It’s around 35 years since I read Alan Watts’ The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. I remember it being of great significance for me at the time. On impulse, I recently reread the heavily annotated paperback (first published 1969) with its browning pages. The cover price was 45p; equivalents today would be about 20 times as much.
Alan Watts was then well known as an interpreter and populariser of Indian and Chinese philosophy, author of a number of books including The Way of Zen.
The Book On The Taboo is based on the insights of Vedanta philosophy, that all is interconnected, which anticipated the conclusions of the pioneers of quantum physics. The individual being and its environment are two aspects of the one process.
So “the prevalent sensation of oneself as a separate ego enclosed in a bag of skin is a hallucination. ”
Of course, such a perspective is so alien to most present day thinking as to be dismissed out of hand. It is only when you explore it in more detail that it begins to make sense. Alan Watts takes us by the hand and leads us through it in this short and straightforward book.
The problem is that conceptual thinking cannot really grasp the essential truth, we can only approach it through myth, metaphor and symbol. Our reliance on language and logical left brain thinking has left us up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
If all is truly interconnected then the ultimate ground of being (Paul Tillich) is ONE. And you’re IT! That’s the ultimate taboo.
Watts describes ‘the game of black and white’, where we see things in terms of opposites or polarities: tone/interval, space/matter, cause/effect, light/dark, inner/outer, life/death, order/chance, figure/ground, and so on. These polarities are actually two aspects of the same thing, whereas in egoic terms we see them as different and opposing things. We actually play ‘the game of black versus white’. And this is actually embedded in our language.
Thus the project of ‘conquering nature’ is an impossibility, for we and nature are in fact one. The relationship between an organism and its environment is mutual.
Watts goes on to trace how the ego fiction has lead us away from true and natural existence to a fake existence dependent on rules and language. In terms used by more recent authors, the left brain has usurped its joint function with the right brain and taken over.
“… the absolutely vital thing is to consolidate your understanding, to become capable of enjoyment, of living in the present, and of the discipline this involves.
Without this you have nothing to give… to the cause of peace or racial integration, to [the] starving… or even your closest friends. Without this, all social concerns will be muddlesome meddling, and all work for the future will be planned disaster.”
The games of the ego are many, at the end we see that the separate ego is an illusion. You feel yourself as the process and pattern of life.
In the Vedanta the world is seen as the play (lila) and magic (Maya) of the Self. The universe is at root a magical illusion and a fabulous game. There is no time but the present.
Then Watts moves on to morality in this context.
“No one can be moral… without coming to a working arrangement between the angel in himself and the devil in himself… The game is a working game just so long as the angel is winning, but does not win, and the devil is losing, but is never lost.”
Understanding ourselves is the key to playing the game.
There is more in this small book than I can do justice to in these brief words. I do know that, since reading it, I have always carried a bit of Alan Watts’ thinking around in my mental toolbox. It’s that good.