“He was a soul resting with the devas, an elderly and wealthy Brahman who should now be a sanyasin,” writes William Irwin Thompson in At The Edge of History, “but was putting off the battle with his karma for another life.” Along with D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts introduced countless Westerners to the teachings of Zen Buddhism through a library of work, galvanizing readers to examine their world through Eastern thought. Become What You Are is a collection of Watts’ writings offering a prescription for spiritual atrophy in a skeptical world. And like the song of the birds of Pala, Watts reminds us to live “here and now.”
Contradicting orthodoxy Watts ascribes religion as medicine, a vessel to transport students across the rapids of uncertainty. “I am thinking, rather, of the old Buddhist metaphor of the doctrine which is like a raft for crossing a river. When you have reached the opposite shore, you do not carry the raft on your back, but leave it behind.” It’s imperative to not carry the rituals, symbolisms, and teachings of doctrine once you have understood the message. As Lucretius stated, “Tantum religio potut suadere malorum (Too much religion is apt to encourage evil).” Whether that be internalizing the “kingdom of God within you” or recognizing the Eternal Now. “And to do this, you must drop the raft. In other words, you cannot, at this stage, think about religion and practice it at the same time.” But the Self interrupts the teaching.
“There is, perhaps, another difficulty—and this is that in the state of concentration, of clear unwavering attention, one has no self—that is, no self-consciousness. This is because the so-called self is a construct of words and memories, of fantasies which have no existence in immediate reality. The block or stoppage which so many of us feel between word and action, between symbol and reality is actually a case of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it.” We want to enjoy ourselves and fear that if we forget ourselves there will be no enjoyment—an entertainment without anyone present to be entertained. This is why self-consciousness is a constant inhibition of creative action, a kind of chronic self-frustration, such that civilizations which suffer from an overdose of it go raving mad, invent atom bombs and blow themselves up. Self-consciousness is a stoppage because it is like interrupting a song after every note so as to listen to the echo, and then feeling irritated because of the loss of rhythm.”
The “principle problem in life is ourselves.” Each person is uncomfortable in their own skin, wrapped in anxiety for the past and future. We tear ourselves away from the present, fighting between desires—stuck in the ego’s gyre, helplessly trapped by circling thoughts. Because egotism creates a false dichotomy, setting individuality apart from the universe. But each person is intricately woven into the fabric of reality, inseparable from the world at large and each other.
“That is to say, one must understand that not only oneself but all other things in the universe are meaningless and dead when considered by themselves, as permanent, isolated, and self-sufficient entities.” Viewed individually objects are empty. What is the essence of a chair? Is it the legs, the seat, it’s function as a place to sit? We live in a world of uncertainty, devoid of obvious formulas and definitions. Even the logical connection between cause and effect appears empty under scrutiny beyond appeal to axiom. “We are all lost—kicked off into a void the moment we were born—and the only way is to fall into oblivion.” Seemingly echoing Emil Cioran’s rhapsody to the absurd, Watts is drawing attention to the emptiness of singular things to exemplify the limits of understanding. It ought not be a source of discomfort, or stepping stone to nihilism, but a profound insight that removes the shackles of everyday thought.
“The universe exists only in that moment, and it is said that the wise man moves with it, clinging neither to the past nor to the future, making his mind like the mirror that reflects everything instantly as it comes before it, yet making no effort to retain the reflection when the object is removed.”
The natural state of the universe is change, shifting forms from one moment to the next. Intransigently holding onto the past is akin to grasping water—it trickles through the cracks. “If anything that lives and moves is held, it dies just like a plucked flower.”
“Buddhism perceives the beauty of change, for life is like music in this: if any note or phrase is held for longer than its appointed time, the melody is lost. Thus Buddhism may be summed up in two phrases: ‘Let’s go!’ and ‘Walk on!’ Drop the craving for self, for permanence for particular circumstances, and go straight ahead with the movement of life. The state of mind thereby attained is called Nirvana.”
But the path to enlightenment is a misnomer, a phantom designed to guide attention to what already exists. No guru or self-help book can provide a methodology for Ultimate Truth. The “Zen master is not trying to vie you ideas about life; he is trying to give you life itself.” We cannot explain existence away anymore than the welling of emotion when listening to Chopin’s Etude Opus 25, “for philosophy and science can only reveal its mechanism, never its meaning or, as the Chinese say, its Tao.”
“Here and now” is all there is, ever was, and ever will be. But the information age is a constant buzz, an endless stream of Tweets and Facebook posts gazed at with a bored hand resting on one cheek. The senses dull and the mind is ensnared by the digital deluge. We forget life for an “almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Thoughts of the future, past, and others remove the mind from harmony with the present, a stopper for Enlightenment.
“For in truth neither past nor future have any existence apart from this Now; by themselves they are illusions. Life exists only at this very moment, and in this moment is it infinite and eternal. For the present moment is infinitely small; before we can measure it, it has gone, and yet it persists forever.”
“You may believe yourself out of harmony with life and its eternal Now; but you cannot be, for you are life and exist Now—otherwise you would not be here. Hence the infinite Tao is something which you can neither escape by flight nor catch by pursuit; there is no coming toward it or going away from it; it is, and you are it. So become what your are.”
Freedom is as much an inner-state of calm as it is political, and recognition of our desires, the present, and the Ego free the mind from the tyranny of our selves. Watts’ writings on Zen Buddhism are an appeal to self-examination, to becoming one’s own guru. The path is not easy, and is strewn with broken glass. But there is no greater pursuit. “The way to wisdom is, however, a great deal less ‘safe’ than the way to making a fortune; it is perhaps the riskiest and most worthwhile thing in the world, but you should not start out on it unless you are prepared to break your neck.”
Compliment Become What You Are with D.T. Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism. And for a philosophical approach to Buddhism consider Nagarjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way.