In My Own Way
"The Paths are many but their End is One."
So, in this miserable bathroom I was taught prayers by my mother, and spanked by my mother who, for that purpose, sat upon the crapulatory throne, and told Bible stories by a governess, Hiss Hoyle, who was forceful and ugly...
Gentle Jesus, Shepherd, hear me:
This doggerel inspired in me entirely unnecessary terrors of darkness and death, and made "going to heaven" as depressing as the alternative, "going to hell," was horrendous. For Christians have never had a good idea of heaven.
Be my last thought, "How sweet to rest
This might be fun for a nun, but for a man it is an invitation to the boredom of a homosexual paradise - which is not to say that I condemn homosexuality, but only that I do not enjoy it. There was also that twisted-head idea of heaven which describes the immense fun of eternity as
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie,
Children notice these things and, though they may make jokes about them among themselves, are often seriously troubled by the apparent seriousness with which adults take them.
Children, as well as adults, make humorous, bantering, scurrilous, and abusive uses of the notion of hell as everlasting post-mortem damnation. But I was so appalled by this possibility that I would lie awake at night worrying about it, frightened of going to sleep because of the obvious analogy between sleep and death. People were always talking about someone or other who "died in his sleep." My mother tried to console me by quoting John 3:16, but there seemed to be no way of being really and truly sure that one actually and genuinely did believe in Jesus, or whether one had not inadvertently committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Ghost...
I said "on the whole," and therefore not entirely. For my life has been an attempt to reconcile what are supposed to be opposites, and my name "Alan" means "harmony" in Celtic and "hound" in Anglo-Saxon. Accordingly, my existence is, and has been, a paradox, or better, a coincidence of opposites. On the one hand I am a shameless egotist. I like to talk, entertain, and hold the center of the stage, and can congratulate myself that I have done this to a considerable extent - by writing widely read books, by appearing on radio and television, and by speaking before enormous audiences. On the other hand I realize quite clearly that the ego named Alan Watts is an illusion, a social institution, a fabrication of words and symbols without the slightest substantial reality; that it will be utterly forgotten within five hundred years (if our species lasts that long), and that my physical organism will shortly pass off into dust and ashes. And I have no illusions that some sort of proprietary and individual soul, spook, or ghost will outlast it.
Nevertheless, I know too that this temporary pattern, this process, is a function, a doing, a karma, of all that is and of the "which than which there is no whicher" in just the same way as the sun, the galaxy, or, shall we be bold to say, Jesus Christ or Gautama the Buddha. How can I say this without offense - without seeming proud, haughty, and pretentious? I simply, and even humbly, know that I am The Eternal, even though such supremely enlightened people as Jesus, Buddha, Kabir, Sri Ramakrishna, Hakuin, and Sri Ramana Maharshi may have manifested this knowledge in a more forceful and authoritative style. I would be affecting the most dishonest false modesty if I did not acknowledge this, and yet the idea of my coming on as a messiah or great guru just breaks me up with laughter.
Because, at the same time, I am an unrepentant sensualist. I am an immoderate lover of women and the delights of sexuality, of the greatest French, Chinese, and Japanese cuisine, of wines and spiritous drinks, of smoking cigars and pipes, of gardens, forests, and oceans, of jewels and paintings, of colorful clothes, and of finely bound and printed books. If I were extremely rich I would collect incunabula and rare editions, Japanese swords, Tibetan jewelry, Persian miniatures, Celtic illuminated manuscripts, Chinese paintings and calligraphies, embroideries and textiles from India, images of Buddhas, Oriental carpets, Navajo necklaces, Limoges enamels, and venerable wines from France. Yet there have been two or three times in my life when I have had to abandon almost all possessions and go it alone, and thus I have also an attraction to being a no-strings-attached Taoist wanderer in the mountains, "cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown." And, when the mood suits me, I also like to practice Buddhist meditation in the Zen or Tibetan zog-chen style, which is simply sitting quietly or walking rhythmically without thoughts or verbalizations in your head.
Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Or the Western version:
Sometimes I sits and thinks,
My wife, looking over my shoulder, has just suggested that this is the real meaning of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception - to be clean of concepts, and thus to be in that state of awareness which yogis call nirvikalpa samadhi, and it struck us that if this news got around it would completely subvert and transform the Catholic Church.
For the Church is the world's most talkative institution, and the Church of England, in which I was most firmly brought up, is, of course, a branch of the Catholic Church - though politically and economically separated from the See of Rome. But these impoverished Christians do nothing in their religious observances except chatter. They tell God what he ought and ought not to do, and inform him of things of which he is already well aware, such as that they are miserable sinners, and proceed then to admonish one another to feel guilt and regret about abominable behavior which they have not the least intention of changing. If God were the sort of being most Christians suppose him to be, he would be beside himself with boredom listening to their whinings and flatteries, their redundant requests and admonitions, not to mention the asinine poems set to indifferent tunes which are solemnly addressed to him as hymns.
This was why I was always attracted to the old style of Roman Catholicism, wherein you could steal into church unnoticed and listen to a perfectly unintelligible service in splendid Gregorian chant. The whole thing was music, and God was not bored. But, alas, my mother, though not fanatical about it, was a Protestant of the Low Church persuasion, and took me off on Sundays to Christ Church for the didactic services of Morning Prayer or Ante-Communion, in English, where the scholarly and gentle vicar, Mr. Lightfoot, would discourse upon the Bible...
Yet my attitude to these hymns is weirdly ambivalent, for they go on echoing in the dome of my skull. Just a few of them are, indeed, musically superb: Veni creator, Coelites plaudant, Veni Emmanuel, and those composed by Bach and Handel. But there are others which I fondle in my mind as the tongue strays over a hole in a tooth...
Not only did we sing hymns in church and at Uncle Harry's on Sunday nights; my father sang them to me as lullabies; we sang them morning and evening at school. I recollect a breakfast in the home of some Baptist missionaries back from China, where, while the breakfast got cold, everyone sang a hymn, read around the table a verse from some passage of scripture, and then knelt down at their chairs for interminable prayers. At the time, I didn't seriously object. I was impressed, terrified, comforted, and interested by this weird religion, as well as fascinated by tales of magic and adventure in The Bible, a volume which I was taught to regard as a sacred charm against evil and misfortune, as many Catholics regard the Blessed Sacrament.
My mother and father had the good taste to belong to the Church of England, as also did Uncle Harry, though he flirted with "chapel" people such as Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists who had a strange genius for worshipping God in buildings that looked like obscene mixtures of churches and factories - all entirely devoid of color, except for a peculiarly appalling yellow glass in the windows that was supposed, quite falsely, to give the impression of sunlight on cloudy days. But the Church of England, being the established religion of the land, is ruled by the King or Queen, and thus derives from the shekinah or radiance of their majesty a certain dignified splendor. To belong to the Church of England is to feel quite definitely connected with the Royal House, and with a hierarchy which eventually leads up to God in a clear and orderly manner. This peculiar experience is also available to the Japanese, through Shinto, whose style is oddly reminiscent of Anglican ritual; but most Americans know nothing of it, and are therefore lacking in public morale and true esprit de corps. This may or may not be a good thing, and I am simply pointing it out.
A particular lightness, joyousness, and exuberance of mind and attitude? The opposite of Germanic Sturm und Drang, of that high seriousness which has so afflicted us all - and especially our more prosperous kings, priests, premiers, and presidents - and which I am simply incapable of understanding. A priest once quoted to me the Roman saying that a religion is dead when the priests laugh at each other across the altar. I always laugh at the altar, be it Christian, Hindu, or Buddhist, because real religion is the transformation of anxiety into laughter.
But this gaieté d'esprit was entirely lacking in the religious atmosphere of my childhood, although I found it later in the Christianity of G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, William Temple, Dom Gregory Dix, and Dom Aelred Graham. Throughout my schooling the religious indoctrination was grim and maudlin, though retaining fascination because it had something to do with the basic mysteries of existence. As I attained puberty I had to escape from it, and therefore took refuge in Buddhism. Buddham saranam gacchami. I had to get out from under the monstrously oppressive God the Father - nothing like my own father, who never used violence against me, and who constantly backed me up, consorted with me, helped me, and even followed me in my spiritual adventures. He went so far as to become treasurer of the Buddhist Lodge of London, after I joined it at the age of fifteen. I wouldn't even call him "Father." He was always a friendly fellow named Daddy.
But at Canterbury I had to undergo the rites of puberty, which consisted in being confirmed or initiated into the mysteries of the Church of England - mysteries which had altogether ceased to exist, apart from vague and gravely dreadful warnings against masturbation, homosexuality, and playing around with girls. We were given the impression that masturbation would result in syphilis, epilepsy, insanity, acne, pimples on the crotch, and the Great Siberian Itch - not to mention death, judgment, and everlasting damnation. I still wonder what kind of game was going on, because all our preceptors had once been lusty adolescents themselves, and, deprived as we were of women, almost everyone masturbated regularly at night. I felt as if I were in some madhouse where most of the rules were self-contradictory.
Misinformation about sex seemed to be the ne plus ultra of initiation into the Church - that is, as conveyed to a boy of fourteen. When aroused, go and dangle your balls in cold water - of which there was plenty, and in winter the jug in my cubicle in the school dormitory was coated with ice. Otherwise, there was a tremendous verbal build-up for the rite of Confirmation. We were given the whole history of the Church and of the Apostolic Succession, and told that the bishop, by virtue of his direct descent from Jesus Christ, would at the moment of laying his hands upon our heads confer upon us some mysterious power that would enable us to be Good, and that thereafter we would be admitted to the rite of Holy Communion (which the boys called "Comuggers") and that this would make us even Gooder.
It was a letdown that when the moment came, the confirming bishop was not the Archbishop himself, but his suffragan, and when he laid his hands on my head absolutely nothing happened. When I first received the Holy Communion there was nothing interesting about it except the taste of the port, though everyone walked back from the altar rail looking like the cat that swallowed the canary. There was no joy, no camaraderie or conviviality, no sense of being turned-on, but only an intense and solitary seriousness. Everyone in his own private box with God, apologizing for having masturbated, fornicated, or adulterated. (One of the boys, lacking all sexual education, understood the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery" as "Thou shalt not kick the poultry," a much more sensible admonition.)
Believe it or not, in our formal prayers we actually gave thanks to God for King Henry VIII, who endowed the school with funds plundered from the adjoining Benedictine monastery - now in ruins - and, while boasting the title Fidei Defensor (as if God needed any defense), married six wives of whom he had two ritually murdered. He also composed ecclesiastical music. Most of us boys took all this "English History" of formal beheadings at the Tower of London and glorious wars and burnings at the stake and the naval prowess of that elegant pirate, Sir Francis Drake, as a matter of course or even of grandeur.
But, for myself, I had no heart for this "Onward Christian Soldiers" approach to life. It was thus that at the age of fifteen, as a scholar supported by the foundation of Canterbury Cathedral, the heart of the Church of England, I formally declared myself to be a Buddhist. As is coming to be known, Buddhism is not really a religion-a way of obedience to someone else's rules, a regula vitae - but a method for clarifying and liberating one's state of consciousness. I had found myself in agreement with Lucretius that Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum: that too much religion is apt to sway us into evils.
The concerns of ethics and morality occupy a subordinate, though still important, place in my preoccupations, since it has long seemed to me that basic religion is beyond good and evil - indeed, beyond any choice between things which may be regarded as opposites. All such opposites define one another mutually in such a way that there can be no final choice between them. To be is, or implies, not to be, and what interests me is the field, the continuum, in which these opposites are poles. Supralogical experiences of this continuum have arisen in the human mind in all times and places, and will doubtless continue to arise no matter what creeds or opinions prevail, and no matter what forms of reasoning may be used to dub them meaningless or mad. To me they are as natural and perennial as anything else - such as electricity - which cannot be defined but which is nevertheless most definitely felt.
When it comes to the forms and styles of religion, I have, of course, purely personal tastes and prejudices - as in art and music. Prayer, for example, is alien to me, but as I have said, I love to meditate either informally or in the way of Zen, or of Tibetan zog-chen, or in the manner of mantra yoga, which employs the contemplation of sound, produced by the voice or by such instruments as gongs. Thus at the mountain cottage where I am now writing, I have installed a gonglike bell made from a large oxygen tank and set into vibration by a swinging trunk of eucalyptus wood, suspended on ropes, and it sounds like those immense bronze bells of the Buddhist temples in Japan, which hum along the ground instead of clanging out through the sky. It reminds me of the great bell of Nanzenji in Kyoto, to which I have often listened at four in the morning - when the monks begin meditation - sounding about once every minute.
If I am asked to define my personal tastes in religion I must say that they lie between Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, with a certain leaning towards Vedanta and Catholicism, or rather the Orthodox Church of Eastern Europe...
I came back from this adventure feeling like an adult. From then on the curriculum, the sports, and the ideals of King's School, Canterbury, seemed, with some few exceptions, to be futile, infantile, and irrelevant. And then one day in Goulden's bookshop I came upon Lafcadio Hearn's Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. I bought it because it comprised a chapter on ghosts, imagining that Japanese ghosts would be the ultimate in refined horror, whereas they turned out to be rather amiable. But the book contained a description of his house and garden in Matsue (which I have since visited four times), and this, with all his poetical discourse on the various kinds of frogs, insects, and plants, and the art of giving the illusion of a wide landscape in a small space, made the glowing tinder of my interest in Oriental culture suddenly light the fire. I was aesthetically fascinated with a certain clarity, transparency, and spaciousness in Chinese and Japanese art. It seemed to float, whereas most Western art seemed chunky, cluttered, vaguely delineated, dark, and heavy. Apart from illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, and Italian "primitives" it was full of shadows and coarse-looking people, and, as I later discovered, there are no shadows in nature: everything is colored, because the whole material world is basically composed of light.
Yes, I have been close to ecstasy in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and have had my "prurient interests" thoroughly aroused by Renoir's girls, have basked in Cézanne's landscapes, have delighted in Braque's amazing understanding of space, and laughed with Picasso. But the miniatures and arabesques of Persia, the textiles of India, and the painting, calligraphy, and sculpture of China and Japan make me feel - in my mother's words - jazzy inside. Even when they use brown-the color of decay which is not in the spectrum - they make it luminous. I can say only that, from my point of view, the Chinese and Japanese masters have a clear, uncluttered, lightsome, and gently windswept view of nature, which so enchanted me that I had to find out what philosophy, feeling, or experience lay behind it.
So then came the second thing that Francis Croshaw did for me. He had an enormous library, and, realizing my interest in the Orient in general and Buddhism in particular, began lending me books and engaging me in discussions which went on far into the night-mostly at his bungalow near Rye-drinking Moulin a Vent and smoking his dynamic stogies. This kind of discourse with an intelligent and colorful adult, in a free-and-easy atmosphere, is worth more than any amount of formal education. He lent me Edmond Holmes's masterly book, The Creed of Buddha, which happened to contain a yellow pamphlet, written by a certain Christmas Humphreys, about Buddhism, and the work of the Buddhist Lodge in London. I was also reading Lafcadio Hearn's Gleanings in Buddha-Fields, where I found an essay on nirvana which gave me such a convincingly different view of the universe from the one I had inherited that I turned my back on all I had been taught to believe as authority. That did it. I wrote to the Buddhist Lodge, became a member, subscribed to their magazine Buddhism in England, which is now called The Middle Way, and shortly sought out Christmas Humphreys who, after Francis, was to become my second most important teacher. And I shall not forget the awed and almost respectful way in which Patrick Leigh Fermor said to me, "Do you really mean that you have renounced belief in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?"
As I have said, I simply couldn't get along with the Christian God. He was a bombastic bore, and not at all the sort of fellow you would want to entertain for dinner, because you would be sitting on the edge of your chair listening to his subtle attempts to undermine your existence and to probe the unauthentic nature of your life. He was like the school chaplain who took you aside for a VERY SERIOUS TALK. He had no gaieté d'esprit, no charm, no lilt, no laughter, and no sensual delight in the world of nature which he had supposedly created. At least, this was the version of that God conveyed to me by my preceptors, who were busily preoccupied in keeping virile young men off the labor market and from sowing their oats to the begetting of unfamilial bastards.
It was thus an immense relief to find out that millions of people outside Europe and the Near East didn't have this notion of the ultimate reality. The ground of it all was, instead, something variously known as the Universal Mind, the Tao, the Brahman, Shinnyo, alaya-vijñana, or Buddha-nature, wherewith one's own self and being is ultimately identical for always and always, though my preceptors derided such notions as being woolly and vague and, above all, damnably pantheistic. My theological preceptors dubbed it immoral and illogical, and the scientistic and atheistical ones deemed it sentimental and meaningless nonsense. Francis's brother-in-law, John Johnson, a musician who had won some prize for finishing Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, and who was a devout atheist, used to look over my shoulder and roar with contemptuous laughter at the exotic terminology of the books I was reading, which was merely the old British way of putting down anything foreign - as they called Koln Cologne, Padova Padua, and Boulogne Boolone. Any Sanskrit or Chinese word would just break him up, but he was a most unhappy and frustrated man.
I kept wondering and wondering what was the hang-up of the British, and of Europeans in general, about being definite and precise regarding the nature of either the deity or the nondeity. They had fought battles over the problem of whether God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, was homoousios or homoiousios, of the same substance or of similar substance with the Father. They slaughtered women and children and laid fields waste in verbal quarrels about transubstantiationism and antitransubstantiationism, as to whether, at Mass, the bread and wine became the veritable body and blood of Christ - whether they were, rather, consubstantiated in such manner that the Lord's body and blood became spiritually present - or whether the recelebration of the Lord's Last Supper was no more than a symbolic reminiscence. As an unabashed pantheist I am naturally a full-blooded transubstantiationist, knowing full well that the ground wheat of bread and the crushed grapes of wine are the body and blood of Christ, the Anointed One, or olive-oiled man who is so slippery that he has no hang-ups. But I'm not going to go to war about it, nor sizzle the testicles of those who don't agree with me by planting them on bonfires.
I regard my more remote European forefathers who engaged in these quarrels as utterly insane. They were hopelessly confused and hypnotized by their languages, by the crude linear symbolisms wherewith they sought to make "sense" of the world. Contrariwise, such an articulate, amusing, and reasonable atheist as Bertrand Russell was also hypnotized with wordswith endless talk about talk - with making, as the French say, précises about this and that - all of which is an intellectual game of chess having very little to do with the realities of nature - until it came, of course, to his truly heroic and responsible protests against sexual proprietism and atomic bombs, for which he was barred from Columbia University and thrown into jail in England.
Notions of God, of the ultimate reality or the ground of being, must necessarily be vague - for the simple reason that, just as we cannot bite our teeth, we cannot make the energy that we ourselves are a precisely defined object. Verbal definitions of God in the form of creeds, dogmas, and doctrines are far more dangerous idols than statues made of wood, stone, or gold, because they have the deceptive appearance of being more "spiritual," and because a creedally formulated God has been reduced to words, and is no longer experienced immediately, like clear water or blue sky. This is why Christians have lost all magical powers except those of a false anointment, or antichrist: petroleum, powering a technology which is fouling the whole human nest.
I am not trying to frighten the millionaires who control Standard Oil and the liquid wealth of Texas with visions of revolution and the gallows; I am only suggesting that they might be kinder to themselves. People do not generally realize that those who govern states and great corporations are not really in control of these monstrous organizations of human action. They are like the drivers of runaway trucks which will disintegrate if brought to a sudden stop, yet cannot be slowed because they are carrying emergency supplies to a scene of disaster. But it is not happiness to cultivate ulcers and heart disease while amassing millions of paper dollars and covering the world with smog and greasy grime. One of my missions in life, if I have any, is to show very rich and powerful people how to use their imaginations and enjoy themselves through being disabused of the notion that money and prestige have; in themselves, material reality. Love of money and imagination in spending it seem to be mutually exclusive. Furthermore, it could almost be stated as an equation: money = anxiety. Though a man of imagination, taste, and culture, Francis Croshaw lived in horror, not of death, but of the process of dying, and he was fascinated by that extreme interpretation of the Buddha's doctrine which defines the very process of life as agony and the release as a method of absolute and final suicide. I was still in school when he was found dead on the path below his bedroom, and no one ever knew whether he had jumped, or whether he had stumbled over the sill in trying to open a jammed window.
His place as guru was taken by Christmas Humphreys...
Thus it was through the work of Blavatsky that these traditions were delivered to Toby when he was a student at Cambridge, in company with psychiatrist Henry Dicks, and Ronald Nicholson, who later became the sadhu Sri Krishna Prem. They joined the Cambridge branch of the Theosophical Society, and Toby subsequently founded - in London - an independent Buddhist Lodge of the Society, of which he remains president and chief guru to this day, though there is no longer any formal connection with the Theosophists...
He and Puck, silversmith with white witch in attendance, maintained an establishment that was full of mystery. It wasn't just the Oriental art and the smell of pine or sandalwood incense. It was also that, on and off, they were visited by enigmatic and astonishing people such as Tai-hsu (patriarch of Chinese Buddhism), Nicholas Roerich (Russian artist and Buddhist), G.P. Malalasekera (Buddhist scholar and diplomat of Ceylon, who is probably the most reasonable man in the world), Alice Bailey (an updated Blavatsky), and, above all, Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki, unofficial lay master of Zen Buddhism, humorous offbeat scholar, and about the most gentle and enlightened person I have ever known; for he combined the most complex learning with utter simplicity. He was versed in Japanese, English, Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, French, Pali, and German, but while attending a meeting of the Buddhist Lodge he would play with a kitten, looking right into its Buddha-nature.
Toby introduced me to the writings of Suzuki in 1930, though I didn't meet the man himself until he came to London in 1936 for the World Congress of Faiths, at which time I had become the editor of Buddhism in England. Suzuki fascinated me because he told endless mondo, or Zen stories, in which people who asked "What is the basic principle of Buddhism?" were given such answers as "The cypress tree in the garden" or "Three pounds of flax," and thereupon attained instant enlightenment and liberation from the problems of birth-and-death, instead of having to practice intense concentration on the neuropsychic centers (or chakras) in their spinal cords throughout fifteen incarnations. At this time (1930) I was also reading Swami Vivekananda's Raja Yoga, and making preliminary experiments in pranayama, or control of the breath, so as to discover that what is at once voluntary and involuntary, what you do and what happens to you, is all one process, all karma of which the real meaning is not cause-and-effect but simply doing, action, or energy. When something "happens" to you, be it tragic or comic, hideous or delightful, the Hindus and Buddhists say it's your karma - which doesn't mean punishment or reward, as if someone were keeping books on you, but simply your own doing.
I was thus moving from the ideal of Christian love to that of Buddhist wisdom, from agape to bodhi. I didn't like Christian love as I saw it exemplified in the lives of those who preached it. They were always going to war with other people to save them. They believed that suffering was "good for you" and considered flogging their children an act of mercy. Formerly, they had even burned heretics at the stake in a desperate attempt to save them from their own fantasies of everlasting damnation. Indeed, there were people around me, such as Aunts Gertrude and Ethel, who really lived Christian love; but they never preached it. Trying, then, to put myself back into an adolescent's point of view, it seemed to me that those who preached it didn't have it. They were solemn bombasts who, as might have been expected, ended up with the atomic bomb. "O how great a thing it is when the Lord putteth into the hands of the righteous invincible might."
I watched the antics of the Salvation Army - beating drums, blowing bugles, putting their girls' heads into ridiculous bonnets, and praying into their visored hats. They actually took them off and talked into them!...
Although I was later to read Eckhart, Saint Thomas, Saint Teresa, and most of the great Christian mystics, the style of Christianity offered to us children contained no hint of mystical experience. We were told only that Jesus, and Jesus alone, was one with God, and that some prophets and saints had occasionally talked with God. But it was all talk - no vision, no feeling, no sensation, except of a certain awe and military grandeur. We were, after all, being trained as officers for the troops of the British Empire.
So I went the Wrong Way, and espoused one of the major religions of the peoples ruled by that Empire. While wandering around with Ivan Croshaw in London's flea market in Camden Town, I picked up an exquisite brass image of the Buddha from Burma, for a mere fourteen shillings, and a secondhand copy of Vivekananda's Raja Yoga. I followed Vivekananda's instructions in my dormitory cubicle at night, looking out to the Bell Harry Tower of Canterbury Cathedral under moonlight...
All forgotten and set aside -