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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Illusion, truth and reality (Part 8)

On 15 March 2011, I began a series of blog pieces. I knew it was ambitious but didn't think it was overwhelming. I was going to explain my personal philosophy based on what I taught at the university, including my views on religion. Put incredibly pompously, a sort of personal unified field theory.

   Nothing like placing oneself next to Einstein, is there? And yet, he whispered into my shell-like ear just now, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."

   That’s where crunch point came, because I do hold to the view strongly that there's an interconnectness amongst all things. Not to understand the significance of this is to get locked into illusion, which is what the highest forms of Hindu philosophy try to get across when they speak of maya. I won't return to that here.

   This series was not intended as a guru piece to enlighten the world. Gurus or their equivalents in other cultures have been doing that for at least three thousand years with not a lot of success, in my opinion. In religion, we've ended up with an appalling mess of conflict that would make most of their founders, where there were individual founders, weep with despair at the travesty their noble ideals have ended up. They would have kept their mouths shut if they could have seen into the future the misery has been inflicted in their name. The newspapers and history books are littered with the bloodstains.

   In philosophy, while there's little actual blood on the floor, it's nearly all got lost in a mishmash of jargon that only the specialists dare use, and they often end up playing with words that confound the tale they are supposed to be telling.

   My idea was to use the series to crystallise my own thoughts and end up with a coherent statement that might even have some meaning for anyone interested enough to plough through it right to the end.

   Well, the road to hell... and all that. I got to a certain point by 8 November 2011, and then stopped.

   It wasn't that I couldn’t go on or didn't know what I wanted to express, but that it became an exercise in the very thing I hoped to avoid – preaching. Even my recent posting was preachy. 

   People don't usually like to be preached at, unless they're in awe of the preacher or looking for a saviour. Some are. Count me out. At least, don't count on me because I'm sure to let you down. Preaching assumes superior knowledge and wisdom by the preacher, and in my case there's no guarantee of that.

   I got hung up on the notion that I was reinventing the wheel, and maybe not one that fits the cart it should be on. They're wonky old wheels of different shapes and sizes, but there they are. As I said, I'm no saviour. But what I can say is that I can tell you why my views on God, the Universe and Everything leave me feeling as comfortable as I can be, given what's been happening to me over the past 34 months.

   Well then, let me put an end to it.

Jesus and the Buddha weren't preachers, although the term is often applied to them by later commentators, critics and devotees. They taught using parables, as did Lao Tzu. Parables have the advantage of myth; they can teach the lesson without getting caught up in unimportant details. They can be adapted to new circumstances without someone screaming that not a word can be changed or the message will be lost. The truth is that the message is stifled when it's placed in a straitjacket.

   The only problem arises when the writings with a mythic quality are taken as literal truth. We all know where grim clinging to dogma ends up.

   Let me dispense with the religion side of it. Better still, let me call on an old battler to help; a man who died forty years ago. His name is Alan Watts. He had what I regard as a special gift for explaining eastern philosophies to westerners.
It might seem, then, that our need is for some genius to invent a new religion, a philosophy of life and a view of the world that is plausible and generally acceptable for the late twentieth century, and through which every individual can feel that the world as a whole and his own life in particular have meaning.
   This, as history has shown repeatedly, is not enough. Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the "saved" from the "damned," the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the out-group. Even religious liberals play the game of "we're-more- tolerant-than-you."

   Furthermore, as systems of doctrine, symbolism, and behavior, religions harden into institutions that must command loyalty, be defended and kept "pure," and—because all belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty—religions must make converts. The more people who agree with us, the less nagging insecurity about our position.

   In the end one is committed to being a Christian or a Buddhist come what may in the form of new knowledge. New and indigestible ideas have to be wangled into the religious tradition, however inconsistent with its original doctrines, so that the believer can still take his stand and assert, "I am first and foremost a follower of Christ/Muhammad/Buddha, or whomever."
And he goes on to write one sentence that I find too sweeping, and doesn't take into account thinking people of faith:
Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness—an act of trust in the unknown.
The last sentence I can only agree with wholeheartedly.

   Unfortunately, because this has been separated from its context, I'll probably lose anyone used to thinking only of the God of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but I have no choice.
...[W]e think of God as the King of the Universe, the Absolute Technocrat who personally and consciously controls every details of his cosmos—and that is not the kind of God in my story. In fact, it isn't my story at all, for any student of the history of religions will know that it comes from ancient India, and is the mythical way of explaining the Vedanta philosophy.
   ...Sophisticated Hindus do not think of God as a special and separate superperson who rules the world from above, like a monarch. Their God is "underneath" rather than "above" everything, and he (or it) plays the world from inside.... What is more, no Hindu can realize that he is God in disguise without seeing at the same time that this is true of everyone and everything else.

   In the Vedanta philosophy, nothing exists except God. There seem to be other things than God.... The universe of seemingly separate things is therefore real only for a while, not eternally real, for it comes and goes...

   But Vedanta is much more than the idea or the belief that this is so. It is centrally and above all the experience, the immediate knowledge of its being so, and for this reason such a complete subversion of our ordinary way of seeing things. It turns the world inside out and outside in.
So let me return to my own view, for the last time. I am not a pantheist, a polytheist, a monotheist, nor an atheist. I am not any 'ist' with a 'the' in it. I am a monist, which goes beyond most limits that words impose. I don't look for a Heaven as described in the Semitic faiths, whatever attractions it may hold for others. Nor have I the least fear of a fire-and-brimstone Hell. To me, the latter represents in mythic form the hell we make for ourselves and others.

   I take both to have a vital mythic quality suitable to the great tales of humanity, but we shouldn't cajole or frighten children with them. To me they mean a fulfilment or realisation that we are all of the same essence, as Watts describes is the message of the Vedanta.

   It's the Möbius strip. The inside and the outside are the same – but who would have thought it?

   Some may call that atheism. They are wrong, but that’s OK. It's non-theism, or as I said elsewhere, monism. In a way, it's recognising the relative world we live in within the absolute. Once you have this awareness, just about everything falls into place.

   I accept that others see it differently and it would be presumptuous of me to deny anyone their perception of why they are here and how to spend the short time we all have on this earth. As I've said many times before, when people say they pray for me, I'm sincerely grateful, just as I am for the kindly wishes of the agnostic or the atheist. Good-heartedness is a characteristic of humanity completely separate from religious or philosophical outlook.

   Should this blog end here, then that’s OK. I've said enough, I hope, to make people aware that I accept where and what I am, with no fear of what's beyond the last breath. Between now and that point? That's the terra incognita.

   Let my old friend Alan Watts have (almost) the last word:
As a human being it is just my nature to enjoy and share philosophy. I do this in the same way that some birds are eagles and some doves, some flowers lilies and some roses. I realize, too, that the less I preach, the more likely I am to be heard.
   I apologise for the preaching. How much better this would have been if told as a myth in Harry Potter style. Words are good servants but bad masters.

These quotes all come from Alan Watts The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who you Are 
Search for it on Google; You may be in for a pleasant surprise if you do.


  1. I think it might have been that grumpy old man, Krishnamurti, who said that Allan Watts just taught jumped up Buddhism for the West. In those days, I worshipped Krishnamurti, so that stopped me from reading or listening to Allan Watts for 40 years. That ended when John Wren-Lewis commented in his interview with Caroline Jones, "That delightful man, Allan Watts."

    Having high regard for JWL and the outcome of his NDE, I took the opportunity to buy some old Allan Watts recordings when they came up for sale on Sounds True (online spiritual book/CD/DVD shop).

    Well I never laughed so much. He's the stand-up comic of the spiritual world, and the first of many Western spiritual teachers, of which there are now thousands.

    I agree with a lot he says, but I have to quibble with statements such as, "Religions are divisive and quarrelsome." "Religions harden into institutions...", because religions don't do these things, people do, out of their understanding or misunderstanding of the teachings of any particular religion.

    Also, it doesn't matter if there is a god at the end of the system of thought, for people committed the same sins in the name of Communism, and god or religion cannot be blamed for that.

    I suspect that "truth" is a bit like quantum physics vs Newtonian physics. While they contradict each other, both are true. Read Vedanta for quantum physics and theistic religion for Newtonian physics. This came as a big surprise to Blaise Pascal, who adopted a kind of Vedantic view of religion until the moment where he had a vision forcing him to exclaim, "Not the god of the philosophers, but the god of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob!"

    The last word (paraphrased) from Allan Watts: "The purpose of life is not to get to any goal, anymore than the purpose of dancing is to get to the end of the dance. The purpose of life is the dancing." Or something like that.

    1. You worried me with your spelling of Alan. I thought maybe I'd got it wrong for 50 years. Nope.

      Watts's real gift was making eastern philosophies – (all of the main ones – available to ordinary people. The other 'gurus' find that unforgivable [for They, Gurus, are jealous Gurus]. Anyway, they did their best to bring him down, and he gave them many opportunities to, which they accepted with glee. But how many read and understand Krishnamurti, seriously? Maybe a thousandth of the number whom Watts allowed to think about possibilities other than and in conjunction with those offered by the Semitic faiths.

      Yet his words are always carefully chosen. His comedy as you call it [which will no doubt raise doubts in the minds of some, for whom religilion must be devoid of humour] was that of the parable or the metaphor.

      I think your view about his use of the word 'religions' is a bit of a quibble, though I agree 100% with your sentiment on it, but I don't want to get into defining 'religion' right now. Your Newton/quantum reference is a good one [and no doubt backs your dislike of AW's use of 'religion' here.]

      Thanks for the comments, Joan.

  2. In fact Hindus (for one, and they weren't really 'Hindus' either), didn't have a category called 'religion'. That particular piece of divisiveness was a gift of Enlightenment Europe.

    'Truth is a pathless land', since we are on Krishnamurti :)That's monism, isn't it?

    Julie M

    1. True. They weren't Hindus till the Muslim Arabs came to Sind. Sind became Hind and the inhabitants 'Hindus'. Indian culture was never separated out in the way western religions were and are. It was all that vast conglomerate called Indian culture.

      As much as a metaphor can be something, monism is that 'pathless' land, yes. 'Pathless' not in a bad way, though we are used to paths. In some cases, they end up as super-highways.

  3. I have too many Alan/Allans in my life right now, and am finding it hard to keep their names straight. My apologies to Alan Watts.

    I was a great fan of Krishnamurti's in my early 20s. I read everything of his I could find, until the lightning bolt hit that I was the fool he was talking about. My inflated ego collapsed and I went into a protracted depression. After that I called him The Black Hole of Calcutta.

    His teachings still appear negative to me. A few years ago I brought a video recording of one his lectures home for Carl to watch, thinking he might be interested. Only a few minutes into the talk and Carl exclaimed, "What a grumpy old man!" I felt vindicated.

    I have heard that Krishnamurti did get very grumpy in his old age and complained that so few, if any, of his students really "got" his teaching. While he still has a large following (a contradiction of what he taught), I've heard many comments from others on the negativity and counterproductivity of his teaching. His teaching does fall into the category of non-dualism or neo-advaita. There are hundreds of neo-advaita teachers working these days. They don't appeal to me. I'm too much of a Tantrist.

    1. I doubt if Watts will mind – he passed on in '74. It's just that with my memory as it is now, I doubt everything in my head, except the bit I wish wasn't there.

      As to Krishnamurti, I'm just not a fan of writings that don't connect with people who don't have specialist knowledge, except when they are talking to specialists about that area. But that's my preference.

      When people teach religion and philosophy and can't ever laugh, they lose me. They're too uptight. I'd rather listen to a Zen Buddhist teacher making a few jokes that teach a relevant point than a preacher who never cracks a smile.

      I do understand if K. was cranky that people say they are teaching his exposition of Vedanta when they have little clue what he was on about. That misrepresents him, and it's the sort of thing that wouldn't appeal to me either. But he would have been better making the Sufi joke about the demon he met, depressed that there were so many teachers wrongly teaching the message of Sufism that there was no mischief left for him to do.

      God's got to have a sense of humour or s/he wouldn't have devised something as ridiculous as sex. Does that lead on to your Tantrism comment? Now that's where Watts's talents in explanation really shine....

  4. So 'Monism' is the next step after 'atheism'? I mean if you have come to the idea that you are 'without' a theist view of life then the next step is to understand that everything is one with itself; ultimately we are from/of/return to at one with the ..say...universe?

    I am a simple mind.
    It took me till I was 42 ( Adams' "Meaning of Life") to realise 'atheism' was it for me...the reality, the truth (if you will), and the rush of air into my lungs at that very moment was liberating. After all those years pushing and shoving and squeezing and working a round thought into a square hole was finally dispelled.
    Since then; through near death, near loss, real loss, losing, blah blah the understanding that 'this is it' that I was here and will be gone soon was a relief; palpable.

    I am not educated.
    I am not a philosopher nor of high intellect but hunger to understand....Understand....anything really.

    Thank you for this meaty piece.
    I have no interest any more in religion,spirituality,heaven/hell,Deep Thought ( aka Douglas Adams). I am interested in being.

    I shall look for this Alan Watts and feel at once disgusted I have not heard of him, and frustrated that he was not part of my past journey to here.

    1. I don't know if I'd call it the 'next step'. Maybe. It's the point at which you realise that atheism is a kind of faith as well, because it assumes either the atheist knows all there is to know about the infinite [which is way off the mark] or that the atheist is taking something on faith when they have to admit that they don't.

      It's going one step further than saying 'I don't believe in anything', and that's the wisdom of the mystic - something I've hammered near to death on this blog. Put 'mysticism' in the Search box on the blog itself and you'll see.

      On 7 Feb 2011 I said this as a comment on a comment. I think it has relevance here:

      I imagine that in the final stages of a ‘normal’ death (whatever that is!), many of the things described by those who have had near death experiences are the consequence of the steady dissolution of ego, of sensory-intellectual consciousness and individual identity, which can no longer be organised by the brain as it usually is, in normal life. The loss of this identity may well lead to the sense of identification with something universal – the melting of boundaries on the finite self. In Sanskrit, the famous ‘tat tvam asi,’ or a precursor to that - an ecstatic state, in the literal sense of the word ‘ecstasy’ – ex = out of, stasis = self. Ecstasy has never been limited to a few, but at times to almost everyone.

      It's not something that can be explained in words, because words are finite and circular in meaning, and the infinite's not.

      Yeah I know. Clear as mud….

    2. Yes, this is the current explanation given by Neuroscience, i.e. that NDEs are the result of the brain shutting down. This does sound convincing until I consider that NDEs also happen to people who are unconscious, heavily medicated, in the middle of a serious operation and are anesthetised, and whose brains are incapable of conscious activity and are seriously compromised. The experiencer, on the other hand, claims that they are possibly more conscious than they ever have been, and that the experience is possibly more real than their ordinary life. Even those who know nothing about NDE literature, conform startlingly to the experiences of other NDE experiencers. Also, children have these experiences, as well as "visions" of relatives long dead and even unknown to them. The list is long on of attributes of this phenomenon which do not fit the Neuroscientific model.

      I recently read an account in the Sydney Morning Hearld of a Neuroscientist who had a classic NDE during a bout of menengitis. He risked his credibility by going public on his experience, but it changed him completely. Oddly, I read this a few hours before attending the Neuroscience building at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney, where Carl was due to undergo an experimental MRI for the Older Twin Study. A bit of syncronicity, I think.

      Like aethism, science conveniently leaves out everything we don't know, which is far more than what we do know. Having said that, I wouldn't like to go back to pre-Enlightenment times. Respected researchers, such as Ian Stevenson, are cautiously and rigorously examining the non-rational experiences that do not conform to our current models of mind.

      I would say more on Tantra, but I feel I've gone on far too long. To put it short, in my limited understanding, Tantra accepts the body and the world as real, that the body is the vehicle of "enlightenment." This is in contradistinction to Advaita, which focuses on the unreality of the phenomenal world and the self and often rejects the body, and to Dvaita (Patanjali), which separates the body (prakriti) from spirit (purusha), favouring the latter.

      I cannot imagine Krishnamurti ever making a Sufi joke, but Jack Kornfield, on the other hand .... absolutely delightful.

    3. What you're describing about science's explanation also goes with experiences under the influence of mind-altering substances; maybe a stage further along. I would go so far as to say that anyone who has 'come back' from a Near Death Experience is not at the stage I am talking about, only its preliminary stages, rather like our "Little Match Girl" [I know, I know, it's a story!] as she was going to the point beyond that, into dissolution of consciousness for which there's no return.

      I suspect that's a different realm, but as none of us have been there, we can only speculate. We do know of extraordinary cases of freak 'hibernation' from which no-one should have returned and had no characteristic of life at all. Clinically they were dead as a doornail, so what holds consciousness together is such a mysterious thing that all speculation past the point of partial mystical experience pretty wild.

      You're right about some of the Advaita exponents; they are as boring in their explanations as the proverbial, but the Tantric view, which is essentially an acceptance of the interaction of opposites, includes it all, as it should.

  5. The "dissolution of consciousness" is also a pretty wild speculation. :)

    The Tantrics believe that everything is "real". I'm with them. The reductionist view that the world is illusion or a kind of sleight of mind makes me wonder why the "universe" would bother at all if it weren't to be taken at least a little bit seriously.

    I wonder if consciousness can be dissolved, given that it is a no-thing. John Wren-Lewis came to some interesting observations on consciousness, if you'll remember what he said in his interview with Caroline Jones. For those who are not familiar with him, basically he said, and these are as close as I can remember of his own words, "The inside story of everything is consciousness." Now coming from a Mathematical Physicist, that's quite a statement. Indeed, pretty wild.


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