The Book by Alan Watts
Alan Watts was one of the major figures of the 60’s and 70’s counterculture movement, in which he played an important role in bridging the gap between the mysterious Eastern religions and the growing Western interest in such matters. After the conservative 50’s, it was all the rage for rebellious youths to indulge in an expansion of their worldviews, among those being an increasing openness and curiosity towards Buddhism and Hinduism. The central Eastern philosophical themes of oneness and unity of consciousness resonated with the counterculture movement; especially as psychedelic drugs actually gave people first hand experiences of such expanded states of mind.
Having grown up as a Christian but later delving into Eastern philosophy during his adulthood, Alan Watts had the ideal background necessary to explain the often cryptic Eastern concepts to Western audiences. His primary focus was on Zen Buddhism, having produced many outstanding books on Zen, most notably “The Way of Zen” and “What is Zen”. But his greatest gift was as a lecturer, as he hosted several seminars on his houseboat, along with many given across the US and Europe. His quick wit and panache for metaphors and analogies made him a very popular speaker. Several of his lectures have been recorded and are still available for purchase.
As for his written works, many consider his magnum opus to be “The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”. It is designed to take the reader from the beginning to the end – from having no understanding of non-duality or consciousness to having a very clear experience of non-duality. In the introduction of the book, he even states that this is his hope for readers. If not an experience, at least an appreciation or inquisitiveness could be awakened regarding the potential validity of Eastern thought.
This book is written for the Western mind that has little to no exposure to any Eastern teachings. This was very influential in my spiritual development, because as a newcomer to Eastern philosophies I needed a way to understand its message in a familiar context, without having to learn new concepts. Instead of having to learn the basics of Hinduism and Buddhism in order to progressively understand the ultimate truth, Watts uses very effective examples to get the same message across. At no point during this book do you believe that he has taken some giant step into a distant land. Every argument, every example is explained very clearly with his trademark cunning use of metaphor and analogy.
He structures the book into four main chapters. First he talks about how we become socially conditioned into believing that we are someone (or something) we’re not. We become conditioned into looking at the world in dualistic terms, ever forgetting that they are both sides of the same coin. He shows that one side begets the other, so what we think is two separate things is actually not-two. For example, the head of a cat and the tail look very different. If you view the cat through a very narrow slit of perception in which you can only see them individually, you would tend to think they are very different, unrelated things. You might say the head causes the tail if you see the head first and then the tail. But they are actually part of one whole thing. Though they appear very different, a bigger perspective shows that they are inseparable and belong to the same thing. Why, then, can’t the universe be the same way? Each aspect of creation looks very different from another. Our narrow viewpoint only delivers small bits of information at a time, making things seem to be separate. What is the evidence that these seemingly disconnected things are actually part and parcel of a greater unity?
This is the aim of the rest of the book. He goes on to show how our narrow perception limits our worldview, causing us to believe in duality. For example, he uses examples of biology, ecology, and logic to show that the body is actually the world. We fail to investigate the rules and assumptions by which we define what the body is, and Watts shows how a more critical examination of the body actually leads to the conclusion that our body is a lot more than what we think it is. The way we perceive the body changes what the body actually is. Furthermore, the sense of doership and free will further entrenches our belief that we are a body. Watts gives examples to show that this is also an illusion.
Overall, the main strength of this book is serving as an introduction to those who are new to non-duality, and it should be judged under this light. He does not give a practice to perform in order to break out of our conditioning, but he definitely whets the appetite. For those who want more evidence, more logic, and more reasons to believe the truths touted by non-duality, this book serves as one of the best to tip the scales and get the ball rolling.