Saturday, May 3, 2014

Alan Watts - Tao-The Watercourse Way

                I was first introduced to Taoism in college in my third year architecture design class.  Every student was given a part of a poem by Lao-tzu and was asked to use this poem in the design their building. I don’t remember the building I designed by I do remember my phrase, “to yield is to conquer, to grasp is to lose.” Intrigued, I bought a copy of the I Ching and my roommate and I used to flip through it and read random pages to each other and giggle. Our giggling didn’t come out of antipathy but, I think out of a strange sense that we were reading something very profound that we did not understand but wanted to and was way out of our life experiences.  We didn’t have the words, the language, the sensitivity, the maturity, but we did have the interest, so we giggled.

                The first Chapter in Tao-The Watercourse Way is about the Chinese language.  Watts sets up a framework for the reader in which s/he understands that a people’s philosophy comes out of a world view and world view is expressed through the uniqueness of language. He explores the distinctiveness of Chinese that uses characters and ideograms instead of an alphabet. These characters and ideograms developed from pictures of conventional signs that over centuries have been abstracted from their original identifiable forms.  Watts argues against the movement to alphabetize Chinese, and enumerates its advantages.

He writes that “Chinese has the peculiar advantage of being able to say many things at once and mean all of them . . .” (p.10). I think this is why it is a perfect language for Taoism and why Taoism developed in China. He elaborates, “Just as Chinese writing is at least one step closer to nature than ours, so the ancient philosophy of the Tao is skillful and intelligent following of the course, current and grain of natural phenomena-seeing human life as an integral feature of the world process, and not something alien and opposed to it. (p. 16)” He further elaborates that “At any moment, nature is simultaneity of patterns. An ideographic language is a series of patterns and, to that extent, still linear – but not so laboriously linear as an alphabetic language. (p.7)”

                Alan Watts discusses the need to teach Chinese in secondary schools in America “not only because we inevitably learn how to communicate with the Chinese themselves, but because of all the high cultures, theirs is most different from ours in ways of thinking.”  He also talks of an experiment at the University of Pennsylvania in which children in second grade who were behind in reading were easily able to learn to read Chinese. Reading Chinese is what communication technologists call “pattern recognition.” He goes on to say that, “Chinese is simpler than it looks, and may be both written and read more rapidly than English. (p.8)”


Yin and Yang

Alan Watts devotes a chapter to yin and yang. Yin and yang are the opposite poles of cosmic energy. Their ideograms depict the sunny and shady sides of a hill. The art of life is to keep yin and yang in balance.

Yin and Yang are associated with masculine and feminine, firm and yielding, strong and weak, light and dark, rising and falling, heaven and earth and spicy and bland. Chi in its ideographic form is a ridgepole in which two sides of a roof – yin and yang – lean.


Theory of the 5 Elements (Wu Hsing)

Within the Chapter on yin and yang, Alan Watts talks about the five elements in Chinese philosophy: earth, fire, water, metal and wood. Hsiang Sheng or Mutual Arising is the theory that the energy symbolized by wood as fuel gives rise to the energy symbolized as fire which creates ash and gives rise to the energy symbolized as earth which in its mines contains energy symbolized as metal which in mirror form attracts dew and gives rise to the energy symbolized by water which nourishes the energy symbolized by wood.

In contrast, Sheng or Mutual Conquest is describes a different cycle. Wood in the form of a plough overcomes earth which in its damming constrains water which by quenching overcomes fire which by melting liquefies metal which can cut wood.

The Taoist balances the five elements within.

The Tao

Alan Watts has a chapter on the Tao. He defines the Tao as the watercourse way because Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu use the flow of water as its primary descriptive metaphor. But, Watts also stresses that “The Tao cannot be defined in words and is not an idea or concept . . . There is no way to put a stream in a bucket or water into a bag. (p.42)” In Taoism, everything exists in relationship to all others.  The sun would not be light without eyes to look on it. If everything is allowed to go its own way the universe will be harmonious. “ Our only way of apprehending it is by watching the processes and the patterns of nature and by the meditative discipline of allowing our minds to become quiet, so as to have vivid awareness of “what is” without verbal comment. (p.55)”


                Watts has a chapter on the Wu-wei. Wu-wei is defined as non-action or non-forcing but it is not inertia, or laziness or passivity. It is likened to the willow branch that bends with the weight on snow but does not brake but springs back when the snow falls off. Wu-wei is the lifestyle of one who follows the Tao. “Contemplative Taoists will happily sit with yogis and Zennists for as long as it is reasonable and comfortable, but when nature tells us that we are ‘pushing the river’ we will get up and do something else, or even go to sleep. (p. 90)

                Wu-wei is also a dream-like state as described in this passage that I love on p.93

Once upon a time I, Chuang-chou, dreamed that I was a butterfly,

a butterfly flying about, enjoying itself.

I did not know that it was Chuang-chou. 

Suddenly I awoke, and veritably was Chuang-chou again.  

But I do not know whether it was I dreaming that I was a butterfly,

or whether I am a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang-chou.


“Wu-wei is to roll with experiences and feelings as they come and go, like a ball in a mountain stream, though actually there is no ball apart from the convolutions and wiggles of the stream itself.  This is called ‘flowing with the moment.’  (P.96)” The now-streaming is the Tao.


The final chapter of The Watercourse Way is about Te.  Te is the expression of the Tao in actual living.  It is defined as virtue or virtuality, the grace of living, which one achieves naturally from intuitive realization of being one with the Tao.  There are no rules or textbook for te one has to feel for te. As an ideogram, te is the unity of eye and heart.

In Sum

Tao-The Watercourse was a beautiful book to read.  It read like a love letter to Alan Watts because it was put together by his dear friend Al Chung-liang Huang after Watts’ death.  He describes Watts in the forward and afterward as incredible but imperfect man, highly charismatic and enthusiastic about Zen and Taoism and life in general. He seems to have been a man that I would have a love to have met and listened to and drunk up the energy of his presence.

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