June 2017

Alan Watts - Philosophy of the Tao


The subject of this seminar is going to be Taoism as contained in the teachings of Lao-Tzu and Juang-Tzu 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 that's going on. Ha ha. 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. That's somebody's idea. You don't know that.

And 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 are 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 inside of 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 are 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. Huh. I know motion by contrast with rest. So while I am aware of motion I am also aware of 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." Ha ha ha, 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 tzu yan," which means - the "fa" - "Tao fa" means the way of functioning of the Tao. "Tzu 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's 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. Ha ha. 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 nonexistent but never to have existed. Ha ha.

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! Ha ha ha! Because if you're really na•ve you see that the past is the result of what's happening now. It goes backwards into the past like a wake goes backwards from a ship. All the echoes are disappearing, finally, going 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 na•ve person - and 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'll 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. [rings meditation bell] You see the bell came out of nothing, floated off, off, off, off, and then stopped being a sonic echo and became a memory, which is another kind of echo. A wake. 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.

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 Tao. 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! Ha ha ha! But I hope there's God or somebody looking after all this." Though 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's 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. Oh, then nor does this!

Tao. Because Tao 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 watercourse, 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 fa, Tao fa, the Tao's principle of flow.

There is a book called "Sensitive Chaos" by Theodore Svenk with many many studies and photographs 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 Tao to water. "The great Tao," 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're always trying to play games of one-upmanship and be on top of each other. Well, Lao-Tzu 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! [Laughter] Who wants to be put in charge of a runaway truck? [Laughter]

So, Lao-Tzu says that the basic position is the most powerful. And this we can see at once in Judo, or 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's 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. Huh, it's very curious. So, therefore, the watercourse way is the way of Tao.

Now, that seems to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and 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. [Laughter] You know, we wage wars for people's benefit. [Laughter] 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 enery 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 told 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. [Laughter] You never get to play! [Laughter]


"The Art of Mindfully Letting Go With Buddha’s Four Noble Truths" by Ronald Alexander, Ph.D.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha was like the first psychologist, teaching his followers about the power of changing their mental processes in order to alleviate emotional discomfort and embrace change. One of his insights were the four noble truths that helped people free themselves from the patterns of thinking and behaving that perpetuate their suffering.

By looking at these four central tenets of Buddhism we can better understand how micromanaging our circumstances can cause us to become agitated and restricted. Instead, when we learn to let go of our attachments we can transform our lives in an innovative way.

The four noble truths can help us break out of the need to be in control and, instead, enter into an acceptance of the present moment. Only in the present will we find the courage to cross the threshold of the unknown and relax into the changes we cannot avoid. I find it helpful to take a mindful pause throughout the day and check in with one or more of them. It’s a lovely compass to follow.
Here are the four noble truths from my book,
Wise Mind, Open Mind and how they can help you let go of resistance and move forward out of your dilemma.

The first noble truth: In life, there is suffering, because of the impermanent nature of things.
Because we feel more secure when we have a sense of predictability, we develop a great capacity for denying a simple truth: that nothing stays the same. Then the unpredictability of life shows us that even if we do everything “right” and exercise every precaution, we can still face unexpected loss.

When this happens the shock can make it hard to regain your equanimity and exercise nonreactvity. Too often, rather than surrender to the inevitability of change and work creatively with it, people resort to the fear-based behavior of trying to take charge and force other people and situations to conform to their expectations. The first noble truth of Buddhism is a reminder not to slip into the avoidance behavior of denial. While it’s not wise to create gloomy thoughts about how matters might take a turn for the worse, consciously ignoring the reality that all situations transform sets you up for a great shock when that time comes.

The second noble truth: Suffering is due to attachments and expectations, to grasping and clinging.
Your inability to avoid change may make you angry, sad, and frustrated. It can be hard to let go of the false belief that the only way to achieve happiness again is to regain what’s been lost. Even when you know you can’t reverse the situation, you may agonize over this reality.

Clinging to what once was, avoiding the process of grief and acceptance, causes paralysis. Grasping for a future set of circumstances identical to the past holds you back from discovering what better roads lie ahead, outside of your sight. The desire to backtrack or reconstruct will likely result in your walking around in circles, lost in the dark woods, instead of peering around corners to find new paths.

The third noble truth: It’s possible to end suffering by giving up attachments (clinging) and expectations (grasping).

The shift in perspective that comes when we recognize that there’s no such thing as a permanent sense of happiness begins our healing from suffering. The next step is to accept that we must broaden our definition of what we need in order to be happy, giving up the habits of clinging and grasping, as well as the need to control external circumstances.

After emerging from the shock of a great loss, we’re even more despairing about the possibility of being joyful again. However, the third noble truth offers us the promise of a new way of living that’s as satisfying, if not more fulfilling, than the old. It beckons us to begin the process of transformation.

The fourth noble truth: The way to end suffering due to clinging and grasping is through balance and living in the present.

It’s important to balance a thirst for something better with an acceptance of what is, right now. Balance allows you to live in the present moment and trust that your acceptance will clear the mist of confusion and distractions, and show you the way to move forward into happiness again. Here’s the paradox of change: until you can accept what is, you cannot move into what might be.

When we cling to the past or what no longer serves us, we contract ourselves to the point where we’re unable to be nourished and invigorated by the present moment. We have to accept that what’s past has truly passed in order to open up to what the present moment offers us. In this opening we become nourished, refreshed and revitalized.

Ronald Alexander


"What is Wisdom?" by Peter Russell

---Humanity is too clever to survive without wisdom.
———————————————~ E.F Schumacher

What is wisdom? We hear the word a lot these days—the need for wisdom, the wisdom traditions, wisdom schools. We each would like to have more wisdom. And for others to have it as well. Too much human hurt and suffering comes from lack of wisdom. But what is this quality that we hold in such high regard?

Most of us are familiar with the progression from data to information to knowledge:
• Data are the raw facts; the letters on a page, for example.
• Information comes from the patterns and structure of the data. Random letters provide little Information; but if they spell words and the words create sentences, they carry information and meaning.
• Knowledge comes from generalizations in the information. We build up understandings about the world, ourselves, and other people.

Wisdom concerns how we use our knowledge. Its essence is discernment. Discernment of right from wrong. Helpful from harmful. Truth from delusion.

We may, for example, come to understand that deep down each of us wants to be loved and appreciated. But do we then use that knowledge to manipulate others for our own ends? Or do we use it for the benefit of all, considering how to respond to a situation in ways that are truly caring?

At present, humanity has vast amounts of knowledge, but still very little wisdom. Buckminster Fuller called this time our final evolutionary exam. Is our species fit to survive? Do we have the wisdom that will allow us to use our prodigious powers for our own good, and for that of many generations to come?

It is a common perception that wisdom comes with age. The wise ones have learned from experience that there is more to life than acquiring wealth and fame. They know that love and friendship count for more than what others think of them. They are generally kind, content in themselves. able to discern their true self-interest.

But why wait until old age? In an ideal world we would finish school not only with sufficient knowledge for the life ahead, but also with the wisdom of how to use that knowledge.

The question then naturally arises: How can we develop wisdom? It turns out that the wisdom we seek is already there, at the heart of our being. Deep inside, we know right from wrong; this discernment is an intrinsic part of being human. But the quiet voice of this inner knowing is usually obscured by our busy thinking minds, forever trying to help us get the things we believe will bring us peace and happiness and avoid those that will bring pain and suffering.

So the real question is: How can we allow the inner light of our innate wisdom to shine through into daily awareness and guide is in our decisions? And that, as many have discovered time and again, comes not from doing more, but from doing less.


To Become Aware of Our Egoic Mind (excerpt) Radical Happiness: A Guide to Awakening by Gina Lake


To begin to live in the moment more fully, we have to become aware of our egoic mind, what it is thinking, and how true those thoughts are. The good news is we don’t have to do anything to develop that awareness. We have always been aware of our mind or we wouldn’t be able to recount what is in it or think about our thoughts. Something else is present besides the mind that has always been aware of it and everything else that is occurring in the sensory mechanism we call our body. This awareness, this Noticer, this observer, is you, the real you.

Exercise: Noticing the Real You

The real you is subtle. This inquiry will help you become more aware of who you really are.

Who or what is it that is aware of reading these words? Notice that awareness. How do you experience it? What does it feel like? Where do you experience it? Is it contained anywhere? Just stay with the experience of it for a moment. This is who you are. The experience of who you are is available in every moment. All you have to do is give your attention to the real you instead of to the egoic mind.

The egoic mind projects another you, the thinker of the thoughts. This is the ego, the you that you think you are: the you that has a name and looks a certain way and is a father/mother, sister/brother, and so on. (Fill in the blank with all the things you call yourself.) That you is the one that does not exist. That you isn’t real. Instead, you are the awareness of the person you think you are.

Once you see this, you have to wonder why it took so long. Programming. That’s all. We don’t see it because we are programmed to think of ourselves the way we do. There’s no getting around our programming except by seeing that it’s not the whole truth about who we are. We are programmed to believe an illusion. Once we realize this, the jig is up, as they say. The bell can’t be un-rung, and we can’t go back to believing a lie. We may still do some of the same things we did, but life is never the same.

However, our programming still has some pull. It can pull us in for a while, but not for long before we catch ourselves laughing for taking the me so seriously. We may find the ego endearing and silly, but we can’t buy into its perspective for very long. Most of what the egoic mind says just doesn’t seem true anymore.

What an amazing discovery! What a relief it is to discover that we are not this individual who suffers and struggles so. We can finally give up the effort to be somebody special, to know things, to be right, and to get it right. We were never satisfied with ourselves or others, no matter what we did or what they did. It was a no-win game. What a relief it is to give up the effort to be better, do better, and get more.

How did we miss the fact that everything we have ever wanted has been here all along? The peace, happiness, and joy we have been searching for, competing for, have been here all along in the space between our thoughts. We are that peace, happiness, and joy. We missed it because it is who we are. It is too close for us to see, like an eye that can’t see itself. It is so ever-present that, like water to a fish, it is taken for granted and not questioned. Like the air we breathe, it is invisible and without dimension, and the ego doesn’t pay attention to such things. The ego has eyes only for the tangibles in life.

Besides, the ego has been very busy creating a life, a story, by manifesting problems and then trying to solve them. When we were identified with the egoic mind, we were too busy to ask questions. We had a thought and then did something about it. That’s what life was about. But once we begin questioning the egoic mind, the illusion begins to unravel.

When the time comes to awaken, the Self puts thoughts into the mind that question the validity of our other thoughts. The Self also draws others to us who realize the Truth and have seen through the egoic mind. Questions about the nature and purpose of life also begin to arise in the mind.

Until then, the tendency is to respect and adhere to whatever goes through the egoic mind. Like someone lost in the ocean who has just been thrown a life preserver, we cling to each thought for dear life. After all, without our thoughts telling us who we are, who would we be? We don’t think that being no-thing is an option. To the egoic mind, being no-thing is the same as not existing. The ego would rather be anyone, even an unhappy someone, than not exist at all. This domination of the egoic mind is the cause of suffering.

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PURCHASE: From Radical Happiness: A Guide to Awakening