elegance, like one would sing or dance. Ritual is a form of dancing. And Americans, I discovered when I first came to this country, seemed to have abandoned ritual. When I first came here I used to dress very correctly. I wore a black homburg hat, carried a neatly-rolled umbrella or a cane and gloves, and the immigration officer at Montreal where I came through to the United States, he said, "Whatta ya carry a cane for, ya sick?" I said, "No, I carry it for swank." And he said, "Eh!" He was really a very nice fellow, but I found as I came I thought that Americans were very natural, whereas the British were very affected. But then I discovered that American naturalism was an
Studs Terkel But the question is, I'm thinking about the early days you're talking about, how you were told you must do this or you must do that, something that R.D. Laing, whom we both admire, opposes so much. The "must do something" and therefore the chance of the person to be natural becomes unnatural.
Alan Watts Yes, because that is what we all put over on our children whether we be Europeans or Americans, is you are required to do that which will be acceptable only if you do it voluntarily. And that's a double bind. It's like saying you must love me. And so if I say to my wife, "Darling, do you really love me?" And she says, "Well, I'm trying my best to do so," it's obviously not the answer that I want.
Studs Terkel This thing of course, "Knots", is about, R.D. Laing, and all of the [unintelligible]. We come to you, but the double aspect. The name Alan itself, Alan Watts, and you go into, into the source thing, that's a double meaning, Alan, doesn't it?
Alan Watts Yes. Because it's always been my feeling for life that a human being is a coincidence of opposites. I am on the one hand extremely interested in religion and the mystical, because ever since I can remember I found the universe absolutely amazing. The fact that I existed at all seemed astonishing, but at the same time I feel that a person who is--has these interests should also be sensuous, and that religion has no business excluding the sensuous aspect of our lives. In being so uptight about sex, for example, and down on it. So I regard my own life as a kind of, I have a foot in both worlds. I have a foot in the sky as it were and a foot very much on the earth.
Alan Watts Yes.
Studs Terkel I think you mentioned the wondrousness, the astonishment that you look for, on page 184 of "In My Own Way", you speak of God. Perhaps you should read it. You know, this last paragraph. It's about the approach to God, how people approach God one way, others
Alan Watts Well, I say the word "God" is more of an exclamation than a proper name. It expresses astonishment, reverence, and even love for our reality. If you want to put a human face on it, that will do if you don't take it literally, since we know nothing higher or more mysterious than people, and an energy field which peoples can hardly be less intelligent than people. Certainly, events happen in the field. That is in the universe, which seem absolutely horrible. But faith is the gamble that there is some way of understanding or at least accepting them. And I do not see what other attitude a sane person can take.
Alan Watts Yes.
Studs Terkel And so we come to the question of approach toward God. He, she, it, you, I might be. Or in this--why toward Buddhism. One spot you speak of the religion in which you were raised, the Anglican. There's a God who's--he's there, powerful, at times vindictive. The Old Testament God to some extent, is at times vindictive, at times punitive, you know, and you're looking for something else, and so on with Christian soldiers is militant. You were mentioning that, whereas Buddhism is something non-militant.
Alan Watts Yes, well, that was the point of dissension, that I didn't go along with the militant religion. I thought it unnecessary. If God is God, to show all this armed might was a sign of weakness, because the trouble was that the biblical God as understood was patterned on the ancient kings of Egypt and Persia and Chaldea, and a king who rules by violence is necessarily afraid, and therefore puts on a lot of bombast and requires that people who come to court kneel down, because that's a difficult position from which to start a fight.
Alan Watts And so I felt that that was a show of weakness. And furthermore, that a God made in that image was even more idolatrous than a god fashioned in wood or stone or brass because the most dangerous idols are not made of material but are made of imagination or conceptual thinking. So Buddhism, although I'm not a missionary for Buddhism, this must be understood. I don't give myself today any religious label. Oh, this is funny. You know, when you get a form to fill out and it says name, address, age, sex, and some people write "yes" under sex. So in the same way if I had an entry to fill in religion, I just write "yes," because I'm tremendously interested in religion, but at the same time I don't think partisanship in religion is intellectually respectable. Now, you see, Buddhism is sometimes called atheism, but that's incorrect. It's not that Buddhists believe that there is no God. They don't believe in any particular conception of God. Any particular idea, because they feel that's like trying to grasp water in your fingers. Or to cap space in a net. You can't do it. Or another analogy would be it's like trying to bite your own teeth, because you are it. We have a philosophy which we've inherited from most of the Western tradition that we as people are not really related to the universe. We say, "I came into this world." Now, we did nothing of the kind. We came out of this world in just the same way as say a baby comes out of a womb or an apple comes out of a tree and the apple therefore shows something about the nature of the tree. So the human being likewise shows something about the nature of the universe. The universe is doing us.
Studs Terkel So, if we can follow the fact the traditional Western approach is "we came into this world," that is, as though one were not part of it. Whereas if I follow you correctly, Buddhism would say, "We came out of the world and are in it," the connection of nature and man being one. And that connection rather than disconnection.
Alan Watts Right. And this is particularly true of another Eastern philosophy which we call Taoism, Chinese, which is, underlies all sorts of things like judo, the gentle way, rolling with the punch, going with the stream. The realization that to sail a boat is more intelligent than to row it. Going with it, always.
Studs Terkel It's interesting. Your friend, Joseph Campbell, who is in your book, the great mythologist, man of myth, Joseph Campbell recently and he was mentioning you, too, he was talking about [unintelligible] Eden as Genesis, Western world has it, and Eden if it's called that in Buddhism, in the when the discovery of knowledge was made, Adam and Eve were driven out of it. Whereas in Buddhism, that part of it, they're taken into it.
Alan Watts Yes. He's written a great deal about this particular problem, and he points out that the division of the world into the positive and the negative and the male and the female in Genesis, it is the creature that is split and not God, whereas in the tradition of the Hindus, God splits and becomes all this.
Alan Watts Yeah. Sure. Might insist himself, "Man, get lost." What would you do if you were God? You know, if you knew everything. All possible futures, all possible pasts, and you were absolutely in control. You would find it very boring. It would be like making love to a plastic woman. And so you would say, "Get lost. Go into an adventure. Forget who you are."
Studs Terkel So coming back to the beginnings of the autobiography, "In My Own Way", you call it, and we'll ask you about the village you lived in, or the town, Chislehurst, and is a very, it's endearing, you find the people, you remember them endearing. "In My Own Way" has its, a special meaning, doesn't it? Title?
Alan Watts It has two meanings. It is, of course, to do something according to the way you like to do it. It's also to get in your own way, to obfuscate yourself, to obstruct yourself. And we all do that for the same reason that I was just now explaining, that if you were God you would get in your own way, in other words you would find being completely in control of everything, being completely competent, a total bore. And nothing adventurous would start, unless somehow or other you could get in your own way, or stumble. And so the Hebrews say that when God created Adam, he put into Adam the "yetzer hara," which is the wayward spirit. So you're getting the word "way," "wayward." And I call it the element of irreducible rascality. And I find it very hard to relate to people who are not aware of this in themselves. People I really like have a certain glint in their eye, which indicates that they're not entirely perfect.
Studs Terkel I guess being perfect would be being plastic, I suppose. Being perfect. Whereas having both, having the Mephistopheles as well as the Faust, or the other guy, whoever it might be, up wherever. I don't know why he's always up or down, perhaps, is part of man.
Alan Watts Yes.
Alan Watts This is really what I'm saying, yes, and I'm also saying that I realize that as a personality who is in, before the public eye, Alan Watts, I'm a bit of a fake. Maybe a genuine fake, but still, I know that behind the front that I present to the world there's a good deal of scotch tape and wire and string, and stuff that holds it together. And I say to the reader, and I say this to give you courage to go on with your show, because you know very well that you well owe wire and stuff holding the scene together, that you are not entirely what you look like on the outside.
Studs Terkel And even this very moment, this is very fun--because you speak of the show business, even use the very phrase itself, show business aspect of what you're doing, even you and I right now using these microphones, you and I right now are playing roles, aren't
Alan Watts Yes, of course we are. Very showbiz. And this, but all life is basically showbiz. The whole universe is as you look out at it at night, they're fireworks display. Where we send up fireworks on the Fourth of July and so on because we want to celebrate. And, so, in this way the entire universe is a celebration.
Studs Terkel It's funny, R.D. Laing, I remember since both of us admire him, in "The Politics of the Family" he is quoting Sartre, Sartre watches this waiter. And this is probably something, he watches this waiter, and the waiter has a certain way of walking, you know, and talking, and suddenly you realize this waiter is playing the role of a waiter.
Alan Watts Yes.
Alan Watts I tell the story of a boy I was friends with in school who was going to be a clergyman, and he was so set on being a clergyman that he smoked a brand of tobacco called Parson's Pleasure, and had already cultivated the mannerisms associated with clergy. And we all do this in various ways. I know I retain my English way of talking even though I live in the United States. It's somewhat a corrupted English accent, but I find that it's of enormous advantage to me to do so.
Studs Terkel Very funny you say this. Often you find someone from the South maintaining a Deep South, woman or a man, Deep South is, "Oh, that's charming," you know, they say whatever, they think, they think what they--and it's an act. Now by this time even the great Black work singer Leadbelly--Richard Dyer-Bennet's a marvelous friend of Leadbelly, says "Why do you retain?" By this time Leadbelly lived in New York long enough, who had been North, but he still kept a Deep South seemingly illiterate accent. Leadbelly had gone beyond it, but he in his own mind, not consciously but he maintained it, you see, 'cause it gave him that exotic quality in this other land, you see, and so a Southern belle in Chicago almost refuses to lose that Southern accent.
Alan Watts Sure.
Alan Watts I feel the same way about Oriental people and Europeans when they speak English with an accent. It has a tremendous charm, and I never correct them unless they make a mistake that is outrageously misleading. But they should always retain the accent and English spoken with an accent. After all, everybody speaks English.
Studs Terkel Yeah, but why should they always--there, here's a question. Why should someone retain an accent that will become unnatural for him to retain if by a certain time he has lost it? Not to lose the roots to get discon--the roots he came from, but isn't the maintaining of something deliberately?
Alan Watts That gets us down to what we mean by natural. And that's a very complicated philosophical question. I have given up trying to be natural because I really don't know what it would be. I live in America; to be natural here, what, should I speak like a Hopi? What? Or like Middle West? Or like I came from Boston? Or like Los Angeles? Say "Los Angeles." And so on, I don't know.
Alan Watts Exactly.
Alan Watts Well, of course I take the premise that everything is natural, although that really doesn't mean or say very much, because if you say anything about everything, then people wonder what you were saying. This is the deepest problem of philosophy, because to say the whole universe is the expression of God is perfectly meaningless from a logical point of view.
Studs Terkel So we're really talking about step by step, aren't we? We're talking about not to be a specialist, be, I like the word "generalist," it's been used an awful lot, to have an idea of, or try to have an idea of what it's all about, but we have to talk, then, about specific moments and issues, don't we?
Alan Watts Yes.
Alan Watts Yes. Because all words are like boxes where you say, "Are you male or female? Are you a Democrat or a Republican? Are you a tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, and to what class do you go? You see? All words classified. But we know, although we can't really say, that there's underneath all classes something which we call existence, and we only understand existence by contrast with not-existence so that we can see intuitively that both existence and not-existence are the positive and negative poles, are something we can't think about at all because it is us and we can't bite our own teeth and so we cannot conceive what we basically are. But some people have got onto it that there is that, and therefore they're not afraid of death, because they know that's just the negative pole in, now you see it, now you don't. Is you is or is you ain't? Well, you have to be ain't to be is. You wouldn't know that you were alive unless you'd once been dead.
Studs Terkel Let's take a slight pause for a moment. Alan Watts is my guest, and his newest work is a very joyous, very juicy autobiography because it's about himself and about the world as he sees it. Pantheon are the publishers, we'll return in a moment. Resuming the conversation with Alan Watts and the subject his autobiography, his latest book is 22nd or so, and it's "In My Own Way". You spoke of death. When John Brown was hanged, Thoreau offered a sermon to his parishioners at Concord, or it was that Sunday parishioners, he says, "This man is dead. We know he's dead because he was alive. He lived. Very few people die, because in order to die you first must live, and very most of us run down like a clock," he says, "And leave eulogists mopping up the spot we left off with deliquesce." So we're thinking about being alive as a requisite. Prerequisite to dying.
Alan Watts Well, now, imagine. Abandon all wishful thinking and ask, "What would it be like to go to sleep and never wake up?" Supposing when you are dead you are so dead that it's as if you had never existed at all. Not only you but everything else. Complete total blank. When you think about that for a while, and you realize that's the way it was before you were born. And what happened once can always happen again.
Studs Terkel Yeah, but don't you, see, here's the point. There was no consciousness before you were born. But isn't the very consciousness itself in being there? Isn't--doesn't--I hate to use that word looking for a meaning, but when one is alive as you and I at this moment apparently are, I say apparently are, how's that go again, that question about the man dreaming he was a butterfly or is he a butterfly dreaming--
Alan Watts Oh, that's the Chinese philosopher Juangzte who dreamt he was a butterfly, and when he woke up he couldn't make up his mind whether he was a man who had dreamt that he was a butterfly, or whether he was a butterfly dreaming that he was a man.
Alan Watts Yes.
Alan Watts Yes, of course it does. It's what we call reality. Beingness. And we know it by contrast with its opposite. All knowledge is a matter of contrast. And, so, as we could go back in our memories and trace them and trace them to our earliest childhood, it becomes a place where it fades out and we realize there was a time when we were not, but out of that not came something. You have to have nothing in order to have something, just as you have to have space for there to be stars, and the space is black and the stars are bright, and the stars come out of space just as sight comes out of your invisible head.
Studs Terkel Now, a question. You're describing what might be called the human condition, the eternal condition, the universal condition, but isn't there something and, perhaps something called the social condition, that while one is breathing and alive that came out of nothingness, there is somethingness, isn't there an excitement of some sort to try to whatever it is, deeper and deeper to life and improve it? I hate to use a word "improve," but to make more fulfilled what your life is by the very nature, since obviously we're connected to someone else to make the world itself more fulfilled in some small way?
Alan Watts Yes.
Alan Watts There are really two basic ways of doing it, it seems to me. One is to become as finite as possible. That is to say, to get involved in desperate situations as in falling in love. As in war. As in adventure. Where you get your kicks by losing control, by being in danger, and being in love is being in great danger, you see. That's one way. Now, the other way is waking up to discover that you're not in danger at all, that you substantially are the eternal source of the universe and that you will go through all sorts of transformations but there's nothing to worry about. And therefore in this way of understanding you're able to live life with a certain detachment, you're able more to play it as a game than to live it as something serious. You don't take yourself seriously. G.K. Chesterton made the remark that the angels fly because they take themselves lightly. And I always loved that remark.
Alan Watts You can. I would think that the greatest people in the world could be very involved, but be what we call, we used to call in England a "good sport," and that is that if you lose, you aren't depressed. You take it all as a game and you don't have to say to yourself all the time, "You must win."
Studs Terkel We're talking about winning now, I want to know, so we're talking about winning, you're putting on this on the basis, Alan, of winning and losing. And I'm trying to think of something else at the moment. And that is--
Alan Watts Let's say there are a lot of people who play the stock market. Now, you're going to get ulcers if you take that seriously. You want to be a good player on the stock market if you take it lightly.
Studs Terkel Yeah, but I want to come back to that theme because we left it hanging about while we're here, whatever span we spend on earth, you, I, millions of others, we hope, each of us does, I assume we hope that it's better, whatever that mean, a better world when we know or our lives are more fulfilled than they can be and, so, the question is, how can one play it as a game--
Studs Terkel And be detached without in any way becoming passionate about something? Becoming involved about something, whether we think it's injustice, or rightly or wrongly fighting for something, and that's not just winning or losing, we're talking about, I don't mean a mean, competitive spirit. I mean in the nature that we're connected, one way or another, to the other person.
Alan Watts Well, I'm inclined to feel that most of the troubles that go on in the world are created by people who take life seriously. And therefore they can't forgive, they must have what they desire, they regard it with excessive urgency, and if they didn't take it so seriously, they wouldn't make so much trouble. Thus we have the proverb: "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
Alan Watts Yes, much too seriously. I regard him as a violent man, and he created a new nation which we could have well done without, nations being divisive. If he had done something to bring the whole world together as one people and not create a separate nation, I would regard him more favorably.
Alan Watts Oh, I think that the British undoubtedly were guilty for exploiting India, and that--but they at the same time when they began to realize what they were doing, they did a great deal of good for India. Although they infected India with Puritanism. And when Lord Macauley, when he devised the educational system for India, did it with the deliberate intent of destroying Hindu culture. He really was terrible. He was a very, very bigoted fellow.
Studs Terkel I want to return to Mahatma Gandhi. I know there was as, I know that Erik Erikson writes of this and that he himself in his works and Romain Rolland that at the beginning he was a great deal of violence and sensuousness which he repressed, perhaps, but the nonviolent movement that he instituted, you think has been for evil rather than good? Gandhi's idea of nonviolence?
Studs Terkel So I'm thinking now about, but what about the non-violent movement itself? Then we have to come to that. You know, Gandhi and other guys, because you speak of Buddhism, the non-violent aspects early in your book, in your biography, as against the "Onward Christian Soldiers" and militant approach. So don't we come back to, didn't Buddha take life seriously?
Alan Watts He took it lightly. He certainly didn't take it seriously. He took it--I would make a distinction between being sincere and being serious. If a girl says to me, "I love you," I don't say to her, "Are you serious or are you just playing with me?" Because I hope she isn't serious and that she will play with me. I say to her, "Are you sincere or are you just toying with me?" So I feel that Buddha's attitude to life was very definitely the light touch, and getting people liberated from feeling that one absolutely must survive. When you feel that, you see, survival is a drag. You have to go on. Confucius put it beautifully. He said, "A man who understands the nature of life in the morning can die with content in the evening," because he is liberated from feeling that he absolutely must go on. And when you don't feel like that, you have more energy.
Alan Watts Yes.
Alan Watts Yes.
Studs Terkel But you go on. You're saying that in the Beckett people, and it seems the world is somewhat Beckett-esque at the moment, there's something missing, and what is missing is what? What is missing is that, is that what, that has to--
Alan Watts Well, to put it in the simplest possible terms which are not quite correct, but they'll do, what is missing is that we don't, we have a mistaken sense of identity. We don't realize that each one of us is really the whole eternal universe expressing itself in a particular way. In the Hindu scriptures, in the Upanishads, there's the saying, in Sanskrit [Sanskrit], which means roughly "You're it."
Studs Terkel But being more, somewhat more secular-minded than you are, Alan Watts is my guest and his autobiography is marvelous reading. You might find points in which you might diverge, you might take another path from, he says, "In my own way," his own way, needn't it be my own way because I'm a little bit more secular than you. So I raise the question of, how can one living a certain span--or I return to this theme again. Living in a world, real or unreal, fantasy or truth, find life more fulfilling in every way? We're creatures, there are creature comforts or discomforts. There is tremendous inequity in the world. Do you think it should go that this is the way it is and it must go on? We can return to Gandhi and India and British Colonialism,
Alan Watts No, no, no. You see, I'm in a way a social activist. I'm tremendously interested in the reform of prisons, in reform of the police. I get furious about certain kinds of injustice. But I feel that I can be effective in that kind of work only if I know that basically it doesn't matter. If I get involved in a cause where I feel that it absolutely has to succeed and that I would almost commit suicide if it didn't, then I feel I can't work effectively for it. I will show my hand as if I were playing poker and I were going to bluff this through. Now, if I'm nervous about losing my shirt, I can't put on a good bluff. But if I'm not nervous about losing my shirt, I can put on a perfect bluff and get away with the game. And that's why I feel that a certain spirit of the sense of eternity in yourself that doesn't mean everlastingness, it means beyond time, knowing that you are one with the Godhead, as Jesus knew it and as Ramakrishna and all those people knew it. Buddha. You, if you have that internal sense, then you can get immersed in helping people and doing things, but without the motivation which makes one always do the wrong thing for the right reasons. I mean, I often think of the foreign aid program of the United States as an example of "Kindly let me help you or you will drown, said the monkey, putting the fish safely up a tree," and all this war that we're waging in Vietnam is absurd. I mean, if we were in that war in order to possess the territory and carry off the women, it would have some sense to it because then we'd be sure that neither the territory nor the women were destroyed. But we are waging it for purely abstract reasons, which show how little we live up to our claim to being materialists.
Alan Watts Yes, because you can't have a fight about abstractions, because it means that one side is good and the other side is evil, and therefore there can never be a gentleman's agreement. So when we fight between ideologies, as between capitalism and communism, or between religion and paganism--
Studs Terkel But Alan, we can't get away from the thing that, you see, if one is not afraid of losing one's shirt, when someone does not have a shirt to lose, it becomes a wholly different game, we use a phrase, and so we come back to Asiatic countries, African countries of all, the internal indigenous horrors may be there, at the same time something is happening. A gentleman's agreement is rather difficult at times when the belly is empty, and therefore if changes are occurring, to stop those changes
Alan Watts It would cost us less to fill all their bellies than to fight the war. What we've spent on war, collectively, since 1914, would have, all that wealth and energy would have fed the whole world and everybody would have been comfortable.
Studs Terkel This by way of going around and about your autobiography. All this is in it in one way or another. And you speak of your own university, how the various people you met, influence on your life, very beginning you were influenced, you know, your mother and father. You speak of the various people you met, and hear some very funny stories about Aldous Huxley and others, and well, Huxley has the glint, doesn't he?
Alan Watts Yes, very much so. He was an extremely civilized man and he had a beautiful voice, he used to day it's most extraordinary. "To consider fashions in medicine, do you realize that fashions in medicine are just as much as in clothes. Why not so long ago, it was fashionable to have one's whole large intestine removed. The only trouble was, with the operation that was immensely expensive, that people had to go to the toilet like birds. And now this operation has been entirely abandoned, and nobody has heard of it anymore." I'm imitating his voice, this is the way
Studs Terkel And so when he talks where the--could be at lunch or anywhere, there's an immediate--now we come to something, don't we? There's immediate listening by nearby tables. Not knowing who he is, but there's somebody unique.
Alan Watts Somebody unique. All I remember in a restaurant in San Francisco where he was holding forth on new methods of advertising on television which were subliminal so that you didn't notice the advertising was going on, and he described the potentials of this political horrors and absolutely the whole restaurant fell silent listening to his conversation.
Studs Terkel So it doesn't--sometimes it's--we're not talking about precisely what he said but the very fact someone very alive was there. And I suppose people are seeking this, aren't they? The sense of life that you, Alan Watts, have, although I disagree with a number of things very much, we come back to a sense of life, don't we?
Alan Watts Yes,
Alan Watts Oh
Alan Watts Yes.
Alan Watts Well, she was thrilled with her discovery of Indian religion and with the idea that there are divine people living and moving among us. The Masters, as she called them. And this is, I mean, as a matter of course to Hindus that there are people who are awakened, who are Christs, even from birth. And this fascinated her very much, and she wanted close association with one of these. And she looked around and she found this obviously incredible boy, and made out that he was the new Messiah. But the funny thing about Krishna Ji, is he did just what a real Messiah would do, and that is he renounced the office, and therefore everybody said, "Well, sure, he must be it, because he behaved accordingly."
Studs Terkel You know, Alan, I think as you're laughing, there is this gnawing question. There are so many Christs in India. If I could just switch, switch gods around and about, a God-like people around and about, so many messiahs in India. How come situation is so rotten for the great many millions in India today?
Alan Watts Well, don't forget, this is an extremely ancient civilization which has been exploited by conquerors for 500 years. First, the Muslim invaders, then the British. Everybody exploited India. And, so, I don't think it's quite fair to say that the Indians are where they are because of their attitude to life.
Alan Watts Yes, I'll just say all preachers are morally violent. And the history of religion is the history of the failure of preaching. Preaching only turns people into hypocrites. That's why I gave up being an official minister.
Alan Watts I was an Anglican priest. I was chaplain at Northwestern between 1945 and 1950, and I got worried by the fact that I was preaching and telling people how they ought to be and what they ought to do and it was difficult in those days not to play that role as a clergyman. It's things are a little different now, but in those days a clergyman was always advertising himself willy-nilly as being "holier than thou." I knew I wasn't "holier than thou."
Alan Watts But I don't think preaching works. What we need to do is to woo, not to preach. To woo by showing a more attractive lifestyle and not threaten and be angry and tell people that they will go to hell or whatever kind of hell you are thinking about if they act in the wrong way, but show how much more enjoyable it would be to live a different style, a more loving style.
Alan Watts Yes, I mean, it is, although there may be exceptions to this, Buddhism never fought a holy war. Always used persuasion rather than violence, and Buddha himself said that you were not to accept his teaching unless you could be convinced on your own that it was reasonable. He claimed no authority whatsoever.
Studs Terkel I'm thinking, I know, Alan, that you have to go somewhere, and the hour is almost up and we've barely touched in the way the conversation consists of reflections on the new work of Alan Watts, his autobiography, that is a joyous kind of reading. Joyful. "In My Own Way", and there's a paragraph here that attracts me, that almost might be the credo, the baby's view of the world, the wondrousness, if you could read that from one of the latter chapters in the book, that baby's view of the world.
Alan Watts "Now from the standpoint of the wise baby, the confusions of the normal adult world cannot be straightened out without becoming even more confused. There is no solution except to regain the baby's vision and so realize that the confusions are not really serious, but only the games whereby adults pass the time and pretend to be important. Seen thus, the world becomes immeasurably rich in color and detail because we no longer ignore aspects of life which adults pass over and screen out in their haste after serious matters. As in music, the point of life is its pattern at every stage of its development, and in a world where there is neither self nor other, the only identity is just this, which is all, which is energy, which is God by no name."
Studs Terkel So we come back to the question of sense of wonder at a child's sense of wonder often is lost and destroyed. And you speak of sense of wonder again, not innocence or innocence plus the apple of being bitten, is it that, too?
Studs Terkel And this is what the book's about, and I suppose Alan Watts' life is about, too. Alan Watts the rainmaker. The book is "In My Own Way", his autobiography, and Pantheon the publishers, and once again, thank you very much.