Become What You Are - by Alan Watts

The Paradox of Self-Denial

Obviously there is a vital contradiction in the very notion of self-renunciation, and just as much is self-acceptance. People try to accept themselves in order to be different, and try to surrender themselves in order to have more self-respect in their own eyes—or to attain some spiritual experience, some exaltation of consciousness the desire for which is the very form of their self-interest. We are really stuck with ourselves, and our attempts to reject or to accept are equally fruitless, for they fail to reach that inaccessible center of our selfhood which is trying to do the accepting or the rejecting. The part of our self that wants to change our self is the very one that needs to be changed; but it is as inaccessible as a needle to the prick of its own point.

I have always found that the people who have quite genuinely died to themselves make no claims of any kind to their own part in the process. They think of themselves as lazy and lucky. If they did anything at all, it was so simple that anyone else could do the same—for all that they have done is to recognize a universal fact of life, something as true of the weak and foolish as of the wise and strong. They would even say that in this respect there is some advantage in being weak and foolish, for the possession of a strong will and a clever head makes some things very difficult to see.

Become What You Are

Detachment means to have neither regrets for the past nor fears for the future; to let life take its course without attempting to interfere with its movement and change, neither trying to prolong the stay of things pleasant nor to hasten the departure of things unpleasant. To do this is to move in time with life, to be in perfect accord with its changing music, and this is called Enlightenment. In short, it is to be detached from both past and future and to live in the eternal Now. For in truth neither past nor future have any existence apart from this Now; by themselves they are illusions. Life exists only at this very moment, and in this moment it is infinite and eternal.

The Finger and the Moon

The doctrine is like a finger pointing at the moon, and one must take care not to mistake the finger for the moon. Too many of us, I fear, suck the pointing finger of religion for comfort, instead of looking where it points. I am sure that many of you may, for a fleeting moment, have had one clear glimpse of what the finger was pointing at—a glimpse in which you shared the pointer’s astonishment that you had never seen it before, in which you saw the whole thing so plainly that you knew you could never forget it... and then you lost it.

If I may put it in a way which is horribly cumbersome and inadequate, that fleeting glimpse is the perception that, suddenly, some very ordinary moment of your ordinary everyday life, lived by your very ordinary self, just as it is and just as you are—that this immediate here-and-now is perfect and self-sufficient beyond any possibility of description. You know that there is nothing to desire or seek for—that no techniques, no spiritual apparatus of belief or discipline is necessary, no system of philosophy or religion. The goal is here. It is this present experience, just as it is. That, obviously, is what the finger was pointing at. But the next moment, as you look again, the instant in which you are living is as ordinary as ever, though the finger still points right at it.

Tao and Wu-Wei

The essence of Lao-Tzu's philosophy is the difficult art of getting out of one’s own way—of learning how to act without forcing conclusions, of living in skillful harmony with the processes of nature instead of trying to push them around. For Lao-tzu’s Taoism is the philosophical equivalent of jujitsu, or judo, which means the way of gentleness. Its basis is the principle of Tao, which may be translated the Way of Nature. But in the Chinese language the word which we render as “nature” has a special meaning not found in its English equivalent. Translated literally, it means “self-so.” For to the Chinese, nature is what works and moves by itself without having to be shoved about, wound up, or controlled by conscious effort. Your heart beats “self-so,” and, if you would give it half a chance, your mind can function “self-so”—though most of us are much too afraid of ourselves to try the experiment.

The only knowledge in this sphere which can be talked about is negative knowledge—knowledge of the trap, of our helpless imprisonment in useless seeking. Positive knowledge—of the Tao, of God, of the eternal Reality, is a matter of immediate, momentary experience. It can never be put into words, and any attempt to do so converts it into just another aspect of the trap. I realize that we do not like to be told that we are in a trap, and that there is nothing we can do to get out; still less do we like to realize it as a vivid experience. But there is no other way of release. A proverb says that man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. We cannot find release until we have known the real extremity of our situation, and see that all striving for spiritual ideals is completely futile—since the very seeking thrusts them away. Yet why should it surprise us? Hasn’t it been said again and again that we must die to come to life, that heaven is always on the other side of the Valley of the Shadow of Death—the valley of which physical death is merely a symbol—where the helpless corpse, bound hand and foot in its winding sheet, is just a figure of the death in which we live so long as we mistake it for life?... Where do we go from here? We do not. We come to an end. But this is the end of the night.

The Language of Metaphysical Experience

There is an area of human experience for which we do not have any really suitable name in our Western languages, for while it is basic to such matters as religion, metaphysics, and mysticism, it is not identical with any one of them. I refer to the perennial type of experience which is described as a more or less immediate knowledge of God, or of the ultimate reality, ground, or essence of the universe, by whatever name it may be represented.1 According to the ancient spiritual traditions of both Europe and Asia, which include ways of life and thought as widely different as Buddhism and Catholicism, this experience is the supreme fulfillment of human life—the goal, the final end, toward which human existence is ordered. According, however, to modern logical philosophy—scientific empiricism, logical positivism, and the like—statements of this kind are simply meaningless. While it is admitted that there may be interesting and delightful experiences of the “mystical” type, logical philosophy finds it altogether illegitimate to regard them as containing any knowledge of a metaphysical character, as constituting an experience of “ultimate reality” or the Absolute.

Where this confusion between the nature of religious or metaphysical statements, on the one hand, and scientific or historical statements, on the other, remains unclarified, it will, of course, be difficult indeed to see how modern logical philosophy can make any positive contribution to metaphysics. In a theological system where God plays the part of a scientific hypothesis, that is, a means of explaining and predicting the course of events, it is easy enough to show that the hypothesis adds nothing to our knowledge. One does not explain what happens by saying that God wills it. For if everything that happens is by divine intention or permission, the will of God becomes merely another name for “everything that happens.” Upon logical analysis, the statement, “Everything is the will of God,” turns out to be the tautology, “Everything is everything.” To cut a long story short, thus far the contribution of logical philosophy to metaphysics has been entirely negative. The verdict seems to be that, under logical scrutiny, the entire body of metaphysical doctrine consists either of tautology or nonsense. But this amounts to a total “debunking” of metaphysics only as it has been understood in the West—as consisting of meaningful statements conveying information about “transcendental objects.” Asian philosophy has never been of the serious opinion that metaphysical statements convey information of a positive character. Their function is not to denote “Reality” as an object of knowledge, but to “cure” a psychological process by which man frustrates and tortures himself with all kinds of unreal problems. To the Asian mind, “Reality” cannot be expressed; it can only be known intuitively by getting rid of unreality, of contradictory and absurd ways of thinking and feeling. The primary contribution of logical philosophy in this sphere is simply the confirmation of a point which has long been clear to both Hindus and Buddhists, though perhaps less widely realized in the Christian tradition. The point is that the attempt to talk about, think about, or know about ultimate Reality constitutes an impossible task. If epistemology is the attempt to know what knows, and ontology the attempt to define “is-ness,” they are clearly circular and futile procedures, like trying to bite one’s own teeth.

Western man has a peculiar passion for order and logic, such that, for him, the entire significance of life consists in putting experience into order. What is ordered is predictable, and thus a basis for “safe bets.” We tend to show a psychological resistance to areas of life and experience where logic, definition, and order—that is, “knowledge” in our sense—are inapplicable. For this type of mind the realm of indeterminacy and Brownian movements is frankly embarrassing, and the contemplation of the fact that everything is reducible to something we cannot think about is even disquieting. There is no real “reason” why it should be disquieting, because our inability to know what electrons are does not seem to interfere with our capacity to predict their behavior in our own macroscopic world.

In sum, then, the function of metaphysical “statements” in Hinduism and Buddhism is neither to convey positive information about an Absolute, nor to indicate an experience in which this Absolute becomes an object of knowledge. In the words of the Kena Upanishad: “Brahman is unknown to those who know It, and is known to those who do not know It at all.” This knowing of Reality by unknowing is the psychological state of the man whose ego is no longer split or dissociated from its experiences, who no longer feels himself as an isolated embodiment of logic and consciousness, separate from the “gyring” and “gimbling” of the unknown. He is thus delivered from samsara, the Wheel, the squirrel cage psychology of all those human beings who everlastingly frustrate themselves with impossible tasks of knowing the knower, controlling the controller, and organizing the organizer, like ouroboros, the mixed-up snake, who dines off his own tail.

Good Intentions

It is an old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Those who believe that motive is the most important factor in any undertaking will be puzzled by this saying. For is not Right Motive the first step in the Buddha’s Path, and is it not stressed again and again that each step is set about with danger if the motive for taking it is not pure? But beware of good motives. There are good intentions and good intentions, and things are not always what they seem. Nothing is easier than to give up the world because one is incompetent in the affairs of the world. There is no wisdom in scorning riches simply because one is unable to obtain them, nor in despising the pleasures of the senses because one has not the means of fulfilling them. If the desire for these things exists, and if that desire is thwarted by circumstance, to add self-deception to frustration is to exchange a lesser hell for a greater. No hell is worse than that in which one lives without knowing it. For the desire which is scorned for no other reason than that it cannot be satisfied is the greatest of man’s enemies. One may pretend that it does not exist, that one has surrendered it, but one must sincerely answer the question, “If I could satisfy that desire, would I?” If that is not answered, to make a show of giving up the world, to take up the ascetic life not of desire but of necessity and to pride oneself upon it, that is to hide one’s face from the enemy and so become doubly vulnerable. Thus the first step on the Path is to know what you want, not what you ought to want. Only in this way can the pilgrim set out upon his journey fully prepared. Otherwise he is like a general that leads a campaign into an unknown territory, who, instead of ascertaining his own strength and the strength and position of his foe, concerns himself only with what he imagines these things ought to be. And however good his imaginations, he will without doubt lead his army into a hell.


There are some religions and philosophies which lend themselves more easily than others to the error of mistaking the idea for the reality, religions in which the creed and the symbol are emphasized at the expense of the spiritual experience which they are intended to embody. This, however, is less a reflection on those religions than on the ignorance of their devotees. But there is at least one cult in which this error is almost impossible, precisely because it has no creed, no philosophical system, no canon of scriptures, no intellectually comprehensible doctrine. So far as it can be called a definite cult at all, it consists of devices for freeing the soul from its fetters, devices which are picturesquely described as fingers pointing at the moon—and he is a fool who mistakes the finger for the moon. This cult is Zen, a form of Buddhism that developed in China and now flourishes principally in Japan.

Buddhism developed in India as a highly subtle and abstract system of philosophy, a cult of sublime other-worldliness perfectly suited to the inhabitants of a hot climate where life is able to flourish with little labour. The Chinese and Japanese, on the other hand, have a climate nearer to our own and have the same practical bent as the peoples of northern Europe. Perhaps the greatest triumph of Buddhism is that it was able to adapt itself to a mentality so far removed from the Indian. Thus Zen has been described as the Chinese revolt against Buddhism. It would be nearer the truth to call it the Chinese interpretation of Buddhism, although the term “revolt” certainly conveys the fierce, almost iconoclastic character of Zen—a cult which has no patience with any practice or formula which has not immediate relationship with the one thing of importance: Enlightenment.

Buddhism may be summed up in two phrases: “Let go!” and “Walk on!” Drop the craving for self, for permanence, for particular circumstances, and go straight ahead with the movement of life. The state of mind thereby attained is called Nirvana. But this is a teaching easy to misunderstand, for it is so easy to represent the doctrine of “letting go” as an utter denial of life and the world, and Nirvana as a state infinitely removed from all earthly concerns. Zen, however, corrected this error in the most surprising and unique manner—so much so that a great part of the Zen teachings may appear at first to be mere buffoonery or nonsense.

The Zen master is not trying to give you ideas about life; he is trying to give you life itself, to make you realize life in and around you, to make you live it instead of being a mere spectator, a mere pedant absorbed in the dry bones of something which the life has long deserted. A symphony is not explained by a mathematical analysis of its notes; the mystery of a woman’s beauty is not revealed by a postmortem dissection; and no one ever understood the wonder of a bird on the wing by stuffing it and putting it in a glass case. To understand these things, you must live and move with them as they are alive. The same is true of the universe: no amount of intellectual analysis will explain it, for philosophy and science can only reveal its mechanism, never its meaning or, as the Chinese say, its Tao.

There are some who never live, who are always having thoughts about life and feelings about life; others are swept away on the tides of circumstance, so overwhelmed by events that they have nothing of their own. Buddhism, however, is the Middle Way, and this is not a compromise but a union between opposites to produce a “higher third”; just as man and woman unite to produce a child. The same process is found in almost every religion, in some deeply hidden, in others plainly revealed.

The One

Many attempts have been made to describe the feeling of salvation which the Buddhists call Nirvana and the Hindus call Moksha. Where these descriptions are in the form of doctrines we notice that among such doctrines there is a wide variety of differences whereby students of religion are often misled. If the doctrines of Christianity are different from those of Hinduism, it does not necessarily follow that the religions are different, for more than one doctrine may describe a single state of mind, and without this state of mind the religion, as a mere collection of doctrines, has no meaning whatever; it is just as if it were a babble of unintelligible words. But doctrines differ because people have different mental backgrounds and traditions; an English person and a Chinese person may have the same feeling but they will speak of it in different ways because they are relating it to different mental contexts. It is therefore most unwise to study religion from the standpoint of doctrine as doctrine, for this is the purest superficiality. Doctrines and conceptual ideas vary as languages vary, but one and the same meaning may be conveyed by both English and French. Christians believe in a personal God and Buddhists do not, but as regards the true essentials of religion this difference is as superficial as the fact that in French every noun has a gender, whereas this is not so in English. Therefore to extract the true meaning of a religious doctrine we must ask, “What does this doctrine mean in terms of a state of mind? What sort of feeling towards life and the universe would have caused a man to think in this way?”

That Far-Off, Divine Event

People imagine that letting themselves go would have disastrous results; trusting neither circumstances nor themselves, which together make up life, they are forever interfering and trying to make their own souls and the world conform with preconceived patterns. This interference is simply the attempt of the ego to dominate life. But when you see that all such attempts are fruitless and when you relax the fear-born resistance to life in yourself and around you which is called egoism, you realize the freedom of union with Brahman. In fact you have always had this freedom, for the state of union with Brahman can neither be attained nor lost; all men and all things have it, in spite of themselves. It can only be realized, which is to say made real to you, by letting life live you for a while instead of trying to make yourself live life. You will soon reach the point where you will be unable to tell whether your thoughts and feelings are your own or whether life put them into you, for the distinction between yourself and life will have disappeared. If the truth be known, there never was any distinction, save in our imaginations. This is called union with Brahman, for “he that loseth his life shall find it.”

The Parable of the Cow’s Tail

There is in mathematics an equation which, when drawn as a graph, appears as a curve that always nears but never touches a given line. At first the curve sweeps boldly towards that line, and the head, horns, and hoofs go clean through the gate, but, just as the tail is about to pass, the curve straightens, leaving just a fraction of an inch between itself and the line. As it moves on, that fraction grows less and less, but still curve and line do not touch, and even though it be continued for a thousand miles or a thousand million miles the gap remains, though at each successive point it becomes smaller. This curve represents the progress of human intellect towards Enlightenment, grasping more and more subtle nuances of meaning at each stage of its journey. It is as if we stood bound to illusion by a hair; to weaken it we split it with the knife of intellect, and split it again until its divisions become so fine that to make its cuts the mind must be sharpened indefinitely. Yet however much we split this hair, the sum total of its divisions is not a whit thinner than the original hair, for the more fragile we make our bonds, the more is their number. Philosophically this condition is known as infinite regression, and psychologically it is that mad, exasperating state that must always precede the final experience of awakening.

What Is Reality?

A pupil asked his teacher, “What is the Tao?” He answered, “Everyday life is the Tao.” “How,” went on the pupil, “does one get into accord with it?” “If you try to accord with it,” said the teacher, “you will get away from it.” Indeed, we have all met those who are trying very hard to be real persons, to give their lives Reality (or meaning) and to live as distinct from existing. These seekers are of many kinds, highbrow and lowbrow, ranging from students of arcane wisdom to the audiences of popular speakers on pep and personality, selling yourself and making your life a success. I have never yet met anyone who tried to become a real person with success. The result of such attempts is invariably loss of personality, for there is an ancient paradox of the spiritual life whereby those who try to make themselves great become small. The paradox is even a bit more complicated than this; it also means that if you try, indirectly, to make yourself great by making yourself small, you succeed only in remaining small. It is all a question of motive, of what you want. Motives may be subtly concealed, and we may not call the desire to be a real person the desire to be great; but that is just a matter of words.

“What, then, is Life; what is Reality, that it may inspire us with devotion?” If we regard it as a particular way of living or as a particular kind of existence and accord our devotion to that, what are we doing? We are revering its expression in great personality, in the behavior of those whom we consider “real persons.” But here is the snag. When we revere real personality in others, we are liable to become mere imitators; when we revere it as an ideal for ourselves, here is the old trouble of wanting to make yourself great. It is all a question of pride, for if you revere Life and Reality only in particular types of personal living, you deny Life and Reality to such humble things as, for instance, saltshakers, specks of dust, worms, flowers, and the great unregenerate masses of the human race. We are reminded of the Pharisee’s prayer, thanking God that He had not made him sinful like other men. But a Life, a Reality, a Tao that can be at once a Christ, a Buddha, a Lao-tzu, and an ignorant fool or a worm, this is something really mysterious and wonderful and really worth devotion if you consider it for a while. The Buddhist scriptures say: “When every phase of our mind is in accord with the Buddha-mind, there shall not be one atom of dust that does not enter into Buddha-hood.” For Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others. They do not belong to particular persons any more than the sun, moon and stars.

The Birth of the Divine Son: A Study of a Christian Symbol

The fallacy of modern scepticism is that in rejecting the Church’s doctrines it has rejected the symbols as well, and so, if the expression is not too crude, has thrown out the baby with the bathwater. However, the reference to the baby is particularly apt, because what is perhaps the most important of these symbols is concerned with the baby, the Holy Child “conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary.”

It is often thought that the object of mysticism is to reveal the identity of all separate things, to deny utterly all individual existence and to find the One Reality whose manifoldness of expression is only the result of illusion. But there is an old Buddhist saying: “To him who knows nothing of Buddhism, mountains are mountains, waters are waters, and trees are trees. When he has read the scriptures and understood a little of the doctrine, mountains are to him no longer mountains, waters no longer waters, and trees no longer trees. But when he is thoroughly enlightened, then mountains are once again mountains, waters waters, and trees trees.” For before we can truly appreciate the changing individuality of things we must, in a certain sense, realize their unreality. That is to say, one must understand that not only oneself but all other things in the universe are meaningless and dead when considered by themselves, as permanent, isolated, and self-sufficient entities. Unless related to the whole, the part is without value, and it is just this relating of the part to the whole, or rather, this realization of an already existing relationship, which is the union whereof the Holy Child is born.