Friday, May 23, 2008

"The Tao Of Philosophy" by Alan Watts.

About 600 years before the birth of Jesus (which was about 1,000 years before the birth of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), a little Chinese man on a buffalo had made some pretty nifty observations about the relationship between Man and the Universe.

“There was something formless, yet complete and perfect, that existed before the heavens and the earth.”

This man, more commonly known as Lao Tzu, described that force as the eternal creator, and the all-encompassing order, of all things.

His only known writing is a compilation of verses named the Tao Te Ching.

In it, Lao Tzu expressed his philosophy in ways which ultimately got him into trouble with the authorities of the time. (Not surprising, since he advocated that a leader should not go about his business with pomp and circumstance, but rather quietly, humbly, and invisibly, his job being to fulfil the needs of the people, and not the other way around.)

Lao Tzu also observed that the way of the world often worked in two opposing forces – good and evil, light and darkness, full and empty.

This was, in essence, the theory of relativity, of course. But as always, the West took all that’s good from the East and attributed it to one of their own sons, in this case, to Albert Einstein.

But while Einstein’s theories and scientific calculations have often been used as a means to “govern” nature, Lao Tzu advocated a surrendering to the infinitely wiser and truer will of nature.

Western logic versus Oriental mysticism, so to speak. And as if to bridge that gap between the two, here is The Tao of Philosophy, edited transcripts by the late Alan Watts.

“Inability to accept the mystic experience is an intellectual handicap. Lack of awareness of the basic unity of organism and environment is a serious and dangerous hallucination. For in a civilisation equipped with immense technological power, the sense of alienation between man and nature leads to the use of technology in a hostile spirit – to the ‘conquest’ of nature instead of intelligent co-operation with nature.”

Brought up in Christian tradition (his grandfather was a missionary), Alan Watts became a chaplain at Northwestern University, Illinois, when World War II was raging.

Later, dissatisfied with the precepts of his Western education, he turned to the philosophies of Zen and Taoism.

The Tao of Philosophy is a surprisingly easy-to-read stream of thoughts which come from a life-long study of Eastern philosophy by an inspired and articulate Westerner.

One of the things I found most amusing about Alan Watts’ The Tao of Philosophy is the clear, simple way in which he dismissed atheist thinking, along the way damning highly respected textbook thinkers.

“It has become fashionable, and it is nothing more than a fashion, to believe that the universe is dumb and stupid, and that intelligence, values, love and fine feelings reside only within the bag of the human epidermis, and beyond that it is simply a kind of chaotic, stupid interaction of blind forces.

“For example, courtesy of Dr Freud, we have the idea that biological life is based something called ‘libido’, which was a very loaded word.

“This blind, ruthless, uncomprehending lust is seen as the foundation of the human consciousness, and to thinkers of the nineteenth century like Hegel, Darwin, and T.H. Huxley, there was similarly the notion that the root of being is an energy, and this energy is blind. This energy is just energy and totally stupid, and our intelligence is an unfortunate accident.

“By some weird freak of evolution we came to be these feeling and rational beings, at least more or less rational, but all this is a ghastly mistake because we are here in a universe that has nothing in common with us.

“It does not share our feelings, has no real interest in us, and we are just a sort of cosmic fluke. Therefore, the only hope for mankind is to beat this irrational universe into submission, to conquer it and to master it.

“Of course all this is perfectly idiotic. If you think that the idea of the universe has been the creation of a benevolent old gentleman, you soon realise He is not so benevolent after all, and He takes an attitude of ‘this is going to hurt me more than it is going to hurt you.’

“You can have that idea on the one hand, and, if that becomes uncomfortable, you can exchange it for its opposite idea that the ultimate reality does not have any intelligence at all, and at least that would get rid of the old bogey in the sky in exchange for a picture of the world that is completely stupid.

“Of course, these ideas do not really make any sense because you do not find an intelligent organism living in an unintelligent environment.”

Because of such energetic bursts of witty, cogent, even humorous arguments, it took me less than two days to finish The Tao of Philosophy.

Do read it, and once you’re done, you might like to place your comments here and tell me if it changed your view of yourself and the world, even if only slightly, as it did me.