Saturday, October 12, 2013


I spent a lot of time reading Alan Watts as a younger person, none of which time I regret; he was / is a good teacher of what we may legitimately call "Buddhist thought".  For those who don't know, this intellectual guy lived in Sausalito.  The Wikipedia picture shows him in full guru costume, which at the time was a trendy form of rebellion against establishment Western dress.  People were re-balancing their relationship with Asia, especially around the Pacific Rim.

Watts was in turn a student of D. T. Suzuki, a Japanese Zen master, and a lot of the Watts stuff works at translating such words as "satori" as "enlightenment" and so on.  But then what does "enlightenment" even mean in English?  You have the "Age of Enlightenment" which points back to such French luminaries as Voltaire.  You have the several dictionary definitions.  "Enlightening" can mean becoming aware of a more inclusive or elucidating way of looking.  That's a link to Wittgenstein, who baked "ways of looking" into his core "language games based" elucidation.

One has times in life wherein dots connect and circuits flip on.  Epiphanies may be fleeting, hour-long, ongoing themes.  Salvador Dali had some lengthy epiphanies.  He didn't worry, like a Viagra commercial, about an epiphany lasting too long.  In hindsight, surrealism benefited enormously from Dali's willingness to experience "satori" quite a bit.

One of the things the enlightenment literature tends to recommend is maddeningly complex practices of some kind, lots of tedious, repetitious, stupid, boring stuff.  This is no accident.  The mind is more prone to produce breakthroughs when forced into some corner and made to fend for itself.  Koans were / are like this:  puzzling little sayings and mantras designed to produce "aha!" experiences, more than one.  But then just life itself induces these "aha" experiences.  You don't need to go looking for koans.  They're in your face at all times, if you know where to look.

That being said, it's also true that communities need dishes washed, pigs milked, goats tended, fish smoked, or whatever the tasks of a subculture.  Were "enlightenment" to be reserved only for those on vacation or in retirement, that'd be droll.  Busy home owners need "enlightenment" as much as anyone.  An egalitarian flavor enters in, but also in reward for some kind of meekness, or humble submission to "chores" (doing your share of the work, participating in building / sustaining community).  The Buddhists call this Sangha i.e. Community.

Westerners often get bent out of shape by the word "Community" as it rhymes with "Communist", and yet they pay lots of lip service to "Fellowship" and "Church Community" as a good thing. It's disbelief in any God that made Communists a bad thing, but then Buddhism was never attacked in this way, at least not directly.  So Alan Watts could be rebellious and anti-establishment and not-communist at the same time, which was doubly subversive.  I was / am a fan.

Lots of movies use "satori" in that they help the audience experience revelations about things.  The plot twists and turns, and by the end there's a satisfying resolution, or not.  The ending may not be what matters.  Satori is found in films, that's what matters.  No wonder Japanese cartoons (anime) are often so philosophical / spiritual, so Zen in some cases.

The Quakers have "satori" too, which I might talk about another time.  The mode of "expectant waiting" is precisely that cultivated by many a devoted seeker.  To somewhat personalize the provider of insights as "God" (in place of "the muses") is the monotheist mode, but you need not be a "believer" to appreciate the power of intuition.  Kant's obsession with the possibility of synthetic judgments a priori is no less a meditation on whether moral truths might share something with the logically imperative.  You don't need to be a believer in some "God" to experience satori, as any atheist might tell you (whether Communist or not).