Reading Alan Watts, Buddhism, and Emptiness

A friend of mine recently said he is reading Become What You Are by Alan Watts.  Mr. Watts died in 1973, and was a writer and activist for eastern religious thought in the United States through the ’50s and ’60s.  In an effort to have something interesting to talk about with my friend, I bought the book, and have been reading it.  I’m only a few chapters into it, and I already see the primary difference between Eastern Christianity and the other Eastern religions (as in: Taoism and Buddhism), and this primary difference makes me not really want to continue reading.


The first chapter in Become What You Are is entitled The Paradox of Self Denial.  In it, Mr. Watts starts with a Buddhist quote, “While living, be a dead man, thoroughly dead; Then whatever you do, just as you will, will be right.”  In more familiar western language, we are to lose ourselves completely, emptying ourselves, so that we will be in accord with the natural way of things.  Watts says, “Finding life through losing it is not a precept but a report of something which happens … in many different ways.”

“To the genuine dead-man-come-alive, … the notion that he attained this state by some effort or by some some special capacity of his own is always absurd or impossible.”  “[Just] when I discover that I cannot surrender myself that I am surrendered;  just when I find that I cannot accept myself that I am accepted.”

I can get behind these kinds of paradoxical emptiness statements.  Living dead men are naturally paradoxical.  The New Testament would have us die to this world, and be reborn from death to life in Christ.  I’m good with the idea of emptying myself and detaching from the things of this world.  That’s part of the path to Righteousness.

What Happens Next

The issue I have reading Alan Watts discussion of emptiness is well the feeling of emptiness I have having read it. Being an Orthodox Christian I have a notion of emptying myself and in this I share a kinship with the Buddhist teachings that Watts was describing. But it appears to me that in the Buddhist teachings, emptiness and nothingness is mostly the point.  The removal of self and ego seems to be a technique, almost psychological in its character, of removing suffering by internally reframing the experience into a neutral one, and being at peace with the created world. There seems to be kinship described with all living things once the removal of the ego is accomplished.

Christianity teaches a much different thing. Harmony is not the ideal of the Christian life. The Christian ideal is Communion of Love first with God and then with our fellow man. It is through this first step of dying to self, emptying ourselves, that we can get out of the way enough for God to come live and fill us from the inside out. The Good News (gospel) of Jesus Christ is that God is a personal God. We can know him as Father. We can see him by looking at Jesus. We can then liken ourselves to him through the emptying of our own sinful habits and self will, so that the Holy Spirit can fill us anew. Christianity provides this extra step beyond mere emptiness saying that God comes to fill us.

In the beginning was the Natural Way of Things, and the Natural Way of Things was with God, and the Natural Way of Things was God.  The Natural Way of Things was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through the Natural Way of Things, and without the Natural Way of Things not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in the Natural Way of Things was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . .

[but here’s the really scandalous part…]  And the Natural Way of Things became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son. . . . He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.  He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.