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Enlightenment

The lazy mysticism of Alan Watts

Alan Watts, cartoon guru

The only thinker whose popularity on YouTube comes close to prophet-of-rage Jordan Peterson is Alan Watts, the British popularizer of Eastern wisdom. Watts’ talks from the 50s, 60s and early 70s have millions of views on YouTube, and are often edited to the accompaniment of orchestral or ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and jazzy collages of modern life. He’s the favourite guru of Jarvis Cocker, Spike Jonze and Jonny Depp, and – pinnacle of pinnacles – even made the intro to Cheryl Cole’s last album. He’s become a guiding voice for the internet age – indeed, in Jonze’s film Her, Watts has been resurrected as a hyper-intelligent operating system.

It’s poignant that a restless nomad who never found a home in traditional institutions should find digital immortality on the Net. Watts was the only child of a suburban English couple. He won a scholarship to the oldest boarding school in the country – Kings Canterbury – and there announced his conversion to Buddhism aged 13. At 16, Watts became secretary of the Buddhist Lodge, then the leading (or only) Buddhist organization in the UK. At 20 he published his first book on Zen. He struck adults, back then, as an angelic prodigy, like the child Jesus lecturing in the temple.

He then moved to the US in the 1930s, and surprised everyone by becoming an Episcopalian priest (his daughter suggests he may have done this to avoid the draft). Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’ (Huxley, Heard and Isherwood), he was really a perennialist, a prophet of contemporary pick n’ mix spirituality. He wrote in his autobiography: ‘If I am asked to define my personal tastes in religion I must say that they lie between Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, with a certain leaning toward Vedanta and Catholicism, or rather the Orthodox Church of Eastern Europe.’

He foresaw, in the 1930s, that Western Christianity could do with a contemplative and mystical revival,  but split from the church when facing ejection for his unconventional views and lifestyle – he lived in a threesome, preached free love, and was finally divorced by his wife for being a ‘sexual pervert’ (boarding school had apparently given him a taste for flogging).

He moved to California, and helped to set up the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco, which introduced Zen to the 50s beats and the 60s hippies. It was a new type of higher education institution –participatory, open to the mystical, seeking consciousness-transformation rather than abstract knowledge. In this, it was a forerunner of alternative colleges like Schumacher, the Garrison Institute and Esalen. Watts later wrote: ‘The Academy of Asian Studies was a transitional institution emerging from the failure of universities and churches to satisfy important spiritual needs.’ How wonderful to think of university in terms of ‘spiritual needs’.

But eventually he left there too, and became a freelance ‘philosopher-entertainer’, living in the Bay area, writing books and giving talks to rapt college audiences. He could talk for hours, without notes, weaving in arcane references with hip terms like ‘grooving on the Eternal Now’, all delivered with a slightly-plummy musicality and skilful use of the dramatic pause. I personally find his lectures a bit pompous and repetitive – as I do the YouTube sermons of Jordan Peterson – but the kids love it. Like Peterson, he speaks with such authority and drama that one can switch off the critical mind and let it all wash over you, and still feel a hell of a lot wiser by the end. It’s not analysis so much as rhapsody. That’s why his talks goes so well with ‘chillstep’ soundtracks and collages of images. Light a joint and drop the Watts!

 

 

But what does Watts actually have to say? What is the What, Watts?

Like the other ‘mystical expatriates’, Watts was a prophet of the perennial philosophy, and the idea we can – and even should – seek our spiritual fulfilment outside of traditional religious commitments and communities. He said of himself: ‘since the age of forty-two I have been a freelance, a rolling stone, and a shaman, as distinct from an apostolically-successed priest’. He preached the ‘wisdom of insecurity’ – not clinging to any particular religion. Like the other expats, he was a nomad-prophet for our uprooted age.  Like them, he preached the wisdom of the body, the spirituality of sex, the validity of psychedelics as a spiritual technique, the superiority of Asian wisdom to Christianity, and the possibility of escaping history by focusing on ‘the Eternal Now’.

But his main message, which he repeated over and over throughout his career, was that there is no separate self, that there is just IT, the Tao, the Brahman, and you are inescapably part of it, so relax and let go, rather than trying to pull yourself up by your spiritual boot-straps. Over-strenuous spiritual practice will actually just reinforce your ego. You are already perfect, already enlightened, you don’t need to do or change anything. There is no ‘you’, just IT.

He expressed this radical Zen view when he met Huxley, Heard and Isherwood in the company of their guru, Swami Prabhavananda:

‘But this is ridiculous,’ the Swami objected. ‘That amounts to saying that an ordinary ignorant and deluded person is just as good, or just as realized, as an advanced yogi.’ ‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘And what advanced yogi would deny it? Doesn’t he see the Brahman everywhere, and in all people, all beings?’ ‘You are saying,’ said the Swami, ‘that you yourself, or just any other person, can realize that you are the Brahman just as you are, without any spiritual effort or discipline at all!’ ‘Just so. After all, one’s very not realizing is, in its turn, also the Brahman. According to your own doctrine, what else is there, what else is real other than the Brahman?’

The Swami retorted that if Watts was really enlightened, he would feel no suffering, not even a pinch. Watts, resisting the urge to pinch the Swami, fell silent. But this remained his central idea, and it had a big influence on the ‘beat Zen’ of Jack Kerouac and others, and then on the antinomian flower children of the 1960s. Go with it, follow the law of your nature, be true to who you are, you’re beautiful.

What is the value of this idea?

It’s true that Buddhism, and particularly Zen Buddhism, teaches that we are perfect just as we are, we have merely forgotten our true nature. We find this joyful teaching in many mystical traditions – in Plato, in Thomas Traherne, in Rumi. One often finds it expressed through the metaphor of a prince or heir who forgets their natural inheritance and goes begging for pennies outside his palace, as in the Zen song of Hakuin:

From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice, without water no ice, outside us no Buddhas.
How near the truth, yet how far we seek.
Like one in water crying, “I thirst!”
Like the son of a rich man wand’ring poor on this earth we endlessly circle the six worlds…

Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes.
This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land!
And this very body, the body of Buddha.

The intuition that we have an indestructible and priceless jewel of loving wisdom within us, which is also the nature of the universe, can be incredibly inspiring and healing, particularly if we’re prone to anxious low self-esteem. It is precisely what I felt during and after my near-death experience – I woke up from a nightmare of my ego’s brokenness and rottenness, and realized how blessed we all naturally are. I felt an incredible lightness and pleasure at existence. I would repeat to myself a mantra: ‘nothing to change, nothing to improve, no-one to impress, nothing to win, nothing to lose, nowhere to go’, and so on. Just resting in the garden within.

However, it is difficult to stay in that realization, without practice. In my own case, the spiritual high lasted a few weeks, then the old neurotic habits came back with a vengeance. I realized I needed to practice, systematically, to weed out the old habits and let my heart open. That’s why I got into CBT, ancient Greek philosophy, and Buddhism.

Tenzin Palmo, a British Buddhist nun

Last night I saw the Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo speak. A remarkable lady, who moved from Bethnal Green to spend 12 years meditating in a Himalayan cave. She said:  ‘The good news is your true nature is sane. And it’s quite easy to get a glimpse of that true nature. But that doesn’t mean you’re enlightened. You still need to practice, otherwise it’s like taking a cake out of the oven after it’s started to rise – it will just collapse, and taste disgusting.’

The risk of Watts’ philosophy is it leads to a lazy and complacent egotism: ‘I am what I am, I’m part of the Brahman, we’re all perfect, so why bother trying to change?’ He wrote: ‘every willful effort to improve the world or oneself is futile’:

self-improvement is a dangerous form of vanity. By the age of thirty-five one’s character is firmly formed, and has to be regarded as an instrument to be used rather than changed…To avoid being a serious disappointment to others you must accept and respect your own limitations…As a Zen master has said, ‘Act as you will. Go on as you feel. This is the incomparable way’…I am aware of the futility of myself trying not to be selfish, of the contradiction of myself even desiring or asking not to be selfish…

The problem is, you can be a perfect Buddha on the ultimate level, and still suffer a lot and cause a lot of suffering to others on the relative plain, where most of us are most of the time. And this is what happened to Watts. His friend, the Zen poet Gary Snyder, remarked: ‘He was one who sowed trouble wherever he went.’

He failed as a husband, marrying three times, and driving his third wife to the bottle with his philandering – he would pick up a different college girl after most talks (‘I don’t like to sleep alone’). He failed as a father to his seven children: ‘By all the standards of this society I have been a terrible father’, although some of his children still remember him fondly as a kind man, a weaver of magic, who initiated each of his children into LSD on their 18th birthday. He was vain and boastful, ‘immoderately infatuated with the sound of my own voice’ – although, like Ram Dass, he wasn’t a hypocrite, and did try to constantly warn his young audience he wasn’t a saint – not that they listened.

By the end of his life he was having to do several talks a week to make enough money to pay his alimony and child support. And he was drinking a bottle of vodka a day to be able to do that. He died, exhausted, at 58. Snyder remembers:

he had to keep working, and as you keep working, you know, you got to play these roles, and you also keep drinking ’cause there’s always these parties and so forth, so that doesn’t help you slow it down. So he just wore himself out. It was out of his control, that was my feeling. The dynamics of his life had gotten beyond his control, and he didn’t know what to do about it.

One of his lovers, the therapist June Singer, visited him in hospital when he was admitted with delirium tremens. Why didn’t he stop drinking, she asked. ‘That’s how I am,’ he said to her sadly. ‘I can’t change.’

Ultimately, it is not fair to say that Watts was lazy – he seems to have worked incredibly hard. But he worked incredibly hard at his career, at his public profile, at the endless talks he gave on campuses, on radio and on TV. And he worked very little on himself – psychotherapy bored him, while he felt too much meditation ‘is apt to turn one into a stone Buddha’.

Still, you could hardly call his life a tragedy. It sounds incredibly interesting, and often incredibly fun. And the consequence of his egoistical drive to self-promote was the flowering of Asian wisdom in western culture, albeit in a rather bastardized form. That more than balances out his personal failings, and no doubt he will be all the wiser in his next incarnation. Near the end of his life, he told his daughter Joan: ‘After I’m dead, I’m coming back as your child. Next time round I’m going to be a beautiful red-haired woman.’ Sure enough, after he died, his daughter gave birth to a red-headed girl, called Laura. We await your teachings Laura. No pressure.

Searching for the Guru

Neem Karoli Baba reading Ram Dass’ Be Here Now

I’ve come back from India after an interesting three weeks. I went there with the vague intention to find a guru and take my spiritual practice to the next level. I say ‘vague’ because I wasn’t quite sure how one went about finding a guru.

I was inspired by the story of Ram Dass, or Richard Alpert as he was known when he was a psychology professor at Harvard. After he was thrown out of Harvard for giving psychedelic drugs to his students, Alpert went to India in 1967. He’d been taking vast amounts of LSD and psilocybin, and would reach these states of bliss and ego-transcendence. But he always came down. How to stay up there?

While travelling in India, he met an Indian holy man,  Neem Karoli Baba, and eventually became his disciple, taking the name Ram Dass.  Of all the Eastern gurus one could have followed in the 60s and 70s, Neem Karoli Baba seems to have been a pretty good one.

His followers took him to be an enlightened being, even the avatar of Hanuman, possessed of incredible spiritual powers like clairvoyance and translocation, and with an unrivalled capacity for unconditional love. But that’s what most devotees think of their gurus. Unlike most gurus, Neem Karoli Baba didn’t turn out to be utterly corrupted by money, power or sex – at least, not as far as I can tell, although there are some stories of him fondling his female followers.

Ram Dass came back to the US, and wrote a book called Be Here Now, which came out in 1971. It was a massive success, and was a sort of DIY book of Western and Eastern spiritual techniques for the hippy movement. It did a lot to introduce the idea of the guru to Western spirituality.

He wrote:

At certain stages in the spiritual journey, there is a quickening of the spirit which is brought about through the grace of the guru. When you are at one of the stages where you need this catalyst, it will be forthcoming… If you go looking for a guru and are not ready to find one, you will not find what you are looking for….All you can do is purify yourself in body and mind. Everyone already has a guru. However you may or may not meet your guru on the physical plane in this lifetime. 

The stories of Ram Dass and other westerners interacting with Neem Karoli Baba were so far out, so full of wonder and magic and love, that naturally everyone who read Be Here Now thought, I gotta get me a guru!

So the idea was introduced into Western culture of teachers who were in fact enlightened beings, omniscient and infallible, whom one should treat as God. As another great Indian sage of the early 20th century, Ramana Maharshi, taught: ‘God, the guru and the Self are the same’.

The same idea was introduced into western culture in the 50s, 60s and 70s by Buddhist teachers like Chogram Trungpa Rinpoche (pictured on the left). One should utterly surrender to the guru, even if they behave weirdly or abusively –  that’s just what Chogram Rinpoche called ‘crazy wisdom‘. Their erratic behaviour will break down your ego-defences and lead you to the divine spark within you – just as Tilopa brought Naropa to enlightenment by hitting him in the face with his sandal. 

The idea of the divine guru was something new in Western spirituality. Yes, Catholicism has the idea of Papal infallibility, and Roman emperors had been worshipped as gods, but in both cases this was more about political authority over countries than mystical authority over individuals. There were always charismatic Christian preachers who inspired great devotion among their followers – some good, some bad. But they never claimed to be mouthpieces of the divine (rarely, anyway, although this occurs more often in Pentecostalism, where it often lead to spiritual abuse).

In general, Christians believe that only Christ is divine, and to suggest you or your teacher is also perfect is idolatrous. And it’s setting yourself up for a fall – all humans in this realm are imperfect and flawed, even Christ’s closest followers are shown to be imperfect creatures, again and again. Jesus is the only Guru – you surrender to Christ. 

I wonder, has the idea of the guru done more harm than good in western spirituality over the last 50 years? Of the various people who have either proclaimed themselves as gurus, or who have been followed as gurus – including Ram Dass – how many of them turned out to be genuinely enlightened, and how many turned out to be bad ‘uns? I’d say about 95% turned out to be corrupt in some way – you can read the long sad litany in this book ‘Stripping the Gurus’. [Edit – I think I’ve probably way over-estimated this figure. And for a critique of that book, see Don’s comment below]. 

If you surrender to a guru and they turn out to be corrupt and abusive, that must be utterly crushing. And what bad karma for the teachers! ‘Their actions are like pouring the liquid fires of hell directly into their stomachs’, wrote the Dalai Lama. 

So many Eastern celebrity teachers turned out to be frauds, sex abusers, alcoholics, violent, or greedy. And the Eastern idea of the guru also inspired many western charlatans to declare themselves divine avatars in the last few decades, almost always with disastrous consequences.

Being highly articulate and insightful does not mean you’re enlightened. Being incredibly charismatic and able to provoke ecstasy in your devotees does not mean you’re enlightened. Being able to perform wonders does not mean you’re enlightened. But the craze for guru-worship has led people to take all these things as surefire signs.

It’s even got Ram Dass in trouble. Although he’s always been pretty honest about his failings, it’s failed to put off devotees who still sometimes worship him as God.  And he himself was bamboozled by a New Jersey housewife who claimed to be an enlightened being, and who successfully demanded sex, money, and complete surrender from Ram Dass and her other followers.

Anyway, I wanted to find a guru, or at least, a teacher who could help me progress. I went to a Zen retreat in the south, where I thought I’d start off my journey. It has a nice old teacher who is admirably un-guru-like – his favourite phrase is ‘I don’t know!’ But I had to move on after a few days, because all the places at the retreat had been taken by Germans. Typical.

So I flew to Varanasi, one of the most sacred sites in India. I watched the candles float out onto the foggy Ganges at dusk. I observed the bodies being burnt on the ghats – being cremated in Varanasi supposedly grants you instant liberation. I saw people dipping themselves into the incredibly polluted river in the belief it will wash away their sins.

It’s an impressive place, but I didn’t find my guru (I didn’t look very hard to be honest). Instead, I took a bus to Sarnath, about half an hour outside Varanasi.

This was where the Buddha first taught the dharma. He became enlightened at Bodhgaya, then walked around for a bit, before turning up 250km away in Sarnath, where he met some of his old ascetic chums. He taught them the essence of Buddhism in about 30 minutes: all life is suffering, suffering is caused by attachment, we can overcome attachment, by following the eight-fold path: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Simple! 

The deer-park at Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught the dharma

And it’s interesting, the Buddha didn’t mention anything about the importance of gurus. On the contrary, he seemed to insist that we have to take responsibility for our enlightenment. We can’t expect the the guru, or the Ganges, or God, to do the work for us.

It’s quite a stark message.

The Dalai Lama has written, clearly in response to the teachings of Chogram Rinpoche and other Buddhist rock-stars:

It is frequently said that the essence of the training in guru yoga is to cultivate the art of seeing everything the guru does as perfect. Personally I myself do not like this to be taken too far. Often we see written in the scriptures, “Every action of the guru is seen as perfect.” However, this phrase must be seen in the light of Buddha Shakyamuni’s own words: “Accept my teachings only after examining them as an analyst buys gold. Accept nothing out of mere faith in me.”..The problem with the practice of seeing everything the guru does as perfect is that it very easily turns to poison for both the guru and the disciple…It is an extremely dangerous teaching, especially for beginners.The disciple must always keep reason and knowledge of Dharma as principal guidelines.

Today, as old certainties and institutions break down, we’re once again seeing a rise in charismatic authority. There are so many confusing complex issues to work out, people want to find someone who can do all their thinking for them. YouTube has made this basic human tendency even easier – we can just watch talk after talk by Ram Dass, or Jordan Peterson, or Russell Brand, or Christopher Hitchens, or Zakir Naik, or whoever. Just hand over our minds to the Perfect One.

Well, I didn’t find my guru, and I started to miss my friends and family, so I came back to the UK early. Evidently, I have not purified myself sufficiently. But I still hope to find teachers who can help me go forward. They don’t have to be perfect omniscient beings, just more advanced than me.