Tao, The Watercourse Way

January 7, 2014
Alan Watts

I'm not a Taoist. I don't think I'll ever be one, and I don't play one on TV. I have, however, read several translations of the Tao Te Ching (including one delightfully odd one), the Book of Chuang-Tzu and have long had a fascination for the subject. I'm an atheist with a naturalist, materialist world view, and remain convinced that the scientific method is the best way humanity has yet conceived to figure out how each part of the universe works. In that regard, I'm like many other modern Westerners.

Alan Watts wasn't like many other Westerners.

In Tao: The Watercourse Way, he isn't trying to sell Taoism or convert his readers to Taoism. Watts wasn't a Taoist himself. He wrote and lectured on Zen, Buddhism and Hinduism. He was a Christian priest for a while. What he primarily did was to explain Eastern thought to Western audiences - who didn't necessarily have the cultural background to easily understand these modes of thought - and this book is a fine example.

It's not exactly an introduction to Taoist thought; it seems to presuppose that the reader is familiar with the historical figures central to Taoism (at least Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu), and to have read the Tao Te Ching. It gives a good and well-written explanation of the cultural context of Taoism (for example, that the writings both Lao-Tzu and Chuang-Tzu should not necessarily be taken literally, since both men wrote in a tradition of heavy allegory and metaphor). It explains that the central tenet of Taoist conduct is to view one's self (and all humans) as part of the Universe (and the Tao), not as separate entities. That the Taoist way of inaction (wu-wei) is not merely apathy, but a principled choice of minimal intervention. That duality doesn't imply dualism, and that it's often impossible to conceive one half of a duality without its complementary half. That even if there's no central authority of the universe (eg. God), there doesn't need to be one for harmony to exist; in fact it's a central tenet of Taoism that trying to impose rule upon something will invariably lessen both the ruler and the ruled.

Perhaps the rather anarchistic nature of Taoism is why it, alone among the world religions, doesn't have a history drenched in blood: Since its foundations resist being institutionalized, Taoism never attained control of a state (and its associated tools of oppression), and thus never established a religious tyranny anywhere.

I vehemently disagree with Watts' postulation that pictographic writing systems (such as Chinese or Ancient Egyptian) are superior to alphabetic ones: They have a number of weaknesses he completely ignores: There is no direct correlation between pictograms and pronounciation, readers must learn thousands of pictograms to be considered literate, and pictographic writing systems are less flexible and extensible than alphabetic ones (try writing "craptacular", "b0rked" or "meep" with Chinese pictograms). The Koreans didn't switch from hanja (a pictographic system) to hangul (an alphabetic one) on a lark; they actually increased literacy considerably after doing so. There are benefits of well-designed pictographic systems (and Watts explains many of them), but they're not the linguistic panacea Watts makes them out to be.

Now that we're on the subject, I think there was only ever one "serious" pictographic programming language, namely APL (a language that can famously express very complicated problems as tiny code snippets - and conciseness is in fact one of the very benefits Watts mentions). APL code is virtually impossible to talk about out loud, but that's not necessarily too bad in a culture that mostly communicates in writing (…but needing a special keyboard is).

Some of the book might be construed as anti-scientific (and Watts certainly did criticize science, reductionism and the scientific method), but I think this reflects a misunderstanding on what science is. Science doesn't mean thinking the entirety of reality can be broken into neat categories or put into a single mathematical formula. Science isn't a human assault on nature. Scientists, in my experience, are more likely to be aware that their models predict and model nature, without being nature. I find that my own scientific education has increased my feeling of being part of a grand universe, as opposed to being a special, isolated creature somehow separated from it. This is what modern science says: I'm an ape, I'm related to cheetahs and bees and slime molds, and I'm built from the same fundamental material as trees, stones, airplanes and stars. I'm governed by the same physical laws as the rest of the universe. I'm related to, and connected to, all of it. For me, reflecting on scientific knowledge often feels more "spiritual", for lack of a better term, than reading religious literature or contemplating Zen koans.

I liked the book. I'd recommend it for people curious about Taoism (and who already know a few of the concepts), especially people who prefers lectures to sermons. It was Watts' last book before his death in 1973. It was incomplete when he passed away, and parts were finished by his friend and collaborator Al Chung-liang Huang. In some places, it seems somewhat unfinished. Watts makes some science fumbles (and takes a very one-sided view of the alphabetic vs. pictographic schism - which, incidentally, seems to me a quite un-Taoist thing to do), but it's an extremely well-written book about a fascinating philosophy. I read it in a single evening sitting before going to sleep.

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