Alan Watts – 21st Century Guru

This truly inspiring video from Zen guru Alan Watts has 7.5 million views on You Tube. Its a seeming mish mash of talks Watts gave during his life. It covers a range of topics such as human identity, reincarnation, the unconscious and The Cosmos. Yet it all comes together in a coherent whole. The music and graphics are great, too.

My favourite sentence from the video is:

“You are something that the whole universe is doing, in the same way that a wave is something that the whole ocean is doing.”

So who is Alan Watts? – 10 Surprising Facts About the Millennials’ Guru

  1. Watts was a English/American philosopher who lived from 1915 to 1973.
  2. He is best know for popularising Eastern thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, for a Western Audience. He lived and taught in America for much of his adult life.
  3. His stature has notably grown in the digital era due to many of his talks being posted and available for free on You Tube. Many of his videos/audios have millions of views. He is particularly popular with young people, many of whom seem to admit themselves to the “spiritual, but not religious” category. Watts seems to meet this need.
  4. According to the critic Erik Davis, his “writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity”.
  5. Watts had a Christian upbringing and initially gained a masters degree in theology. He then became an Anglican priest, before becoming interested in Buddhism.
  6. He still referred to many Christian ideas in his Zen lectures.
  7. By his own assessment, Watts was imaginative, headstrong, and talkative. He had a way with words, and a deep, gravelly laugh that endeared people towards him. He had the charisma that people who talk on spiritual topics with much certainty often have.
  8. There are rumours that Watts became an alcoholic in his later years. Wikipedia talks of “friends concern” at Watts “high alcohol consumption” in his later years. These rumours have tainted Watts’ guru status somewhat. How can you be enlightened if you are an alcoholic, after all?
  9. Watts married 3 times and had 7 children.
  10. The 2013 film “Her” features Watts as an artificially intelligent operating system, portrayed by Brian Cox.

Zen Story of the Week – “Empty your cup” – What Does It Mean?

Today’s Zen Story is one of the most famous, known as “Empty your cup”. The story is undoubtedly very ancient. This 19th/20th Century version comes courtesy of the blog “The Stone Mind“:

“Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

So what can we learn from this brief tale?

This story comes with the trademark Zen brevity. Many Zen teachings are two line stories, proverbs and koans.

No extended philosophical treatise here!

The story seems to be telling us that the main barrier between us and enlightenment is our own “opinions and speculations”. In order to learn and experience reality, we must first drop our pre-existing ideas that we have brought to the table.

Its worth noting that the person who comes to the master is a professor – learned, knowledgeable, intelligent. But the wise master gives him a profound teaching.

This aspect of the story reflects the deep suspicion in Zen of book learning.

So what is wrong with reading books?

Nothing is wrong with it, per se. Its rather the attachment to the ideas that books tend to produce, a strong sense of ego, derived from the knowledge of other people’s ideas.

Zen is much more about intuition, a direct immediate grasp of reality, of Satori (sudden awareness or Enlightenment) rather than having many words, concepts and ideas from books.

Zen is not about second hand knowledge.

Zen is about seeing for yourself.

“Come and see,” as Jesus of Nazareth says in the New Testament.

The Christian word for the emptying out of our mind is “humility”. The Bible says God “gives grace” to the humble. This grace is, I imagine, the same that the Zen Master would give to his professor student once he had emptied his cup!

I’m reminded here of the line by Zen master Shunryu Suzuki in his seminal book “Zen Mind, Beginners Mind”:

“In the beginners mind the possibilities are many. In the expert’s, they are few.”

The writer of “Empty your cup” is urging us to have a beginner’s mind, a “blank slate”.

So what is Zen, exactly?

The essential profound teaching of Zen is that we don’t need to gain anything to experience Enlightenment; after all, out truest self is our “Buddha nature”, our divine nature. What we have to do is not “gain” stuff, but drop it.

Drop our illusions, opinions, pre-conceptions about how life should be. And embrace reality as it is. Trouble is, so ingrained are these patterns of thought is that it takes years of meditation to begin to chip away at our “false self”.

Which brings me to the main point of the “Empty your cup” story, which I think that most people miss.

Many people see this story and think that the professor should “empty” his cup, in order to be filled with the Zen teaching. But that would be just more words, more ideas.

The truth is this: Zen IS the emptiness. The master would say he has nothing else to teach. Just to be empty of self. So you can fill up with…the Universe.

That’s it.




Can Buddhism Help With Anxiety?

The Origin of Anxiety?

Anxiety. Angst. Worry. Apprehension.

Fear – in all its forms – has been a perennial “thorn in the side” of humanity since we first became conscious.

Evolutionary psychologists tell us that the “flight or fight” response – or fear, by another name –  evolved in us on the plains of Africa 200,000 years ago.

There, nomadic hunter gatherer proto humans faced many threats – other hostile tribes, wild animals, poisonous food. There was a strong need among the first Homo Sapiens to be aware of the many threats to their existence.

This need has served us well – over time, we have become the most successful species in history, spreading all over the planet, adapting to all environments. But it is said that this propensity to fear, this readiness to low-level anxiety – has not served us well in the modern world.

The psychologists tell us that modern psychiatric diagnoses and conditions, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, are merely the misfiring of the ancient human tendency to be concerned about their environment, in order to survive.

Following on from this materialist account of anxiety, treatments are offered according to the individual needs of the service user. Typically, medication and therapy.

Many people see recovery in these methods. But many struggle on.

So What About Buddhism? What Can it Offer the Anxious Person?

The Buddhist account of anxiety goes much deeper. It is much more psychological than biological, as described above. Rather than just trying to explain anxiety away as a epiphenomenon of evolution, the Buddha saw anxiety as laced within the very fabric of what it means to be an unenlightened human.

The Buddha’s First Noble Truth is usually stated as “Life is suffering”. The Pali word for suffering is “Dukkha” which can be translated as “dissatisfaction” or…”anxiety”.

So you could say that The Buddha’s entire project of Enlightenment is founded on eradicating worry or un-ease.

Remember when the Buddha says “Life is suffering”, he is not saying that every moment of life is miserable. That is clearly not true. What he is saying is that within all unenlightened experience, the is always an undercurrent of worry, or concern, or anxiety, or un-ease, like a “hum” in the background. This “hum” is a times, loud, at other times, just in the background.

From the Buddhist perspective, more-or-less perennial anxiety is so endemic to the human condition that just to it as recognise as a thing in itself, is a big achievement. After all, as the saying goes, “the fish is last to know the water”.

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth is that suffering, anxiety, in life is caused by desire. There are a number of aspects to this statement that need clarifying.

What is desire?

Desire is, in essence, an unwillingness to have a still mind and to selfishly cling and grasp to thoughts and experience. To understand the nature of this desire, and how it disrupts your consciousness, you must understand the three poisons, as described by the Buddha himself (He was a keen listmaker!).

The Three Poisons

The Three Poisons are the unskilful roots or thoughts that keep us bound to suffering, and are the central causes of our unhappiness.

They are – Greed, Hatred and Delusion. They are the Buddhist version of the Christian “7 Deadly Sins”.

Essentially what these three attitudes mean is that in meditation, and life, we tend to cling greedily to good thoughts, emotions and experiences, and push away those that are painful or “bad”. So we are greedy for good things, and hating of bad. Delusion is the ignorance of the whole situation that keeps the whole thing going.

I noticed the three Poisons at work in a meditation yesterday, when I noticed that virtually my whole meditation time is currently used to try to escape anxious emotions.  I have also been at the same time chasing pleasant thoughts and emotions in my meditation.

This constant pushing and chasing, Buddhism says, is a great hindrance to peace of mind. The goal of meditation is to be free from greed and hatred, and to accept, non-judgementally what ever enters your mind in each moment. This is the path to peace.

So what’s the solution to anxiety?

Well, the Buddha taught that the only real solution to this problem of suffering in human life, of anxiety, is self-knowledge through meditation. Scores of scientific studies have shown that meditation is a great healer of anxiety and depression (which often go together). Many GP’s now prescribe it instead of antidepressants.

It’s hard to give one-size-fits all meditation advice. Just having a regular practice, finding a technique that works for you – this is half the battle. As Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just turning up”.

Just through regular practice you will increase in self-knowledge. Try to find a place where you accept, non-judgementally, the present moment completely. This attitude will keep your mind still and clear, and release you from the unskillfulness of the Three Poisons.

With regard to anxiety – just try to “see into it”. Observe it. What does it really feel like? How does it change? Over time, with daily practice, just doing this this will decrease its power and hold over you.

True non-attached awareness is like the sun burning away clouds. Energy is always dissipated in the light of awareness.

Not even anxiety can survive it.