Alan Watts, Buddha and Religion

One of the perks of having a blog is that from time to time publishers contact you offering a free book for a review or mention.  I’ve turned down quite a few of these offers because I had no interest in the book being proffered.  Recently, though, New World Library asked if I would be interested in reviewing a reprint of Alan Watt’s Psychotherapy East and West, and it’s hard to turn down something by Alan Watts.

Watts was one of the most influential interpreters of Eastern philosophy.  During the 60s and 70s, untold numbers of spiritual seekers were first turned on to Buddhism through his books and audio tapes.  That influence continues today.  Psychotherapy East and West was first published in 1961.  I will have a more detailed review in a future post but today I want to make a few remarks about the first sentence in the book, and in doing so I have incorporated some material from one of the first posts I wrote for this blog back in April 2010.

“If we look deeply into such ways of life as Buddhism and Taoism, Vedanta and Yoga, we do not find either philosophy or religion as these are understood in the West.”

Watts was the first person (that I know of) to state that Buddhism is not a religion.  In this and in other writings, he described Buddha-dharma as a way of life, a view of life.  I would add, a state of mind.

The question of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy is a continuing discussion.  Is it important how we define Buddhism? I believe it is, because here in the West in the 21st century, whether we are conscious of it or not, we are busy re-defining Buddhism, looking at how it may or may not be compatible with other religions, exploring how it may or may not be consistent with modern science, and so on.  For many, the inclusion or absence of religious elements is crucial in making a decision about engaging in Buddhist practice.

When they don’t get in the way, the religious elements are fine.  They provide a container for the different aspects of Buddha-dharma such as ethics and wisdom.  However, Buddhism sans religious elements seems to me to be broader and more accessible, especially to those in this 21st century who reject the idea of religion or who consider themselves “spiritual-but-not-religious.”  Religious elements can, at times, get in the way or muddle the essential message and practice of dharma.

Since the Buddha is the founder and central figure in this dharma, I think it is helpful to look back at the historical Buddha and see if we can glean his original intent, which can serve as a guide for us going forward.  Admittedly, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of the historical Buddha.  His time is remote to us and there were no biographies of his life produced until centuries after his passing when the myths about him were already set in stone.  Nonetheless, modern scholars have been able to provide us with a rough sketch of Siddhartha Gautama, a man who was not a superhuman being, a performer of miracles, founder of a religion, or a monk.

One thing I think it is clear is that the Buddha had no intention of starting a ‘religion.’  He was familiar the religion of his day, the Brahman priests and rituals and prayers and the pantheon of gods, and he was critical of them, doubting their efficacy.

He did not come from what we would describe as a religious tradition.  Throughout the Indian sub-continent during the Buddha’s time, there was an established tradition of wandering ascetics, “homeless ones”, spiritual seekers, men, and sometimes women, who had “dropped out”, as we used to say.  They, too, were critical of Vedic social culture and religious practice.

Siddhartha became a shramana, literally “one who strives.”  There were basically three kinds of sharamanas: ascetics, meditation practitioners, and philosophers.  The Buddha was an itinerant philosopher who taught meditation.  Not a ‘preacher,’ or a man of ‘religion.’

The teaching the Buddha offered were not built upon the idea of a supreme being.  The Buddha did not teach his followers to worship, but rather to use meditation to analyze the human condition.  Belief and faith were not important, but what was crucial was one’s behavior, for the true sphere of action for Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is daily life, where the insights gained through meditation are put into practice.

In his book, The Buddha, Prof. Trevor Ling wrote:

“[The Buddha] was not regarded by the earliest generation of Buddhists as a superhuman figure of any kind.  He had no religious role, such as that of the chosen revealer of divine truth, nor was he regarded by the early Buddhists as in any sense a superhuman saviour.”

Again, the Buddha was essentially a meditation teacher.  His message was simple: everyone has problems, and if you want to learn how to better cope with your problems, and perhaps even overcome the sufferings they bring, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still, and calm your mind.

Disciples of shramana teachers would literally follow them, forming small wandering communities.  They called these groups sangha, meaning “republic”, named and styled after the republican governments that were slowly giving way to monarchies.

J.P. Sharma, in “Republics of Ancient India” says that in the tribal sanghas (republics) “each member of the assembly was called a ‘raja’ (ruler), but none had the individual power to mold the decisions of the assembly.”  It would appear that the Buddha applied this same principle to the Buddhist Sangha, and he repeatedly told his disciples that “It is not I who leads the brotherhood” and that “the community is not dependent upon me.”

The individual members of the Sangha were known as bhikkhus or “sharesmen.”  They shared in a communal life.  The bhikkhu was not a monk, a recluse or religious hermit.  This was not a cloistered community, but a wandering band, always staying on the edge of towns and cities, and interacting daily with people of all castes. Although they wore robes of a certain color to distinguish them from other homeless seekers, it is doubtful that they shaved their heads or that the Sangha established many of the religious trappings we now associate with Buddhism.  The monastic bhikkhus came much later.

The Buddhist Sangha had little formalism to their activities or organization.  Becoming a bhikkhu was a fairly simple matter.  You’d ask, and the reply was simply “ehi bhikkhu” (“come, bhikkhu”).  The idea of “ordination” is problematic because it raises the question, what was the Buddha ordaining them to?  He, himself was not ordained, and once again, it was not his aim to create a religion that would require ordained leaders.

The Buddha may have been interested in forming a new society, a counter-culture.  David Loy, Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati, states, “the Buddha wasn’t just forming a small group of monastics to support their own realization, but that he was modeling a broader, transformative vision for how society should function.”

More importantly, I think the Buddha was focused on modeling a better human being.  It is said that the purpose of the Buddha’s appearance in this world lies in his behavior as a human being. This suggests that if one person, an ordinary mortal, can acquire great wisdom and overcome problems by practicing self-reflection and compassion, any other person can, too.  For us, this is what the Buddha should represent, the potential for awakening, the possibilities for transcending suffering.

Returning to Alan Watts, the second sentence in the book reads “We find something more nearly resembling psychotherapy.”  So, if Buddhism is not a religion or philosophy as we know those terms, is it then psychotherapy?  Well, Watts is not exactly saying that either.  He’s saying that it is closer to psychotherapy than anything else in the West.  Watts saw Western ‘psychotherapy’ as more efficacious than Western religion but, as he states in the introduction to the book, “out of touch.”  Unfortunately, there are those who have tried to turn Buddha-dharma into a form of psychology (one of my beefs with the modern mindfulness industry or revolution) and I’m not sure that was what Watts was endorsing.  However, it is a subject I’ll discuss in a future post concerning Psychotherapy East and West.

Later in the opening paragraph, Alan Watts says

“Yet the basic aim of these ways of life is something of quite astonishing simplicity, beside which all the complications of reincarnation and psychic powers, of superhuman mahatmas, and of schools of occult technology, are a smoke screen in which the credulous inquirer can lose himself indefinitely.”

And further on in the book:

“[One] of the consequences of taking Buddhism… out of its cultural context is, as we have seen, the supposition it is a religion in the same sense as Christianity and with the same social function.”

To Alan Watts in 1961 this comparison was already “ceasing to be intellectually respectable.”  Perhaps it is unavoidable that we apply Western definitions to Eastern philosophies, but it seems a mistake.  This is important because one of our goals is to perceive the true aspect of reality and if we approach Buddhism and view it as something it is not, we are handicapped from the beginning.

Buddhism is a path, a Tao or Way.  We have no category for it in the West.  If describing it as a path or a way does not satisfy and people feel a need to call it something else, then let’s just call it “something else.”

“That ‘something else’ was this thing that I will call the religion of no-religion.”

– Alan Watts, Buddhism: The Religion of No-Religion, 1999

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4 thoughts on “Alan Watts, Buddha and Religion

    1. Thanks Bob for sharing the link. A good article that had me until the UFO stuff. As I believe the author is suggesting, practice is senior to theory, and my feeling is that from the standpoint of practice, it’s not crucial that we try and figure out which words the Buddha actually spoke, but it is important to be aware that the sutras cannot absolutely “be identified with the historical person of Siddhattha Gotama.” It doesn’t even matter whether or not there was a historical Buddha, for as he says in the piece, “We can only know the Buddha’s mind through knowing our own Buddha mind.” I couldn’t agree with that more.

      As far as the dating of the Buddha is concerned, here’s a piece I published a few years ago: http://theendlessfurther.com/whats-all-the-hubub-bub/

  1. In a way, Buddha started off a revolution of sorts against existing superstitions, rituals, gods, blind-beliefs. He succeeded wildly. Probably more than he thought he would. 1000yrs after his death, Buddhism was going stronger than ever. Granted, it declined in india and elsewhere, where gods came back with even stronger force.

    We need another turning of the wheel. I guess we will find out in couple hundred years if whats happening in western buddhism is such an event.

    There is archaeological proof early buddhists (with-in 100 yrs of buddha’s death) never had his statue (or worship him), They would worship either his footprints (symbolizing the “path”), or elephant as a symbol (represents the path http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.027.than.html)

    This looks like a luxury only a rich society can support/sustain. After-all, it requires one to use their mind properly , not believe blindly. Some societys/cultures (or kings, state, etc) cannot afford it for their masses.

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