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


Einstein and the Mysterians

Today is the 135th anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birth. He is, as they like to say in show business, a man who needs no introduction. It’s thought that Einstein was generally sympathetic to Buddhism, and you may be familiar with this popular quote attributed to him:

Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: It transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural and the spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity.  If there is any religion that could respond to the needs of modern science, it would be Buddhism.”

However, as far as I know, these words cannot be traced to a legitimate source, suggesting that it is probably not a genuine Einstein quote.

There are conflicting views about Einstein’s position on religion and spirituality. For instance, another quote attributed to him, “God does not play dice with the universe,” is used to bolster the notion that Einstein believed in a personal God, or at the very least a creator god. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Atheists like to claim him as one of them, but he quite often described himself as agnostic. On one occasion, he said he was a believer in “Spinoza’s God.” Spinoza maintained that God is the only substance of the universe: God is the universe, is nature, is everything.  But I feel Einstein thought of God as a metaphor, and perhaps Spinoza did as well, I am not an expert in his philosophy.

In a speech he gave in Berlin during the 1920’s, Einstein said,

The most beautiful and deepest that man can experience is the feeling of the mysterious. It is the foundation of religion as well as of all deeper striving of art and science.

Who never experienced that seems to me if not a dead person but then a blind person.

To feel that behind the experience of things there is something hidden and unreachable for our spirit, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirect and as a weak reflection, that is religiousness.

In this sense, I am religious. It is sufficient for me to have a presentiment in amazement of these mysteries, and to try with humility to comprehend intellectually a weak reflection of this sublime structure of being.”

It does seem that late in life, according to a recently discovered 1954 letter, Einstein had concluded that God was an expression of human weakness and that religion was childish.

Now, when I think of Albert Einstein these subjects do not usually come to mind, but rather his theory of relativity (e=mc2), and of course, Bob Dylan’s take on the great physicist in “Desolation Row”:

Einstein on Desolation RowEinstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row


Buddhism: Beyond Religion

A recent message on the Dalai Lama’s Facebook page has gotten some attention. It reads,

All the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance, and forgiveness can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

Well, religion has never been adequate, and Buddhism was never intended to be a religion. Buddha was not a religious figure. He wasn’t a god, a miracle worker, a faith healer, nor was he a prophet like Isaiah or Muhammad, or a law-bringer in the way Moses was – he was a meditation teacher, an itinerant philosopher. The spiritual tradition he belonged to, the sramanas, was not a religious movement, it was outside of religion, and it seems the Buddha was critical of the established religion of his day, with its reliance on ritual, incantations, and prophecies, and he rejected the authority of the priests.

The Buddha’s message was not religious, either. Buddha-dharma says, everyone has problems, and if you want to learn how to deal with your problems more effectively and perhaps even overcome the sufferings your problems bring, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still, and calm your mind. That’s not a particularly religious message. It’s a very practical message. After all, what is the best thing to do when we have a problem? Rush out willy-nilly, higgly-piggly, and try to affect a solution? No, it’s best to sit down, think the problem through, calmly, maybe analyze the causes for the problem, and then work out a solution. It’s the same principal in Buddha-dharma, only we are dealing with deeper levels of the mind.

Buddha was not concerned about the existence of gods, or speculation about how the world was made. He was concerned only with the question of how to solve human problems, how to relieve suffering.

The Buddha asked his followers not to worship him. He actually forbade them from revering his relics. That’s why for several centuries no representations of the Buddha were used, only images of a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, a Bodhi leaf, and so on. But humans being what they are just couldn’t help themselves . . .

As I see it, Buddha-dharma begins with the premise that religion is not adequate. Buddhism has always been beyond religion.

You are not, O Bhikkhus, to learn–to teach–the low arts of divination, spells, omens, astrology, sacrifices to gods, witchcraft, and quackery.”

– Vinaya Pitaka, S.B.E, Vol. XX

“Let him not use Atharva Vedic spells, nor things foretell from dreams or signs or stars; let not my follower predict from cries, cure barrenness nor practice quackery.”

– Sutta Nipata, IV., 14

“So, Ananda, you must be your own lamps, be your own refuges. Take refuge in nothing outside yourselves. Hold firm to the truth as a lamp and a refuge, and do not look for refuge to anything besides yourselves.”

– Mahaparinibbana Sutta, Digha Nikaya 16


Book Review: Joseph Campbell “Myths of Light – Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal”

I just read a new book by Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light – Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, which I received as a review copy from New World Library.  Campbell, of course, passed away in 1987, and this new tome is compiled from previously unpublished lectures and articles.

The year Campbell died was the same year PBS presented his six-part conversation with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. After the program aired, a television executive (I think he was with CBS) said that if it had been shown on any of the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), which would have vastly increased the viewership (remember this was pretty much a pre-cable time), the program would have changed the face of religion in America.

It certainly changed how I viewed religion, and since then, I have maintained that anyone who wishes to write, talk, or even just participate in any kind of religion or spiritual practice, would benefit greatly if they viewed this program first.

Throughout his career as a mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell showed us, as he wrote in Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, how “[Religion] may, in a sense, be understood as popular misunderstanding of mythology.” In The Power of Myth he famously commented that when religion “gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”

I’ve always felt that if everyone could just get this one point, it would prevent so much confusion.

But not so fast. Confusion still abounds.

In the first chapter of Myths of Light, Campbell relates a story about attending a series of talks given by Martin Buber at Columbia:

It was during the third lecture that I got up my nerve to raise my hand. Very gently and nicely he asked, “What is it, Mr. Campbell?”

“Well,” I said, “there is a word being used here this evening that I just can’t follow; I don’t know what the word refers to.”

“What is the word?”

I said, “God.”

Well, his eyes opened. He looked in utter amazement at me and he said, “You don’t know what God means?”

I said, “I don’t know what you mean by God. You’re telling me that God has hidden his face. Now, I am just back from India, where people are experience and beholding God all the time.”

I don’t know what either of them mean by God. The use of words like “his” and “beholding” suggest to me a personal god or a “supreme being.” Yet, in the same chapter, Campbell makes it clear that “the basic idea of the Oriental philosophies to this day” is that “the cosmos is not ruled by a personal god; rather, an impersonal power.” I guess I just don’t know what Campbell means by God. I suppose if you can experience an impersonal power, you can also behold it . . . In the second chapter, “The Jiva’s Journey”, he discusses the meaning of AUM (OM): “AUM is God. AUM is the sound of God.” That is certainly not the way I understand AUM. Just what does Campbell mean by God?

Perhaps, the confusion is on my part, or maybe it belongs to David Kudler, who edited the book, or it might be Campbell’s. I don’t know, but I do find the G-word to be extremely cumbersome with all the baggage it carries and could do without it.

Unfortunately, this “confusion” made the book somewhat less enjoyable. But that is not to say that Myths of Light isn’t a good read. Campbell’s conversational style is immensely readable. A great storyteller, he uses stories to explain complicated concepts plainly and simply, and that’s what makes this and his other works so compelling.

One point I think he makes very clear in a direct manner something about the role and nature of religion. Many people today, especially a lot of younger Buddhists, are turned off by talk about the transcendent, the ineffable, the mysterious, and so on. However, Campbell explains that that is the whole point of all religion and spirituality, at least in the East:

[You] are that mystery, but not the “you” that you think you are. The you that you think you are is not it and the you that you can’t even think about is it. The paradox, this absurdity, is the essential mystery of the East.”

Perhaps folks who are bothered by mystery should not try to practice spirituality where the prime intent is to try to penetrate that mystery.

Another interesting clarification Campbell offers:

In Occidental theology, the word transcendent is used to mean outside of the world. In the East, it means outside of thought.

How the East views the transcendent or the eternal is the theme of Myths of Light and overall Joseph Campbell does a good job of exploring the subject. In some respects, the book could serve as an excellent introduction to Eastern philosophy, except for a few problems such as the use of the G-word and the R-word – reincarnation.

The longest chapter in the book is “The Jiva’s Journey.” Jiva is the Sanskrit word for the “reincarnating” entity, the “deathless soul” that “puts on bodies and takes them off, over and over again, as a person puts on and removes clothing.” What he is talking about is rebirth, not reincarnation, which would be the same person putting on and removing clothing – that is not rebirth. I wished Campbell had made a finer point about the distinction between the two, and how Buddhism, in general, rejects the notion of reincarnation.

But you can’t have everything. Elsewhere, Campbell offers a very fine explanation of nirvana:

Nirvana literally means “blown out”; the image is that once one has realized one’s unity with what is called the Buddha mind – this is the Buddhist conception of Brahman – then one’s individual ego is extinguished like a candle flame, and one becomes one with the great solar light . . . But when you get over there, you realize, I was here all the time.”

As I have said many times on this blog, realizing nirvana is not about going to some other place, even though we may use the metaphor of the “yonder shore.” Nirvana is viewing this saha or mundane world differently from how we have viewed it before.

There is this great Buddhist text, the Prajnaparamita Sutra [The Heart Sutra], and its only a very short concise thing of about a page and a half, and it culminates in one line, which is said to be the summary of the whole sense of Mahayana Buddhism. That line goes like this: Aum gottam, Buddha-tam, parigatam, parasangatam. Bodhi!* “Gone, gone, gone to the yonder shore, landed on the yonder shore, illumination!” Hallelujah.

That is the summary of the whole thing. Prajnaparamita: The wisdom of the yonder shore, beyond pairs of opposites. The one who is trying to get away from life to nirvana is still caught in pairs of opposites. But when you get there, you realize that this is it right now.”

Such an important point should be repeated, many times until it penetrates our hard skulls. And there are quite a few important points that Joseph Campbell makes in Myths of Light. A few other things, I could nitpick about, as well. But the good in this book far outweighs anything negative, and whether someone is just beginning to look into Eastern philosophy, which Campbell covers from Jainism to Zen,  or whether they are a long time seeker of Asian wisdom, this is a valuable book to have on hand.

* Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha


The Wall

I have seen the writing on the wall.
Don’t think I need anything at all.
No! Don’t think I’ll need anything at all.
All in all it was all just bricks in the wall.

Roger Waters (for Pink Floyd)

Rick Santorum says that John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on being Catholic made him want to throw up. Of course, Santorum was only two years old at the time, so perhaps that had something to do with it. I cannot remember back to when I was two myself. But I do remember a time when I was four or five and President Eisenhower preempted “Superman” to give a speech. Never had any use for Eisenhower after that.

Some folks didn't cotton to the idea.

So what exactly did Kennedy say that the rug-rat Santorum found so regurgitatable? Well, Kennedy’s Catholicism was a major issue in the 1960 Presidential campaign, and he was explaining to a group of Baptist ministers in Houston that, if elected, he would not take his marching orders from the Vatican. You can read the entire speech here at NPR. In the meanwhile, here’s an excerpt:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

Santorum says, “I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute . . . To say that people of faith have no role in the public square? You bet that makes you throw up.”

Actually, no one is saying that people of faith have no role in the public square. But we are trying to prevent people in the public square from pushing their beliefs on others, which is what Santorum is doing. That’s one reason why it’s called a wall of separation between church and state. Unlike Newt Gingrich, who makes all his stuff up, Santorum is misconstruing the facts. Or, maybe he just doesn’t understand the concept behind the separation of church and state.

But that’s par for the course in the Republican Party where truth and reason never get in the way of a good, divisive argument. Those guys have always made me feel a bit queasy. They go on and on about how they resist the idea of government intruding in people’s lives, and yet they want to tell the rest of us how we should think and act and what we can and can’t do. What a bunch of hypocrites.

The notion about separation of church and state is said to originate from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, in which he wrote,

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”

And, James Madison, 4th President of the United States, stated,

The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe with blood for centuries.”

This, I think, pokes some holes in Santorum’s statement yesterday on “Meet The Press” that separation of church and state was “not the founders’ vision.” I think what Santorum and his ilk are really complaining about is a perceived separation between religion and state, which unfortunately is not absolute. If it were, none of our dollar bills would read “In God We Trust” and the President of the United States would be prohibited from saying “God Bless America”, at least while performing his duties as the nation’s chief executive.

Santorum needs to educate himself on American history, especially about the so-called “Founding Fathers.” Some historians, according to American historian Richard B. Morris, consider them to be the following: John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington.

The Religious Right likes to paint the Founding Fathers as fervent Christians. However, of these seven, only John Jay was a practicing Christian. A number were “Deists” which is defined as “a religious philosophy which holds that reason and observation of the natural world, without the need for organized religion, can determine that the universe is the product of an all-powerful creator.” (Wikipedia)

Other historians “define the “Founding Fathers” to mean a larger group, including not only the Signers and the Framers but also all those who, whether as politicians, jurists, statesmen, soldiers, diplomats, or ordinary citizens, took part in winning American independence and creating the United States of America.”

One such individual, Thomas Paine, was no fan of organized religion:

All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”

Ethan Allen, the Vermont patriot who never made a stick of furniture in his life, once said,

I am no Christian, except mere infant baptism make me one; and as to being a Deist, I know not strictly speaking, whether I am one or not.”

Allen was sure about one thing, though. In Reason the Only Oracle of Man, he stated,

While we are under the tyranny of Priests . . . it will ever be their interest, to invalidate the law of nature and reason, in order to establish systems incompatible therewith.

Benjamin Franklin, told Richard Price in a letter dated October 9, 1780,

When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.

Common Sense, what a unique concept.

To me, Franklin’s quote hits the rail on the head. If one’s religion is so great, if one’s God is so awesome, then why do so many people of faith find it necessary to promote their beliefs through force and twisting the truth? I think it has something to do with the fact that faith, as most people understand the word, is by its very nature unreasonable and delusional. I’ve always thought this line from the movie Miracle on 34th Street sums it up best:

Faith is believing in things that common sense tells you not to.”

Most of the time, we champion common sense. But not when it comes to faith. No, when we’re talking about faith, we throw reason and sense out the window. I can suspend my common sense for 90 minutes or so if it’s a fun film. But when the film is over I like to return to a sense of reality:

The way to see by Faith is to shut the Eye of Reason.”

Benjamin Franklin

Faith: not wanting to know what is true.”

Friedrich Nietzsche