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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The Moon in Water

Tuesday was Bodhi Day, a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment. I mentioned it only in passing because I wanted to focus on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death.

According to legend, after renouncing extreme asceticism, Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation beneath a Ficus religiosa tree until on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month (Jp. rohatsu) he attained enlightenment and became Buddha.

In early Buddhism, individuals could only achieve enlightenment after engaging in Buddhist practice over the course of many lifetimes. In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism came along centuries after the Buddha’s advent and said that because all people inherently posses Buddha-nature, enlightenment was attainable in this very lifetime.

There are several different accounts of what happened under the bodhi tree. Because the Buddha’s time is so remote to us, it is unlikely we will ever know the facts. Bodhi is the state of awakening.

Naturally, there is diverse opinion as to the nature of enlightenment. In his writing, the Genjokoan, Dogen, offers this beautiful explanation:

moonlight2bAttaining enlightenment is like the reflection of the moon on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. . . For all the breadth and vastness of its light, it rests upon a small patch of water. Both the whole moon and the sky in its entirety come to rest in a single dewdrop of grass, in a mere drop of water.

Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot obstruct enlightenment any more than the drop of dew obstructs the moon in the sky. *

The analogy of “the moon in water” appears frequently in Buddhist literature. It symbolizes emptiness. Enlightenment is empty, in that it is not a fixed state of mind or being. Nevertheless, we say that enlightenment reflects the true reality. It does not divide us because reality is non-dual, there is nothing to divide.

Nagarjuna called the undivided (advaya) being the true nature of reality. Advaya is a Sanskrit word that means ‘not-two:

The ultimately true nature of enlightenment and the ultimately true nature of all things are in truth but one reality, not two, not divided.” **

Another way to express this not-twoness is harmony. Enlightenment or bodhi is realizing the world of harmony that has always been present within and without you.

– – – – – – – – – –

* Waddell, Norman and ABE, Masao, trans. Shobogenzo Genjokoan. The Eastern Buddhist, 1972, 136

** Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987, 268

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December 8: Bodhi Day, Sad Day

River_Buddha2bToday is Bodhi Day, which in Mahayana Buddhism is set aside for commemorating the day the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautauma (Shakyamuni), attained enlightenment. From what I have seen it is predominately the Japanese Buddhist traditions that observe this day, known as Rohatsu, literally “eighth day of the twelfth month.” In the Tendai sect, the celebration is called Jodo-e or “completing the path to becoming a Buddha (through attaining enlightenment) [Jodo but with different characters means “pure land.”].

There are different accounts of what supposedly happened that morning when the Buddha was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree on the bank of the Nairanjana River, most of them portray the event as some mind-blowing, almost psychedelic experience. I doubt that was the case. Regardless, all the accounts agree that what happened was a result of meditation.

Here is what the great Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki had to say about Bodhi Day, the Buddha’s enlightenment and meditation in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

I am very glad to be here on the day Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bo tree. When he attained enlightenment under the Bo tree, he said, “It is wonderful to see Buddha nature in everything and in each individual!” What he meant was that when we practice zazen [meditation] we have Buddha nature, and each of us is Buddha himself. By practice he did not mean just to sit under the Bo tree, or to sit in the cross-legged posture. It is true that this posture is the basic one or original way for us, but actually what Buddha meant was that mountains, trees, flowing water, flowers and plants–everything as it is–is the way Buddha is. It means everything is taking Buddha’s activity, each thing in its own way.

But the way each thing exists is not to be understood by itself in its own realm of consciousness. What we see or what we hear is just a part, or a limited idea, of what we actually are. But when we just are–each just existing in his own way –we are expressing Buddha himself. In other words, when we practice something such as Zazen, then there is Buddha’s way or Buddha nature. When we ask what Buddha nature is, it vanishes; but when we just practice zazen, we have full understanding of it. The only way to understand Buddha nature is just to practice zazen, just to be here as we are. So what Buddha meant by Buddha nature was to be there as he was, beyond the realm of consciousness.”

It is highly unlikely that the Buddha spoke the words Suzuki attributes to him, of course, but it doesn’t matter. The spirit of the words is what is important.

For many of us, each December 8 comes with a touch of sadness, for on this date in 1980, 34 years ago, John Lennon was shot to death outside his apartment building in New York City.

Turn off your mind, relax
And float down stream
It is not dying
It is not dying

Lay down all thought
Surrender to the void
It is shining
It is shining

That you may see
The meaning of within
It is being
It is being

That love is all
And love is everyone
It is knowing
It is knowing

That ignorance and hate
May mourn the dead
It is believing
It is believing

But listen to the
Color of your dreams
It is not living
It is not living

Or play the game
Existence to the end
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning
Of the beginning

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Loving-Kindness Supports the World

A Thai monk I know once taught me the phrase lokopatthambhika metta or “loving-kindness supports the world.”

But how? It is difficult to imagine, for the world seems supported, or certainly permeated, by darkness, evil, hatred, violence. You might think it must be a optimist/pessimist kind of thing, you know, where the glass is either half empty or half full. That’s not it, though. It is a whole other way of thinking. It’s like when John and Yoko said war is over, if you want it.

If we want it, metta or loving-kindness can be an active force. The Tevigga Sutta says,

And he lets his mind pervade one quarter of the world with thoughts of loving-kindness, and so the second, and so the third, and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world, above, below, around, and everywhere, does he continue to pervade with a heart of loving-kindness, far-reaching, grown great, and beyond measure.”

One of the Buddha’s desires was that his disciples would truly care for other beings. The Buddha knew it is very easy to understand our own sufferings, but a real challenge to understand the sufferings of another person. He said that is the real meaning of sincerity – having empathy for the situations of others. And it is not just understanding their suffering, it’s also understanding their behavior. When we develop insight into behavior and identify with the emotions that drive behavior, it’s not so easy to judge and condemn.

But, back to the question, how does loving-kindness support the world? Perhaps we can get a clue from these words by the great teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti:

The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love and feel the depth, the delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that for you the world is transformed.”

Loving-kindness supports the world through transformation.

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A Kick in the Pants

Here is a well-known Buddhist story. There are a number of slightly different versions, this is mine:

A monk named Hung Chou came to visit the Ch’an master Ma Tzu one time and asked him, “Why is it said that in order to become Buddha you must give up both the idea of Buddha and the idea of yourself?”

Ma Tzu replied, “I will tell you, but when discussing such deep subjects, one should make a bow to the Buddha first.”

Hung Chou faced the statue of the Buddha and bowed. As he was making this prostration, Ma Tzu gave him a swift kick in the pants and knocked him over. Taken aback for a moment, Hung Chou was soon laughing hysterically.

He experienced immediate awakening, and later, he would tell people, “Ever since master Ma Tzu kicked me, I haven’t been able to stop laughing!”

If you have been around Buddhism a while, that is, brick and mortar Buddhism, you’ve probably had an experience similar to this, where you ask a teacher a sincere question and all you get is some cryptic answer. It can be frustrating. There are times when you want to say, for Pete’s sake, can’t you just give a straight answer for once? But a straight answer is not always what you need.

Ma Tzu (709-788) was a very famous Ch’an (Zen) master. He did stuff like that all the time, giving paradoxical answers and kicking students. Sometimes, though, instead of a kick he’d spray a little seltzer down their pants.

Now, had it been me in that situation, I would have asked, “Why do I have to bow to Buddha before we can discuss my question about giving up Buddha?” because that’s the kind of hairpin I am.

And if Ma Tzu had been in the right mood, he might been willing to provide a more straightforward explanation similar to this one given by Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind/Beginner’s Mind:

By bowing we are giving up ourselves. To give up ourselves means to give up our dualistic ideas. So there is no difference between [meditation] practice and bowing. Usually to bow means to pay our respects to something which is more worthy of respect than ourselves. But when you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”

And that is just about the best answer to why you must give up both the idea of Buddha and yourself that you will ever get, except for maybe a swift kick in the pants.

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