There have been quite a few posts in the past few weeks on religion and aspects of religion, generating a number of interesting comments on the nature of the universe, God and on religion and religious practices in general. A couple of posts on the political and other similar activities of the Buddhist priests in this country have also attracted points of view that could well have remained unstated had it not been for the blogs. I find the comments of those who have obviously investigated – or at least have read on – other religions and philosophies to be far more interesting than those that are on a ‘defense of my religion’ trip and whose responses do nothing but cast aspersions on another religion or system of thought. One in particular sticks in the memory as it dealt with the sexual improprieties of that particular clergy, which to me is inane and a waste of time and only reflects the limitations of the commenter. One really can not blame a religion for what its practitioners do – whether they are part of  the clergy or otherwise. There are ‘deviants’ in all walks of life and their actions can in no way tarnish a system of thought. A more thoughtful response with some value in terms of inducing some thought or reflection is far more productive and much less likely to generate a banal exchange of insults and crap – a waste of time to even get into.

Anyway, reflecting on this, I remembered Alan Watts.  Watts was an Englishman who became an Anglican (Episcopalian in the US) priest and lived his later years in California. Interested in Buddhism and Zen even before he entered the Anglican clergy, he left the Church and got more into the eastern philosophies and the natural sciences – from Zen, the Vedanta, cybernetics and semantics, to natural history and anthropology. In the 1950s he also began experimenting with psychedelics, initially with mescaline, a psycho-active drug derived from the buttons of the Peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and later with other mind-altering substances, which experiences he describes in his book ‘The Joyous Cosmology – Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness’. He found a parallel between his mystical experiences and the theories of the material universe proposed by modern scientists and he later equated the experiences with ecological awareness. In many ways similar to Aldous Huxley’s ‘Doors of Perception’ (after Huxley’s experiments with mescaline), the foreword to Watts’ book was written by Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass), both Professors at Harvard University at the time (1962) and begins:

The Joyous Cosmology is a brilliant arrangement of words describing experiences for which our language has no vocabulary. To understand this wonderful but difficult book it is useful to make the artificial distinction between the external and the internal. This is, of course, exactly the distinction which Alan Watts wants us to transcend. But Mr. Watts is playing the verbal game in a Western language, and his reader can be excused for following along with conventional dichotomous models.

External and internal. Behavior and consciousness. Changing the external world has been the genius and the obsession of our civilization. In the last two centuries the Western monotheistic cultures have faced outward and moved objects about with astonishing efficiency. In more recent years, however, our culture has become aware of a disturbing imbalance. We have become aware of the undiscovered universe within, of the uncharted regions of consciousness.

In my understanding of Alan Watts’ attempt at resolving the matter of the individual consciousness in relation to the ‘total’ consciousness – call it ‘God” or what you will – is the underlying understanding that the ‘higher consciousness’ he experienced whilst on psychedelics was a glimpse of what would be possible to experience without the ingesting of any substance. What is described in ‘The Joyous Cosmology’ is a brilliantly vivid series of short pieces on Watts’ psychedelically inspired experiences (it has ultra-close-up black and white photographs of nature – leaves, water, branches and other similar stuff accompanying each page) relating to his understanding of ‘God’ and I guess one would have to have had similar experiences to ‘see’ what he meant, but it made a whole lot of sense to me. In his own words:

To make this book as complete an expression as possible of the quality of consciousness which these drugs induce, I have included a number of photographs which, in their vivid reflection of the patterns of nature, give some suggestion of the rhythmic beauty of detail which the drugs reveal in common things. For without losing their normal breadth of vision the eyes seem to become a microscope through which the mind delves deeper and deeper into the intricately dancing texture of our world.

Anyway, the point I was trying to make in this post is that in order to comment intelligently on a subject like ‘religion’ or ‘God’, it would be necessary to have at least some knowledge of other systems of belief and/or other experiences which may possibly enable a fuller understanding of one’s ‘place’ in the universe and possibly even a glimpse of what may well be ‘nirvana’.

To end this – another Watts-ism whilst pondering on “working on the most delicate epistemological puzzle: how the brain evokes a world which is simultaneously the world which it is in, and to wonder, therefore, whether the brain evokes the brain. Put it in metaphysical terms, psychological terms, physical terms, or neurological terms: it is always the same. How can we know what we know without knowing knowing?