THE BOOK (ON THE TABOO AGAINST KNOWING WHO YOU ARE)
by Alan W. Watts; 148 pps. Collier Books, 95 cents.
THE BOOK purports to be a reinterpretation of Vedanta, one of the ancient Scriptures of India. This is necessarily like re-writing The Bible, and it wouldn’t be possible not to come up with at least a few solid statements of deathless value.
However, being an interpretation rather than a presentation, and being full to the brim with independent speculations, THE BOOK often fails to serve any valid purpose. In its negative principles, it does stand up well. Alan Watts does tell us quite a bit about the taboo against knowing who you are. And when he stays close to his title in this way he has something to say. It is only when he goes on to try positive concepts that he becomes elusive.
He says, for instance, that there is, after all, no reason to awaken from illusion anyway. Knowledge and ignorance, life and death, pleasure and pain are all parts of a “game”—the Game of Black-and-White—which the One Being is playing with Himself. But this would leave no reason for THE BOOK to have been written, and so Mr. Watts tells us “that it is part of ‘things taking their course’ that I write.” After which, all criticism is apparently expected to die down with a bewildered “Oh.”
But this dodge is really insufficient to justify either THE BOOK or the philosophy behind it. It is, in fact, the sort of thing one might expect to hear from a slick Uptown Swami after a clever but self-defeating lecture on Oneness, rather than from a renowned thinker of a more serious order. The idea that God, or the Absolute, or whatever, is so limited that He must create agony and stupidity to keep Himself amused—while any one of us could probably do better—is really both naive and absurd. Again, Mr. Watts advises us to remember that this is only a way of putting it, not the real thing exactly. Exactly what the real thing is he doesn’t say.
After politely leaving aside this flaw, if we plunge along into THE BOOK, we’ll come to some very nice passages in which the writer has outlined the endless complications of materialistic existence. He tells us about college administrations and their troubles (an interesting critique in that THE BOOK is copyrighted 1966, and therefore in some ways prophesies the events of this year); he tells us how difficult it is to take a walk in these days of police-state-ism; how society has ganged up together to agree to accept falsehood as truth—and how in this way modern man has become. divided against both himself and his environment.
But once more, the positive side of all this just doesn’t stand scrutiny, for all the twistings and turnings of the author’s reasoning. The basic concept of identity to which Mr. Watts points is Oneness—everything is one, and cause and effect are simply manifestations of that same one, are themselves one, and thus there really is no cause and effect: things just take their course. This is a philosophy dear especially to the debauched, degraded and depraved of every generation—not only today, but as far back as Rome, Egypt, and before even that. By this philosophy, no sin or crime, no evil or shortcoming need be accounted for. It simply happens, takes place, and no one is to blame . All is One, so who could be blamed ?
Yet this is always a philosophy by which none can actually live. It’s a mental exercise, an excuse for atrocities at worst, a parlor conversation ploy at best—never a philosophy of life. No one steps before an onrushing train, careless of death, and simply shrugs, “It’s all One.” Even Mr. Watts must cross at the green if he wants to enjoy his royalties. No one wears a cotton boll in place of a cotton shirt, on the consideration that there is no cause and effect. Even the author has to make concessions here: “The point is not that we should forthwith abandon penicillin or DDT [i.e., in abandoning our attempt to conquer Nature]: it is that we should fight to check the enemy, not to eliminate him.”
In other words, don’t take your troubles or triumphs too seriously, but go on with them anyway. Don’t try to make a permanent solution. “We must learn to include ourselves in the round of cooperations and conflicts, of symbiosis and preying, which constitutes the balance of nature…” he writes; and yet, wouldn’t we be the only species who didn’t take it all seriously? And wouldn’t that be just as absurd as attempting totally to subdue Nature? What is lacking here is an understanding of the fact that what specifically qualifies human consciousness and sets it apart from that of the beasts is its very ability to seek out a final solution—its determination to pursue and uncover the Absolute, or God. And if modern man has gone mad, it is because he is attempting to find that solution through the exploitation of material Nature, rather than through the development of spiritual life. To abandon the pursuit of a solution wholly is simply another form of defeat.
The advice that we should take things as they come is, in itself, no more than any backyard washerwoman would say after hearing of her neighbor’s arthritis, old age and abuses.
And the idea of Oneness never will explain how all these varieties we experience came about, or what to do with them.
This goes even further into the realm of the absurd when the author quotes Erwin Schrodinger as saying that, “eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.” But the present keeps changing here in this material world, and even though it has no end, it certainly isn’t always the same. Therefore, to adjust the mind to such a concept of non-differentiation is not to approach reality but, rather, to ignore the world as it is. And, even if the world is only an illusion, then that illusion itself, with all its varieties, still must require an explanation.
According to the actual Vedic sources, the material world with its varieties is illusory in that it is temporary. The real or spiritual world is eternal. But still, the material does exist. It exists as the reflection of the real, perverted through the individual’s deluded consciousness. And, just as a mirror cannot show even false grapes without real grapes existing, so this material illusion can only reflect actual varieties. And, in the same sense, ego—one’s sense of individuality—is only a reflection of actual and immortal individuality, which exists in the spiritual world, in the Kingdom of God.
That there are varieties—blues, reds, yellows, ups and downs, ins and outs, I’s and Thou’s—which never disappear or are corrupted—essences, in other words—is perhaps inconceivable to the mundane intellect; but it is the very dependence upon mundane intellectual scholarship which is the basic fault in Alan Watts’ writings from beginning to end.
The Vedic system, along with all authentic Scriptural systems of God realization, enjoins strict and rigorous personal discipline upon those who wish to understand the Truth. Simply to read some words in a book without comprehending the practical facts by realization is incomplete, and must lead to the sort of distortions and contradictions of which THE BOOK is guilty. Truth must be perceived and manifested on three levels: in the mind, in the speech, and in action. Unless all three are absorbed in the Absolute, then realization, the direct personal experience of the existence of the Absolute, cannot be had.
It is by service to a spiritual master who is himself realized in a particular study or discipline that one is able to advance in understanding, just as an apprentice learns from a master, rather than from a manual. Without this service and without the guidance of a realized soul, no valid comprehension can be attained. The purely scholastic approach has been likened to bees licking on the outside of a bottle of honey: they may see it and smell it, but they can’t really taste it, and so fail to get satisfaction. To go on blithely reading books which are crying out for you to engage your activities in spiritual life, and then to write your own theses about them, while never having followed their injunctions, is the height of arrogant foolishness.
Yet this would seem to be Mr. Watts’ system, and he writes off as “myth” any passages that might tend to disturb him or his readers into active commitment.
Again we’re left with nothing to live by. When THE BOOK has been read, it can be forgotten without loss or bother, for it has said nothing. Again, the author is aware of his own shortcomings, and so he has slipped in a chapter called “So What?”
But “So What?” is also just a dodge. Its principal passage reads: “If, then, after understanding, at least in theory, that the ego-trick is a hoax and that, beneath everything, ‘I’ and ‘universe’ are one, you ask, ‘So what? What is the next step, the practical application?’—I will answer that the absolutely vital thing is to consolidate your understanding, to become capable of enjoyment, of living in the present, and of the discipline which this involves.”
Whatever “consolidate your understanding” may mean, becoming capable of enjoyment is no stranger to us. The only trouble is that everyone is already trying to enjoy in one way or another, from the President down to the neighborhood street sweeper—and yet no one is succeeding. Simply to tell people that they must learn to enjoy might make you popular, but it isn’t a “practical application” after all. How to enjoy remains the real problem.
Bind and double bind, triple bind, quadruple bind—they weave themselves like the glittering tentacles of a fabulous serpent throughout the mental corridors of THE BOOK. We’re told that, to enjoy, we must stop trying to enjoy. But that takes an effort too—that’s also trying to enjoy. And trying not to make an effort not to try to enjoy…? So it goes on, the mind twists on through the labyrinths of illusion, seeking an out, but never finding more than a new path that brings us back to the old starting point: you are not this body. Negative and true.
But for the positive, we’ll all be better off if we turn to the real Vedanta Itself. For there, and in the associated Vedic Scriptures, positive statements are made very succinctly by great sages who actually lived with their minds, words and deeds fixed on God, on the Supreme Transcendence. You are not this body, they agree. You are spirit soul—Absolute—Brahman. They also say this, and they say it in a straight-forward fashion. And there is Param Brahman, a Supreme Spirit, as well.
As for knowing one’s absolute or spiritual nature in full, the sages tell us to find a realized spiritual master, submit to him, serve him and inquire of him regarding Truth. He, being in knowledge, can reveal and explain, and can offer the example of perfection by his own life.
Alongside this, how involved and subtle the writings of Mr. Watts necessarily appear. One almost gets the impression that, above all else, his interest is to avoid criticism; and perhaps this explains the vagueness and negativity of his approach, like a wounded man waving his sword to confuse his enemy in hopes of avoiding a blow, but never of delivering one.
Mr. Watts further displays a surprising ignorance of the principles of devotional service when, on page 79, he states that the idea that everything belongs to God and should be used for God is a kind of stewardship, based on the hope of future reward. For it is devotion itself, manifested in this world as loving service to God, which is the topmost perfection of human consciousness, and of life. There is, in authentic devotional circles, no question of reward greater than love of God itself.
Turn from this, Mr. Watts advises us, because the individual ego is a hoax perpetrated upon us by the ignorant. And turn from the Void concept as well—that also is illusion . Approach life with “the fullest collaboration with the world as a harmonious system of contained conflicts—based on the realization that the only real ‘I’ is the whole endless process.” Again, if you’ll pardon our bluntness, So What? The words sound meaningful, and yet there seems to be something missing: the meaning itself. On and on, Mr. Watts offers mental adjustments which will, supposedly, make you happy. Like weight-watching, if you tend toward materialistic fads, you can give THE BOOK a try. But it doesn’t promise to offer anything final. Death is still there, life is still there, unfulfilled.
Perhaps the words of Sri Shankara Acharya, who also invented an interpretation of the Vedanta many hundreds of years ago, and who is still widely renowned for his gigantic scholarship, will best serve to cap off our consideration of THE BOOK. He wrote:
You intellectual fools I Just worship Govinda [Krishna]! Just worship Govinda! Just worship Govinda! Your grammatical knowledge and word jugglery will not save you at the time of death!