Letter to Jim Corsa (1947) from Alan Watts about interfaith

Letter to Jim Corsa (1947)

An excerpt from The Collected Letters of Alan Watts, edited by Joan Watts & Anne Watts

Dear Jim Corsa,

It was good to hear from you again, and especially to get a letter so full of news and ideas. I’m glad you have seen old Tai Hsu; I never met him myself, but a close friend who saw him when he came to London said he was one of the world’s spiritual giants.

Yes, I have read Hu Shih’s article, and your letter prompted me to read it again to refresh my memory. I think he has something; it is certainly true that Hui-neng’s writings disparage yoga meditation, and there is no reference to za-zen with koans in the greater part of early Zen literature — even the great Rinzai makes little of it. Although koan meditation certainly existed in China, I have an idea that the real father of the modern koan technique was Hakuin. I can’t say for certain.

Koan meditation came into being as the monasteries began to be filled with people who had no vocation to be monks, boys who were just sent there by their parents as 18th-century families in England automatically sent the third son into the priesthood. Christian methods of meditation (Ignatian, Sulpician, Salesian, etc.) came into being for much the same reason: people with no real interest in religion had to be given some sort of a mill to go through to keep them busy.

In other words, all great religions, although their inner essence is esoteric and inevitably the province of the few, have to make some provision for the world at large. This involves a hardening and conventionalizing process which renders all popular religion (whether Christianity or Buddhism) superficial — an imperfection which is simply inevitable, but which we must no more resent or deplore than the fact that children of six cannot be taught the calculus. When certain persons insist that this exoteric religion is the whole truth, and that there is no other way of salvation, we have fanaticism, which is also almost inevitable.

Little real harm is done by this process, so long as a nucleus of persons maintains the interior religion, which is substantially the same in all places and periods. I see no particular point in changing the external religion of the West from the Christian form to the Buddhist form. Indeed, I think it would do a great deal of harm. My concern is that the inner religion should flourish within official Christianity so that the Church will be able to instruct and guide the increasing, but still relatively small, number of persons who are ready to profit by it. Furthermore, where such a nucleus does not exist, there is a general decline of the entire religious and social order. But the constructive influence of such a nucleus is out of all proportion to its numbers. I do not think that interior religion should be given a name or form so as to be externally recognizable, for it will thus be rushed into the position of a sect and involved in argumentation, propaganda, and controversy, the terms and methods of which are radically inapplicable to mystical knowledge.

Thus it will not follow at all that a Christian who wakes up to mystical knowledge in its supreme degree will forsake Christianity for any other external religion, for there is no real inconsistency between the Christian dogmatic system and mystical knowledge, since the two are as incommensurable as shape and color. Moreover, it is supremely easy to understand dogma in a mystical sense without departing from formal orthodoxy. You just have to equate such terms as “supernatural” with “nondual” (which is its strictly accurate meaning) and “heavenly” with “interior,” and the whole picture changes almost miraculously.

Oh, do be careful of Sinhalese bikkhus! I edited Buddhism in England for some years and had plenty of dealings with these gentlemen. They are dreadfully bigoted and narrow on the whole, for Sinhalese Buddhism is markedly sterile. And I certainly wouldn’t involve myself in any close economic relationships with them, unless you are feeling highly adventurous.

I think you would be greatly interested to read Guénon’s Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines. You can get it at Orientalia — also his Crisis of the Modern World. They are thought-provoking books if wordy and discursive at times, and a few gems may be extricated.

With all good wishes,

~ Alan Watts, Canterbury House – Evanston, Illinois

Alan Watts (January 6, 1915 – November 16, 1973) was a British-born American philosopher, writer, speaker, and counterculture hero, best known as an interpreter of Asian philosophies for a Western audience. He wrote over 25 books and numerous articles applying the teachings of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy to our everyday lives.

Excerpted from the book The Collected Letters of Alan Watts. Copyright ©2017 by Joan Watts and Anne Watts. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.

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