Friday, April 18, 2008

Spiritual Authority 2

So as the process goes on, you find there is something awkward about all this, and this awkwardness can be expressed in many different ways. One of them is this. How on Earth are you to get at yourself to do something about yourself? Because it’s a project not unlike trying to pierce the point of the pen with the point of the same pen. In other words, if you feel that you could do with some sort of psychological or spiritual improvement, obviously you are the character who’s going to have to bring this about. But if you are the one who needs to be improved, how are you going to accomplish the improvement? You’re in the predicament of trying to lift yourself up off the floor by pulling at your own boot straps, and as you all know, that cannot be done. And if you attempt to do so, you are likely to land with a bang on your fanny and be lower down than you were in the first place.

So that problem continually arises and it has arisen historically in all the great religious traditions. We find it in Christianity, in the debate between St. Augustine and Pelagius. And Pelagius said that if God had given us a commandment to love him and to love our neighbors, he would not have done so unless we could obey it. St. Augustine countered and said, “Yes, but the commandment was not given in order for it to be obeyed, God never expected that it would be obeyed, because we were incapable of loving anyone but ourselves. The commandment was therefore given to convince us of our sinfulness from which we could be rescued only by divine grace, that is to say by the infusion of our souls with a power beyond them.” And that was more or less the doctrine of which the judge settled.

The puzzle has always been therefore, how to get grace, because grace is apparently freely offered to all, but some people seem to get it and some don’t. With some the medicine takes, and with others it doesn’t. Why? Well, apparently you have the power to resist grace, but if you do, you also have the power not to resist it. We would like therefore to know how not to resist it and to be open. And there you see we are back at exactly the same problem with which we began. It’s like saying you must relax damn you. Let go. Give in. And I know I ought give in. I know I ought to let go and abandoned my will to the divine will, but his son Paul put it so well, “The will is present with me. But how to do that which is good, I find hard, for the good that I would I do not and the evil that I would not, that I do.”

In other words, we all come down to a basis in ourselves which we will call, so first of all since we are in a Jewish Temple, the Yetzer HaRah, or the wayward spirit which God is supposed to have put into the soul of Adam or in my translation, our element of the irreducible rascality, where we're all basically scamps. And if you haven’t found that, you’re very unconscious. I know all sorts of people who are full of outward love, but of course, it always turns out that they need money. And when it comes to money, virtue flies out of the window. So we do have the element in ourselves. We know it very well. And the question is therefore once again, how can it be transformed.

But if the transformer is the one who’s inflicted, who transforms the transformer, it’s the old problem of who guards the guards, who polices the policeman, who governs the governor? And it seems perfectly insoluble for the reason alone that it is a vicious circle.

There’s a great deal of talk about two-selves. We love ourselves (called ego), the higher self called the spirit or the atman, and the duty of the atman seems to be to transform the wretched little ego. Well sometimes it does, but a lot of times it doesn’t. So we ask why doesn’t so and so's atman succeed in getting through? Is his ego too strong? If so, who will weaken it? Is his atman too weak? And if so, why for surely aren’t all atmans the same? The puzzle remains.

So let’s take a look at what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re trying to get better. We are out after that type of experience which we will call the positive, the good, the light, the living, and to get away from the negative, the evil, the dark, and the dead. Unfortunately, however, human experience, human consciousness knows by contrast-- we are equipped with a nervous system where the neurons either fire or don’t fire. All that we are aware of, is made up of an extremely complicated arrangement of yes and no. And by a recording on magnetic tape it impulses there are areas where there is a pulse and there are areas where there’s not a pulse. And by so doing, we can tape almost any form of human experience.

In other words, we can put colored television on the tape so that it is all reduced to a matter of yes and no. And you will understand of course, that that is the philosophy of the Chinese book of changes, the I-Ching, which represents all the situations of life in terms of combinations of the yang, or positive principle, and the yin, or the negative principle. Interestingly enough, a Latin translation of the I-Ching was read by the philosopher Leibniz and from this he invented binary arithmetic wherein all numbers can be represented by zero and one. And that is the number system used by the digital computers, which lies behind all our electronic ingenuity. This great extension of the number system which is based on the same principle.

But you see what we are trying to do. We are trying to have yang without yin. We are trying to arrange a life game in which there is winning without losing. Now how can you arrange such a state of affairs? A game in which everybody wins would end up as W.S. Gilbert put it, “When everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody.” If we are all equally happy, it is impossible to know that we are happy because a certain flatness comes over everything. If we lifted up all valleys and lowered all mountains, we should have the sort of thing they’re attempting to do with bulldozers in the Hollywood Hills to the destruction of the ecology, in ghastly fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy that every – every valley should be exhaled and every mountain laid low and the rough places made plain.

And I’m sorry to say it was Isaiah whom was tempted – was dedicated – who made that remark. But the same Isaiah also said something that at least Christians do not often quote, which is this following sentence, “I am the Lord and there is none others. I form the light and create the darkness. I make peace and I create evil. I the Lord, do all these things." In spite of which everybody is busy trying to be good not realizing that we would not recognize saints unless there were sinners, or saviors unless there were fools.

And there is no way out of that dilemma. That is why Buddhism represents existence in terms of a wheel called the Bhavacakra, the wheel of becoming, of birth and death. And on the top of that wheel, there are deva people whom we would call angels. And at the bottom of the wheel, there are Naraka or tormented people in purgatory. And you go round and round, now this way, now that way. It’s really like a squirrel cage where you’re running and running and running to get to the top and yet you have to run faster and faster to stay where you are. And that’s why there is always the sense of the more you succeed in any scale of either worldly or spiritual progress, the more you have the haunting feeling that you’re still in the same place.

So you think now, there must be some way out of that. Perhaps there’s something ambitious and proud and wrong in aspiring to be enlightened or compassionate. Perhaps there’s a great dose of spiritual pride in that I, by my efforts, could make myself into a Buddha or a saint. And therefore, perhaps the thing to do is to try to eliminate all desire, not only the desire for worldly success, but likewise the desire for spiritual success. For the Buddha proposed that desire was the root of suffering and therefore suggested to his arhats that if they eliminated desire or clinging, they might cease from suffering. But you must realize that the circle of teachings of the Buddha are not doctrines in the sense that the Jews and Christians and the Muslims have doctrines. They are proposals. They are the opening steps in a dialogue and if you go away and try not to desire in any way, you will very quickly discover that you are desiring not to desire.

And so we very rapidly come to a situation where you discover that with regard to your own transformation, everything you try to do about it doesn’t work. It may have some sort of temporary success to make you feel better, but again and again we come back to the same old gnawing problem and that is why people interested in spiritual things tend to move from one sect to another, from one teacher to another, always hoping that they will meet one who has the answer. Of course, then there are many teachers who say, indeed, there is nothing you can do and therefore you have to practice non-doing as the Taoist call it wu wei, non-striving.

But then you find in turn that it’s extraordinarily difficult not to strive. It’s like trying not to think of a green elephant and immediately you think of it. And so you come to the dismal conclusion that you can neither achieve what you want to achieve, that is to say liberation from the alternation of the opposites by striving, nor can you achieve it by not striving. And thereby you have learned that you cannot concentrate on purpose. It’s like trying to be unselfconscious on purpose or to be genuine on purpose or to love on purpose, when you say I ought to love, well that puts you in a double bind. And we say to the person, well he’s trained himself to be deliberately unselfconscious or he has very disciplined spontaneity. What we were looking for was somebody whose spontaneity was genuine so that the scaffolding didn’t show. And we believe that there are such people like children, but they don’t know how interesting they are. And when they find out, they become brats.

You have 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-W-O-WATTS. That’s 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 or 1-800-W-O-WATTS.

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Tien Giang Tran said...

Hi AJ!

I have some questions about San Francisco I want to ask you:
What is it that makes San Francisco so special? What is the most important we ought to know about the city?
Geography historical: What kind of society is San Francisco today? What was the original?

I will be very grategul if you help me to answer some of them. :)

A lot of thanks.


Alan Watts: Seriously, it is really difficult to understand the text. I just don't get it. :(

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reynaldo bosquê said...

Hello Aj,

Congratulations for one more fantastic podcast... you are doing an excellent work.

Many thanks


Yusuf said...

Hi everybody

I cant listen this podcast.
Is there a problem ?

reynaldo bosquê said...


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Yusuf said...

Thanks :)

Marisa Florenzano said...

Hi,AJ. I'm waiting for the 3rd and 4th part of Spiritual Authority. When does it come? I like these podcast very much