2000-09-24: Tao: The Watercourse Way

Tao: The Watercourse Way (1975)

by Alan Watts (1915-1973)

This book was finished after Watts died, and is a couple of chapters short of his original plan. It was finished by his friend Al Chung-Liang Huang.

I first read this several years ago, and liked it then. I had read some of Watts’ other works, and had been less than impressed. However, as I became more interested in Taoism I came across this book, and it seemed that Watts had a similar (if more extreme or less inhibited) reaction to mine. It seemed to me then, and still does, that Watts had been through all of the Eastern religions and finally had found their essence in (contemplative) Taoism. And of course Taoism is philosophical, and without religious trappings, so that is fit.

Of course, the problems of explaining Tao to a Western audience that isn’t already sympathetic still exist, and I doubt this book had as great impact on Westerners as Watts might have hoped.

Some of the bits I especially liked:

Huang’s Foreword describes Watts’ state of mind while he was writing the book, and his objectives. It helps explain what Huang tried to do, and why he couldn’t write the last chapters himself. I liked Huang just from this.

Watts describes pronunciation of Chinese words, and Romanized spelling of them, in a humorous way that seems quite acceptable.

In chapter 1, The Chinese Written Language, Watts makes a case for teaching the reading and writing of Chinese ideographs as a kind of universal language. While this is unlikely to happen, the idea is interesting, and it makes me want to learn it (though I probably won’t).

In chapter 5, Te – Virtuality, Watts describes the effects of understanding the Tao on a person’s attitudes and behavior. It is something like the completely natural living-with-the-world, not-striving-against-the-world. Watts says:

But for the Taoists there is more to te than our ordinary natural functioning, even though “ordinary mind [hsin] is the Tao”. Te is also the unusual and thus remarkable naturalness of the sage – his unself-conscious and uncontrived skill in handling social and practical affairs, which John Lilly calls “coincidence control”.

Watts deplores the Western need to express everything in a linear sequence of words, as step-by-step instructions, attempting to convert the intertwingled universe into a one-thing-at-a-time summary to match our limited conscious attention and the nature of language (my paraphrase). He goes on:

This is why there are no rules for te, and why there can be no textbook for instructing judges and lawyers in the senses of equity and fair play. One has to have the “feel” for it, in the same way that Chuang-tzu’s wheelwright had the feel for making wheels but could not put it into words. The same is true in music, painting and cookery, for Lao-tzu says:

The five colors blind one’s eyes;

The five tones deafen one’s ears;

The five tastes ruin one’s palate.

He is, of course, referring to the formal rules and classifications for these arts, as to say that if you think there are only five colors, you must be blind, and deaf if you think that all music has to be in the pentatonic scale. This is, alas, the reason why schools for these various arts produce so few geniuses, and why the genius – the person of te – is always going beyond the rules, not because of an obstreperous and antisocial spirit with hostile intent, but because the fountain of creative work is an intelligent questioning of the rules.

There is more to this book, but right now, this is what I liked best. There is also a lot of calligraphy of selected Taoist texts to inspire the effort to read it.

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