Alan Watts’ Psychotherapy East and West

As I mentioned in a recent post, a new edition of Alan Watts’ Psychotherapy East and West has been published by New World Library and I received a free copy for review.

According to the publisher’s description on the back, “When psychotherapy merely helps us adjust to social norms, Watts argued, it falls short of true liberation, while Eastern philosophy seeks our natural relation to the cosmos.”

In Watt’s view, both Eastern philosophy and psychotherapy have the same goal: death of the ego, the sublimation of the fictional self.  And both could benefit in learning from the other.

It is important to keep in mind this book was first published 56 years ago.  That most of it remains relevant today is remarkable, but there are some places where Watts’ assumptions no longer hold water.  The book was a reaction to the state of psychotherapy in the late 1950’s.  For instance, Watts criticizes American psychology for being “over-Puritan.”  I doubt if that is the case today.

As far as any blending of East and West is concerned, some folks may gloss over this huge caveat:

“Nevertheless, the parallel between psychotherapy and, as I have called them, the Eastern ‘ways of liberation’ is not exact, and one of the most important differences is suggested by the prefix psycho-.  Historically, Western psychology has directed itself to the study of the psyche or mind as a clinical entity, whereas Eastern cultures have not categorized mind and matter, soul and body, in the same way as the Western.”

What we have here is basically “East is East and West is West,” that is, two radically different approaches to the problem of human suffering, one based on intuitive reasoning, the other based on a deductive mode of reason.  I am not sure the twain can ever truly meet, which is part of my concern about how the modern Mindfulness movement seems overly dependent on Western psychology.

That, and the question of outdated assumptions aside, Psychotherapy East and West is replete with the timeless wisdom that Alan Watts seemed to posses naturally, and which made him such an influential figure.  He is, as usual, erudite and thought-provoking.  He makes several points very clear, such as Eastern ways of liberation are not religion, and they have nothing to do with the supernatural:

“All my experience of those who are proficient in the ways of liberation indicates that feat of magic or neurotechnology are quite beside the point… I have found no evidence whatsoever for any sensational achievement of this kind.  If they have achieved anything at all it is of a far humbler nature and in quite a different direction, and something which strikes me as actually more impressive.”

Which strikes me as a very nice description of the process of awakening or enlightenment.  The passage appears in a section in which Watts makes his chief assertion:

“Yet very few modern authorities on Buddhism or Vedanta seem to realize that social institutions constitute the maya, the illusion, from which they offer release.”

Because I tend to look at this through the lens of Buddha-dharma, it occurs to me that there is some evidence to suggest that in developing the sangha, the Buddha was attempting to create a new society, but, in the end, does the Buddhist sangha, all the temples and centers, actually perpetuate the illusion we are seeking to dispel?  Watts says that we should “see that social institutions are simply rules of communication which have no more universal validity than, say, the rules of a particular grammar.”  Easier said than done.  I wonder how freedom from the maya of social institutions relates to the sense of personal liberation that is one of the major characteristics of Buddhism?

I think those who have an interest in psychology will get more out of this book than others will.  Personally, I don’t care too much whether or not “Freud and Jung seem in some ways to be wiser than the Existentialists.”  I don’t practice Buddhist Psychology, and I don’t see the historical Buddha as an ancient psychotherapist as some others do, but for those attracted to that approach, I will remind again, in Watts’ words:

“[It] strikes the uninformed Westerner that Buddhism could be an alternative to Christianity…”

Likewise, the same person may think that Western psychology + meditation could be an alternative to Buddhism.  As Watts noted above, those who are proficient in the Eastern ways of liberation are headed in a “different direction.”  And while we may agree that these Eastern “ways” compare to nothing in the West except for psychotherapy, we must be careful not to think that they are psychotherapy, for that would be illusion.

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The Womb Realm

Esoteric Buddhism (Vajrayana) imagines two realms or worlds (dhatu), the Diamond Realm (Vajradhatu) and the Womb Realm (Garbhadhatu), mystical spaces that represent certain principles, different bodies of the Buddha, and various celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas.  They could be called “buddhaverses.” The two realms correspond to the concept of the Two Truths as presented by Nagarjuna.

And they are presented graphically as mandala, which are diagrams, geometric patterns and art depicting or mapping out a buddhaverse and are used primarily as an aid to meditation.  In Japanese Buddhism, mandala is frequently used in the Shingon and Tendai schools.

The two realms are not separate (just as the Two Truths are not really two) but rather manifest one reality, and this oneness is represented in the Mandala of the Two Realms.  The individual mandala are the Diamond Realm and the Womb (or Matrix) Realm Mandala.   The Womb Realm (Taizokai) symbolizes the world of embryonic truth, and the Diamond Realm (Kongokai), the world of ultimate truth.

As you can see from the above image of the Womb Realm Mandala, various Buddhas and celestial beings are grouped together in halls or courts surrounding the central 8-Petal Hall and the central figure, the cosmic Buddha Dainichi (Mahavairocana), representing the Dharma Body of the historical Buddha.

Recently I put together a piece of ambient music that to me sounds like the Womb Realm.  Ambient is defined as “a genre of instrumental music that focuses on sound patterns more than melodic form and is used to create a certain atmosphere or state of mind.”

You can also listen to the piece on my YouTube channel.

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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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“Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance”

A few weeks after 9/11, The Onion (“America’s Finest New Source”) ran this headline:  “A Shattered Nation Longs to Care about Stupid Bullshit Again.”  It wasn’t fake news but satire, humor, and there was probably some truth to it.  The Onion could use that headline again now and it would be at least partly true.

The election in November and the inauguration in January has left many of us really bummed out.  We have a new term for it:  Post Election Stress Disorder.  PESD.  Evidently, it hits people on both sides.  The American Psychological Association’s recent survey, “Stress in America,” shows that 49 percent of Americans remain concerned about the election, 66 percent are concerned about the future of the nation, and 57 percent were worried about the current political climate.  The election is still stressing people out, while the inauguration is still creeping them out.

Over the weekend, Huffington Post ran an article titled “A Zen Master’s Advice on Coping with Trump,” the Zen master being Thich Nhat Hanh.  The piece includes some quotes from Thay’s new book, At Home in the World.  The HP also asked a nun and a monk from Plum Village in France for some guidance on how to survive in Trumpland.

Brother Phap Dung stated,

“We have the wrong perception that we are separate from the other. So in a way Trump is a product of a certain way of being in this world so it is very easy to have him as a scapegoat. But if we look closely, we have elements of Trump in us and it is helpful to have time to reflect on that.”

The article also quoted James S. Gordon, a psychiatrist and founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, who wrote in The Guardian,

“Trump’s grand and vulgar self-absorption is inviting all of us to examine our own selfishness. His ignorance calls us to attend to our own blind spots.  The fears that he stokes and the isolation he promotes goad us to be braver, more generous.”

The Trump Presidency is almost unbearable to me.  It is an outrage and a national embarrassment.  My fear of and loathing for the man is wide, and deep.  But deeper still is a place within where I know that Phap Dung and James Gordon are right:  Trump is a reflection of ourselves.

The enemy always is.

In 2011, following the death of Osama bin Laden, I wrote:

“As a way of developing abundant compassion, prayers for a monster can be powerful. When we practice loving-kindness meditation, one of the four types of persons we develop compassion toward is a “hostile” person.  Someone with whom we are at odds, have difficulties about, who provokes our anger…” 

Trump is certainly in that category.  I added that “sometimes practicing compassion should be a real challenge.”  Part of the challenge is looking inside and seeing the reflection of our enemy within.  It is going to be difficult for me to summon up warm thoughts of loving-kindness for the monster in the White House.  It is much easier to despise him.  But that is not the Bodhisattva Way.

Compassion does not mean we stop our resistance, or that we cease calling the enemy out for his frequent lies, or stop mocking his alternative reality.  The way I look at it, resistance is compassion, too.  We resist for the sake of ourselves and others.

There is no doubt in my mind the nation, and the world, would be better off if Agent Orange had never run for president, let alone gotten himself elected.  But the enemy is here, and for us, his presence is not a reason for despair; it is an opportunity, a cause for compassion, a test of our capacity for tolerance.

“For a practitioner of love and compassion, an enemy is one of the most important teachers.  Without an enemy you cannot practice tolerance, and without tolerance you cannon build a sound basis of compassion.  So in order to practice compassion, you should have an enemy.

When you face your enemy who is going to hurt you, that is the real time to practice tolerance. Therefore, an enemy is the cause of the practice of tolerance; tolerance is the effect or result of an enemy.  So those are cause and effect.  As is said, ‘Once something has the relationship of arising from that thing, one cannot consider that thing from which it arises as a harmer; rather it assists the production of the effect’.”

Shantideva, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life*

– – – – – – – – – –

As quoted in How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life by Dalai Lama XIV

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Biocentrism and the Continuum of Consciousness

There’s a guy named Robert Lanza, who is Chief Scientific Officer at Ocata Therapeutics (formerly Advanced Cell Technology), and Adjunct Professor at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, who is supposed to be one of the most respected scientists in the world.

Lanza has a theory called biocentrism.  It is not about ethics but rather deals with the idea of a ‘biocentric’ universe.  He calls it a “Theory of Everything.”  (I thought it was Stephen Hawking who had The Theory of Everything?)

On Lanza’s website, he says,

“According to biocentrism, space and time are simply the tools our mind uses to weave information together into a coherent experience — they are the language of consciousness…”

In other words, the universe could be merely a thought construction.  Perhaps consciousness even has a role in the creation of matter.  Certainly, Lanza maintains, an understanding of consciousness is crucial to understanding the universe.  He’s not the only scientist who is beginning to see things in that way.  However, this interesting theory is a bit off topic for this post.

What I find intriguing today is that Lanza (and others) view consciousness as a “linear stream” that does not end at physical death.  Death is merely a break in this stream and consciousness goes on.

According to what I’ve read, in Lanza’s theory if the body is the generator of consciousness, then consciousness passes away when the body dies.  But if consciousness is received in the same way that a cable box receives satellite signals, that’s a different story – then consciousness would not end with physical death.  Apparently, you can understand this easily if you understand about the quantum double slit experiment, which is, frankly, way over my head. 

In any case, all this is interesting because it coincides with the Buddhist idea of a continuum of consciousness, and if consciousness moving on after death could be verified in some way, it would be possible to attach some credence to notions such as karma and rebirth

Now, here is what the Dalai Lama had to say on the subject of consciousness at UCLA in 1997 during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland:

“[If] you are able to isolate your mind [from] object oriented activity and insure that there is no thinking about the past or anticipation of the future, by trying to remain in the present, then gradually you are able to sense an absence, an emptiness, and that through persistent practice of meditation, slowly, I feel that you can begin to realize, experientially, what is this consciousness, which is the mere nature of experience and knowing, a form of luminous phenomena.

If you approach in this manner, I feel that there is a tremendous scope for discovery.  I feel that at a certain point you will get, through your own experience, a sense of what conscious really is.

According to the Buddhist explanation, consciousness or mind is said to be non-obstructive – there’s no physical properties, there’s no shape, it’s colorless, and it is in the nature of mere experience.  And it is the form of knowing and awareness.  Also we find in Buddhism that there is an appreciation of the existence of different levels of reality.  First of all, in Buddhism, whether or not that object or phenomena exists or not is considered from the point of view of whether the perception of an object or phenomena is a valid experience.

Considering this, it is possible that you can get a glimpse of emptiness, given that consciousness is a phenomena that is dynamic, that is in the form of a process.  Consciousness is transient, it goes through various stages of changes and that, in itself, is an indication that it is a product of causes and conditions. In the case of human consciousness, or mind, if we trace the path of causation we find that within the category of causes there are certain types of causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes which can be described as material causes or substantial causes.  It is these factors that actually turn into the phenomena.  There are other types of causes which are more corporative or contributing conditions.  In terms of consciousness or mind, since it must posses a substantial cause, one could argue that the continuum, in terms of it’s origin, the continuum of the substantial cause must remain.  Therefore, the substantial cause of any sense of consciousness must necessarily be consciousness, either in a manifest form or in potential.”

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