Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spiritual Authority 1

[This is part one of a lecture by Alan Watts]

I may take the liberty of beginning by saying something about myself and my role in talking to you about philosophical matters, because I wanted to be understood perfectly clearly that I’m not a guru. In other words, I talk about what we call these things and that comprises a multitude of interests concerning oriental philosophy, psychotherapy, religion, mysticism, et cetera. I talk about these things because I’m interested in them and because I enjoy talking about them. And every sensible person makes his living by doing what he enjoys doing, and that explains me.

Now in saying therefore that I am not a guru, that means also that I’m not trying to help you or improve you. I accept you as you are. I am not out there to save the world. Of course, when a stream, a bubbling spring flows out from the mountains it’s doing it’s thing. And if a thirsty traveler helps himself, well that’s fine. When a bird sings, it doesn’t sing for the advancement of music. But if somebody stops to listen and is delighted, that’s fine.

And so I talk in the same spirit. I don’t have a group of followers. I’m not trying to make disciples, because I work on the principle of a physician rather than a clergyman. A physician is always trying to get rid of his patients and send them away healthy to stand on their own feet, whereas a clergyman is trying to get them as members of a religious organization so that they will continue to pay their pledges, pay off the mortgage on an expensive building, and generally belong to the church, boost its membership, and thereby prove by sheer weight of numbers the veracity of it’s tenants. And my objective is really to get rid of you so that you won’t need me or any other teacher. I’m afraid some of my colleagues would not approve of that attitude, because it is widely believed and said that in order to advance in the spiritual life, whatever that is, it is essential that you have a guru, and that you accord to that guru perfect obedience.

And so I’m often asked the question, is it really necessary to have a guru? I can answer that only by saying, yes, it is necessary if you think so. In the same spirit as it is said that anybody who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined. Of course, there is more in that saying than meets the ear, because if you really are sincerely concerned with yourself and are in such confusion that you feel you have to go to a psychiatrist to talk over your state, then of course you need to go. Likewise, if you are in need of someone to tell you what to do to practice meditation of to attain a state of liberation, nirvana, moksha, or whatever it may be called, and you feel that necessity very strongly, then you must have it, because as the poet William Blake said, “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”

However, I do want to point this out. What is the source of a guru's authority? He can tell you that he can speak from experience. That he has experienced states of consciousness which have made him profoundly blissful or understanding or compassionate or whatever it may be. And you have his word for it. You have the word of other people who likewise agree with him. But each one of them and you in turn, agree with him out of your own opinion and by your own judgment. And so it is you that are the source of the teacher’s authority. And that is true whether he speaks as an individual or whether he speaks as the representative of a tradition or a church. You may say that you take the Bible as your authority or the Roman Catholic Church. And the Roman Catholic following very often says that the individual mystical experience is not to be trusted because of it’s liability to be interpreted in a whimsical and purely personal way, and that it has to be guarded against excess by the substantial and objective traditions of the church. But those traditions are held to be substantial and objective, only because those who follow believe it to be so. They say so. And if you follow it, you say so.

So the question comes back to you. Why do you believe, why do you form this opinion? Upon what basis does all this rest? Well of course, almost everybody is looking for help, and thus when I was younger, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way. But there is this feeling of a certain helplessness of being alone and somewhat confused in an unpredictable wayward external world of happenings. And this world of happenings includes an enormous amount of suffering, tragedy, and we wonder why we’re here, how we got here, and in short, what to do about the capital “P” Problem of capital “L” Life, to which should be added death. Because it seems to be certain that we are all going to die and that death may be a painful process. That those we love are going to die and so what about it? Is there anyway in which we can become masters of the situation?

Well there are all sorts of ways of trying to escape from the human predicament of being a lonely, isolated consciousness in the midst of this enormous and wayward not-self. We can of course, try to beat the game on a material basis by becoming very wealthy or very powerful. We may resort to all kinds of technology to get rid of our sufferings, hunger, pain, sickness, and so forth. But it will be noticed that as we succeed in these enterprises, we’re not satisfied. In other words, if you feel at this moment that an increase in income would solve your problems, and you got an increase in income, this would give you a pleasant feeling for a few weeks.

But then, as you well know if that’s ever happened to you, the feeling wears off and you may stop worrying about paying your debts and start worrying about whether you will get sick. There is always something to worry about. And if you are very rich indeed, you’ve still got the anxiety about sickness and death and also anxieties about revolution and about whether the Internal Revenue Service will take it all away from you or catch you for cheating on your taxes, or put you in prison for no good reason. Now there is always this worry. And so you realize that the problem of life does not really consist in your external circumstances, because you worry whatever they are. The problem consists rather in what you call your mind.

Could you by some method control your mind so that you won’t worry, and how on Earth would you do that? Well, there are those people who tell you that the best answer is to think positive thoughts, to be peaceful, to breathe slowly, and hum gently, and get yourself into a peaceful state of mind by repeating affirmations such as all is light, all is God, all is good, or whatever it may be. But unfortunately, it doesn’t always work because you have a nagging suspicion in the back of your mind that you’re simply hypnotizing yourself and whistling in the dark. What the Germans call a "hinterdanker", which is the thought concealed way, way back behind your intellect, but has annoying persistence. What if?

And so you realize that this matter of controlling the mind is no superficial undertaking, because although you may be able to smooth the ruffles of your consciousness, there is beneath that a vast area of unconsciousness which erupts as unpredictably as events in the external world. And so you consider seriously the possibilities of psychoanalysis to go down and get into those depths and see if oil can be put on those troubled waters. And then of course, you get into the guru business. You have to go to someone against who’s mirror you can reflect those aspects of yourself of which you are not directly aware.

You’ve been listening to Alan Watts from the Spoken Word Library of the Electronic University. For copies of this and other Alan Watts programs, please go to on the World Wide Web or call us toll free at 1-800-WOWATTS. That’s A-L-A-N or 1-800-W-O-W-A-T-T-S. The Watts website features free audio downloads, program lists, and information on Watts life and works. Once again that’s Alan or 1-800-W-O-WATTS.

Listen To This Article at:
The Effortless English Podcast.


Richard Ryle said...

Hi, AJ! I've just entered Effortless English Course. My name is Ricardo and I'm from Brazil.

I feel (and I pray) that I'll improve a lot.

That's very interesting this subject, Spiritual Authority... Do you know this author personally?

See you,


AJ Hoge said...

Alan Watts was a wonderful philosopher who had a great talent for explaining the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Taoism in ways that Western people could understand.

He is dead, but his family and associates have collected many of his speeches and are posting them to a podcast.

I also highly recommend his books!

Sri Agustiani said...

The 'guru' has the same meaning in my languange.

Does 'guru' mean a teacher?

To Ricardo, welcome to Effortless English :).


reynaldo bosquê said...

I don't believe it, really do it...Thank you! Thank You! Thank you...I' ll repeat this Alan Watt's speaking every day...I've been practicing what you told about studying the same subject. I have all podcasts by Alan Watts and I listen everyday a lot of times the same one, than the next. I love Alan Watts. At same time I read the Alan Watt's books in enghish. I've finished to read "My own way", (a biography book about him) in english and portuguese too like you has recommend. Here in Brazil, I'work for a big japanese advertising company, Dentsu, and the english is very important because the meeting are in english. And studying like you recommend, just listen, listen, listen, no grammar, no texts books, just real enghish, listening mini-stories a lot of times everyday (the effortless english and flow english too), my english is improving very, very fast. In my next vacation, I'm planning go to California to get lessons with you...Aj, thanks again. You're a great teacher

Love and Peace


Tien Giang Tran said...

Hi AJ and everybody!

I have just been in Malta for a week with my class. It was a very nice trip.

People in the island are speaking both English and Maltese. I have used my English for a week. It was terrible because when malteses speaked to me, I always said "huh?" or "what did you say?" or "can you say again?". They might repeat many times before I could understand them. Another thing is that I could only answer very short, like two or three words. Now I feel I am suck in English.

I am Buddhism, but don't understand very much about the religion. It is particularly difficult when there are about thoughts and belief of the life. Nevertheless it is interesting to know about Alan Watts. I can tell that he might have been a very special person. It is my pleasure to learn more about Alan Watts.


hoang viet said...

HI everyone,
this topic's really difficult, right? It requires us to think in the aspect of philosophy.
Besides, it is not only about the religion but also about philosophy.
To understand completely this podcast, i need a long time as well.

Claude said...

Hi everyone

I like this podcast! It is difficult, I don't understand everything. But for me is very interesting. I listen and I don't feel that I learning. I focus on the meanings.

Thanks fot it AG Hoge, thank very much. You're my Idol. Make please more that kind of podcast. I listened you every podcast.

I think that Alan Watts have similar energetic voice how you Hoge. This is why I like so much listen us guy.

Thank for everything.

opasw said...

I like your english grammar blog. It's a good blog for learn english grammar