Does it Matter?

Posted on in On Our Radar by Alan Watts

A Philosophy of Nature


Contrary to popular belief, Americans are not materialists, as I have said before. We are not people who love material, and by and large our culture is devoted to the transformation of material into junk as rapidly as possible. God’s own junkyard! Therefore, it’s a very important lesson for a wealthy nation—and all Americans are colossally wealthy by the standards of the rest of the world—to see what happens to material in the hands of people who love it.

You might say that in Japan, and in China to a certain extent, the underlying philosophy of life is a sort of spiritual materialism. In the East, there is not the divorce between soul and body, between spirit and matter, between God and nature, that there is in the West. Therefore, there is not the same kind of contempt for material things.

We regard matter as something that gets in our way, something with limitations that are to be abolished as quickly as possible. We have bulldozers and every kind of technical device for knocking material out of the way, and we like to do as much to obliterate time and space as possible. We talk about killing time and getting from one place to another as fast as possible.

This is one of the great difficulties facing Japan. What is going to happen to Japan when it becomes the same place as California? In other words, you can take a streetcar from one end of town to another, and it’s the same town. So, if you can take a jet plane from one city to another, then they’re going to become the same place. To preserve the whole world from ultimate Los Angelization, we in the United States have to learn how to enjoy material and to be true materialists, instead of exploiters of material. This is one of the main reasons for exploring the philosophy of the Far East and how it relates to everyday life—to architecture, to gardens, to painting, and to rituals like the tea ceremony.

Basic to all of this is the philosophy of nature. The Japanese philosophy of nature is probably founded on the Chinese philosophy of nature, so we’ll begin there.

To let the cat out of the bag right at the beginning: The basic assumption underlying Far Eastern and East Indian cultures is that the whole cosmos, the whole universe, is one being. It is not a collection of many things that floated together like a lot of flotsam and jetsam from the ends of space and just happened to end up forming this thing we call the universe. Easterners look at the world as one eternal activity, and that’s the only real self you have. You are the works, and that thing we call you, the so-called “separate organism,” is simply a manifestation of the whole thing. And this is not just a theory; it is a feeling that they have.

The great masters of the Far East and India, whatever sphere they’re in, are fundamentally of this feeling that what you are is the thing that always was, is, and will be. And this eternal thing is playing the games called “Mr. Tokano,” or “Mr. Lee,” or “Mr. Mukapadya.” These are special games it’s playing, just like there’s the fish game, the grass game, the bamboo game, and the pine tree game. These are all ways of saying, “Hello. Look at me. Here I am. It’s me!” And everything is doing a dance, only it’s doing it according to its own nature and the nature of the dance. The universe is fundamentally all these dances, whether human, fish, bird, cloud, sky, or star. They are all one fundamental dance or dancer. In Chinese, however, one doesn’t distinguish the noun from the verb in the same way that we do. A noun can become a verb; a verb can become a noun. Now that’s a civilized culture!

Above all, an enlightened person in Eastern culture is one who knows that his so-called “separate personality,” his ego, is an illusion. Illusion doesn’t mean a bad thing; it just means a play. From the Latin word ludere, we get the English word illusion, and ludere means to play. The Sanskrit word maya, meaning illusion, also means magic, skill, art. The Sanskrit concept comes through China to Japan with the transmission of Buddhism.

The East Indian vision of the world as maya, or as it is sometimes called in Sanskrit, lila, is also a play. So all individual manifestations are games, dances, symphonies, and musical forms of the whole show. And the underlying belief is that everyone is the whole show.

But nature, as the word is used in the East, does not mean quite the same thing as it does in the West. In Chinese, the word we translate as nature is tse-jan, and it is made up of two characters. The first one means “of itself,” and the second one means “so.” What is so, of itself.

This is a rather difficult idea to translate into English. We might say “automatic,” but that suggests something mechanical. This is something that is of itself so—what happens, what comes naturally. It is our sense of the word nature insofar as it means to be natural, to act in accordance with one’s nature, not to strive for things, not to force things. When your hair grows, it grows without your telling it to do so, and you don’t have to force it to grow. In the same way, your eyes, whether they are blue or brown, color themselves, and you don’t tell them how to do it. When your bones grow a certain way, they do it all of themselves.

The world as nature, what happens of itself, is looked upon as a living organism. It doesn’t have a boss because things are not behaving in response to something that pushes them around. They are just behaving, and it’s all one big behavior. However, if you want to look at it from certain points of view, you can see it as if something else were making something happen. But you only see the parts because you divide the thing up.

This might lead you to ask, “In Chinese philosophy, is nature chaotic? Is there really no law?” There is no Chinese word that means the law of nature. The only word in Chinese that means law—tse—is a character that represents a cauldron with a knife beside it. It goes back to very ancient times, when a certain emperor made laws for the people. He had the laws etched on the sacrificial cauldrons so that when the people brought sacrifices they would read what was written on the cauldrons. But the sages, who were of a Taoist persuasion during the time that this emperor lived, said, “You shouldn’t have done that, Sir, because the moment the people know what the law is, they become a little devious. And they’ll say, ‘Well now, did you really mean that precisely or did you mean this?’ The next thing you know, they will find a way to wrangle around it.” So they said that the nature of nature, Tao, is wu-tse, which means lawless.

But although we say that nature is lawless, this is not to say it is chaotic. The Chinese word for the order of nature is li. In Japanese, it is ri. Li is a curious word that originally meant “the markings in jade, the grain in wood, or the fiber in muscle.” Now, when you look at jade and you see these wonderful, mottled markings, you know that somehow these markings are not chaotic, although you can’t explain why. And when you look at the patterns of clouds or the bubbles of foam on the water, it’s astounding, because they never make an aesthetic mistake.

Look at the stars. They are not arranged; instead they seem to be scattered through the heavens like sea spray. Yet you could never criticize stars for displaying poor taste, any more than you could criticize mountain ranges for having awkward proportions. These designs are spontaneous, and yet they demonstrate the wiggly patterns of nature that are quite different from anything you would call a mess. We can’t quite put our finger on what the difference is between the two, but we certainly can see the difference between a tide pool and an ashtray full of garbage. We may not be able to define the difference, but we know they are different.

If you could define aesthetic beauty, however, it would probably cease to be interesting. That is, if we had a way of capturing it and a method that would automatically produce great artists—and anybody could go to school and become a great artist—art would soon become the most boring kind of expression. But precisely because you don’t know how it’s done, that gives spontaneous art a level of excitement.

And so it is with the philosophy of nature. There is no formula, no tse or rule according to which all this happens. And yet it’s not a mess. So, this idea of li, or organic pattern, is the word that they use for the order of nature.

The people in the Far East, and particularly in China and Japan, never feel guilty. They may feel ashamed because they have transgressed social requirements, but they do not have the sense of guilt that we generally equate with sinfulness. They don’t feel, as with the idea of original sin, that you are guilty because you owe your existence to the Lord God—or perhaps you were a mistake anyway! They don’t feel that. They have social shame, but not metaphysical guilt, and that leads to a great relaxation. You can feel it, if you’re sensitive, just walking around the streets. You realize that these people have not been tarred with that terrible monotheistic brush that gives one the sense of guilt.

Instead they work on the supposition that human nature, like all nature, although it consists of the passions as much as the virtues, is essentially good. In Chinese the word un means human heartedness, or humanness, but not in the sense of being humane out of a kind of necessity, but of being human. So when I say, “Oh, he’s a great human being,” I mean he’s the kind of person who’s not a stuffed shirt, who is able to come off it, who can talk with me as a person, and who recognizes that he is a rascal, too. And so when a man, for example, affectionately calls a friend “you old bastard,” this is a term of endearment, because he knows that “the old bastard” shares with him what I call the “element of irreducible rascality” that we all have.

So then, if a person has this attitude, he is never going to be an overbearing goodygoody. Confucius said, “Goody-goodies are the thieves of virtue.” Because the philosophy of the goody-goody is, “If I am right, then you are wrong, and we will get into a fight. What I am is a crusader against the wrong, and I’m going to obliterate you, or I’m going to demand your unconditional surrender.” But if I say, “No, I’m not right, and you’re not wrong, but I happen to want to win. You know, you’ve got the most beautiful temples, and I’m going to fight you for them.” But if I had done that, I would be very careful not to destroy the temples.

However, in modern warfare we don’t care. The only people who are safe are in the air force, because they are way up there. The women and children will be gone, because they can be frizzled with a Hiroshima bomb. But we in the plane will be safe. Now this is inhuman because we are fighting for ideology instead of for practical things like food, and for possessions, and for greed.

So this is why the Chinese recognize both sides of human nature, and a Confucian would say he trusts human passions more than he trusts human virtues: righteousness, goodness, principles, and all that highfalutin abstraction. Let’s get down to earth; let’s come off it. And this, then, is why there is a kind of man in whom trust is put, because he recognizes the kind of nature that human nature is. If you are like the Christians who don’t trust human nature—who say, “It’s fallen, it’s evil, it’s perverse”—that puts you in a very funny position. If you say, “Human nature is not to be trusted,” then you can’t even trust the fact that you don’t trust it! And do you see where you’ll end up?

Now, it’s true that human nature is not always trustworthy, but you must proceed on the gamble that it’s trustworthy most of the time, or at least 51% of the time. Because if you don’t, what’s your alternative? You have to have a police state, and everybody has to be watched and controlled. But then who’s going to watch the police? So, you end up the way they did in China just before 250 BC when there was the Chi’in Dynasty that lasted 15 years. The emperor decided that everything would be completely controlled in order to make his dynasty last for a thousand years. In the process, he made a mess. So the Han Dynasty, which lasted from 206 BC to AD 220, came into being, and the first thing they did was abolish all laws, except those about elementary violence and robbery. But all of the complexity of law was removed, and historically the Han Dynasty marked the height of Chinese civilization. It was a period of real peace and great sophistication. It was China’s Golden Age, although I may be oversimplifying it a bit, as all historians do.

This marvelous reign was based on the whole idea of the humanism of the Far East, recognizing that although human beings are scalawags, they are no more so than cats and dogs and birds. So you must trust human nature, because if you can’t, you’re apt to starve.

Alan Watts (1915–1973) wrote numerous books, including The Way of Zen, The Wisdom of Insecurity, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, and Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life (New World Library), from which this essay is excerpted. An acclaimed writer and philosopher, he was also an Episcopalian minister, a professor, and a research fellow at Harvard University.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Join our once-monthly newsletter to get all the latest news & resources

No spam. Unsubscribe any time.