During my personal journey for Truth thus far, I’ve had no greater "connector of dots" than Alan Watts. When I started to search for answers to What is Reality, Whose God is the One, Is Life worth it?, and so many other religious and philosophical questions, I had first to get a grasp of the religious language I was forced to deal with these things. Besides being raised in an irrefutably Judeo-Christian society, I also attended a private Christian school from Pre-K to eighth grade, and was raised in an all Christian household. It was easily deducible my language was Christian, of the Father and King of Kings.
I greatly appreciate both of those things practically — when considering the morals I grew up with and the education I got. However in regards to philosophical problems, having only one religion’s language to deal with is prone to bring forth ignorant presumptions about the validity, or not, of any other particular system. I recall all the time in my Christian school hearing quips from teachers and students about those far-out, wild, and comically ‘wrong’ religions I now have great appreciation for: Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism. (As I say that, I see the irony in Western minds mocking Far Eastern philosophies for being ‘comical’, when their whole premise is indeed that “Life is fundamentally play.”)
That is, in a nutshell, where the appeal to the East came from for me, as opposed to the solemnity and assuredness of Christianity; or at least the Christianity I came to know. And as I was attempting this fadeaway from my Christian bubble of thought, as well as looking for something new, I was discovering Alan Watts. I immediately trusted his point of view; he had earnestly tried with Christianity, rather, with Episcopalianism — becoming a priest before bowing out over his allure to Buddhism.
He was there, he tried it, and it wasn’t enough; so it was with me.
Two key concepts Watts brought to my attention really resonated with my preexisting intuitions and stoked my interest in studying Eastern thought, especially as something real and not merely a distraction from the ‘serious’ religions: a) the world is basically play, and b) spiritual authority is rooted internally.
The former rearranged the entire undertone of my regard for spirituality, not as something to be, in a gravely serious attitude, attained, practiced and known as quickly as possible so as to save you from ego-death, but rather as a complete acceptance of this Happening. To entirely ‘dig’ the whole game of shapes and colors that appear at every moment. To at once be aware of the mystery in all things and still not, as the Buddhist says, 'put legs on a snake’ by affirming or denying them as a Divine concept; rather simply for what they are, already divine without words. It’s a psychological trap to be thinking about what you are thinking about — “Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” Divine things don’t need symbols — words (so, thoughts as well), to be understood intuitively for what they are, and symbols are liable to be confused with the symbolized. Sometimes maybe we people need these symbols for a time, to point us in the right direction, but the symbols themselves are not final.
“To use another Buddhist simile: The doctrine is like a finger pointing at the moon, and one must take care not to mistake the finger for the moon. Too many of us, I fear, suck the pointing finger of religion for comfort, instead of looking where it points” (Become What You Are pg. 13).
That comfort is where we get into all the trouble. It's where the definite declarations of this side or that side, right or wrong come from. Obviously there is right and wrong and there is one side of a penny and another side, but 'heads' isn't superior to 'tails'. Neither is your stability, your comfort, in your own religious tradition superior to any other's comfort in their own tradition (or lack thereof). It comes down to individual circumstance deciding what 'works' for you. When someone says definitely, "This is right, that is wrong" and acts to enforce that opinion, they have gone too far. They are lazy, to put it simply. They think it's unnecessary to learn all the circumstantial details on why someone believes what they do because why should they? There is Christian, Pagan, Atheist, Jew, and so many other easy ways to end the conversation with one question: What religion are you?
In another way, Alan Watts brought me to realize that Life is fundamentally play by his elaboration of the common use of the word “mean”, as in, what does Life mean, what’s the point? In other words, his thoughts on why we are always looking somewhere else for satisfaction. To mean something is to say that it refers back to something or that it symbolizes something else. This is all well and good. However, at a point in philosophical musings you’ll eventually find yourself talking in circles — defining the definitions to define the definitions to define the definitions . . . ad infinitum. This happens because that one last undepleted dark corner of knowledge is not attainable, definable or reducible — therefore fundamentally cannot “mean” anything; cannot refer back to anything else, much like a sword cannot cut its own edge. So that sea iguana, that rhinoceros, that whatever, they don’t really mean anything other than their own existence, for the enjoyment and play of the present moment; and why should they?
Watts wisely warns that this knowledge in itself, shallowly understood, can lead to a sort of fatalism or nihilism and the idea that “nothing really matters” upon the realization that Life ultimately doesn’t refer back to anything knowable or solid other than it’s own Happening — the Eternal Now. This possibility is simply the necessary negative (yin) to the ideal (yang). In order for such wisdom to not be abused, it could be said that one would need a sense of human-heartedness — jen (pronounced “rén”), or virtue — tè (pronounced “deh”). However, in Lao-tzu’s Tao-te Ching it says, “High Virtue is non-virtuous; Therefore it has Virtue. Low Virtue never frees itself from virtuousness; Therefore it has no Virtue.” That is to say, the ones proclaiming that they have virtue are usually the most suspect, and the unassuming usually possess this ‘high virtue’. Thus, needing a sense of Virtue is to say exactly the opposite in practice. Here, I am forced by the clunk of words to create a paradox telling you to do both things which are only possible while doing one.
Understanding this point, of the fundamental non-seriousness of Reality, made it easier for me to let go of the religion I was born into by releasing me from the guilt of being a ‘non-believer’ — that I would spiritually suffer for abandoning certainty — tradition, for curiosity and wonder, releasing me from the seriousness. The idea of God was now available to play with for me, no longer having the disposition of a stern grandfather ever ready to punish, command and give me a good talking to. Religion went from dreadful to comical in an instant. An uncanny analogy Watts used for such a sudden change in perception is the situation of being in the middle of the United States and digging straight down into the earth, past the crust and through towards the core, onto let's say, China. Well, the predicament here is that you would be digging down and down, but as you passed the invisible line in the core of the earth, you would suddenly find yourself digging up. Everything would be different, even opposite, but at the same time not one thing would be changed. This is the way it is with having a serious, stern image of God, and that image being turned completely around to a playful one. There is no physical change in the world, being serious or playful — up or down, because both are states of perception; however, perception creates your world, and so there are at once no changes and every change.
This change in perception happened to me without question due to the work and example of Alan Watts. It seems as though I thought one particular way, and after reading The Way of Zen I broke out, exploded rather, into an entirely different mind whose base assumptions had flipped as drastically as the perception of up and down to that intraterrestrial miner. But it wasn’t him only and entirely, he was just the most dramatic influencer for me, making the actual flip happen. After this I see the flip, the realization, in everyone and everything. There was a time, after my decision to search outside of my theological bubble for answers and before reading The Way of Zen,where I was preparing, as it were, for the crux of influence to connect all the dots. To not have aimless doubts and hopeful questions, but to find someone that was just as in it and astounded as I was! The preparation for this bifurcation in understanding was my entire life — up to the point I opened to Chapter One: The Philosophy of the Tao, and read on and on and on, until now I find myself having read 13 of his 24 or so books, and listened to dozens of hours of lectures; although that name carries a rather dreary tone, they are that, however far more fun.
Finally I had discovered, Alan had showed me, another way.
I was being told, explicitly or implicitly, that everything was known (or just about to be) and everything means something; while at the same time I found myself looking at a giraffe gallop through the desert and only be able to sit mouth agape, brows furrowing with bewilderment. Speaking on that, I encourage you to watch Planet Earth II, and try to explain concretely what the figures you see mean. Why on Earth do we need those? On another note, why on Earth do we need music? Well, no reason really. Just for the internal, “Wooow!”, of it. For the watching, the listening, the enjoyment. As Alan liked to call him, Ol’ G.K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy, “It is one thing to describe an interview with a gorgon or a griffin, creatures who do not exist. It is another thing entirely to discover that the rhinoceros does exist, and then take pleasure in the fact that he looks as if he didn’t.” Just dig the Happening, here and Now-ever.
“Hallelujah doesn’t mean anything. It’s really more of just a celestial ‘whoopee!’” (Myth and Religion pg.70, Watts)
The latter point, expertly elaborated on by Watts in his lecture by the same title, Spiritual Authority (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=012SIK_Ec1Q), is an incredibly freeing realization; specifically a realization. Watts begins this subject by going through the historicity of the Bible, explaining finally that we modern man received the KJV Bible “on the Church’s say-so” around the year 1611, hence the less common name for it: the Authorized Version of the Bible. So, the Church claimed authority in the content of the Bible by being envoys for Christ’s work and organizing it into what we know today, and from there, people bought the truth of the Church’s Bible for better or worse. But the point here is that the people buy it by their own independent will and that their agreeing with it doesn’t make the Christian Bible more true than the Bible I or anyone else could write. Inspired or not by the Divine, it was formed by men. To worship the Bible, even figuratively, is to worship a false idol of the uncorrupted Truth. To say that the Bible is absolutely true (or any other religious text), is simply to say that you bought the opinions of the author; but if what you bought is proven later to be phony, it was you who found a truth in it. It's always you. The problem of spiritual authority has nothing to do with any claimed inherent truth in the actual doctrine, but with your willingness to believe it, therefore, the only real spiritual authority is you. Someone can't believe something for you; unless perhaps you let them superimpose their world vision onto your own, which is again your choice.
As an aside here, it could be disputed that, "Well if you're a baby and raised Christian or whatever, you don't have a choice then." Yes and no, but ultimately, no. "You" in that situation describes solely your conscious decisions entirely disregarding how you were born in the first place, for you certainly didn't choose that. Ignored as well is the beating of your heart, the reception of light in your eyes, and the growing of bones. This "you" that doesn't have a choice as a baby is your ego. However useful, it is incomplete for a self image and simply a social institution like money and the Equator. So, yes, in that your ego has not yet developed and no, in that your ego never really existed to begin with...
In the general goings-on of life, this point of view gave me the confidence to trust myself, because, as I realized, there is nothing else possible but to do so. Philosophically, it enabled me the ability to be utterly consumed in research of whichever religion or philosophy I fancy; it took away the presumptions of, “This is right .. This is wrong” and made everything fair game. Nullius in verba — On the word of no one; because there is no word to go on except your own. Explore! Adventure! Stick with tradition, even!, but by God— do not take it seriously. Play life.
These two fundamentally agreeable concepts introduced to me by Alan Watts shook up my entire spiritual and philosophical world, which in turn altered my daily, ‘ordinary’ attitude as well. He made life more fun, surprising, wondrous and mystical than I imagine I ever could have achieved if I had submitted to the authorities that be.
“The angels can fly, because they can take themselves lightly” said G.K. Chesterton, “And if that be true, how much more so the Lord of all the angels” added Alan Watts, with a roaring laugh.