Eastern wisdom, modern life: Collected talks 1960-1969 by Alan Watts

book coverI first learned about Buddhism in an undergraduate course on Eastern philosophy. The class read the work of a Zen master, which we all found dense, complicated, and perplexing yet interesting. To save us the several anguishing hours trying to interpret eastern philosophy with a Western mind, I wish that we had read Alan Watts’ book. Watts writes about Buddhism is simple and eloquent language using Western terms to explain contrary eastern perspectives: in the Western world were accustomed very much to thinking of spiritual things as being set apart and distinctly separate from everyday lifeas out of this world,and not of the natural world.But in the art of Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhism we see a concentration on everyday life. And even when the great sages of Buddhism are depicted, they are depicted in a secular style, just like ordinary people (p. 24).

This juxtaposition of Western, particularly content from the Bible, and Eastern perspectives is extremely helpful to the novice to understand even the most complicated notions. It is clear that Watts has a strong grasp of both Western religion and philosophy as well as Eastern. As someone with knowledge about Buddhist philosophy, learning about the contrastive view or stance of western life in terms of major texts and artifacts provides an additional layer of knowledge to that already possessed. One is able to see the why behind the different worldviews.

One of my favorite features of the book is the soothing tone and artful simplicity of the writing. As a social scientist, I read complex and convoluted texts that require an overwhelming use of the analytical mind. Reading Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life was a welcomed opportunity to use creative and aesthetic thinking. Watts has a way of combining clear language to paint an image of a thought: Both priests and physicians need to take another look at death and rediscover the all-important fact that life without death has not value.It is your limits in time that constitute you, just as much as your limits in space. Death always overshadows the whole of life, and life would have no meaning, no point, if it didnt have death to balance it. Life and death are the in-breath, the out-breath, the coming and the going, the rising and the falling (p. 185). The conversation-like prose provides a mesmerizing and contemplative experience; at times I felt as if I were in a lecture hall listening to Watts, a skilled orator who translates well into written prose.

The pacing of these passages is stretched throughout the book, making the entire book a pleasurable experience.  I would highly recommend this book for someone who wants an introductory but profound dip into the well of Eastern philosophy. This book is also worthwhile for someone well read on the topic and wants a pleasant refresher that soothes the heart, mind and soul.

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