In the works of Alan Watts one finds a bewildering array of self-ascribed epithets ranging all the way from guru, shaman, Christian theologian, and philosopher, to mystic, showman, sensualist, and egotist. The obvious question, therefore, which any serious taking: of the measure of the man and his work must begin with, is. What's Watts?
The following statement from the autobiography suggests a straightforward response :
My own work, though it may seem at times to be a system of ideas, is basically an attempt to describe mystical experience, not of formal visions and super-natural beings, but of reality as seen and felt directly in a silence of words and mindings.
To "attempt to describe mystical experience" means, we contend, that Watts work consists in the attempt to show that mystical experience can be described and hence is not ineffable. The implications which derive from this rejection of ineffability will be elaborated upon in what follows. What concerns us here is the claim that Watts' mysticism is fundamentally literary in nature, in that it is primarily concerned with the proper way to describe mystical experience. According to Watts, the proper way is the way of poetry, a term which he employs, in an extended sense, to refer to discourse which is paralogical and hence is capable of rendering what prose cannot. He writes: "The task and delight of poetry is to say what cannot be said, to eff the ineffable, and to unscrew the inscrutable." He also says: "Much of my work is poetry disguised as prose." The significance of genre is crucial, since poetic description of mystical experience proves the effability of such experience, which is ineffable only from the point of view of prose. To describe mystical experience through poetry turns out to be an essentially perverse undertaking, as Watts indicates in the following definition, which occurs in the context of his account of his own mystical way. "per (through) verse (poetry), out-of-the-way and wayward, which is surely towards the way...." In what follows we shall show why we do not share Watts' conviction that his literary and wayward mysticism is a Way-ward one, we shall argue for its fundamentally deviant character.
Watts' mysticism is deviant because it seeks perversely to undo mystical experience. This is done by inferring from the fact that mystical experience is not ineffable, that there is no separation between the spiritual and the physical, which eventually is transformed into the view that the spiritual and the physical are virtually the same thing, which Watts calls his "spiritual materialism." As we shall try to show, the point of this ideology is that it both precludes the possibility and obviates the necessity of mystical experience. What is perverse about Watts' mysticism, in a word, is that it is antimystical.
This would not be so perverse were it not for the fact that Watts considered himself to be a mystic, as remarks like "I am a shameless mystic" and "a mystic in spite of myself' make clear. To return to our original question, in our opinion Watts is a strange and confusing combination of a man-of-letters and a mystic, who used his extraordinary articulateness and literary ability to undermine mystical experience by rejecting the sense in which such experience is ineffable. What one is left with, unfortunately, is, as Zen master Rinzai once put it, "words and phrases, however excellent."
In addition to denying that genuine mystical experience must go beyond words and phrases--another way of putting the ineffability thesis--Watts also denies that such experience must be intellect-transcending. Indeed, as we shall see, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Watts' mysticism is his insistence on the adequacy of purely intellectual realization. (He often proudly speaks of himself as being first and foremost a Brahmin.) All of this makes his popular association with Zen and Eastern religions in general nothing less than extraordinary.
This popular association becomes even more extraordinary when one realizes that Watts does not believe in the necessity of transcending ego. The evolution of his mysticism is increasingly in the direction of an acceptance or transmutation of ego, another aspect of his spiritual materialism. Watts' departure from the mystical Way consists in his unwillingness to do anything about overcoming ego. What is perverse about such a departure is that it is not acknowledged as deviance; the wayward is seen, once again, as being "surely towards the way." We do not agree. To depart from the Way is simply to depart from the Way, a tautology which cannot be finessed or evaded. Another way of putting this would be to say. there is orthopraxis; it seems to us that Watts devoted his entire life to a denial of the significance of right practice. In this regard, the title of his autobiography, In My Own Way, could fittingly serve both as his epitaph and as the epitome of our critical assessment of him, for Watts did indeed insist on doing things in his own way, and in so doing, as he himself admits, he got in his own way.
Watts' mysticism is nowhere revealed as more wayward and deviant than in his interpretation of Zen Buddhism. This is not at all surprising, because Zen stands for all of the things Watts denies: that mystical experience must go beyond words and phrases; must be intellect-transcending; and must be ego-transcending. Despite the fact that his reputation is largely based on his affiliation with Zen. we should like to show that Watts' mysticism is actually incompatible with it.
Let us begin with the following quotation from the autobiography:
I was always being accused of being a lazy fellow who had the absurd idea that transcendence of egocentricity could be achieved (by whom?) without long
years of effort and discipline. You would immediately feel one with all nature, and with the universe itself, if you could understand that there is no 'you' as the hard-core thinker of thoughts, feeler of feelings, and sensor of sensations, and that because your body is something in the physical world, that world is not 'external' to you. Thus when you listen, you do not hear anyone listening. This has nothing to do with making an effort or not making an effort; it is simply a matter of intelligence.
Someone who believes that the transcendence of egocentricity "is simply a matter of intelligence" is not someone who can understand Zen; but, more important, such a view is an example of inauthentic mysticism, because it denies the distinction between merely intellectually knowing or understanding, on the one hand, and actually realizing the truth through intellect-transcending experience, on the other. This kind of view obviates the necessity of any sort of mystical experience of transcendence of ego. One is reminded of Watts' remark, "When you get the message, you hang up the phone." But to get the message about the unreality or illusoriness of ego is not at all the same thing as actually experiencing egolessness, which is what Zen practice is all about.
For Watts, because mysticism is fundamentally "a matter of intelligence," there is no need for effort, technique, method, or discipline. Moreover, an ideal mysticism, according to him, would be what he calls a "mysticism without means." We wish to suggest that genuine mysticism requires some sort of yoga, discipline, or preparation. Mysticism must mean more than merely adventitious, exotic occurrences loosely labeled "mystical" faute de mieux. Watts' critique of effort is one of the most wayward aspects of his thinking about mysticism, because it denies the sense of mysticism as path.
His specific rejection of the necessity of zazen (Zen meditation) in The Way of Zen and elsewhere is part of this general critique, whose basic argument is that any kind of effort is always, both in principle and in fact, in the service of ego; therefore, striving to attain any kind of realization becomes pragmatically self-contradictory, because the attempt to overcome ego only makes ego-attachment stronger. What is wrong with this position is simply that it a priori excludes the possibility of right effort. For example, he argues that doing zazen as a means to the attainment of enlightenment is wrong effort, but from this he wrongly infers that there is no way to do zazen rightly. He even goes so far as to suggest that Tang dynasty Zen masters never encouraged their students to do zazen, this despite the fact that "Zen" means "meditation." Both the inference and the factual claim are false. From the fact that Zen masters warn against wrong effort, it does not at all follow that they are warning against effort taut court. There is right effort, and it is just something one must practice. The issue is not theoretical in nature, as Watts would have it; it is radically practical in character. The issue of whether or not to do zazen is a pseudo-issue.
Instead of its being the case, as in Watts, that the fact of original enlightenment makes effort unnecessary, what precisely makes right effort possible is this fact, for it shifts the emphasis from effort in the name of attainment to
effort in the name of realization of what has in a sense already been attained. Watts' mistake is to infer from the fact that, strictly speaking, there is nothing to attain, that there is therefore nothing to realize. The point is that the fact that there is nothing to attain must be directly realized, not merely intellectually understood. This is why one does zazen. What Watts does to the concept of original enlightenment is to make it an object of mere intellectual understanding, thereby the point of enlightenment experience is completely lost.
As always with Watts, the question of mystical style is of paramount importance. Watts simply does not like the arduousness and discipline of Zen practice. What Watts prefers to zazen is a self-styled, crypto-neo-Taoist easy way--just letting go of ego, going with the flow of Tao, and dwelling paradically in a childlike way in the Eternal Now. Would that it were all so easy ! One cannot merely let go of ego, as if by some magical gesture or fiat; what egolessness requires is a radical transformation of consciousness. But Watts is opposed to the necessity of such transformation; he sarcastically and cynically associates it with what he terms "self-improvement," On a moral level, not only is transformation unnecessary, it is incompatible with grace:
You can't make it without faking it, for the real thing is a grace not of your own making, which comes upon some people as involuntarily as their lovely eyes or golden hair. It is thus that by grace or nature (take your choice) I am a mystic in spite of myself, remaining as much of an irreducible rascal as I am, as a standing example of God's continuing compassion for sinners or, if you will, of Buddha-nature in a dog, or of light shining in darkness. Come to think of it, in what else could it shine?
The virtue of mere intellectual understanding, in this regard, as opposed to genuine mystical experience is that the former enables one to remain a rascal, whereas the latter threatens the possibility of a deep change in one's style--a dreadful thought, after all, for a literary man.
Astounding as it may sound to those who associate Watts with Zen, it is our contention that he does not really believe in enlightenment experience. To make this point let us look at the following two quotations:
It should be obvious that what we are, most substantially and fundamentally, will never be a distinct object of knowledge. Whatever we can know ... will be the relative aspects of something as inconceivable as the color of space. Awakening is not to know what this reality is.... Awakening is to know what reality is not.
Properly understood, the Self is like light, which has no need to illumine itself because it is already luminous.
From the premise that we cannot have a positive and absolute knowledge of the nature of reality--where "knowledge" is something intellectual, conceptual, and dualistic--it does not at all follow that awakening must be merely negative and relative, unless, of` course, one identifies intellectual knowledge as the only relevant form awakening could take. Such an illicit identification is the concealed premise Watts is smuggling in here. All that actually follows
is that intellectual knowledge grants only a relative and negative access to reality: nonintellectual realization should not thereby be precluded. Similarly, from the premise that the Self is in essence already luminous, it by no means follows that there is no need for it to illumine itself. For there is no realization that the Self is luminous in nature until and unless one experiences illumination or enlightenment. Such an experience is most emphatically not equivalent to mere intellectual insight.
Believing in enlightenment experience means believing that one can awaken to what reality is and that such an awakening is indistinguishable from the experience of the light of self-realization. One important consequence of Watts' disbelief is that he is, thereby, forced to separate self-realization from the realization of the nature of reality. This separation becomes a serious problem when Watts argues that self-realization is not only unnecessary, but actually impossible, because the knower cannot know itself, the mind cannot be used to know the mind, the self cannot be an object to and for itself, and more. (We shall deal with this problem in more detail in the next section.) As far as Zen is concerned, no matter what objections might be raised on a theoretical level, self-realization is simply a fact which has been certified over centuries by countless Zen masters. What would Watts say to this? He finds the entire process of certification of such realization nothing less than silly! But this position, even if it were plausible, would not result in the conclusion that there was nothing to be certified in the first place. All Watts' argument proves is that self-realization is intellectually inscrutable; but Zen would agree with this Indeed, that is precisely what is wrong with intellectual understanding: it fails to provide for the possibility that what seems conceptually impossible is in fact realizable on the nonintellectual level of direct, intuitive experience.
Since the self, according to Watts, can neither know itself nor ultimate reality the relationship between them remains obscure. To remedy this, in The Supreme Identity Watts argues that what the self can do is identify itself with ultimate reality, as in the Vedantic formula, "Thou art That." But how can the self know that it is identical with ultimate reality, if it can neither know ultimate reality nor itself directly? Watts' answer to this is that, although the terms cannot be known directly, the relationship obtaining between them can. To support this claim, he formulates what he calls the concept of "metaphysical knowledge," or simply "metaphysic." What this involves is the claim that intellect can and does have the same qualities of directness, intuitive immediacy and self-evidence usually associated with intellect-transcending mystical experience. The influence of Krishnamurti here is both evident and unfortunate. For in characterizing intellect in terms of directness and immediacy, Watts, in our opinion, is combining what cannot be combined; conversely, if they could be combined, there would be no need for mystical experience. Actually, the whole
point of metaphysical knowledge---or what we shall call intellectual realization --seems to be to render mystical experience unnecessary. What Watts is saying is that we do not need enlightenment experience to know that self and ultimate reality are one, in some sense we just know or see this to be true. This seems quite lame and unconvincing.
Moreover, the identification in question has a curious faute de mieux quality: short of being able directly to know ultimate reality, the self settles for identifying with it. But because the self cannot know itself directly either, it has no real basis for the identification. The whole thing seems to be achieved by a sort of quasi-magical fiat, which creates the illusion of identity between self and ultimate reality. The identification cannot create the requisite identity; such identity must be preexistent. And how do we know that this identity obtains? We are back to Watts' claim that we just know this is the case. We seem to go round and round in circles. Self and ultimate reality continue to be separated. The notion of identification makes it appear that the separation has been overcome.
For the real, as opposed to merely apparent, identity of self and ultimate reality Watts eventually turned back to Christianity. In Behold the Spirit, "Christ" is seen as the incarnation of this supreme identity. The virtue of this move, of course, is that one can no longer ask philosophical questions about the relationship between self and reality. In addition, one need no longer speak of identification at all, since this is built into the very notion of incarnation. What this "incarnational mysticism" does is provide an excellent excuse for the begging of all relevant epistemological questions. It also enables Watts to sidestep the issue of transcendence of ego, for within the context of this sort of mysticism, the ego can legitimately be inflated to the point of actually becoming divine. This permits Watts cheerfully to assert his own divinity--and, charitably, that of others as well.
But the principal purpose of Watts' incarnational mysticism seems to be to argue that because the Word has been made flesh, and because this Flesh is the world as it really is, there is, once again, no need for any sort of mystical experience; specifically, there is no need for transcendence. Moreover, the incarnation of the Word precludes the very possibility of ineffability; one is put in the embarrassing position of having to deny the existence of the world in order to maintain the plausibility of the ineffability thesis! For ineffability can only mean incomplete incarnation, which is, presumably, ridiculous.
To paraphrase William Carlos Williams' dictum about objectivist poetry, one can say that the message of Watts' incarnational mysticism is, "No mystical experience but in things," which eventually degenerates, in Watts' spiritual materialism, into a wholesale reduction of the spiritual to the physical. In our opinion, a mysticism which thus precludes the possibility of mystical experience is deviant in the extreme.
Because the Incarnation has realized the truth of ultimate reality for us, there is nothing to do, nothing to experience, and nothing to attain or realize. All that is needed is an intellectual understanding of the message of the Incarnation, from which will immediately and effortlessly follow a letting-go of ego and a profound acceptance of God's infinite love. This is magic, not mysticism. What had been spoken of earlier as the confusion of intellectual understanding and mystical experience becomes in this system a virtue rather than a vice. Intellectual understanding becomes equivalent with mystical experience, because the object of such understanding--the physical world--has been magically transformed into something itself mystical in nature. What is wrong with such magic, from a philosophical point of view, is that it is no longer appropriate or in good taste to ask how one knows that the world is mystical in nature; for it is so whether or not one knows it. Watts' incarnational mysticism creates a mystical world from which mystical experience is systematically excluded.
Why would someone like Watts, who actually had mystical experiences, wish to formulate an anti-mystical mysticism? Our answer will require an examination of those experiences, as well as of theoretical statements, of a normative nature, extrapolated therefrom.
The fact of the matter is that Watts' quest for what he later sarcastically refers to as "the Big Realization" was a failure. His mystical experiences were quite mediocre and shallow. But instead of acknowledging that the problem lay with the quality of his experiences, as well as with the absence of any orthodox method of spiritual practice, he chose rather to impugn the goal of the quest itself. Watts did indeed want special mystical experience; he even wanted the kind of transformation of consciousness against which he speaks so eloquently later. But when he discovered that his experiences did not significantly transform him, nor were they particularly lasting in their effect, he chose to deny that there is anything special about such experience, and to deny that transformation is either necessary or important. The crucial transition is from a real interest in mystical experience, strictly speaking, to the position that intellectual insight is sufficient.
That Watts wanted the Big Realization--and actually convinced himself for a time that he had experienced it--is clearly shown in the following quotation from the autobiography:
What is THE EXPERIENCE which these Oriental masters are talking about? The different ideas of it which I had in mind seemed to be approaching me like little dogs wanting to be petted, and suddenly I shouted at all of them to go away. I annihilated and bawled out every theory and concept of what should be my properly spiritual state of mind, or of what should be meant by ME. And instantly my weight vanished. I owned nothing. All hang-ups disappeared. I walked on air. Thereupon I composed a haiku:
All forgotten and set aside--
Wind scattering leaves
Over the fields.
Certain things strike one immediately about this account. There is no significant gap or discontinuity between the experience itself and the description of it. We see here, in germ, Watts' predisposition toward a rejection of ineffability; that what he had experienced might possibly be indescribable never entered his mind. Only upon reflection did he realize that the ease with which he characterized his experience, in fact, counted against its depth and genuineness. Related to this is the sense in which an observer remains intact throughout, which is precisely what enables him to describe what has happened; despite the fact that he seems to associate this experience with an actual transcendence of ego, his eminently literary ego continues to exist in the form of the watcher. Watts has confused an ecstatic experience, in which he experiences himself standing outside of himself with satori. Instead of having transcended ego, what Watts has experienced is a temporary reprieve or vacation from what he calls, with characteristic literary brilliance, "the quaking mess of self-consciousness.''
In this next account Watts has become more sophisticated, in that he has begun to entertain the possibility that what he considers genuine mystical experience may be nothing more than intellectual understanding masquerading as such; but still he speaks of "a premature satori":
One evening, when Eleanor and I were walking home from a meditation session, I began to discuss the method of concentration on the eternal present. Whereupon she said, 'Why try to concentrate on it? What else is there to be aware of? ... The present is just a constant flow, like the Tao, and there's simply no way of getting out of it.' With that remark my whole sense of weight vanished. You could have knocked me down with a feather. I realized that when the Hindus said Tat tvam asi, 'You ARE That,' they meant just what they said. For a whole week thereafter I simply floated, remembering Spiegel-berg's telling me of the Six Precepts of Tilopa:
No thought, no reflection, no analysis,
No cultivation, no intention,
Let it settle itself.
This was doubtless a premature satori, for I was unable to resist the temptation to write, think, and intellectualize about it. Yet when I am in my right mind I still know that this is the true way of life, at least for me.
Again, this is no satori experience, premature or otherwise; it is another ecstatic experience onto which has been superimposed an inappropriate intellectual content. The split between what Watts has experienced and what he has realized is clear. Here the mistake Watts makes is to confuse ecstasy with genuine mystical union. (Another mistake he makes is to listen to his wife in the first place; this may be a unique example in the literature of a hen-pecked mystic!) The experience of ecstasy may serve as the basis for a direct experience of the present, but it does not qualify as the foundation for the truth
of Tat tvam asi. The connection between the two is established intellectually, but Watts wishes to give the impression that this is not the case. In so doing the line between direct experience and intellectual insight is blurred. As we shall see, Watts eventually argues that it is the latter which is essential to mysticism. We do not agree.
Moreover, the plain fact of the matter is that we not only can get out of the present, but that we are almost always out of it. For this reason practice or some sort of yoga is necessary. Intellectually knowing that the present is in some sense all there is, is not at all tantamount to actually being in the moment. Watts has the matter backwards: it is not that we have no need of practice because we are always dwelling in the present (whether, as it were, we are or not); rather, we need some kind of practice precisely to enable us to get to this present moment.
What Watts really likes about the doctrine of the Eternal Now is that it entails that there is no need to overcome ego, for in the moment ego cannot be found :
My point was, and has continued to be, that the Big Realization for which all these systems strive is not a future attainment but a present fact, that this now-moment is eternity, and that one must see it now or never. For right now this problematic ego cannot be found.
If the now-moment is indeed eternal, it cannot be invoked in the way Watts wishes to here, for that which is timeless is no more opposed to the future than it is to any other tensed, temporal determination. Watts' argument works only if the notion of an Eternal Now can be interpreted both in a tensed and tenseless sense: that is, in terms both of the relative present and the absolutely whenever. But such an interpretation hardly seems licit, and so in our opinion the whole thing turns on an amphiboly. Moreover, even if what Watts is saying were true, it would not follow that the notion of a future attainment is absurd, which is what he seems to imply; for it makes perfectly good sense to speak of realizing the truth of the Eternal Now in the future. If the Eternal Now rules out anything it rules out attainment tout court, which is prima facie absurd. Watts is opposed to the kind of transformation of consciousness being-here-now requires. He seeks to use the rhetoric of the Eternal Now to render such transformation unnecessary. By placing the now-moment outside of time, he places it beyond the pale of spiritual practice and discipline. We find this both deviant and unacceptable.
For this reason, one can say that for Watts the rhetoric--we might even say the dogma--of the Eternal Now functions as an ideology, which provides a perfect rationalization for doing nothing about overcoming ego. But once again Watts has the matter backwards: it is not that we do not need to overcome ego because we are in fact dwelling in the now-moment; rather, the fact is that we cannot succeed in dwelling therein because of our attachment to ego. All the spiritual striving Watts is so critical of is precisely directed toward
helping us become united with this now-moment. For if we are not wholly present to the present, it is not present to and for us. It is not at all, in this sense, a fact; or it is so only if and when we are present to the presencing of the present. Simply calling the now-moment a fact leads to the wrongheaded inference that there is no point to striving. It is easy to live in the moment in one's head; this, it seems to us, is where Watts is dwelling.
What we have called Watts' wrongheaded inference, he calls his "basic intuition," which is.
that here and now, without any artificial striving and straining, the flow of life in man is inseparably one with the Tao, the flow of the universe--call it God, Brahman, the Divine Ground, or what you wi11.
Interestingly enough, he also calls this his "dream," and dream is really all it is. For in fact what we are aware of is the rather unbearable separation between "the flow of life in man" and "the Tao," and to be told that they are identical (in what sense is the copula intended here anyway?), simply does no good at all. One begins to wonder how seriously to take Watts' continual rhetoric about human alienation. Often it seems just that--talk; a kind of theologizing of alienation.
In the last two quotations cited, Watts has turned a very significant corner in his thought: he seems no longer interested in direct experience as such, but rather in what might be called the doctrinal or dogmatic equivalent of such experience. For example, the doctrine of the Eternal Now and its identity with Tao is presented in effect as true dogma, the important existential point being that this dogma is true whether or not anyone actually realizes its truth. This is particularly clear in the following quotation, which appropriately enough is an emended version of the second mystical experience mentioned earlier :
It struck me with the fullest clarity that none of this depended on my seeing it to be so, that was the way things were, whether I understood it or not, and if I did not understand, that was IT too.
This theologizing of mysticism is anti-mystical, because it involves the rejection of all experiential content as, in principle, irrelevant. It is as if Watts were maintaining the manifestly absurd view that there can be mysticism without mystical experience.
Speaking of ultimate reality Watts writes:
It has been obvious to me, for as long as I can remember, that whatever it is, I am that, and whatever I am is also what stars and galaxies, space and energy are.
The precise sense of "obvious" here is, of course, crucial, but Watts typically does not concern himself with anything as dull or prosaic as spelling out the various possible senses of self-evidence. Indeed, this seems to be a defining
characteristic of his style of mysticism: systematically to blur the distinction between the intellectually and the experientially apodictic. In the very next sentence he speaks of the truth just mentioned as a "feeling," the presumption being that the mere existence of such a feeling is self-certifying as to its truth. This should be an open question. It is not. Speaking of this feeling Watts says:
My whole work in religion and philosophy has been to convey this feeling to others, and to show that our apparent separateness from what there is and all that there is arises, in the main, from our failure to notice space as a vital reality. which is just as important as the negative pole in an electric circuit. Although this feeling has not protected me from a vast amount of folly and confusion, just as it would not restore sight to a blind man, it has nevertheless delivered me from basic, existential anxiety. It is simply that I think people would be much happier and more at home in the world if they felt as I do, that I have no other self than this whole universe.
What Watts calls feeling is really dogma; one cannot "notice" space as a vital reality, after all. But human alienation cannot be overcome by dogma. The very notion that it is merely ''apparent" is itself dogma. The fact of the matter is that we experience such separateness as quite real. Notice here the therapeutic turn his thinking has taken about mysticism. The reason human alienation cannot be anything more than apparent is that if it were acknowledged to be real, it would be too depressing and anxiety-deepening to be true. It may very well be that one would be happier believing that one has no other self than this whole universe, but this does not make the belief true; nor does it have anything whatsoever to do with mysticism. Notice also Watts' a priori rejection of the transformative power of mystical experience; for him, such transformation is as absurd to expect as the restoration of sight to a blind man. But in the absence of such transformation, what is the real spiritual value of the feeling in question? We say none. To be "happier" and "more at home in the world" takes on a rather empty, hollow ring.: this sounds more like lobotomy than liberation. Still to be subject to "a vast amount of confusion and folly." instead of constituting evidence against the spiritual value of the feeling Watts endorses, is interpreted in such a way that any expectation of transcending the deluded condition of man is naive and unrealistic. Cynicism masquerading as mysticism is something to beware of in Watts.
No account of Watts as a mystic would be complete without a presentation of his mystical vision of paradise, which we present, not for its own sake, despite its obvious eloquence, but by way of underscoring the point that here too Watts' purpose seems to be to create a magical world whose reality is self-certifying. in the sense that it is independent of anyone's actual experience of it. Fantasy performs, in effect, the same function in this regard as dogma.
I carry over from childhood the vague but persistent impression of being exposed to hints of an archaic and underground culture whose values were lost to the Protestant religion and the industrial bourgeoisie, indeed to the modern West in general. This may be nothing but fantasy, but I seem to have
been in touch with lingering links to a world both magical and mystical that was still understood among birds, trees, and flowers.... Or was it just I who carried in my genes or in my 'collective unconscious' the apprehension of whole worlds of experience which official culture repressed or ignored? The disciplinum arcanum of this culture, so easily mistaken in the child for idle reverie, was that intense contemplative watching of the eternal now, which is sometimes revived by the use of psychedelic drugs, but which came to me through flowers, jewels, reflected light in glass, and expanses of clear sky. I get it also from the music of India which I loved at first hearing and which continues, like a lost name on the tip of the tongue. to put me in mind of a long-forgotten afternoon in a sunlit room where magicians were playing on the heartstrings of the universe.
Abstracting from the beauty of the rhetoric, what is crucial here is the metaphysical claim that the world is fundamentally magical in nature. But ultimately there is no need for mystical experience to confirm this. Such experience is merely symptomatic of the magic itself, in which one should participate, like the child, rather than seeking to know,, like the adult. Although this vision "may be nothing but fantasy," this does not matter in the world of magic, where the distinction between fantasy and actual mystical experience is systematically blurred. Another distinction which is blurred by this vision is that between the bhakti and j~naana components. For example, is it the devotion to the contemplative watching--what Watts elsewhere calls "the art of contemplation"-or is it the watching itself which carries the visionary content? Although "intense contemplative watching of the eternal now" is a fine phrase, it is philosophically ambiguous in this way. There seems finally to be no way of determining the cognitive content of the vision, and the whole thing passes over into literature. (It also ultimately passes over into a defense of drug-induced pseudo-mysticism as in The Joyous Cosmology, where the deus ex machina of LSD replaces real vision and real transformation with the "magical," that is, illusory, vision and transformation of drug ingestion. Taking a drug is an excellent example of no effort, after all, it is also an excellent example of the "unity" of the spiritual and the material.)
In This Is It the identity of self and ultimate reality is replaced by a completely unrestricted identification of all that is with ultimate reality. The result of this is that the very notion of ultimate reality, as something separate from mundane, physical reality. breaks down. When the question of the nature of the self's relationship to ultimate reality no longer occupies center stage, the need both to appeal to such an idea of ultimacy and to transcend ego no longer exists. In turn, when there is no longer anything specially problematic about the self or ego, there is no longer anything special about the spiritual or the mystical either. Indeed, the point of this system is to show that there are no problems of any sort. "This Is It" functions as a sort of banishing mantra, whose principal purpose is to eliminate the very possibility of any kind of
philosophical seriousness. When there is no longer any way of separating various senses of reality, everything collapses into everything else, and one is left with a high comedic vision in which nothing matters at all. (One is reminded of Watts' definition of religion as "the transformation of anxiety into laughter
In the preface to This Is It Watts writes:
the essays here gathered together have a common point of focus--the spiritual or mystical experience and its relation to ordinary material life. Having said this, I am instantly aware that I have used the wrong words; and yet there are no satisfactory alternatives. Spiritual and mystical suggest something rarefied, otherworldly, and loftily religious. opposed to an ordinary material life which is simply practical and commonplace. The whole point of these essays is to show the fallacy of this opposition, to show that the spiritual is not to be separated from the material, nor the wonderful from the ordinary. We need, above all, to disentangle ourselves from habits of speech and thought which set the two apart, making it impossible for us to see that this--the immediate, everyday, and present experience--is IT, the entire and ultimate point for the existence of a universe. But the recognition that the two are one comes to pass in an elusive, though relatively common, state of consciousness which has fascinated me beyond all else since I was seventeen years old.... I believe that if this state of consciousness became more universal, the pretentious nonsense which passes for the serious business of the world would dissolve in laughter.
What spiritual materialism amounts to, then, is the vulgarization of mystical experience, in the sense that it is radically reduced to the common and the ordinary. At the same time it is trivialized; it is now nothing more than "an elusive, though relatively common, state of consciousness." It is worth reiterating at this point that what is behind this vulgarization and trivialization is the fact that mystical experience no longer has any special task in this system; since there is no longer anything specially problematic about self or ego, mystical experience may be put out to pasture.
Once the status of ego has been rendered unproblematic, it can be accepted in a radical way, on the moral level, this takes the form of a startling transvaluation of selfishness, as is clear from the following:
contradictory as it may sound, it seems to me that the deepest spiritual experience can arise only in the moments of a selfishness so complete that it transcends itself, by 'the way down and out,' which is perhaps why Jesus found the companionship of publicans and sinners preferable to that of the righteous and the respectable. It is a sort of first step to accept one's own selfishness without the deception of trying to go in two directions at once.... Spiritual awakening is the difficult process whereby the increasing realization that everything is as wrong as it can be flips suddenly into the realization that everything is as right as it can be. Or better, everything is as It as it can be.
What the inseparability of the spiritual and the material implies is that there is no longer anything wrong with ego. Conversely, because there is no longer anything wrong with ego, there is no longer any reason to separate the spiritual and the material. So Watts is free to transmute the ego-perspective. This helps
untie a real knot in Watts' thought: for if there is something wrong with ego, then something must be done about it; but Watts consistently resists any method, technique, or discipline directed toward doing something about it. Previously his arguments had been that there is really nothing to be done, because ego is illusory anyway, or that doing something about overcoming ego is actually ego-reinforcing. What the vision of spiritual materialism enables him to say is that there is simply nothing wrong with ego at all. The reason there is nothing wrong is that there is no longer any notion of ultimate reality beyond the ego-perspective. It is only when one attributes some kind of separate, special reality to spirituality that one finds ego to be an obstacle or problem. The idea that ego is the source of human alienation is no longer tenable, precisely because there is no higher reality from which ego can alienate us. So the problem of human alienation dissolves as well. Watts' ambivalence toward the spiritual and the mystical is of a piece with his ambivalence about the status of ego. His spiritual materialism provides a rationalization for the elimination of such ambivalence. In turn, it frees him from his ambivalence about the status of effort. Having begun with the sense that there is something wrong with ego, and that at least prima facie there is a need to overcome the ego-perspective, Watts ends by affirming rather that there is something wrong with spirituality and mysticism--the assumption that there is something wrong with ego. The tables have indeed been turned; the validity of the ego-perspective has been reaffirmed in the sense that the onus probandi rests now with the spiritual or mystical perspective to justify its sense of seriousness and self-importance.
In the following quotation Watts spells out further what is meant by the commonness of mystical experience:
The most impressive fact in man's spiritual, intellectual, and poetic experience has always been, for me, the universal prevalence of those astonishing moments of insight which Richard Bucke called 'cosmic consciousness.' There is really no satisfactory name for this type of experience. To call it mystical is to confuse it with visions of another world, or of gods and angels. To call it spiritual or metaphysical is to suggest that it is not also extremely concrete and physical, while the term 'cosmic consciousness' itself has the unpoetic flavor of occultist jargon. But from all historical times and cultures we have reports of this same unmistakable sensation emerging, as a rule, quite suddenly and unexpectedly and from no clearly understood cause.
The crucial expressions here are "extremely concrete and physical" and "this same unmistakable sensation." In terms of the evolution of Watts' mysticism, it is clear that mystical experience is now associated with the body. This physicalist reductionism eventually becomes what Watts calls "erotic spirituality." Mystical experience--notice Watts' continuing assumption that such experience is everywhere the same--has degenerated into Watts' mother's definition of it as "feeling jazzy inside." We find this reductionism unacceptable simply
because mystical experience has never been merely a matter of having a certain unmistakable physical sensation--it is not the same as orgasm, after all. Separated from any sense of path, discipline, or spiritual tradition, mystical experience ceases to have any significance whatsoever. That this is precisely Watts' intention testifies to the radical deviance of his mysticism.
What follows from the fact that it is now the body that is the locus of mystical experience is that mystical union (if indeed this expression can be retained in such a reductionist context) is no longer between self and ultimate reality, or Atman and Brahman, but rather between my body and the world's body. Speaking of the person who has this unmistakable sensation known as mystical experience, Watts writes:
it is usual for the individual to feel that the whole world has become his own body, and that whatever he is has not only become, but has always been, what everything else is.
This mysticism-a-la-Rabelais replaces ecstasy as the principal category in Watts' mystical thought. Ecstasy is now, within the framework of his spiritual materialism, of decidedly secondary importance. This Watts makes clear in the following.
The central core of the experience seems to be the conviction, or insight, that the immediate now, whatever its nature, is the goal and fulfillment of all living. Surrounding and flowing from this insight is an emotional ecstasy, a sense of intense relief, freedom, and lightness, and often of almost unbearable love for the world, which is, however, secondary. Often, the pleasure of the experience is confused with the experience and the insight is lost in the ecstasy, so that in trying to retain the secondary effects of the experience the individual misses the point--that the immediate now is complete even when it is not ecstatic. For ecstasy is a necessarily impermanent contrast in the constant fluctuation of our feelings. But insight, when clear enough, persists: having once understood a particular skill, the facility tends to remain.
What Watts is trying to do is persuasively redefine "ecstasy" in such a way that it is merely an emotion or feeling, devoid of ontological content. But the fact of the matter is that there is no place for ecstasy--in the ontological sense of the self standing outside of itself--in Watts' new vision, for ecstasy would commit one precisely to the kind of separation of perspectives and realities (the spiritual versus the physical or material) that Watts' spiritual materialism rejects. Because this vision is designed to preclude the possibility of any trace of transcendence or otherness, ecstasy is ontologically inappropriate. To eliminate all trace of transcendence, Watts must reduce mystical experience to physical sensation, and in the process must eliminate any feeling or emotion which carries within it a sense of such transcendence. Because we consider some minimal sense of transcendence essential to genuine mysticism, we find this demotion of ecstasy a deviant move on the part of Watts. It is also a mis-
leading move, since what he really has against ecstasy is not its emotionality but its built-in, ontological sense of otherness.
What is really new in this passage is the characterization of mystical experience as "a particular skill" or "facility." What this characterization actually does is to eliminate all experiential content from mystical experience; for such experience is no longer a matter of what happens to one, but rather of something one knows how to do. One disastrous consequence of this is that all epistemological questions are begged; for it no longer makes sense to ask for evidence. Using Gilbert Ryle's distinction, mysticism becomes a matter not of knowing that but of knowing how.
This view completes Watts' deviant attempt to formulate an antimystical mysticism. For, according to this view, mystical experience, strictly speaking, has no content whatsoever. To be precise, it is not the experience itself which has content, it is the interpretation of it. Watts eventually came to argue that it is not what one experiences, but what is doctrinally or dogmatically true of such experience, that counts. But how can the interpretation have any cognitive content if the experience itself, on which such interpretation is presumably based, is devoid of content? This seems a straightforward contradiction. If this is so, we must conclude that Watts theologizing of mysticism--the substitution of doctrinal or dogmatic content for experiential content--is logically untenable. More important, it just seems antithetical to the nature and spirit of mysticism. The point of the formula "This Is It" is that of providing a metaphysical excuse for the exclusion of mystical experience from mysticism. We see this in the following remark:
These experiences, reinforced by others that have followed, have been the enlivening force of all my work in writing and in philosophy since that time, though I have come to realize that how I feel, whether the actual sensation of freedom and clarity is present or not, is not the point--for, again, to feel heavy or restricted is also IT.
But if Watts excludes how he feels from the account of his mystical experiences, they simply cease being experiences. Mysticism becomes mere metaphysics. Moreover, there is a real problem as far as the rejection of ineffability is concerned. It is one thing to argue that mystical experience has a content which can be expressed; it is quite another thing to argue that such experience has no content, but what can be expressed is the doctrinal or dogmatic content coming out of an interpretation of mystical experience. What Watts' rejection of ineffability seems finally to amount to is the substitution of interpretation for experience, which actually, in our opinion, begs the question of the ineffability of mystical experience.
Another way in which Watts begs this question is by transforming the notion of ineffability into its metaphysical, anti-experiential equivalent. Having said that the sphere of the mystic is that of the unspeakable, Watts proceeds to make the startling, claim that the unspeakable "need mean no more than....
the sphere of physical nature." In this way, ineffability no longer has anything to do with either mystical experience or, for that matter, with experience tout court. It becomes the characteristic of a metaphysical realm, that of physical nature. So the sphere of the mystic is not that of the unspeakable at all; it is the sphere of physical nature, which is just another way of asserting the reduction of the spiritual to the material. In terms of this reduction, ineffability is both impossible and meaningless. Thus Watts, by closing the question, begs it. The result of this identification of ineffability with physical nature is that any trace of transcendence associated with ineffability is eliminated. The mystical message is no longer merely in things (as in his incarnational mysticism), but is identical with the things themselves; and so we are left with the unacceptable reduction of mystical experience to mute, dumb nature!
Our critique of Watts' mysticism may well strike even the unsympathetic reader of his work as excessively harsh and perhaps even unbalanced. We are well aware of the fact that we have been severe with Watts in this review. At the same time, however, we are aware of the enormous contribution he has made in awakening people all over the world to the spiritual path, particularly in the area of Eastern philosophy and religion. We know as well that for many Watts is a holy man, who has been all but canonized in certain spiritual circles. It is precisely because of Watts' influence that we have been harsh. We feel our critique must stand firm in its essential contention that, no matter what the influence or charisma of Watts the man and his work, his mysticism is fundamentally wayward and deviant. One could, of course, say that such waywardness is justifiable as skillful means, in the sense that the deviance in question made it easier for people to relate to mysticism than would otherwise have been possible. Bur in the area of mysticism and spirituality one simply does not want deviance--or fakes of any kind, even a "genuine fake," an expression Watts was fond of applying to himself in his later years. Spirituality is serious business--and we do not mean in a mercenary sense. If our account seems humorless, it is not because we do not see the humor in Watts or appreciate his irony; it is rather that we feel too much is at stake for us to allow ourselves to be taken in by his considerable charm and incomparable articulateness.
The spiritual climate in America has already significantly changed in a direction away from Watts, wayward way. So there is a sense that we have beaten a dead horse here. All over the country people are beginning to realize that spirituality is fundamentally a matter of practice, discipline, and effort. Watts. critique of effort would now fall on rather deaf ears, we suspect. It is dated, to say the least, Most people no longer want a wayward way, they want a clear and orthodox path to follow. And there is the crucial willingness to make sacrifices for such a path. No longer is the easy way desirable or even fashionable. In this sense, the style of Watts' message is anachronistic:the
time of going with the flow of Tao and dwelling blissfully in the Eternal Now has mostly--and mercifully--come and gone, There has been a massive return to orthopraxis in spirituality, a change we applaud. The virtue of Watts' waywardness is that it humanizes the path, makes it seem accessible and vital. But about the next step, the actual practice of the path, whatever it may be, Watts has very little that is helpful or useful to say. He takes one just so far and no further. As a compellingly human introduction to spirituality and mysticism, there is probably none finer than that of Watts' work; but mere introduction it remains, For those who wish actually to accomplish the Way, Watts must be left behind--with fond memories, to be sure, but nonetheless with a certain residue of bewilderment as well.
1. In My Own Way, p. 5.
2. Ibid., p. x.
3. Ibid., p. 5.
4. Ibid., p. ix.
5. Ibid., pp. 72, 258.
6. Ibid., p. 303.
7. It is interesting to note that the Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche uses the same expression, "spiritual materialism," to refer to the tendency on the part of ego to co-opt and appropriate the process of spiritual liberation. We find this true of Watts' mysticism. It is ironic that Watts should use this expression. See Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Berkeley California: Shambhala Publications, 1973).
8. In My Own Way, P.ix .
9. Ibid., p. 290.
10. Ibid., p. 278.
11. Behold the* Spirit, pp. 93-104.
12. The Way of Zen. pp. 109-111.
13. In the preface to The Way of Zen Watts indicates that the point of view adopted is neither Zen nor anything Western, but a third point of view, his own. Why not a Zen interpretation of Zen, rather than one `a la Watts? The answer is that Watts wishes to reconstruct Zen in such a way that certain crucial aspects unacceptable to him are eliminated. What he does to the concept of enlightenment experience is an example of such a reconstruction. See the preface in its entirety.
14. See, for example, The Wisdom of Insecurity, pp. 99, 114, 127-132.
15. In My Own Way p. 258.
16. The Way of Zen, p. 171.
17. The Supreme Identity. p. 48.
18. This kind of claim can be found throughout Watts' works. See, for example, The Book, p. 125; Nature, Man and Woman, p. 96, and The Supreme Identity in its entirety.
19. The Way Of` Zen, p. 160
20. The Supreme Identity. pp. 43, 46-73.
21. In My Own Way , pp. 276--78, 289.
22. Behold the Spirit, pp. 131-147.
23. In My Own Way, p. 54.
24. Behold the Spirit, pp.153-184
25. In My Own Way , p. 97.
26. Ibid., p.201.
27. Ibid., pp. 152-153.
28. Ibid., p. 172.
31. This Is It ,, p. 30.
32. In My Own Way , p. 224.
33. Ibid.. p. 224.
34. Ibid., p. 37.
35. The use of the term "art" here is very important for an understanding of Watts' interpretation of meditation and spiritual practice. From a philosophical point of view. the force of the term is designed to exclude questions of cognitive content. See The Art of` Contemplation.
36. In My Own Way. p.69.
37. This Is It, p.11.
38. Ibid., p.13.
39. Ibid., p.17.
40. In My Own Way, p. 83
41. This Is It, p.18.
42. Ibid., pp.18-19.
43. Ibid.. p.31.
44. Ibid., p.34.
45. It is not easy to succinctly support this generalization about spiritual trends in contemporary American culture. A convincing example of what is meant here can be taken from the kind of Buddhism popular in this country: all three forms of Buddhism in America (Zen, Tibetan, and Theravada) are based on meditation practice. The tendency seems to be away from religion as dogma and toward religion as experience. See Jacob Needleman, The New Religions (New York: Double-day, 1974).
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"Essential Lectures I and II."
Mill City, California: Essential Recordings; 1973.
"Lecture Courses." Mill City, California: Electronic University; n.d.
"Videocassette Seminars." Mill City, California: Essential Recordings; n.d.
Films (16mm, no dates)
From Hartley Productions; Cos Cob, Connecticut:
"The Art of Meditation"
"Buddhism, Man and Nature"
"Flow of Zen''
"Flowing with the Tao"
"Mood of Zen"
"Zen and Now"
From Essential Recordings; Mill City, California:
"Man in Nature"
"Work as Play"