Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5 — Zen Buddhism

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5



I suppose most of you have heard of Zen. But before going on to explain any details about it, I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I am not a Zen Buddhist, I am not advocating Zen Buddhism, I am not trying to convert anyone to it, I have nothing to sell.

I am an entertainer.

That is to say in the same sense that when you go to a concert, and you listen to someone play Mozart. He has nothing to sell except the sound of the music, he doesn’t want to convert you to anything. He doesn’t want you to join any organization in favor of Mozart’s music as opposed to say, Beethoven’s.

And I approach you in the same spirit as a musician with his piano, or a violinist with his violin.

I just want you to enjoy a point of view which I enjoy.

Now then, when that’s been said, I hope it’s put your minds at rest. Let me give you some simple historical information. Zen is a form of Buddhism. It originated in China about 500 AD. At about 1200 AD, it migrated to Japan where it exists today. And it is a form—it’s a way of life that has had an immense influence on the arts and the culture and poetry and the architecture of the far east.

It is lately become of enormous interest to people in many parts of the world. When people talk about Buddhism, Zen is a form of Buddhism. It is supposed that you’re talking about a religion and people might classify themselves as Buddhists as they might say I am a Catholic or a Methodist or Baptist or Episcopalian or a Jew. But that is rather misleading.

Buddhism is not a religion in that sense.

If we want to find an equivalent to Buddhism in our society today in the west. Probably the nearest thing to it is psychotherapy.

When a person goes to a psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst to work out a serious personal problem, not because he’s just nutty. I mean not necessarily because he has hallucinations or excessive singing in the ears with no clear physical origin. But when a person feels that his whole life is somehow disoriented and wrong. And he doesn’t go to the preacher because the preacher only moralizes to him, and says, “My man you should have more faith in God” or something.

So he goes to a doctor because in our day, a man with a tag of science on him has more prestige than a man who has a tag of religion. And so, when a psychiatrist goes to work on you, his objective more or less is to change your state of consciousness.

“His Objective Is To Change Your State of Consciousness…”

That is to say, if your state of consciousness, your state of mind is one of day after day constantly depressed, the objective of going to a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist is to have your state of consciousness change to one of happiness. Now, in a somewhat similar way, the objective of Buddhism in all its forms is to bring about a fundamental change in a human being’s everyday state of consciousness. If I make it yet more specific, it’s to bring about change in your sense of personal identity.

That is to say in your sensation of who and what you are.


In this way Buddhism, which I suppose you know, is a method of changing consciousness, discovered or invented by a man named Gotama [Siddhartha] who lived in India shortly after 600 BC who was given the title “Buddha” because the word means “the awakened one.” The man who woke up. And therefore, that very title suggests that ordinary people are asleep.

I remember a very wise man who used to give lectures like this. When he came in, he would be silence. And he would look at the audience, and he would look at everyone in the audience particularly. For a long time, everyone would become vaguely embarrassed, when he gazed at them for a long time, he’d say, “WAKE UP!”

You’re all asleep. And if you don’t wake up, I won’t give any lecture.

Now in what sense are we asleep?

The Buddhists would say that almost all human beings have a phony sense of identity, a delusion, a hallucination as to who they are. I am terribly interested in this problem if identity, and I try and find out what people mean when they say the word “I”? I think this is one of the most fascinating questions. Who do you think you are?

Most people think that “I” is a center of sensitivity somewhere inside their skin. And the majority of people feel that it’s in their heads. Civilizations in different periods history have felt different about this. Some people believe that they existed in the solar plexus. Other people feel that they exist about here. And there is as it were a little man sitting inside the center of the skull. He has a television screen in front of him, he has earphones. He has in front of him a control panel with various dials and buttons and things to enable him to influence the arms and legs. And to get all sorts of information from the nerve ends.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

And that’s you.

So we say in popular speech, I have a body. Not I am a body. But I have one because I own a body in the same way that I own an automobile. And I can take the automobile to the mechanic, and in the same way I need to take the body to the mechanic. To the surgeon, the dentist, the doctor, to have it repaired. But it belongs to me, it goes along with me, I’m in it.

A child for example, can ask mother, “Mom, who would I have been had my father been someone else?”

That seems a perfectly simple and logical question for a child to ask because of the presumption that your parents gave you your body. And you were popped into it, maybe at the moment of conception, maybe at the moment of birth, from a repository of souls in heaven.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

And your parents simply provided the physical vehicle.

So that age old idea that is indigenous, especially to the western world, is that I am something inside a body and I am not quite sure whether I am or am not my body. Some doubt about it. I say, I think, I walk, I talk. But I don’t say I beat my heart, I don’t say I shape my bones, I don’t say I grow my hair. I feel that my heart beating, my hair growing, my bones shaping is something that happens to me, and I don’t know how it’s done. But other things, I do. And next, I feel quite surely that everything outside of my body is definitely not me.

There are two kinds of things outside my body. Number one is other people, and they are the same sort of thing as I am. But also they are also all little men locked up inside their skins. Number two is the world is non-human that we call nature. And that’s stupid. It has no mind. It has emotions maybe in animals, but on the whole, it’s a pretty grim business. Dog eat dog. And when it gets to the geological level, it’s as dumb as dumb can be. It’s a mechanism, and an awful lot of it. And that’s what we live in the middle of.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

And the purpose of being human is, we feel the need to subjugate nature.

To make it obey our will. And we arrived here. We don’t feel that we belong to this world. It is foreign to us. In the words of the poet, Housman, “I, a stranger and afraid. In a world I never made.”

And so, all around us today, we see the signs of man’s battle with nature.

I am living at the moment in a marvelous house in the Hollywood Hills. And we are overlooking a lake, and on the other side of the lake, the whole hill has suddenly been interrupted with a ghastly gash. Where they have made level lots for building tracked homes or the kind you would build on a flat plain. This is called a conquest of nature. These houses will eventually fall down the hill. Because they are causing soil erosion. And they’re being maximally stupid. The proper way to build a house on a hillside is to do it in such a way as to effect the minimum interference with the nature of the hill.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

After all, the whole point of living in the hill, is to live in the hills.

No point in converting the hills to something flat, and then living there. You can do that already living on the ground. So more people live in the hills, the more they spoil the hills, and they’re just the same as the people living in the flat ground. And how stupid can you get?

Well anyway, this is one of the symptoms of our phony sense of identity, of our phony feeling that we are something lonely locked up in a bag of skin confronted with an external alien world that is not me. Now according to certain of these great ancient philosophies like Buddhism, this sensation of being separate individual is a hallucination. It’s a hallucination brought about by various causes, the way we are brought up. I remember as a child, I imagine you had very similar memories to mine, that all our parents were desperately interested in identifying us. Don’t you remember that when you went out and play with other children, and there was someone in the group of other children you admire and look up to? And you came home imitating the mannerisms of that other child.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

And your mother said to you, “Johnny, Johnny, that’s not you, that’s Peter.”

You felt somewhat ashamed because you somehow let her down. She wanted you to be “you,” her child, not Mrs. Jones’s child, Peter.

And so in many ways, we are taught this. For example, the main thing we are all taught in childhood is that you must do that which will be appreciated if you will do it voluntarily.

“Now, darling, a dutiful child must love its mother, but now I don’t want you to do it because I say so, but because you really want to…”

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

Or, “you must be free.”

See, this comes into politics. Everybody must vote. You see, imagine. If you are members of a democracy. And you must be members of a democracy. See, you’re ordered to. Crazy.

Also, thou shalt love the Lord thy God. Is that a commandment or a joke? You know if you suggest that the Lord is joking. Most people in our culture are offended because they have a very moronic conception of God, as a person totally devoid of human. But the Lord is highly capable of joking. Because joking is one of the most constructive things you can do.

So when you are told who you are, and that you must be free, furthermore that you must survive and must go on living, that becomes a kind of compulsion. You get mixed up. It’s very simple.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

Of course you get mixed up.

If you think you must do something, which will only be the thing required of you if you do it freely.

These are the sorts of feelings then that cause human beings all over the world to feel isolated. To feel that they are centers of awareness locked up in bags of skin.

Now this sensation of our identity can be shown and demonstrated to be false by some of the disciplines of our own science. When we describe a human being or any other organism from a scientific point of view, all that means is that we are describing it carefully. We are going to describe very carefully what a human being is, and what a human being does.


And we find as we go on with that description, we can’t describe the human being without describing the environment.

We can’t say what a human being is doing without saying what the world around him is doing.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

Just imagine for a moment.


That you couldn’t see anything up here except me. You couldn’t see the curtains behind me, you couldn’t see the microphone. You could only see me. That was all you could see. What would you be looking at? You wouldn’t see me at all. Because you wouldn’t see my edges and my edges are rather important for seeing me.

My edges would be identical with the edge of your eyesight. With that vague oval curve which is the field of vision. What you would be looking at is my my necktie, my nose, my eyes and so on. But you wouldn’t see my edges. So you would be confronted with with a very strange monster and you wouldn’t know it was a human being. Because to see me, you need to see my background.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

And therein lies a clue of which we are mostly ignorant.


In Buddhist theory, the cause of our phony sense of identity is called, “avidya” and that means ignorance. (Avidyā is a Sanskrit word whose literal meaning is ignorance, misconceptions, misunderstandings, incorrect knowledge, and it is the opposite of Vidya. Source: Wikipedia)

Although it’s better to pronounce it “IGNORE-ance.” Having a deluded sense of identity is a result of ignoring certain things.

So when you look at me, and I manage by behaving up here more or less in an interesting way, I cause you to ignore my background.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

Because I concentrate attention on me.

Just like a conjurer stage magician. In order to perform his tricks, misdirects your attention and talks to you about something he’s doing here and he talks to you about his fingers and how empty they are. And he can pull something out of his pocket in plain sight and you don’t notice it . And so a magic happens. That’s ignore-ance.

Selective attention. Focusing your consciousness on one thing, to the exclusion of many other things. So in this way, we concentrate on the things, the figures. We ignore, we don’t concentrate on the background. So we come to think that the figure exists independently from the background. But actually, they go together. And they go together, just as inseparably as backs go with fronts, as positives goes with negatives, as ups goes with downs, and as life goes with death. You can’t separate them. So there’s a sort of secret conspiracy between the figure and the background. They are really one, but they look different. They need each other. Just as male needs female, and vice versa.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

But we are all ordinarily completely unaware of this.


So then, when the scientists start paying attention to behavior of people and things carefully, he discovers that they go together.

That the behavior of the organism is inseparable from the behavior of its environment.

If I were to describe my behavior. What am I doing? Am I just waving my legs back and forth? No I’m walking. In order to speak about walking, you have to speak about the space in which I am walking. About the floor, about the direction left or right in relation to what kind of room, what kind of stage, what kind of situation. Because if obviously there isn’t a ground underneath me, I can’t very well walk.

So the description of what I am doing, involves the description of the world. And so the biologist comes to say that what he is describing is no longer merely the organism and its behavior. He is describing a field which he now calls the organism-environment.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

And that field is what the individual actually is.

Now this is very clearly recognized in all sorts of sciences. But the average individual and indeed the average scientist does not feel in a way that corresponds to his theory. He still feels as if he were a center of sensitivity locked up inside a bag of skin. The object of Buddhist discipline or methods of psychological training is as it were to turn that feeling inside out. To bring about a state of affairs in which the individual feels himself to be everything that there is.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

The whole cosmos. Focus here.

And you as the whole cosmos expressing itself. There and there and there and so on. That what, in other words, the reality of myself fundamentally is. Not something inside my skin, but everything, and I mean everything outside my skin. But doing what is my skin and inside it.

Imagine that every one of us — in the same way like the sea, when the ocean has a wave on it. The wave is not separate from the ocean, is it? Every wave on the ocean is the ocean waving. The ocean waves and it says, “Yoo-hoo! I’m here!”

See. But I can wave all over the place in many different ways. I can wave this way, I can wave that way.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

The Ocean of Being waves every one of us.

We are its waves. But the waves are fundamentally the ocean.

In that way, your sense of identity would be turned inside out. And that inversion, turning upside down of the sense of identity of the state of consciousness which the average person has, is the objective of Buddhistic disciplines. The method of teaching something in Buddhism is rather different from methods of teaching which we use in the western world. In the western world, a good teacher is regarded as someone who makes the subject matter easy for the student. A person who explains things cleverly and clearly.

So you can take a course in mathematics without tears. In the oriental world, they have an almost exactly opposite conception. That is, a good teacher is a person who makes you find out something for yourself. In other words, learn to swim by throwing the baby into the water. There’s a story used in Zen about how a burglar taught his child to burgle. He took him one night to a burgling expedition. And locked him up in a chest in the house that he was burgling and left him. The poor little boy was all alone locked up in the chest.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

And he began to think, “How am I going to get out?”

So he suddenly called out, “FIRE, FIRE.” And everyone started running all over the place and they heard this shriek coming from inside the chest. And they unlocked it and he rushed out and shot out into the garden and just then everyone was in hot pursuit calling out thief, thief. He went by a well and he picked up a rock and dropped it in the well. And everybody thought the poor fellow jumped into the well and committed suicide, and he got away. He got home and his father said, “Congratulations, you have learned the art.”

So do you see, William Blake said, “A fool who persists in his folly will become wise.”

And so the method of teaching used by these great eastern teachers is to make fools persistent in their folly.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

But very rigorously and persistently and very hard.

So then if I may, now having given you the analogy, the image.

Let’s go to the specific situation. Supposing you want to study Buddhism under a Zen Master. What will happen to you? Well first of all, let’s ask the question, “Why would you want to do this anyway?”

I can make the situation fairly universal. It might not be a Zen Master, it might be a Methodist Minister, it might be a Catholic Priest, it might be a psychoanalyst. But what’s the matter with you? Why do you go?

And surely the reason that we all would be seekers, is that we feel some disquiet about ourselves.

Many of us want to get rid of ourselves.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

We can’t stand ourselves.

So we watch television and go to the movies and read mystery stories and join churches.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

In order to forget ourselves.

In order to merge with something greater than ourselves. We want to get away from this ridiculous thing locked up in a bag of skin. So I have a problem. I hurt, I suffer, I am neurotic, or whatever it is. One goes to the teacher and says, “My problem is me. Change me.”

Now if you go to a Zen Teacher, he will say, “Well I have nothing to teach.” There is no problem. Everything is perfectly clear.

And you think that one over, and you think, “He’s probably being cagey.”

He’s testing me out. To see if I really want to be his student. So I know according to everybody else who’s been thru this. That in order to get this man to take me on, I must persist. Do you know our saying that anybody who goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have their head examine.

There’s a double take in that saying. Anybody who goes with a spiritual problem to a Zen Master, defines himself as a nut. And the teacher does everything possible to make him as nutty as possible. But the teacher says quite honestly, I don’t have anything to teach you, I have no doctrine.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

As I said in the beginning of this talk, I have nothing whatsoever to sell you.

So the student thinks, “My…this is very deep. This nothing that he’s talking about, this nothing that he teaches. Is what they call in Buddhism for Shunyata (Śūnyatā, pronounced ‘shoonyataa’, translated into English most often as emptiness and sometimes voidness, is a Buddhist concept which has multiple meanings depending on its doctrinal context. Source: Wikipedia). Nothingness. It’s supposed to be the ultimate reality. As you know, if you know anything about these doctrines, this doesn’t mean “real” nothingness.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

Not just kind of nothing there at all, not just blank. But it means, “no thingness.”

It’s the transcendental reality behind all separate and individual things. And that’s something very deep and profound. So he knows that when the teacher said I have nothing to teach, he meant this very esoteric “no thing.”

Well he might also say then, “If you have nothing to teach, what are all these students doing around here?”

And the teacher says, “They are not doing anything. They’re just a lot of stupid people who live here.”

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

And he knows again, you see, that this “stupid,” doesn’t mean straight stupid, but the “higher stupidity.” Of people who are being humble and don’t have intellectual pride. LOL

So finally the student having gone out of his way to define himself as a damn fool, in need of help, he is absolutely works himself into this situation, he defines himself as a nut. And then the teacher accepts him.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

Now, I’m going to ask you a question.

I want to know who you are before your father and mother conceived you. That is to say, you’ve come to me with a problem. You say, “I have a problem! I want to get one up on this Universe.”

Now, who is it that wants to get one up? Who are “you”?

Who is this thing you call your ego, your soul, your “I”, your identity? For whom your parents provide a body?

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

Show me that.

Further I’m from Missouri, I don’t want any words, I want to be shown. So the student may open his mouth to make an answer and the teacher says, “Uh uh, you’re not ready.”

And he takes him back to the Chief Student. All those so called monks that live together. And the Chief Student says, “Now what we do here and so and so, we have this discipline…the main part of the discipline is meditation.”

We all sit cross leg in a row. We learn how to breathe and be still. In other words, to do nothing.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

No but you mustn’t go to sleep. And you mustn’t get into a trance. You have to stay wide awake. Not thinking anything. But perfectly doing nothing.

And there’s a monk walking down all the time with a flat stick. Rather long, so long. If you fall asleep or get into a trance or if you get dreamy, he hit you on the back. So that you will stay quite clear and wide awake and still doing nothing. And the idea is that out of the state of profoundly doing nothing, you will be able to tell the teacher who you really are.

In other words, the question, “Who are you before your mother and father conceived you,” is a request for an act of perfect sincerity and spontaneity.

As if I were to say to you, “Look, will you be absolutely genuine with me? No deception please. I want you to do something that expresses you, without the slightest deception.”

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

No more role acting.


No more playing games with me. I want to see You. Now imagine, could you really be that honest with somebody else. Especially a spiritual teacher. He sees right through you. He sees all your secret thoughts. And he knows the very second when you’ve been a little bit phony. And that bugs you.

Just like the psychiatrist. You’re sitting in there discussing your problems and you start picking your nose. And the psychiatrist suddenly says to you, “Is your finger comfortable there, do you like that?” And you know you know your Freudian slip is showing.

What do fingers symbolize? What do nostrils symbolize? Uh oh, uh oh. And then you quickly put your hand down and sort of…

Oh no, it’s nothing. It’s nothing. I was just picking my nose.

The analyst says, “oh really?”

Then why are you justifying it? Why are you trying to explain it away. He has you every you turn.

Alan Watts Chillstep Mix 5

And with Zen, it’s the same way, you see.


In other words, when you are challenged to be perfectly genuine, it’s like saying to a child, “Now darling, come out here and play and don’t be self-conscious.”

Or it’s like I would say to you, “Now look, if you come here tonight, at exactly midnight, and put your hands on this stage, you can wish and have granted, any wish you want—provided, you don’t think of a green elephant.”

So everybody will come, they’ll put their hands here, and they will be very careful not to think of a green elephant.

Well not do you see the point? There is no independent self to be produced. There is no way at all of showing it. Because it isn’t there. So you recover from the illusion. You suddenly wake up and think, “*sigh* What a relief.” And they call that Satori.

That’s awakening. The first step in awakening.

When this kind of experience happens, you discover that what you are is no longer this sort of isolated center of action and experience locked up in your skin. The teacher has asked you to produce that thing. To show him genuine and naked, and you couldn’t find it. So it isn’t there! What you are, is as I said, the whole world of nature, doing this.

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