by Alan Watts
I want you to think of the curious sensation of nothing that lies behind ourselves.
Think of the blank space behind the eyes, about the silence out of which all sound comes, and about empty space, out of which all the stars appear. I liken this curious emptiness behind everything to God, an image-less, non-idolatrous God of which we can have no conception at all.
Basically, when you really get down to it, that emptiness is yourself.
Now it sounds very odd in our civilization to say,
“Therefore, I am God,” or for that matter, “You are God.”
But this is exactly what Jesus said, because in his culture God was conceived as the royal monarch of the universe, and anybody who got up and said,
“Well, I am God,” was blasphemous.
He was subversive. He was claiming to be, if not the boss himself, at least the boss’ son, and that was a put-down for everybody else.
But he had to say it that way because, in his culture, they did not have, as the Hindus have, the idea that everybody, not only human beings, but animals and plants, all sentient beings whatsoever, are God in disguise.
Now let me try to explain this a little more clearly. I cannot help thinking of myself as identical with continuous with one with the whole energy that expresses itself as this universe. If the universe is made up of stars a star is a center from which energy flows. In other words there’s the middle and all the rays come out from it.
And so I feel that as the image of the whole thing all energy is a center from which rays come out and, therefore, each one of us is an expression of what is basically the whole thing.
In the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions we think of God not only as a monarch but as the maker of the world, and, as a result of that, we look upon the world as an artifact, a sort of machine, created by a great engineer. There’s a different conception in India, where the world is not seen as an artifact, but as a drama.
And therefore God is not the maker and architect of the universe but the actor of it, and is playing all the parts at once, and this connects up with the idea of each one of us as persons, because a person is a mask, from the Latin persona, the mask worn by the actors in Greco-Roman drama.
So this is an entirely different conception of the world, and as I think I shall be able to show you, it makes an amazing amount of sense.
So we start with the premise that you are God, and you don’t know how you grow your body, how you make your nervous system work, or how you manage to emerge in this environment of nature. All this is unknown to you, the you that is not you, the you that is not the ego.
This is God – that is to say, not the cosmic boss, but the fundamental ground of being, the reality that always was, is, and will be, that lies at the basis of reality. That’s you.
Suppose you’re God. Suppose you have all time, eternity, and all power at your disposal. What would you say to yourself after a while,
“Man, get lost.”
It’s like asking another question which amounts to supposing you were given the power to dream any dream you wanted to dream every night.
Naturally, you could dream any span of time – and it could be anything your wanted – because you make up your mind before you go to sleep.
“Tonight I’m going to dream of so-and-so.”
Naturally, you would start out by fulfilling all your wishes.
You would have all the pleasures you could imagine, the most marvelous meals, the most entrancing love affairs, the most romantic journeys; you could listen to music such as no mortal has heard, and see landscapes beyond your wildest dreams. And for several nights, oh maybe for a whole month of nights, you would go on that way, having a wonderful time.
But then, after a while, you would begin to think,
“Well, I’ve seen quite a bit, let’s spice it up, let’s have a little adventure.”
And you would dream of yourself being threatened by all sorts of dangers. You would rescue princesses from dragons, you would perhaps engage in notable battles, you would be a hero!
And then as time went on, you would dare yourself to do more and more outrageous thing, and at some point in the game you would say,
“Tonight I am going to dream in such a way that I don’t know that I’m dreaming,” and by so doing you would take the experience of the drama for complete reality.
What a shock when you woke up! You could really scare yourself!
And then on successive nights you might dare yourself to experience even more extraordinary things just for the contrast when you woke up You could , for example, dream yourself in situation of extreme poverty, disease, agony. You could, as it were, live the essence of suffering to its most intense point, and then suddenly, wake up and find it was after all nothing but a dream and everything’s perfectly OK.
Well, how do you know that’s not what you’re doing already. You reading, sitting there with all your problem, with all your whole complicated life situation, it may just be the very dream you decided to get into. If you don’t like it, what fun it’ll be when you wake up!
This is the essence of drama. In drama all the people who see it know it’s only a play.
The proscenium arch, the cinema screen tells us,
“Well, this is an illusion, it is not for real.”
In other words, they are going to act their parts so convincingly that they’re going to have us sitting on the edge of our seats in anxiety, they’re going to make us laugh, they’re going to make us cry, they’re going to make us feel horror.
And all the time, in the back of our minds we have what Germans call hintergedanken, which is a thought way, way, way in the back of our minds, that we’re hardly aware of but really know all the time. In the theater, we have a hintergedanken that it’s only a play.
But the mastery of the actors is going to almost convince us that it’s real.
And so, imagine a situation in which you have the best of all possible actors, namely God, and the best of all possible audiences ready to be taken in and convinced that it’s real, namely God, and that you are all many many masks which the basic consciousness, the basic mind of the universe, is assuming.
To use a verse from G.K. Chesterton:
But now a great thing is in the street
Seems any human nod
Where shift in strange democracy
The million masks of God.
IIt is like the mask of Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, a multiple mask which illustrates the fact that the one who looks out of my eyes and out of everyone’s eyes is the same center.
So, when I look at another human being, and I look straight into their eyes, I don’t like doing that, there’s something embarrassing about looking into someone’s eyes too closely.
Don’t look at me that closely because I might give myself away!
- You might find out who I really am! And what do you suppose that would be?
- Do you suppose that another person who looks deeply into your eyes will read all the things you’re ashamed of, all your faults, all the things you are guilty of?
- Or is there some deeper secret than that?
The eyes are our most sensitive organ, and when you look and look and look into another person’s eyes you are looking at the most beautiful jewels in the universe.
And if you look down beyond that surface beauty, it’s the most beautiful jewel in the universe, because that’s the universe looking at you. We are the eyes of the cosmos.
So that in a way, when you look deeply into somebody’s eyes, you’re looking deep into yourself, and the other person is looking deeply into the same self, which many-eyed, as the mask of Vishnu is many-faced, is looking out everywhere, one energy playing myriads of different parts.
It’s perfectly obvious, because if you were God, and you knew everything and were in control of everything, you would be bored to death. It would be like making love to a plastic woman. Everything would be completely predictable, completely known, completely clear, no mystery, no surprise whatever.
Look at it another way. The object of our technology is to control the world, to have a super-electronic pushbutton universe, where we can get anything we want, fulfill any desires simply by pushing a button.
You’re Aladdin with the lamp, you rub it, the jinni comes and says,
“Salaam, I’m your humble servant, what do you wish? Anything you want.”
And after a while, just as in those dreams I described you would decide one day to forget that you were dreaming, you would say to the jinni of the lamp,
“I would like a surprise.”
Or God, in the Court of Heaven, might turn to his vizier, and say,
“Oh, Commander of the Faithful, we are bored.”
And the vizier of the Court would reply,
“Oh King, live forever, surely out of the infinitude of your wisdom you can discover some way of not being bored.”
And the King would reply,
“Oh vizier, give us a surprise.”
That’s the whole basis of the story of the Arabian Nights. Here was a very powerful sultan, who was bored. And therefore he challenged Scheherazade to tell him a new story every night so that the telling of the tales, getting involved in adventures, would never, never end.
Isn’t that the reason why we go to the theater, why we go to the movies, because we want to get out of ourselves? We want a surprise; and a surprise means that you have to other yourself. That is to say, there has to enter into your experience some element that is not under your control.
So if our technology were to succeed completely, and everything were to be under our control, we should eventually say,
“We need a new button.”
With all these control buttons, we always have to have a button labeled SURPRISE, and just so it doesn’t become too dangerous, we’ll put a time limit on it – surprise for 15 minutes, for an hour, for a day, for a month, a year, a lifetime.
Then, in the end, when the surprise circuit is finished, we’ll be back in control and we’ll all know where we are. And we’ll heave a sigh of relief, but, after a while, we’ll press the button labeled SURPRISE once more.
You will notice a curious rhythm to what I have been explaining, and this rhythm corresponds to the Hindu idea of the course of time and the way evolution works, an idea drastically different from ours. First of all, Hindus think of time as circular, as going round – look at your watch, it goes round. But Westerners tend to think of time in a straight line, a one-way street, and we got that idea from Hebrew religion, and from St. Augustine.
There is a time of creation, then a course of history which leads up to final, eschatological catastrophe, the end of the world, and after that, the judgment, in which all things will be put to right, all questions answered, and justice dealt out to everyone according to his merits. And that’ll be that!
Thereafter the universe will be, in a way, static; there will be the eternally saved and the eternally damned.
Now, many people may not believe that today, but that has been a dominating belief throughout the course of Western history, and it has had a tremendously powerful influence on our culture. But the Hindus think half of the world is going round and round for always, in a rhythm.
They calculate the rounds in periods that in Sanskrit are called kalpas, and each kalpa lasts for 4,320,000 years.
And so a kalpa is the period or manvantara during which the world as we know it is manifested. And it is followed by a period, also a kalpa long, 4,320,000 years, which is called pralaya, and this means when the world is not manifested anymore.
And these are the days and nights of Brahma, the godhead. During the manvantara when the world is manifested, Brahma is asleep, dreaming that he is all of us and everything that’s going on, and during the pralaya, which is his day, he’s awake, and knows himself, or itself (because it’s beyond sex), for who and what he/she/it is.
And then, once again, presses the button – surprise!
As in the course of our dreaming, we would very naturally dream the most pleasant and rapturous dreams first and then get more adventurous, and experience and explore the more venturesome dimensions of experience.
In the same way, the Hindus think of a kalpa of the manifested universe, manvantara, as divided into four periods. These four periods are of different lengths. The first is the longest, and the last is the shortest. They are named in accordance with the throws in the Hindu game of dice. There are four throws and the throw of four is always the best throw, like the six in our game, the throw of one, the worst throw.
Now, therefore, the first throw is called krita and the epoch, the long, long period for which this throw lasts, is called a yuga. So we will translate yuga an epoch, and we will translate kalpa as an eon. Now the word krita means done, as when we say, “well done,” and that is a period of the world’s existence that we call the Golden Age when everything is perfect, done to perfection.
When it comes to an end, we get treta-yuga that means the throw of three, and in this period of manifestation there’s an element of the uncertain, an element of insecurity, an element of adventure in things. It’s like a three-legged stool is not as secure as a four-legged one – you’re a little more liable to be thrown off balance.
That lasts for a very long time, too, but then we get next what is called dvapara-yuga.
Dyam means two, and in this period, the good and the bad, the pleasurable and the painful, are equally balanced. But, finally, there comes kaliyuga. Kali means the worst throw, and this lasts for the shortest time. This is the period of manifestation in which the unpleasurable, painful, diabolical principle finally takes over – but it has the shortest innings.
And at the end of the kali-yuga, the great destroyer of the worlds, God manifested as the destructive principle Shiva, does a dance called the tandava, and he appears, blue-bodied with ten arms, with lightning and fire appearing from every pore in his skin, and does a dance in which the universe is finally destroyed.
The moment of cosmic death is the waking up of Brahma, the creator, for as Shiva turns round and walks off the stage, seen from behind, he is Brahma, the creator, the beginning of it all again. And Vishnu is the preserver, that is to say, the going on of it all, the whole state of the godhead being manifested as many, many faces.
So, you see, this is a philosophy of the role of evil in life which is rational and merciful.
If we think God is playing with the world, has created it for his pleasure, and has created all these other beings and they go through the most horrible torments – terminal cancer, children being burned with napalm, concentration camps, the Inquisition, the horrors that human beings go through how is that possibly justifiable?
We try by saying,
“Well, some God must have created it; if a God didn’t create it, there’s nobody in charge and there’s no rationality to the whole thing. It’s just a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. It’s a ridiculous system and the only out is suicide.”
But suppose it’s the kind of thing I’ve described to you, supposing it isn’t that God is pleasing himself with all these victims, showing off his justice by either rewarding them or punishing them, supposing it’s quite different from that.
Suppose that God is the one playing all the parts, that God is the child being burned to death with napalm. There is no victim except the victor. All the different roles which are being experienced, all the different feelings which are being felt, are being felt by the one who originally desires, decides, wills to go into that very situation.
Curiously enough, there is something parallel to this in christianity.
There’s a passage in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians in which he says a very curious thing:
“Let this mind be in you which was also in Jesus, who being in the form of God, did not think identity with God a thing to be clung to, but humbled himself and made himself of no reputation, and was found in fashion as a man and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross.”
Here you have exactly the same idea, the idea of God becoming human, suffering all that human beings can suffer, even death. And St. Paul is saying,
“Let this mind be in you,” that is to say, let the same kind of consciousness be in you that was in Jesus.
Jesus knew he was God.
Wake up and find out eventually who you really are. In our culture, of course, they’ll say you’re crazy or you’re blasphemous, and they’ll either put you in jail or in the nut house (which is the same thing).
But if you wake up in India and tell your friends and relations,
“My goodness, I’ve just discovered that I’m God,” they’ll laugh and say, “Oh, congratulations, at last you found out.”