Seminar on Taoism

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Alan Watts on Taoism, session 1

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This reel was part of the original SR pilot collection, but is not SR speaking.


The subject of this seminar is going to be Taoism as contained in the teachings of Laozi and Zhuangzi who lived approximately 400 years or more before Christ separated probably by 100 years from each other. And as is often repeated Lao Tzu started out by explaining that the Tao which can be explained is not the eternal Tao and then went on to write a book about it also saying those who say do not know those who know do not say because there's nothing to be explained you must remember that the word explain means to lay out in a plane that is to put it on a flat sheet of paper all mathematics is done on a flat sheet of paper until very recent times but it makes a great deal of difference


because this world isn't flat. If you draw a circle on a flat sheet of paper, it has an inside and an outside, which are different. On the other hand, if you draw a circle around a doughnut, the inside and the outside are the same. So, what we are first of all saying is that the Tao, whatever that is, cannot be explained in that sense. So it's important first of all to experience it so we know what we're talking about. And in order to go into Taoism at all we must begin by being in the frame of mind which can understand it. you cannot force yourself into this frame of mind any more than you can smooth disturbed water with your hand but let's say that our starting point is that we forget what we know or think we know


that we suspend judgment about practically everything returning to what we were when we were babies when we have not yet learned the names or language and although we have extremely sensitive bodies very alive senses. We have no means of making an intellectual or verbal commentary on what is going on. Now can you consider that as your state? Just plain ignorant, but still very much alive. and in this state you just feel what is without calling it anything at all you know nothing at all about anything called an external world in relation to an internal world you don't know who you are you haven't even got the idea of the word you or I it's before all that


Nobody has taught you self-control. So you don't know the difference between the noise of a car outside and a wandering thought that enters your mind. They're both something that happens. You don't identify the presence of the thought, which might be just an image, of a passing cloud in your mind's eye and the passing automobile, they happen. Your breath happens. Light all around you happens. Your response to it by blinking happens. So you simply are really unable to do anything.


There's nothing that you're supposed to do. Nobody's told you anything to do. You're unable completely to do anything but be aware of the buzz. The visual buzz, the audible buzz, the tangible buzz, the smellable buzz, all buzz. It's going on. watch it don't ask who's watching it you've no information about that yet that it requires a watcher for something to be watched it's somebody's idea you don't know that Lao Tzu says the scholar learns something every day the man of Tao unlearns something every day until he gets back to non-doing and that's what we're in at the moment.


Just simply without comment, without an idea in your head, be aware. What else can you do? don't try to be aware you are you'll find of course that you can't stop the commentary going on in your head but at least you can regard it as interior noise listen to your chattering thoughts as you listen to the singing of a kettle. We don't know what it is we're aware of.


Especially when you take it all together and there's this sense of something going on. I won't even say that. This, you see, this. Well, I said it was going on. That's an idea. It's a form of words. obviously I wouldn't know if anything was going on unless I could say something else wasn't I know motion by contrast with rest so while I am aware of motion I'm also aware of at rest so maybe what's at rest isn't going on and what's motion is going on so I won't use that concept because I've got to include both and if I say well here it is That excludes what isn't, like space.


And if I say this, it excludes that. I'm reduced to silence. But you can feel what I'm talking about, can't you? That's what's called Tao in Chinese. That's where we begin. Tao means basically way, and so course, the course of nature, of which Lao Tzu says, Tao fa zi yan, which means the way of functioning of the Tao, zi yan, is of itself so that is to say is spontaneous watch again what's going on if you approach it with this wise ignorance you will see that you are witnessing a happening


In other words, in this primal way of looking at things, there is no difference between what you do on the one hand and what happens to you on the other. It's all the same process. Just as your thoughts happen, the car happens outside. the clouds, the stars. When a Westerner hears that, he thinks of fatalism or determinism. That's because he still preserves in the back of his mind two illusions. One is that what is happening is happening to him. and therefore he is the victim of circumstances but when you are in primal ignorance there is no you different from what's happening and therefore it's not happening to you it's just happening so is you you know what you call you what you later call you is part of the happening you're part of the universe although the universe strictly speaking has no parts


we only call certain features of the universe parts of it but you can't disconnect them from the rest without causing them to be not only non-existent but never to have existed so when you have this happening the other illusion that a westerner is liable to have is that it's determined in the sense that what is happening now follows necessarily from what happened in the past but you don't know anything about that in your primal ignorance cause and effect why obviously not because if you're really naive you see that the past is the result of what's happening now it goes backwards into the past like a weight goes backwards from a ship all the echoes are disappearing finally go away and away and away and it's all starting now what we call the future is nothing the great void and everything comes out of the great void that's the way a naive person


Andy, as I explained, if any of you were at my lecture last night, if you shut your eyes and contemplate reality only with your ears, you will find there's a background of silence and all sounds are coming out of it. They start out of silence. If you close your eyes, listen, just listen. You see the bell came out of nothing, floated off, [...] and then stopped being a sonic echo and became a memory, which is another kind of echo. Awake. It's very simple. It all begins now. And therefore it's spontaneous.


It isn't determined. That's a philosophical notion. nor is it capricious that's another philosophical notion as we distinguish between what is orderly and what is random of course we don't really know what randomness is if you talk to a mathematician about randomness he'll make you feel quite weird if you take the Los Angeles phone book and take the last number on the right hand side of each column and make a series out of it. There are too many patterns of recurrence for them to be considered random. Well, anyway. What is so of itself? Sui generis in Latin. That means coming into being spontaneously on its own accord. It's the real meaning of virgin birth. Sui generis.


and that's the world that is the doubt that makes us feel scared perhaps because we say well if all this is happening spontaneously who's in charge I'm not in charge that's pretty obvious but I hope there's God or somebody looking after all this but why should there be someone looking after it because then there's a new worry that you may not have thought of Like who takes care of the caretaker's daughter while the caretaker is busy taking care? Who guards the guards? Who supervises the police? Who looks after God? Well you say, God doesn't need looking after. Oh, well then nor does this. Thou. Because thou is a certain kind of order and this kind of order is not quite what we call order when we arrange everything geometrically in boxes or in rows that's a very crude kind of order but when you look at a plant


it's perfectly obvious that this bamboo plant has order we recognize at once that that is not a mess but it is not symmetrical and it is not geometrical looking it looks like a Chinese drawing because the Chinese appreciated this kind of order so much that they put it into their painting. Non-symmetrical order. In the Chinese language this is called Li. And the character for Li means originally the markings in jade also means the grain in wood and the fiber in muscle. we could say too that clouds have Li marble has Li the human body has Li and we all recognize it and the artist copies it whether he is a landscape painter, a portrait painter or an abstract painter or a non-objective painter they all are trying for Li


and the interesting thing is that although we all know what it is there's no way of defining it but because Tao is the course we can also call Li the water course because the patterns of Li are patterns of flowing water and we see those patterns of flow memorialized as it were in sculpture in the grain in wood, which is the flow of sap, in marble, in bones, in muscles, all these things are patterned according to the basic principles, that is the Dao Fa, the Dao's principle of flow. There is a book called Sensitive Chaos by Theodore Schwenk with many, many photographs and studies of flow patterns.


And there, in the patterns of flowing water, you will see all kinds of motifs from Chinese art. Immediately recognizable, including the S-curve in the circle, the yang-yin. Like this. See? so Li means then the order of flow the wonderful dancing pattern of liquid because Lao Tzu likens Dao to water the great Dao he says flows everywhere to the left and to the right like water, I'm interpolating that, it loves and nourishes all things, but does not lord it over them. Because, he says elsewhere, water always seeks the lowest level which men abhor.


Because we are always trying to play games of one-upmanship and be on top of each other. Orlauzza explains that the top position is the most insecure. Everybody wants to get to the top of the tree but then if they do the tree will collapse. That's the fallacy of American democracy. You too might be president. The answer is no one but a maniac would want to be president. Who wants to be put in charge of a runaway truck? So Lao Tzu says that the basic position is the most powerful and this we can see at once in Judo or in Aikido which are wrestling arts or self-defensive arts where you always get underneath the opponent and so he falls over you


if he attacks you the moment he moves to be aggressive you go either lower than he is or in a smaller circle than he is moving and you have spin if you know Aikido you're always spinning and you know how something rapidly spinning exercises centrifugal force so if somebody comes into your field of centrifugal force he gets flung out but by his own bounce It's very curious. So, therefore, the watercourse way is the way of Tao. Now, that seems to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and to Irish Catholics lazy, spineless, passive.


And I'm always being asked when I talk about things, if people did what you suggest, wouldn't they become terribly passive? Well, from a superficial point of view, I would suggest that a certain amount of passivity would be an excellent corrective for our kind of culture. Because we are always creating trouble by doing good to other people you know we wage wars for people's benefit and educate the poor for their benefit so that they desire more things which they can't get I mean that sounds rather callous but our rich people are not happy


whereas the poor people of Haiti are to judge by the way they laugh and we think we're sorry really not for the poor but for ourselves guilty so a certain amount of doing nothing and stopping rushing around would cool everything But also it must be remembered that passivity is the root of action. Where do you suppose you're going to get energy from? Just by being energetic? No, you can't get energy that way. That is exhausting yourself. To have energy you must sleep. But also much more important than sleep is what I showed you at the beginning. passivity of mind mental silence not you can't as I tried to explain be passive as an exercise that's good for you you can only get to that point by realizing there's nothing else you can do so for God's sake don't cultivate passivity as a form of progress that's like playing because it's good for your work


You never get to play. So now passivity then is the root of energy in the same way that nothing is the root of something. Nothing implies something just as something implies nothing. You can't understand one idea without the other one. they're the positive and negative force of electricity so you endow, you are allowing, matter of fact you're not because there is no you either to allow or disallow you just have to get used to that that it did, what happens is nothing to do with your say-so except that if you do have a say-so that's part of what's happening but it is irrelevant It's like trying to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.


It doesn't work. You could try. Nothing's stopping you. But it doesn't have any effect except wearing you out. So in the same way, to try and force the issues wears you out. And when you force a lock, you usually bend the key. So you jiggle gently until you find the right opening. So in the same way anybody who knows how to conduct business always jiggles the key to find the right moment to turn the lock and then it all happens as if it were natural and none of it were forced. That's the judo way of going about it. So therefore the water course will give you the sense that your life is a flowing the flowing is equally you and what is not you or called not you it's the process that's happening and when you understand that you'll stop asking questions about it you will see that all asking of questions about it


is shall I say tautological you get explanations which don't explain all explanations of what's happening call for further explanations because big explanations have little explanations upon their backs to bite them and little explanations have lesser explanations and so ad infinitum this is the analytic process that produces the atomic universe the electronic universe, the protonic universe, and so on and so on. And if you go the other direction, you'll find the solar system in a galaxy, the galaxy in a system of galaxies, and then goodness knows what. Because obviously the universe, as it seeks to know itself, must run away from itself. as your eyes revolve when you turn to look at them you are the universe you are apertures through which it is aware of itself holes in the wall as it were and so as you look now you see it now you don't it's very simple so you'll find therefore that


The big quest, what is it? What am I supposed to do? What is human destiny? Why are we here? These questions will slowly disappear and that itself will be the answer. The answer will be this is why. And this is what is going on that cannot be described, the Tao. The Tao is simultaneously departing and arriving, always. That's the meaning of the eternal Tao. to go with the water course is called by Lao Tzu wu wei wu means not wei has a complex of meanings which can be action striving straining doing


or best forcing not forcing is wu wei so he says dao wu wei dao does nothing but nothing is left undone in other words dao accomplishes all things without forcing them and so therefore when you master that's the wrong word because it has the idea of superiority when you come to Wu Wei by as it were coming down you are working on the same principle as the Dao and so this is likened poetically to the difference between a willow and a pine when it snows


The pine is a rigid tree and the snow and ice piles up on the branches until they crack. The willow is a springy tree and when the weight of the snow is on the branch, the branch drops and the snow falls off and the branch comes up again. That's Wu Wei. Zhuangzi tells a lovely tale that a sage was wandering along the bank of a river near an enormous cataract. and suddenly way up beyond the cataract he saw an old man roll off the bank into the cataract and he thought this too bad he must be old and ill and is making an end of himself but a few minutes later the old man jumped out of the stream way down beyond the cataract and went running along the bank so the sage and his disciples went scooting after him and said this is the most amazing thing we ever saw how did you survive well he said there's no special way I just went in with a swirl and came out with a whirl I made myself like the water so there was no conflict between myself and water so in the same way when a baby is in an automobile accident you find often that the baby is uninjured because the baby didn't go rigid to protect itself


so when likewise when you learn to fall in judo you learn to curl up limply and yet make your arms very heavy so that they flop with an immense thud on the floor and that making heavy is again like water and this absorbs the shock so it isn't you see you must realize that the water course is not complete limpness because water has weight and therefore strength and that really all energy that the secret of wu-wei is that all energy is gravity we as a planet would if we encountered some obstacle in space there would be an enormous release of energy the obstacle would feel that it was being hit by some colossal force but the planet is falling around the sun and the sun is falling around something else the whole universe is falling but since there's nowhere for it to drop it's sort of not falling at anything it's just falling around itself sometimes there are collisions but everything's got so much space that they're very rare


Maybe the ones that didn't have space have been eliminated and became all the dust that's in the sky. But all energy is gravity. That's the secret of Judo. It's really the secret ultimately of the puzzle of the relationship of gravity to energy. It's the real secret of E equals MC squared. Energy is mass times the square of the velocity of light. So energy so comes from gravity and so we don't have a situation which is purely limp so therefore wu-wei is intelligent course of action because intelligence itself is the laziest way of dealing with a situation it is not so much necessity as laziness which is the mother of invention


How could we do it in a simpler way is always the question of the good technologist. Initially the technologist thinks out very complicated ways. But as time goes on all his apparatus gets smaller and smaller and lighter and lighter. And the best machines have no moving parts. As one approaches the partless machine One approaches something like a magic stone, a transistor, a crystal, which contains an enormous amount of information without having to move. And this increasing simplification is intelligence. So that a very, very intelligent things would be the most difficult to understand because we would not see the explanation of their parts. of the structures, the forms contained within.


So it is remarkable, isn't it, that from the very simple cells, which look almost completely transparent, all the complexities of living organisms can proceed. so now if you want you see to find an intelligent solution to a problem the work is done with your brain you have all the necessary intelligence inside this bone only most people never use their brains they use their minds instead and think that they use their minds like they use their muscles that you constrain your head and work very hard with it as if it were a muscle to achieve a result but that doesn't work that way when you want to find out the answer to something what you do is you contemplate it you visualize your problem your question as well as you can and then simply look at it because you don't try to find a solution because any solution that comes in that way is liable to be wrong


but when you have watched it for a while the solution comes of itself and that is the way to use your brain it works for you in the same way as your stomach digests your food without your having to supervise it consciously But all our attempts to supervise everything consciously have led to things that aren't too good for our stomachs and so forth. You know how it goes. The reason for that is quite simple. That conscious attention employing words cannot think of very much We ignore almost everything while we're thinking. We think along a single track. But the world isn't going on along a single track.


The world is everything altogether everywhere. And you just can't take that into consideration. There isn't time. But your brain can. Because the brain is capable of handling innumerable variables at once. whereas your conscious attention is not. Or rather, more strictly speaking, verbal symbols are not capable of handling any more than a one very, very crudely simple track. That's why we have to trust our brains. Because you see, we are much more intelligent than our understanding of ourselves. when a neurologist admits that he's only begun to scratch the surface of understanding the nervous system he is actually saying that his own nervous system is smarter than he is it's outwitted him so far and that's remarkable isn't it so you see what you are


is necessarily more than anything you can understand for the simple reason that an organism which completely understands itself would be comparable to lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps or kissing your own lips so there's always this element of the nothing or unknown in any process of consciousness or knowledge and if that irritates you remember you are really addressing yourself to a stupid problem because fire doesn't need to burn itself


any more than a light needs to shine on itself. So for light to ask, what am I? Although it sounds like a sensible question, isn't? Because, how could you answer it? Let me demonstrate this to you in another and perhaps simpler way. For many many hundreds of years human beings have wanted to know what is isness? What is matter? Substance? Obviously it seems there must be a basis for all the shapes that we see. After all, clay is the basis of vessels.


Iron is the basis of tools. Wood is the basis of furniture. But what is the basis of that? What is the substance common to everything? Well, we had tried to find out. And that was the reason, at least in the beginning of things, why physicists tried to find out what matter energy is. well when you consider the problem consider the question ask yourself what sort of answer are you looking for supposing you found out what matter is in what sort of language would you be able to describe it you realize that you couldn't because all that language can describe whether the language be of words or of numbers is pattern form we can measure form we can outline it we can explain it but we couldn't possibly explain stuff just basic oomph


there would be no way of talking about it therefore we're asking a silly question we're asking for a question to be answered in terms which couldn't answer that kind of question so therefore we might say you don't need really the idea of stuff of matter because what you've got is form and I could say it's the form that matters in anything and you know you take a double take on that and once you see that a lot of other things are going to become clear you'll be able to understand how you yourself as a living so-called physical organism you're really a wave system and the principles I use this word rather than laws because laws always look separate from whatever obeys them and imply some boss who's a lawgiver


but the Tao does not act in capacity of a boss the Tao is not shoving anything because there is nothing other than the Tao to shove everything is Tao so you don't have the idea of a universe obeying reacting or responding to a ruler In other words you have an image of the universe which is organic rather than political. Our Judeo-Christian image of the world is political and that's why Popes are called urban. And why someone who's not a Christian is called a pagan which simply means a country dweller not a city slicker. Saint Augustine called heaven the city of God. The image is political. But the Taoist image of the universe is organic.


And an organism does not have a boss. Because you cannot separate the nervous system from the rest. If you say the nervous system is the controlling system, you could say simply it's the telephone system. and uh the telephone system is not ruling the people and actually the people are not ruling the system it all develops together often it seems that the system is ruling the people but that's when you look at it from a certain way look at it from another way and you see the people ruling the system it's mutual they go together so therefore When you look at the world as form, you will not ask questions about what is it made of, what are these shapes made of, they're because they're not made.


It says Tao wu wei and wu wei means also not making. making is different from growing when a plant grows it is not patched or put together all the so-called parts of the plant grow out of it whereas when you construct a machine you assemble the parts and put them together this is not the way a plant works it's not the way you work when you eat your food It is ridiculous to suppose that this is the raw material of parts which are going to be manufactured in a factory and distributed to screw on to different parts of your body. It's a silly image. So you don't ask therefore, what are things made of?


The next thing you don't ask is how do they go together? Because here becomes a very, very fascinating thing that what we are unaware of is that so-called separate things are joined by space. We always think of space as separating. but that which separates also joins that was why the word cleave is so important it means to stick to and to divide so we are cleft by space when you look at a distant galaxy we call it a nebula because we are seeing it from a long way away When, however, we get close to it, the nebula disappears and we see individual stars.


We are living in the middle of one. From a long way away, all the stars in our galaxy appear to be a thing. But right close up, we don't see that thing. What is it that keeps all these stars together? Oh, we say gravity. Gravity is a word for something that means simply we don't know what it is. Like the ether that was once supposed to be the fluid through which light was transmitted and was discovered not to exist. That we could somehow do without it, that light went through nothing, through space. Marvelous, apparently. Here are all sorts of things not joined to each other by strings and yet they constitute a thing. And so when we get down to our own atomic structure, we are, if we were looked at closely enough, we would be like galaxies with our atoms vastly distant from each other.


What holds us together? Isn't that the wrong question? because what matters is the form it is your shape now if I saw you some time ago and I meet you again how do I know you? it's I recognize your shape if I haven't seen you for some time when I meet you the second time there is nothing of you that I knew before all your so-called substance has changed just as if I visit a waterfall a few seconds later you know it's not the same water it's falling the same way the same style and so in the same way when I meet you today yesterday the day before you're doing you're the same style you're the same pattern


but it's all different so that pattern can come to an end and then after a while it can happen again just as if you take a newspaper photograph and look at it under a magnifying glass What you saw with the naked eye as a clean line will appear to be a series of dots. And the dots are alike one another. And there's no strings joining them. Change your level of magnification and there's a line. You can magnify in time as well as in space.


only you do it a different way to magnify anything in time you speed up the time so we take a fast motion picture of a bean and we put the bean on earth and we expose one frame per day and then when we run the movie we suddenly see the bean moving it puts out a little feeler and the feeler goes and all the stalks and leaves open from it out comes a beam and it eventually crumbles fades off why we saw a gesture we saw happening which we would never notice with the naked eye too slow now that is you see magnifying time Now therefore, let us suppose we had human faces, thousands of faces, which suddenly began as little fetus cells and we got some turned rapidly into baby face, into child, adolescent, adult, old person, skull and dust.


going all these faces coming and going making their gesture of going through the whole lifespan well we would watch and we would begin to see patterns of continuity which things are moving much too slowly to see these and things are moving too complicatedly to see them but stand off at a distance as it were and you would see the same rhythms occurring again and again and again and again so that they would appear from that distance or from time that speeded up to be a simply continuity like the continuity from here to here which looked at closely is full of space so you would get what we call in naive language the reincarnation of forms you considered as this kind of a wiggle that is recognizable as me would happen again and again and again with no spook traveling from one happening to the next that wouldn't be necessary any more than it's necessary to have a line joining one dot in the press photograph with another dot so that they will make continuous sense at a different level you know


when you watch television you're actually watching a moving dot. It moves so fast that it creates the image. Now let's supposing you had a different kind of eye altogether that had no memory in it. You would look at the television screen and you would see this dot dancing all across and leaving no trace. You'd say what kind of a funny thing is that? Ah, it doesn't make any sense. Ah. But seen in another way, you see, all that picture makes sense. So, you see, you don't have to. All these mysteries, like our reincarnation, you don't need any spooky knowledge to understand them. It's all right out in front of you. and you will discover that as I talk to you I'm not going to tell you a thing that you didn't already know all this was plain to you all I will do is put it in words in such a way that you will be able to say well that's what I always thought but I can never explain it well now let's take an intermission just to goof off for a while and then we can go on