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Gurus

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.

The construction of ‘Spiritual India’

I went to India for the first time last year.  I’d always been drawn to ancient Indian philosophy, but had put off visiting the country until I had some time to dive in. It was, I guess you could say, ‘spiritual tourism’: travel for the purpose of spiritual growth. There have been spiritual tourists at least since the Crusades, but spiritual tourism really took off in the 1960s, when hordes of Westerners headed to the sub-continent looking for meaning, wisdom and drugs. In the last few years, the Indian government and tourism companies have sought to capitalize on this, with lurid adverts like this (aimed, it should be said, as much at Indians as Westerners):

The spiritual air in the country humbly carries the fragrance of Karma, Dharma and most importantly Forgiveness. Trudge through the mighty mountains and you shall experience divine presence, or traverse through the meandering alleys, where spirituality combined with history waits to greet your spiritually thirsty souls. 

You shall experience divine presence…or your money back!

Western spiritual tourists travel to many different parts of the world, but India in particular attracts them. When and why did some Westerners construct this idea of India as a unique well of spiritual wisdom? And is that bollocks?

The construction of ‘spiritual India’ began, I’d suggest, in the 19th century, when a handful of Romantic intellectuals like Schopenhauer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Madame Blavatsky started to read the Upanishads, the Dhammapada and the Bhagavad Gita, and were struck by their spiritual depth. The ideas of samsara, reincarnation, Karma, and a Supreme Being behind all religions fitted well with Platonism, and gave succour to those intellectuals who felt alienated from traditional Christianity.

Around the same time, educated Indians started to pride themselves as belonging to a uniquely spiritual culture.  Amartya Sen writes: ‘Colonial undermining of self-confidence had the effect of driving many Indians to look for sources of dignity and pride in some special achievements in which there was less powerful opposition – and also less competition – from the imperial West, including India’s alleged excellence in spirituality and the outstanding importance of her specific religious practices.’

Indians started to produce spiritual gurus who received great recognition in the West, like Vivekananda, a travelling preacher who was a smash hit at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1892. His success there was a huge deal for Indians – their culture had finally stepped out on the world stage and been recognized for its spiritual greatness. 

In another speech, he declared:  ‘From the West we have to learn the sciences of physical nature, while on the other hand the West has to come to us to learn and assimilate religion and spiritual knowledge…All the nations of the world have to sit down patiently at the feet of India to learn the eternal truths embodied in her literature’.

How refreshing this must have sounded to Indians under the heel of the racist British Empire. Sit patiently at our feet! ‘Spiritual India’ was a way of asserting national pride in the face of colonial subjection. But it was also a way of winning Western attention and approval – look how the West loves Vivekananda, see how he is surrounded by swooning rich white women! 

Vivekananda with some Western disciples.

The idea of ‘spiritual India’, hitherto confined to the Western intelligentsia, then went mainstream in the 1960s, thanks to figures like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, and above all the Beatles. As one commentator put it, ‘if meditation is good enough for John Lennon, it’s good enough for me’.

Spiritual but not religious often means being a sort of half-baked Indian

‘Spiritual but not religious’ became a fast-growing demographic among baby-boomers, and what that often meant was leaving Christianity and becoming a sort of Indian manqué, practicing yoga, trying meditation, learning a mantra, visiting an ashram, and if you were lucky finding your guru. The 1970s was the boom-time for Hindu and Buddhist gurus coming to the West and attracting thousands of followers. More often than not, the guru – this supposedly-divine being – turned out to have feet of clay.

The commodification and export of ‘spiritual India’ could be said to be bad for everyone. For Indians, it created this incentive to play the guru, a childlike idiot spouting banalities to get the attention, sex and money of gormless Westerners.

As a teenager, Krishnamurti was seized on by a cabal of spiritually-excited Westerners who decided he was the Messiah of their new world religion, Theosophy. To his credit, he refused to play the role once he’d grown up. He disbanded the Theosophists, and spent much of his life warning people not to seek for gurus. ‘The follower is the destroyer, the follower is the exploiter’, he once said. In other words, you can blame Eastern gurus for abusing their followers, but you can just as easily blame gullible Western followers for abdicating their responsibility and making a god of their teacher. That’s abuse too. 

The export of ‘spiritual India’ also creates this warped idea of a country so spiritually rich that the government doesn’t need to clean the streets, help the poor, protect women from assault or de-pollute the Ganges. It can lead to complacency and stagnation. It denigrates those aspects of Indian culture that don’t fit ‘spiritual India’ – modern India, liberal India, scientific India, capitalist India. And Vivekananda’s idea of ‘spiritual India’ has unfortunately evolved into Hindu nationalism, with xenophobic yogis in positions of political power. If Hinduism is what makes India great, where does that leave the 20% who aren’t Hindu? What of the Buddhist and Muslim contributions to Indian culture? 

For Westerners, genuflecting before ‘spiritual India’ might alienate us from our own power and  our own spiritual traditions. It can turn the spiritual life into a consumer tourist trip, searching for Instagrammable ‘experiences’ rather than embedding your practice in your local community. And it can make mugs of us – we’ll always be second-rate Indians, mumbling Sanskrit phrases we don’t understand. It’s like colonial Indians pretending to be upper-class Brits. It’s not just cricket, my good fellow. 

So yes, ‘spiritual India’ is somewhat bollocks. For a really pessimistic take, read Gita Mehta’s Karma Cola, a scathing exploration of spiritual tourism, which concludes: ‘the experience of the East is simply not accessible to the Western mind, except after an almost total reeducation’.

And yet…

…there really is something incredible about India, and going there really can be a spiritually-enriching experience for Westerners.

Indian culture really has produced some spiritual classics, like the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada. It also gave the world sophisticated forms of meditation. The ancient Greeks arrived at some of the same insights about the mind, the emotions and the ceaseless change of all things – compare Stoicism to Buddhism, for example, or Platonism to Hinduism. But the Greeks never developed nearly as sophisticated a body of practical methods for transforming the mind. 

What struck me most on my travels was how normal spirituality is in India. In Britain, spirituality is so erased from the cultural landscape, I find it suffocating. The churches have been converted to luxury apartments, the bells have been silenced, the TV and radio never discuss spiritual matters like God or the afterlife. We’re embarrassed to discuss such topics, and if we do, we apologize with statements like ‘but I’m just a bit crazy’. No you’re not – it’s our totally materialist culture that’s weird! 

In India, religion and spirituality are everywhere. Even for modernized middle-class Indians, it’s quite normal to spend time in an ashram, say, or to follow a guru. The media isn’t embarrassed to discuss spirituality – in fact, some newspapers have supplements devoted to it. Granted, they’re often rather boring and vapid, but I’d rather that than the complete exclusion of spirituality that we have in the British media. It was such a relief to be in a culture where the spiritual isn’t taboo, after feeling like an alien in my own culture.

It’s much more normal to discuss ecstatic experiences and altered states of consciousness in Indian culture than in the UK. At the Jaipur Literature Festival, for example, one of the main speakers was Sadhguru, a yogic teacher who spoke about his ecstatic experiences as a young man. Compare that to the Hay book festival last year, where even though the theme was ‘Reformations’ there was an almost-total lack of any talks on religion or spirituality. Pretty much the only talk on such matters was by me, God help us.

Things you won’t see in the UK: a guru at a book festival

What I like about Indian spirituality – what has often drawn Westerners fleeing the tribal exclusivism of Christianity – is its generous pluralism. As Vivekananda declared at the World Parliament of Religions: ‘We believe not only in universal toleration but we accept all religions as true.’  It’s not either Hinduism or Christianity or atheism or agnosticism but all of them! The Vedas and the Ramayana include agnostic and atheist voices, including the perennialist line ‘God is one but the learned call him by many names’, and the wonderfully agnostic declaration:  ‘How did this creation arise – perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not – only the One who looks down on it from the highest heaven knows – or perhaps He does not know.’  Now there’s a hymn after my own sceptical heart.

It felt such a relief to be in this tolerant, accepting, ‘who knows’ culture after the rationalist ‘there must be one right answer’ culture of the West. I met a rickshaw driver, Ram, who goes to the temple of Ganesh on Tuesday, the temple of Hanuman on Wednesday, and the church on Sunday. He’s also a communist. I stayed at a Zen retreat in Tamil Nadu, set up by an old Indian man who was raised by Jesuits, became a Jesuit priest, travelled to Japan and converted to Zen, and now runs a ‘Zen-Christian’ centre. What happens after death, he was asked. He shrugged. ‘Who knows?’

For some spiritual tourists, absorbing this relaxed Indian spirituality – more focused on practice and states of mind than exclusivist dogma – opens a door for them to come back to their inherited faith. For me, I started to appreciate that Christianity can be a wonderful bhakti yoga, a devotion to the Lord, a heart-opening. It didn’t convince me that Jesus is the Only Son of God, but it did persuade me to join a gospel choir, as a way to open my heart in worship.

Today, we are slightly less wowed by ‘spiritual India’, slightly less likely to surrender to the latest guru arriving at Terminal 5. But the Indification of western culture is not a fad, it’s a long-term shift in the oceanic currents. Around 8% of Americans now meditate, and 10% practice yoga. Over 20% of British people believe in reincarnation, including a quarter of Christians. And roughly two thirds of Americans now believe that ‘many religions can lead to eternal life’, prompting Newsweek to declare ‘we are all Hindus now’.

It’s wrong to see this as an invasion of one culture by another, or as the loss of our cultural identity. Human cultures are constantly melding, blending, clashing and cross-fertilizing, nowhere more so than in religion. Nothing exists in separation, there is no pure, separate and eternal essence called ‘Western civilization’ or ‘the Eastern mind’. Plato has far more in common with the Buddha than Jesus.

Our cultures exist in relation to one another, steal from one another, remix each others’ ideas. ‘Spiritual India’ was created out of the encounter with the British Empire, and was somewhat influenced by Victorian chauvinism and muscular reformist zeal. When Indian spirituality travelled West and was absorbed into our bloodstream, it mutated again, and became something new. Nothing stays the same, everything changes and flows. 

We’re in a period of dizzying cultural change, prompted by mass travel, mass immigration and the development of a globalized culture. That’s led people around the world to cling to a rather fundamentalist and reductive version of ‘their’ culture and insist that its the best, and all other cultures are alien invasions and existential threats. I see this as much among some Westerners as among Indians or Pakistanis – I hear people like Douglas Murray say the West has an identity crisis and needs to return to Christianity. But what I see, instead of clear lines of demarcation and conflict, is a long history of stealing, imitating, and remixing. And that’s OK.