There are seven lectures delivered by Alan Watts in this book put together by his son Mark Watts and published in 1995. One is on the relevance of oriental philosophy, one is on the mythology of Hinduism, a couple are on Zen, one is on jnana yoga, which Watts calls "intellectual yoga," one is an introduction to Buddhism, and the seventh is on Taoism.
Since Alan Watts died in 1973 his stature as an expert on Eastern religion and philosophy has only grown, partly because of the reprinting of many of his books including "The Way of Zen," "Tao: The Watercourse Way," "Nature, Man and Woman." and others, and party because the memory many people have of hearing him speak. What is particularly attractive about this little tome is the clear sense of the voice of Watts that comes through and the concise manner in which he reveals the scope and intent of the major religious philosophies of Asia, including Taoism, Hinduism, yoga, Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and even some Confucianism.
The religions are called philosophies in the title, but it's one and the same because in the East there is little distinction between philosophy and religion.
But Watts is more than an expert on Eastern religions. He devoted part of his life to the study of Western philosophy and science so that he would have a greater context in which to view the Eastern ways of life so dear to his heart. And of course Watts was the kind of man people relate to and was deeply loved and is sorely missed.
He had a style that cut through the clutter and obtuseness of the subject matter and got to the pure essence within. Here are some examples:
"...[T]he stomach's point of view is that the brain is the servant of the stomach to help it scrounge around for food." (p. 7)
"...[S]o a great university library is very often a place where people bury themselves and write books about the books that are in there. They write books about books about books and the library swells, and it is like an enormous mass of yeast rising and rising, and that is all that is going on." (p. 63)
"You will find constantly...--in psychoanalysis, in Gestalt therapy, in sensitivity training, in any kind of yoga or what have you--that there will be that funny sensation of what I will call 'spiritual greed' that can be aroused by somebody indicating to you, 'Mmmm, there are still higher stages for you to attain. You should meet my guru.'" (p. 70)
If you study Eastern religions for any length of time it becomes clear that there are great similarities between the various approaches. "Zen" comes from "ch'an" in China and ch'an from "dhyana" in India, all three words meaning approximately the same thing: "meditation." In the Tao it is written:
"To know yet to think that one does not know is best;
Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty."
Watts points to the striking similarity of these words from the Kena Upanishad of Hinduism: "If you think that you know Braham, you do not know him. But if you know that you do not know the Brahman, you truly know." (p. 80)
One can see in the lectures as Watts roams from one aspect of Eastern spirituality to another a common sensitivity. One sees, for example, how Buddhism came from the Vedas, partially in reaction to early Hinduism and partially in concert with it, and then travelled east to China and Japan; and how Zen, inspired by Taoism, became a corrective to the over-intellectualism of Buddhism. Again and again Watts applies this sensitivity to the modern world and to the lives of his listeners. He sees the world in the way of the Tao, as an organism that grows and needs to be left alone. And he gives us this prescient warning:
"The whole attitude of using technology as a method of fighting the world will succeed only in destroying the world, as we are doing. We use absurd and uninformed and shortsighted methods of getting rid of insect pests, forcing our fruit and tomatoes to grow, stripping our hills of trees and so on, thinking that this some kind of progress. Actually it is turning everything into a junk heap." (p. 57)
Curiously--or perhaps not so curiously--Watts finds a connection between the Western academic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the watercourse, non-intellectual way of the Tao and Zen. He says that Wittgenstein "shows you that what you always thought were the major problems of life and philosophy were meaningless questions. Those problems are solved not by, as it were, giving an answer to them but by getting rid of the problem through seeing intellectually that it is meaningless." (pp. 64-65)
On the dedication page of the book Mark Watts quotes his father as saying, "The nub of all these Oriental Philosophies is not an idea, not a theory, not even a way of behaving, but a way of experiencing a transformation of everyday consciousness so that it becomes quite apparent to us that this is the way things are."
The way things are is beyond language. The way things are is indescribable.
(Note: Thirteen of my books are now available at Amazon including "The World Is Not as We Think It Is.")