In the Buddhist context Nirvana or moksha, is described as the extinguishing of the fires that cause suffering. These fires are typically identified as the fires of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidya). When the fires are extinguished, suffering (dukkha) comes to an end. The cessation of suffering is described as complete peace. Thus nirvana refers to the imperturbable stillness of mind after the fires of desire, aversion, and delusion have been finally extinguished.
In Hindu philosophy, it is the union with the divine ground of existence Brahman (Supreme Being) and the experience of blissful egolessness.
Alan Wilson Watts (1915-973) was a British-born philosopher, writer, and speaker, best known as an interpreter and populariser of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience.
Watts’s fascination with the Zen developed because that tradition embodied the spiritual, interwoven with the practical, as exemplified in the subtitle of his Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East. “Work,” “life,” and “art” were not demoted due to a spiritual focus.
Watts equated mystical experience with ecological awareness, and typically emphasized whichever approach seemed best suited to the audience he was addressing.
Watts felt that absolute morality had nothing to do with the fundamental realization of one’s deep spiritual identity. He advocated social rather than personal ethics. In his writings, Watts was increasingly concerned with ethics applied to relations between humanity and the natural environment and between governments and citizens.
In several of his later publications, especially Beyond Theology and The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Watts put forward a worldview, drawing on Hinduism, Chinese philosophy, panentheism, and modern science, in which he maintains that the whole universe consists of a cosmic self playing hide-and-seek (Lila), hiding from itself (Maya) by becoming all the living and non-living things in the universe, forgetting what it really is; the upshot being that we are all IT in disguise. In this worldview, Watts asserts that our conception of ourselves as an “ego in a bag of skin” is a myth; the entities we call the separate “things” are merely processes of the whole.
Watts also argues that Eastern philosophy and religion are not necessarily spiritual and world denying. For instance, the non-dualistic interpretation of Vedanta (the philosophy of the Upanishads) implies a kind of pantheism. The divine is identical with the material universe and with each individual being. The goal of religion is the mystical experience of our oneness with the divine/cosmos. This experience may require asceticism and contemplation. But it can just as well be spontaneous and effortless. It can hit you in the marketplace, on the battlefield, or in your turnip patch.
Mahayana Buddhism, moreover, stresses the unity of samsara and nirvana. Nirvana is not blissful annihilation, but a change of attitude in this life that allows freedom and detachment in the whirl and rush of material existence.
Watts had no patience with what he called “the aching legs school of Buddhism”, whose practicioners were prideful of their long, silent sittings. When the legs start to ache, he would say slyly, I prefer to get up and dance.
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The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are’ HERE
Some have commented that Watts concern to clear away philosophical hubris over spiritual existence negated as valueless any concern for environmental destruction at the hands of mankind.
By contrast with these views, Watts dialogue and books show how the illusion of the ego is linked with environmental destruction – in essence then if we orient our ‘selves’ rightly, that this will include caring for the Earth and co citizen species correctly.
“As a result of having a false sense of identity, we act in a way that is inappropriate to our environment, and when that inappropriate action is magnified by a very powerful technology, we swiftly begin to see the results of a profound discord between man and nature. As is well-known, we are now in the process of destroying our environment…
It should be obvious however that the human being goes with the rest of the universe, even though we say in popular speech ‘I came into this world’. Now it is not true that you came into this world. You came out of it, in the same way as a flower comes out of a plant or a fruit comes out of a tree. And as an apple tree ‘apples’, the solar system in which we live, and therefore the galaxy in which we live, and therefore the system of galaxies in which we live, that system ‘peoples’. If people are intelligent – and I suppose we have to grant that ‘if’ – the energy which people express must also be intelligent, because one does not gather figs from thistles or grapes from thorns.
But it does not occur to the ordinary person to regard himself or herself as an expression of the whole universe. It should be obvious that we cannot exist except in an environment of air, earth, water and solar temperature, that all these things go with us and are as important to us as our internal organs such as our heart, brain, stomach and so forth.”
“Man as an organism is to the world outside like a whirlpool is to a river: man and world are a single natural process, but we are behaving as if we were invaders and plunderers in a foreign territory.”
Dissarming the pseudo philosophical and religious intellectual nerosis of word play and mind games that may sound sensible but are actually meaningless, Watts empowers the receptive among us to freedom from endless obfuscation. In so doing, Watts provides a clear outline for the notion of thinking globally and taking action at a personal level, locally – in ones very orientation to life and the world around us.
Whilst Watts discouraged the chasing of philosophical devils because as he saw it the excercise is fundamentally futile, in terms of protecting the environment, I would say that he was one of its key facilitators.
Watts provided a holisitc ‘eco-spiritual framework’ which enabled many to understand our place in life, an explanation of how the environment and human existence are not seperate items, but coexistant expressions of the infinite and incomprehensible cosmos.
To destroy our own home, the life support system of our environment – is not simply to rob ‘our world’ of its is incomparable beauty, rather that it is to destroy our very selves.
“Civilization, as we have worked it out, is a system of screens which conceal the connections between events. (…) Bacon, as found packaged in the supermarket, gives no intimation of pig, and steaks appear as if they were entities like apples, having no relation to the slicing of dead cattle. To remove such screens is held to be as offensive and vulgar as to relieve one’s bowels in the gutter of a public street.”
Alan Watts; Does It Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality.