The Tao Of Philosophy
Alan Watts
Tuttle Publishing, Boston, Massachusetts (USA), 1999 (1973)
96 pages

There was a time, not so long ago, when religion understood the traditional way was assumed to be on the defensive. Back in the sixties, the youth in our countries felt a sudden interest for the never explored forms of Eastern mysticism from Sufism to Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism. Quite a few people back then saw a new era coming to our societies where we would manage to balance our monotheism with a more comprehensive, hollistic idea of the divinity that promised the beginning of a new paradigm centered around the concepts of love, understanding and peaceful coexistence with our surroundings. Needless to say, they were all wrong. But then, who could have predicted the conservative backlash of the eighties with its decisive return to good old monotheism, traditionalism and even certain forms of fanatic integrism? Our modern, developed societies were not supposed to fall back into yet another era of intolerance and religious impositions, an era of enlightened messiahs preaching against all forms of sin and evil, some of them real and some other purely imaginary. And yet, is not that precisely the way it has always happened? Human history is not a perfect, linear progress towards a nicely delineated goal but rather a messy, blurry path, turning one way and another, that has no final purpose or end, no matter how much effort we put into avoiding this threatening image of a book where nobody knows the conclusion. Well, the Tao Of Philosophy was written before all that. It belongs to an age when many dared to look beyond our own borders, beyond our own cultures, beyond our own past, and try to learn from other people that had simply been considered too backward or underdeveloped, people we had nothing to learn from.

Unlike the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and other similar mystics, Alan Watts was actually one of us. He was a British Episcopalian priest who also taught at Harvard University and made an effort to spread the knowledge of Eastern mysticism in an attempt to combine it or merge it into our existence. He did not try to completely overhaul our own traditions and lifestyles, but simply to incorporate into it enough elements of these other traditions to give it more meaning. He still saw the usefulness of the Christian beliefs in Western society, but his idea of God was evidently at odds with the traditional monotheistic concept defended by our Churches:

... to reject the paternalistic image of God as an idol is not necessarily to be an atheist, although I have advocated something called "atheism in the name of God" as an experience, a contact, or a relationship with God that is the ground of your being and does not have to be embodied or expressed in any specific image. Now, theologians on the whole do not like this idea because, as I find in my discourse with them, they want to be a little bit hard-nosed about the nature of God. They want to say that indeed God has a very specific nature. Ethical monotheism insists that the governing power of this universe has some extremely definite opinions and rules to which our minds and acts must be conformed, and if you do not watch out you will go against the fundamental grain of the universe and be punished. In some old-fashioned way you will burn in the fires of Hell forever or, in more modern fashion, you will fail to be an authentic person. That is another way of talking about it, but there is a feeling in this what there is an authority behind the world and it is not you, it is something else. Therefore, this Jewish-Christian and indeed Muslim approach makes a lot of people feel rather estranged from the root and ground of being.

(Page 55)

Alan Watts (and others like him) are at the roots of a movement that shook Christianity in the sixties in an attempt to spread a more progressive, a more liberal and universalist idea of God and Christ, and in order to do so they resorted to the teachings of the Eastern mystics. They tried to put an end to the old idea of God as a big paternalistic figure sitting in Heaven with a grey beard and looking down on our every move, controlling us, judging us, deciding whether or not we would be going to Hell in some form of afterlife. Their God was more abstract than that. It was far closer to the pantheistic approach, a concept that saw the divinity more like a flow than anything else. Instead of thinking about God as a separate entity, they preferred to imagine it as a wholeness, a being that encompasses it all, animate and inanimate objects, human and animale life, in fact, all sorts of life and forces. They saw God as an energy, an indefinite and indescriptible presence, much in the way mystic poetry has described it for centuries in pretty much all cultures. And this is perhaps the major weakness of Watt's approach. This metaphorical, abstract concept of the divinity is by no means the patrimony of Eastern religions or philosophies. It is also there in our Western mysticism. It is certainly present in the writings of Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila or Jakob Boehme, and yet these proponents of a new mystic revival appeared to ignore them. As a consequence, they managed to turn off quite a few people who might have listened to them otherwise. Yes, I can see how perhaps something like this was necessary in order to avoid the misappropiation that institutional forms of religion had made of our own Western mystics. However, as I said, the price we paid for turning almost exclusively to the new Eastern teachers was to alienate a good portion of our own people. At the same time, we also ended up with a lot of superficial revivals, new ageish superstition and Eastern paraphernalia sold as deep knowledge of the Universe. There are, nevertheless, certain advantages to adopting these exotic and foreign ideas. For one, they allow us to break away from our old well settled mind habits. As Watts explains somewhere else in the book,

Western man has, for many centuries, been under the influence of two great myths. When I use the word "myth" I do not necessarily mean a falsehood. The word myth signifies a great idea in terms of which man tries to make sense with the world; it may be an idea, or it may be an image. Now the first of two images which have most profoundly influenced Western man is the image of the world as an artifact, much like a jar made by a potter. Indeed, in the Book of Genesis there comes the idea that man was originally a clay figurine made out of the earth by the Lord God who then breathed into this clay figurine and gave it life. (...) All questions would be answered because, as we have in popular theology understood the Lord God, He is the mastermind who knows everything. If you ask the Lord God exactly how high is Mount Whitney to the nearest millimeter, He would know exactly, just like that, and would tell you. You could ask any question of God, because He is the cosmic Encyclopedia Britannica. However, this particular image, or myth, became too much for Western man because it is oppressive to feel that you are known through and through, and watched all the time by an infinitely just judge. (...) We had to get rid of it, and so instead we developed another myth, the myth of the purely mechanical universe. This myth was invented at the end of the eighteenth century, and became increasingly fashionable throughout the course of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, so that today it is common sense. Very few people today really believe in God in the old sense. They say they do, but although they really hope there is a God, they do not really have faith in God. They fervently with that there was one, and feel that they ought to believe that there is, but the idea of the universe being ruled by that marvelous old gentleman is no longer plausible. It is not that anybody has disproved it, but it just somehow does not go with our knowledge of the vast infinitude of galaxies and of the immense light-year distances between them, and so on.

(Pages 4-6)

This is precisely why Watts and others decided to resort to Eastern wisdom as a tool that, due to its own intriguing and largely unknown nature, could allow Western people to mark a distance with their own deeply settled ideas about the world. Yes, the old Christian mystics did share this more complex, undoubtedly richer view of the universe, but because they were far more familiar to our culture they had been already assimilated into the decaffeinated institutional traditions of our own churches. All the transformative force of their spiritualism had been easily deflated and rendered inoffensive centuries ago by those who had a vested interest in keeping the forms for their own sake. The counterculture, in this sense, just tried to wake us all up from a long sleep that had managed to take over the more subversive aspects of Christianity when the religion became official under the Roman Emperors.

But why in the sixties? Social upheaval spread like wildfire throughout the world in this decade (May'68 in France, counterculture and anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in the US, the Prague Spring, Mao's Cultural Revolution, etc.), and there was plenty of experimentation in other fields too (rock and roll, the sexual revolution, pop art, etc.). A very particular mix of social trends can be pinpointed as the ultimate cause of the events that shook the world: for the first time perhaps ever there was a very high level of material wealth in developed nations that was not limited to a given political and economic elite but rather spread among different social strata; mass media, which had been born the previous decade, was taking over the world at the speed of light, and the visual imagery TV fed on contributed to the fast and contagious spread of ideas and events; democracy had also been strengthened and deepened, at least in the Western world, after the end of World War II and the irruption of the masses into the political scene, thus contributing towards the activism of minorities such as women and blacks; an unstoppable process of globalization was by then starting to spread all over the planet, perhaps taking its first expression in the global ideological battle between democracy and communism; colonialism had ended in the face of post-war independence movements in Africa and Asia... It is in this environment that we have to set a book like The Tao Of Philosophy, which would have been impossible to understand just twenty years earlier, when it would have been sold as a curious book on exotic philosophies and ways of life with little bearing on our own existence.

So, the question remains: how much is left from attitude represented by The Tao Of Philosophy? At first sight, not much. As I explained at the very beginning, we did see a dramatic comeback of the traditional interpretation of religion during the 1980s and 1990s. To some extent, it is still as subversive as it was back then to dare promoting a view of God that does not abide by the traditional, old image of an omnipresent, omniscient bearded man watching us all from above and telling us what is good and what is bad. Yet, we have also seen a move in certain quarters of mainstream churches towards a more open, flexible, loving, mystical, comprehensive idea of the divinity. To be clear, these groups are still in the minority, but at least they do exist and provide an alternative interpretation even to members of otherwise mainstream institutions. Of course, the counterculture also had a clear influence in all the new-ageish nonsense that takes over the airwaves every now and then. It is, in this case, a superficial take on that spiritualism promoted by the likes of Alan Watts, religion reduced to a few cheap necklaces, pyramids of power, faith healing and superstitious paraphernalia ready made for mass consumption. Nevertheless, this little book is worth some attention if you are looking for a different approach to the religious experience. It happens all too often that we feel put off by the rabid dogmatism of institutionalized religion and that leads us to reject the religious experience as a whole. Alan Watts offers us an alternative, and that is always welcome.

Entertainment factor: 6/10
Intellectual factor: 6/10