"Is It Serious?" by Alan Watts

The most profound metaphysical questions are expressed in the most common phrases of everyday life. Who do you think you are? Who started this? Are we going to make it? Where are we going to put it? Who's going to clean up? Where the hell d'you think you're going? Where do I come in? What's the time? Where am I? What's up? Which is which? Who's who? Do you mean it? Where do we get off? Are you there? But there seems to be one that must be asked right at the beginning. Is it serious?

The most remarkable superficial difference between Christianity and Hinduism is that the former replies "Yes" and the latter "No." The King of kings and the Lord of lords very definitely expects to be taken seriously. Thunders and lightnings proceed from his throne, and, quite aside from any of the very serious demands that are made for moral behavior between man and man, the Ruler of Heaven requires above all that he be worshiped, and his faithful congregation responds with the words of the psalm, "O come let us worship and fall down, and kneel before the Lord our maker!"

When I was a schoolboy, we were dragooned into attending the services at Canterbury Cathedral, the Mecca of the Anglican Church. As we knelt, bowed, or stood in the courtly and austere ceremonies of this ancient fane, we had to take the utmost care never to laugh or smile-an offense punishable with ruthless floggings, and very difficult to avoid because of the astonishing idiosyncrasies of the venerable clergy, with their propensities for bleating, whining, or bumbulating the prayers in sundry varieties of holy-sounding voices. There were rumbling Pooh-bahs, and wizened little ascetics preaching with fervent shrieks, and between stands in pulpit or lecturn they would process hither and yon, attired so as to look like rows of well-ordered penguins. . . . And yet neither the deadly seriousness of our postures nor the pathetic comedy of the clerics could quite conceal the atmosphere of luminous glory. High and echoing spaces of pale gray stone, enchanted with light that fell through the most intricate stained glass, predominantly blue; stone smelling faintly and pleasantly musty, like a wine cellar, and the whole building seeming to float above the congregation with the dignity and independence of a gull in the sky. Floating above the then grubby little city of Canterbury, so that its arches and spires belonged elsewhere, perhaps upon some high and inaccessible cliffs to the far West, overlooking the Atlantic, where angels still kept guard over the Holy Grail.

I revive these memories to suggest that the sense of divine royalty is not altogether demanding and imperious, and that therefore the worship of the King of kings, dwelling in inaccessible light, is not necessarily a cringing obedience or a stern duty. It may also have the sense of immense celebration, a strong-swinging, statelily lilting dance of total Joy. The Gloria in excelsis sung at Easter, with the bells ringing wild. The golden splendor of the Greek or Russian liturgy, where people do not kneel, but stand or wander freely in a domed temple that is deliberately made to suggest the glory of heaven. More and more one gets the impression that the object of this worship is no pompous prince, but something like living light, which is all at once as sympathetic as the fire on your hearth and as blasting as the explosion of a star. And as full of delight as a diamond in the sun. As the Catholic poet Coventry Patmore put it: "If we may credit certain hints contained in the lives of the saints, love raises the spirit above the sphere of reverence and worship into one of laughter and dalliance: a sphere in which the soul says:

Shall I, a gnat which dances in Thy ray, Dare to be reverent?"

Yet it must be admitted that in the Christian climate of the English-speaking world, such penetrations of the facade are rare. The insides of most Protestant churches resemble courthouses or town halls, and the focal point of their services is a serious exhortation from a man in a black gown. No golden light, no bells, incense, and candles. No mystery upon an altar or behind an iconostasis. But people brought up in this atmosphere seem to love it. It feels warm and folksy, and leads, on the one hand, to hospitals, prison reform, and votes for all, and, on the other, to sheer genius for drabness, plain cooking ungraced with wine, and constipation of the bright emotions- all of which are considered virtues. If I try to set aside the innate prejudices which I feel against this religion, I begin to marvel at the depth of its commitment to earnestness and ugliness. For there is a point at which certain types of ugliness become fascinating, where one feels drawn to going over them again and again, much as the tongue keeps fondling a hole in a tooth. I begin to realize that those incredibly plain people, with their almost unique lack of color, may after all be one of the most astonishing reaches of the divine maya-the Dancer of the world as far out from himself as he can get, dancing not-dancing.

For them, as for many other Christians and Jews of all shades of belief, the Lord is an archetypal grandfather, who, because it is necessary to conceive him in the human image, has a fault which, in a human being, is insufferable: he has never done anything wrong, or, if he has, he absolutely refuses to admit it. The same is true of the usual conception of Jesus, The minister's son who won't go behind the fence with the other boys for a peeing contest. So they throw him in the pond, but instead of fighting back he takes on a nobly injured attitude to make them feel guilty. But then, the most tough and ancient theological problem is the "mystery of iniquity" -not how the universe came into being, but how the snake got into the garden, how evil arose in a creation ruled omnipotently by one who is so perfectly good. The big question is whether there is actually a twinkle in the Father's eye; whether, before the creation began and there was no one around as a witness, there was not a special arrangement between the Lord and the Devil, a conspiracy such that the whole drama of the cosmos depends upon its being kept (almost) secret. For. if the Lord is absolutely serious, things are very bad. Not only does he confront his creatures with severe moral demands; he also fits them out with lusty, hungry, and highly sensitive bodies liable to cancer, bubonic plague, arthritis, decayed teeth, and stomach ulcers; he flings them into a world containing mosquitoes, sharks, tapeworms, piranha fish, staphylococci, and other people; he puts them into a situation in which it has, on the whole, required considerable effort not to get involved in tortures and burnings, whether judicial or accidental, in wars, murders, and robberies, and in the weird emotional tangles that come from having a brain which finds it a necessary advantage to predict a (mostly) dreaded future. On top of this, he is alleged to threaten those who disobey his commandments with the most exquisitely painful tortures ever devised, to endure for always and always without rest.

Of course there are temporary compensations, but the contemplation of this frightful panorama of possibilities and certainties is what is called "facing reality." It is at once very irreverent and yet absolutely necessary to call this facade in question. Is God quite serious? To put it in another way: is this a universe in which there is the possibility of a total and irremediable disaster, of everlasting damnation or some equivalent thereof? Or is it a universe in which to be or not to be is not the question, since the one endlessly implies the other?

In the imagery of Hinduism the hard reality of the world confronting us is, as we have seen, lila (play) and maya (magical illusion). Shiva dances the universe, surrounded with flames and flashing terrors, but one of his many hands is held upright with palm open to the spectator. The meaning is "Fear not." This performance is a big act. The solidity of the rocks is an electrical mirage. The body is a whirlpool, constant only in appearance, but actually a stream of changes. And pain, the very touchstone of reality, since we pinch ourselves to be sure that we are not dreaming, is a hypnotic state which can be switched on or off at will.

There is obviously no objective test that can be applied here. I can find out whether the world is serious or not only by personal experiment, that is, if the answer can be found at all. I may take the Lord God at his word, stop asking impertinent questions, and prostrate myself at the foot of the Throne. Or I may gently call his bluff and wait-- poker-faced, trembling, or eagerly confident. It may well be that the Lord will play with me to the final microsecond of the last moment-perhaps with a long and terrible silence, perhaps with all the plagues and pains of the flesh, perhaps with visitations from subtly convincing prophets and preachers, and doubtless, at the Very end, with the kindly priest and his Last Rites. On the surface, it will seem that I am just resisting divine authority, that I am refusing to let Love into my heart, that I am proudly repressing that inner voice of the terrified conscience, urging me to melt and run weeping and screaming to Heaven in sorrow for my sins. But if there is a man of such spiritual courage as to call the Lord's bluff, what he is actually refusing to believe, what he will not take seriously, is not the Lord but his maya. He will not admit that agony and tragedy, that death and hell, fear and nothingness, are ultimate realities. Above all, he is not admitting the final reality of separateness, of the seeming distinction between man and cosmos, creature and Creator.

To the orthodox this courage will seem blasphemous, and to the skeptical and secular-minded it will seem to be wishful, since such persons have a view of reality that is grimmer by far than even Jonathan Edwards' conception of the Angry God. For the secularist imagines the universe beyond and outside man to be essentially dead, mechanical, and stupid. With him it is high dogma that nature cares nothing for human values, but is a system of confusion which produced us by mere chance, and therefore must be beaten down and made to submit to man's will. Now, there is something in this view of the universe which is akin to states of consciousness found in psychosis. The vision of the world as a Malicious System which eggs you on with hopes, just to keep you alive, and then grinds you horribly to bits. In this state there is no luminosity in things. Faces, flowers, waters, and hills all look as though they were made of plastic or enameled tin-the whole scene a tick-tock toy shop, a nightmare of metal and patent leather, garish under reflected light alone. Other people aren't really alive; they're mocked-up mannequins, automatic responders pretending to be alive. Even oneself is a self-frustrating mechanism in which every gain in awareness is balanced by new knowledge of one's ridiculous and humiliating limitations.

Those who, outside mental hospitals, like to see things this way persuade themselves and others that this attitude is somehow not only realistic but heroic. In philosophical arguments they can always one-up the religious or metaphysically inclined by a show of being down-to-earth and hard-boiled. Perhaps it is just a matter of temperament that some people simply cannot take that view of things; for me it has always seemed peculiarly odd that there is anything at all. It would have been so much easier and so much less effort for there not to have been any universe, that I find it impossible to think that the game is not worth the candle. A cosmos that was not basically an expression of joy and bliss would surely have found some way of committing suicide almost at the beginning, for there is not the least point in surviving compulsively.

One should not be ashamed of wishful thinking, for this is just what all inventive and creative people do. They are dreamers, and they find ways of realizing their dreams because they wish and dream effectively. That is to say, their wishful thinking is not vague; their desires are imagined so precisely and specifically that they can very often be carried out. The trouble with many religions, accused of wishful thinking, is that they are not wishful enough. They show a deplorable lack of imagination and of adventure in trying to find out what it is that one really wants. I cannot conceive any better way of trying to understand myself, or human nature in general, than a thorough exploration of my desires, making them as specific as possible, and then asking myself whether that is actually what I want.

What, then, if I were to construct a religion as a pure work of art, creating a picture of the universe as wishful as it could possibly be? On the one hand, such a construction would be the purest play and fantasy, wholly lacking in seriousness. But on the other hand, fantasies are sometimes unexpectedly productive. The strictly playful and speculative constructions of mathematicians often turn out to be useful formulae for understanding the physical world. For the pure mathematician is much more of an artist than a scientist. He does not simply measure the world. He invents complex and playful patterns without the least regard for their practical applicability. He might almost be on a permanent vacation-as if he were sitting on the terrace of a seaside hotel, doing crossword puzzles and playing chess or poker with his cronies. But he works in a. university, which makes it respectable, and his games and puzzles are marvels of intricacy. When Riemann had invented equations, not merely for 4-dimensional spaces, but for 5, 6, 7, and n-dimensional spaces, it was found that these equations could be applied to problems in price fluctuation!

The historian, too, is basically an artist, selecting from the infinitude of past events those that will fit into some significant and intelligible pattern, for his art is to make sense of human doings. Likewise the Copernican theory of the solar system is preferable to the Ptolemaic mainly because it is simpler. The planets do not have to backtrack in their courses, but proceed smoothly upon their orbits. The picture is cleaner and tidier, and thus more satisfactory from an esthetic point of view.

Why not ask, therefore, what might be the most aesthetically satisfying explanation for one's own existence in our particular universe? It must be an explanation that will completely satisfy me for the most appalling agonies that can be suffered in this world. Upon what terms would I be actually willing to endure them?

We will often suffer willingly to help those we love, and it is along these lines that Christian theology has generally tried to justify suffering. Pain is transformed by offering it to God as an act of adoration. There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for a friend, and this is finally what God himself is always doing. This is the sacrifice of God the Son, offered because "God so loved the world." To Christians, the meaning of suffering is therefore thatitevokes love and gives reality to love. The love which God bears toward the world is real because, in some way, it is costing-even to God. As the hymn says:

There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin;
He only could unlock the gates
Of heaven, and let us in.

Yet though I may be willing to suffer for those I love, I am not willing that they should suffer. Indeed, I will my suffering for them just because I do not will theirs. A universe in which my friends have to suffer is thoroughly objectionable if their only compensation is that it evokes my love for them, or even if it evokes God's love. From our standpoint of wishful thinking, a universe in which suffering happens by mistake is just badly made, and a universe in which suffering comes upon us through the malice of someone else is a diabolical trap. Ideally, I would want to be solely responsible for my own suffering, including my own painful feelings about the suffering of others. I would wish the same privilege for everyone else. But obviously this must mean something much more than responsibility in its ordinary sense, for it has to include the case of the baby born with syphilis.

Popular Hinduism and Buddhism explain such tragedies as the individual's karma, his own doing, inherited from a former life. The syphilitic baby is therefore paying a price for some evil that he has done in a previous incarnation. But this is not so much an explanation as an indefinite postponement of explanation. Why and how does the reincarnating individual first go wrong? Responsibility for one's own suffering cannot be attributed to the individual as we know and see him superficially, for, at this level, the individual-whether adult or infant-seems far more the victim than the agent of his agony.

We must therefore imagine a new kind of individuality in which there are two spheres with a common center. The outer sphere is the finite consciousness, the ego, the superficial individual, which believes itself to be the willing agent and knower, or the passive sufferer, of deeds and experience. But the inner sphere is the real self, unknown to the conscious ego. For the latter is the temporary disguise or dream of the former, and the real Self would not only be unafraid of entering into dreams of intense suffering; it would all the time be experiencing the process as delight and bliss, as an eternal game of hide-and-seek.

This fantasy religion would then require the final condition that at some time the two spheres would merge, that my inmost Self would awaken from its dream to transform my superficial ego with a shock of recognition. Perhaps this is why we sometimes have a strangely pleasant sensation of having forgotten something extremely important from long, long ago. Occasionally, this shadow of a memory comes with hints of a forgotten paradise, some luminous landscape of hills and waters which is utterly familiar and yet completely unidentifiable. Every now and then the "real" world reminds us of it, and we think, "This is what I have always been looking for. This place feels like home." At other times, the memory has a much deeper dimension-a sensation of being immeasurably ancient and knowing, as somehow prior to time and space. But there is nothing at all specific about it, for though the sensation is vivid, it is tantalizingly ephemeral. These are, then, intimations of something to be remembered which is, as it were, a vast dimension of one's being which has been kept hidden-perhaps from the moment of birth. For consciousness, or conscious attention, is the trick of noticing the figure and ignoring the background, and in the same way I seem to notice my ego and forget my background, the larger Self which underlies my ego.

Let us suppose, then, that my overt life as an individual is being imagined by a hidden Self that is actually much more the central me than my ego, and that at some unspecified time (if only the moment of death) I shall wake up and recollect the infinite joy which is expressing itself in this endless game of dancing in and out of the light. Merely to define the state of the inmost Self as "infinite joy" is to dodge the real task of inventing an ideal religion. If my fantasy is to approach being a work of art, I must try to define quite clearly what I want in this transcendental joy.

Thus it should be noted, in passing, that Christian imagery is very vague about the glories of heaven and amazingly specific about the agonies of hell. Pictures of people in heaven are invariably demure and dull, whereas hell is a writhing orgy (4). Hints of heaven come in the stained glass of Sainte-Chapelle and the illuminated manuscripts of Lindisfarne, in the glowing rites of the Eastern Liturgy, and in the chanting of the Solesmes Benedictines. But these are no more than strains, heard through a door held briefly ajar. I It is time to venture more boldly into the dynamics of delight to discover what we really want from heaven.

(I am reminded of the story of a dinner-table conversation in an English country house, where the guests were discussing their ideas of what would happen to them after death. Among those present was an elderly and somewhat stuffy gentleman, who happened to be a prominent layman in the Church. He had been silent throughout the conversation, and at last the hostess turned to him and said, "Well, Sir Roderick, what do you think will happen to you after death?" "I am perfectly certain," he replied, "that I shall go to heaven and enjoy everlasting bliss, but I wish you wouldn't discuss such a depressing subject.")

Our fantasy religion will take it for granted that the inmost Self is eternal and indestructible, simply because it is what there is and all that there is. The totality of space will be the field of its consciousness, and this will fit in very well with current astronomical ideas of space as a four-dimensional continuum curving in upon itself but having no outside. Perhaps the l exploration of space is really the exploration and ex- ' tension of our own consciousness, a rediscovery of the ignored background of each individual ego. But what, specifically, will the preoccupations of this consciousness be?

If work is what must be done in order to go on living, the proper activity of That-which-Is will obviously be play. Reality is what exists without effort, Blake's energy which is eternal delight. I have suggested that hide-and-seek, or lost-and-found, is the fundamental form of play because, at root, being is vibration. It is a state of yes/no, solid/space, here/ there, positive/negative, come/go, inside/outside, symbolized in the fundamental up/down motion of the wave. Rhythm lies at the heart of play, and thus various rhythmic actions are the primordial forms of delight-birdsong, the chirping of crickets, the beating of hearts, the pulsation of laughter, the ecstatic loss of self in drumming and dancing, the sonorous vibrations of voices and strings and bells. Absorption in rhythm can go on and on until energy fails, for when we survey the various cultures of mankind it appears there is nothing men would rather do than be lost all night in rhythm. This is why the Christian angels sing "Alleluia, alleluial" forever before the Vision of God, and why their Buddhist counterparts are alleged to chant

Tutte, tutte, Vutte, vutte, Patte, patte, Katte, katte! (5)

I am quite sure, therefore, that an essential component of my heaven and preoccupation of the inmost Self would be absorption in rhythm; and as I look at light and water and listen to the pulses in my own body, I can hardly doubt that this is the truth. There is supreme delight in flowing with an unobstructed rhythm. But it is from the obstruction of rhythmic activity that we get our sensations of matter, substance, weight, and rigidity; activity becomes unpleasant when overwhelmed by these sensations. 'Death seems to be the dissolution of activity into mere matter. Nevertheless, without some degree of obstruction, rhythm does not happen at all. There is no beat without the skin of the drum. Rhythm is blissful so long as the obstruction is subordinate to the action, so long as matter is repeatedly overcome by energy. To realize rhythm, the infinite consciousness will therefore have to obstruct itself in some degree, Just as space must contain solids in order to be recognized as space.

A further obstacle to the delight of rhythm is monotony, which play avoids by variety and complexity. But there must be some monotony or regularity for there to be any rhythm or pattern at all. Otherwise we should have only a succession of random intervals. The main problem in the art of rhythm is not to abolish monotony, but always to be in the process of overcoming it anew. Thus there is variety not only in the beat of rhythms but in the medium-drum, string, tube, bell, and then on to rhythm in bodily motion, in form and visual pattern, in transformations of color, in songs and poetry, and in the complexities of pure ideas. And beyond this, the dramas and-plots of human history, the fortunes of war, the strata-.gems of love, the gambling financiers, and the endless pursuit of the illusion of political power-all these are variations and complications of delight in rhythm. Once more, delight consists in the total absorption of the mind in these patterns. The delight requires that there must always be some resistance to the play of patterned energy, and this may be monotony, the sluggishness which turns energy into effort, or just too great a degree of complexity, so that the pattern falls into chaos.

To maintain the state of bliss, the infinite consciousness must have the most ingenious ways of both having monotony and overcoming it, of so combining order with randomness that the principle of order does not issue in dead uniformity, nor the principle of randomness in chaos. The play of rhythm must be controlled, and yet not so controlled as to be completely predictable. It must be marvelously complicated, but without the tedium of having to keep track of all the ins and outs. In short, omnipotence must at all costs avoid the stultifying situation of being in total control of itself, and the equally fruitless situation of losing control altogether.

The solution is similar to the trick whereby an organism relegates certain functions to "the unconscious," so that they continue without having to be directed consciously, as for example the deliberate selection of words in speaking, or the use of the breath in swimming. This has a double advantage. On the one hand, it allows the complexity of patterns to develop without becoming burdensome to the original center of control. On the other, it introduces an element of surprise, for the inmost Self is thus enabled to let some of the patterns of its behavior go off on their own and to forget that it has done so. In some such way, the delight of our hypothetical Godhead would be maintained by introducing the experience of otherness. For these relegated, or delegated, rhythms would issue forth in the guise of other beings to the amazement of their progenitor.

Yet these "others" still remain the behavior of the inmost Self. In them, the Self therefore forgets itself. On the one hand, this is an adventure, a temporary surrender of control which prevents the over-all system of control from becoming rigid and dead. On the other hand, this forgetting is a refreshment, like sleep, since it creates standpoints from which everything can be seen anew. With every baby bom, the inmost Self would look forth upon its world and be as astonished as if it had never before beheld it! In this way the unthinkably ancient universe would be renewed forever and ever, and the dance never pall.

But the sensation of otherness must not become excessive. When it becomes so, when the feeling that things are out of control reaches a certain point, surprise becomes frustration or fear and panic. At such crises, my inmost Self would have to have the power of recollecting that the whole play is its own, that otherness is maya. And then, in still another way, it would wake up in astonishment, but this time at its own cosmic and eternal dimensions. Yet sometimes, like a boy on a dare, it might let things go very far out of control, even to the extent of letting itself forget that it had the power to awaken. When we are asleep, or dreaming, we do not know that we can wake up. But we could not happily commit ourselves to sleep in the first place unless we knew that we could. It is in the same spirit that a sailor, confident in his skill and in his ship, commits himself to the storms. For playing is also gambling-inventing the sense of risk, and seeing how far out one can get.

This is more or less what I would do if I had the power to dream every night of anything I wanted. For some months, I would probably fulfill all the more obvious wishes. There might be palaces and banquets, players and dancing girls, fabulous bouts of love, and sunlit gardens beside lakes, with mountains beyond. There would next be long conversations with sages, contemplation of supreme works of art, hearing and playing music, voyages to foreign lands, flying out into space to see the galaxies, and delving into the atom to watch the wiggling wavicles. But the night would come when I might want to add a little spice of adventure-perhaps a dream of dangerous mountain-climbing, of rescuing a princess from a dragon, or, better, an unpredictable dream in which I do not know what will happen. Once this had started, I might get still more daring. I would wish to dream whole lifetimes, packing seventy years into a single night. I would dream that I am not dreaming at all, that I will never wake up, that I have completely lost myself somewhere down the tangled corridors of the mind, and, finally, that I am in such excruciating agony that when I wake up, it will be better than all possible dreams.

By now it will be obvious that my hidden Self could very well be imagining just this particular situation and personality in which I now find myself. The same would be true for every other individual, for in our hypothesis the inmost Self of each person is central to all persons. All otherness, all duality, all multiplicity is part of the play. Thus the lesson of this fantasy is that by a consistent thinking through of my fondest dreams for an explanation of this universe, and through an attempt to imagine as clearly as I can the nature of eternal bliss, I come right back to willing the place where I ami There is simply the proviso that all resentment for past and present suffering can be wiped out and turned into joy by waking up and finding that I, as the inmost Self, had deliberately dreamed it, and that it was an integral part of the delight which that Self enjoys through all eternity.

But, so long as I am just wishing and spinning a fantasy, I must consider this crucial question: do I want it arranged so that when I awaken to my true Self, the old ego is simply to evaporate? If I could awaken at some point before my death, the two identities would naturally run together. On the surface, I would remember my name, address, and telephone number, and recollect quite clearly that for "all practical purposes," that is, for carrying on a particular social game, I am still a limited individuality called Alan Watts. But concentric with this outward persona, this mask, I would be vividly aware that my basic identity-apprehended rather than comprehended-was the eternal Self of all selves.

And after death? Am I quite sure that I could be reconciled to the ultimate disappearance of this precious Alan Watts game in which I have invested so much time and energy? This is always a hard question for a young person, for he is not at that point in the rhythm of mortal time where he is ready to give up. He is set to continue as a matter of biological necessity, for the action of living requires "follow through" like the blow of the hand upon a drum: it aims beyond the skin. Willingness to vanish is incompatible with that spirit of "follow through," except in an individual who has vividly realized the eternal identity beneath the temporal. Furthermore, even an old man whose mind remains alert is always possessed by curiosity to know what will happen in the future, what new discoveries and creations the genius of man will bring forth, what course history will take, and what we shall find out about the inner secrets of the world.

Yet it seems to me that after several hundred years of this sort of thing, I might have altogether too much of that haven't-we-been-here-before feeling. Surely, those who insist on the supreme value of individual personality continuing forever have not fully thought through their desire. Such a wish is comparable to the increasing confusion of Manhattan-a city trying to grow by making its individual buildings higher and higher. But this reaches a point of diminishing returns, for, after a certain height, the gain in living space ceases, because more and more of the lower floor areas have to be taken up by elevators. In other words, the indefinite prolongation of the individual is bad design-architecturally, biologically, and psychologically. The entity that is supposed to be prolonged is not the individual but some greater organism in which he belongs, as our cells belong in our bodies. The tragedy of mortality lies in not being aware of this belonging, and, above all, in not having found one's true identity in the inmost Self. And if that is found, then the disappearance of the ego-mask beyond death is not, as it is sometimes called, absorption of the soul into the Godhead. Nothing is absorbed; there is simply clear recollection of That which one always is.

It is also obvious that the wish-fulfilling religion that I have invented is substantially identical with the central theme of Hindu mythology-the theme of Brahman, the supreme Self, manifesting itself cyclically as all these worlds. Furthermore, in the Hindu myth the stages through which the maya is developed correspond to the sort of progression that would be followed by the person who could dream whatever he wished. The cycle of time during which the worlds are manifested is, as we saw, the kalpa, lasting 4,320,000 years. The kalpa is divided into four yugas, named after the throws in the Indian game of dice: krita (the perfect throw of 4), treta (the throw of 3), dvapara (the throw of 2), and kali (the worst throw, of 1). The first epoch is thus the krita yuga, lasting 1,728,000 years, during which the mayo-dream is a paradise of shadowless glory. The second epoch is the treta yuga, lasting 1,296,000 years, when, although the paradise remains, there emerge certain uncontrolled factors, surprises that are thus far pleasant, but contain the apprehension of something unwanted. The third epoch is the dvapara yuga, lasting 864,000 years, during which the negative principle of disorder attains equality with the principle of order. And in the fourth epoch, kali yuga, lasting 432,000 years, the principle of disorder is triumphant. At the end of this epoch the forces of destruction grow and grow in fury, until, at the very end, the universes are dissolved in fire. Whereupon the Brahman awakens from the maya-diesim, and remains in luminous peace through another 4,320,000 years before beginning the cycle again.

Note, however, that the principle of disorder can claim only 1,296,000 years of the whole kalpa: a third of the treta yuga, a half of the dvapara yuga, and the whole of the kali yuga, amounting in all to one third of the kalpa. This is a chronological symbolism for the principle that the continuance of the game depends upon the subordination of disorder to order, so that the former may always be in the situation of being overcome by the latter, despite the dramatic moment in which it appears to have the victory, at the end of the kali yuga. (According to Heinrich Zimmer (6) the kali yuga began on Friday, February 18, 3102 B.C., which means that there are 426,935 more years of it to come! But be consoled-for as the yugas draw to their close, time passes faster and faster.)

The vivid experiences of the mystics may be our only means of testing the truth of religious and metaphysical hypotheses, but that is not an exploration to be carried out in a book. There is, perhaps, a significant bias in mystical writings toward the general view of the universe that I have suggested, and this would include such Christian mystics as John Scotus Erigena, St. Simeon Neotheologos, Eckhart, Nicolas Cusanus, Boehme, and perhaps even Teilhard de Chardin. But it is not the purpose of this essay to indulge in a metaphysical argument. I have nothing so earnest in mind as to insist that my point of view is the truth. The truth will out by its own self-evidence. My purpose is only to develop certain mythological constructions, such as the one I have just described, and then see what happens at the end. If, at that point, there is the conviction of some new insight into the universe and man, so much the better. Specifically, we are going to see what happens to a traditional and orthodox version of Christianity, to Catholicism,3 if it is seen within the context of the scheme-of-things that I have been describing.

Whatever may be the rule in practice, is Christianity theoretically and dogmatically opposed to the idea that the creative activity of God is playful? Fortunately we can call at once to our aid the massive authority of St. Thomas Aquinas, writing about the Wisdom of God:

The contemplation of wisdom is rightly compared with games for two things to be found in games. The first is that games give pleasure and the contemplation of wisdom gives the very greatest pleasure, according to what Wisdom says of itself in Ecclesiasticus, "My spirit is sweet above honey." The second is that the movements in games are not contrived to serve another end, but are pursued for their own sake. It is the same with the delights of wisdom. . . . Hence divine Wisdom compares its delight to games, "I was with him forming all things and was delighted every day, playing before him at all times: playing in the world." (7)

The personified Wisdom of God who speaks in the books of Ecclesiasticus and Proverbs (whence St. Thomas' second quotation) is understood by the Church to be God the Son, the divine Logos "by whom all things were made."

Now, it is notorious that popular ideas of God's character are of a far lower moral standard than that by which we discern saintliness in men. The saint forgives "until seventy times seven" if anyone sins against him, but by many accounts the Lord does not forgive at all unless the offender grovels before him in an act of sincere contrition. The saint is above all urged not to take himself seriously, and, indeed, there is about all really holy people a kind of guileless humor, a sense of one's own absurdity which is not so much self-condemnation as pulling one's own leg. "The soul which is inwardly united to God," wrote St. Mark Podvizhnik, "becomes, in the greatness of its joy, like a good-natured simple-hearted child, and now condemns no one, Greek, heathen, Jew, nor sinner, but looks at them all alike with sight that has been cleansed, [and] finds joy in the whole world." (8) If, as Chesterton suggested, even the angels fly because they take themselves lightly, how much more must the Lord of the angels, the fountain of all virtues, be endowed, with this particular virtue?

The ascription of a playful spirit to God may be disconcerting to the devout because of the double meaning contained in the ideas of playing and not being serious. For on the one hand, this is a spirit of gaiety and exuberance, light-heartedness and Joy. But on the other, the sense that something is only in play implies a certain shallowness, pretense, and even deceit. Similarly, not being serious may mean not being solemn, grave, pompous, or grim, but may also mean insincerity. Still another complication: deception is sometimes beneficent. The Sanskrit word upaya means cunning or deceit when used in a political context. But in the context of Hindu or Buddhist discipline it designates the "sidllful means" which a teacher employs to help his students outwit their own egocentricity. In the same way, the biographies of the Christian saints abound in stories of overcoming the Devil by what St. Francis Xavier called "holy cunning." For in this case the Devil is one's own guile, one's own infinite capacity for looking at oneself looking at oneself looking at oneself, as when one is proud of being humble, proud of recognizing that one is proud of it, and proud of being subtle enough to see that the whole thing is an infinite regression.

Self-conscious tangles of this kind are, in all probability, mechanical defects in the nervous system, similar to the oscillations which occur in an electronic system when it tries to record itself in the act of recording. Thus when a television camera photographs its own receiver, the picture becomes a succession of "stuttering" waves, and the psychological or neurological equivalent would be the trembling, jittery state of anxiety, which is fearing fear or worrying about worry. This is the besetting problem of any reflexive or feed-back system-above all, of man's consciousness of himself-and the heart of the problem is that the process of self-consciousness cannot disentangle itself by itself. It has to be "tricked" out of its predicament. Private anxieties are instantly forgotten when a tornado strikes the neighborhood, but you cannot deliberately arrange a tornado, or its equivalent, to jolt yourself out of worries or pettmesses whenever they occur. You cannot surprise yourself on purpose, say, to get rid of hiccups. Someone or something beyond conscious control must overthrow the Devil at the right moment, for, being an archangel, he can read thoughts and is always aware of the intention that precedes the act. He can be defeated only by an act without prior intent. "Let not your left hand know what your right hand doeth."

Now in Christian terminology this "someone or something beyond conscious control" is called the grace of God, and grace is held to be the only means of overcoming the machinations of the Devil, that is, of the vicious circles into which self-consciousness can lead us. God as the giver of grace has therefore the same function as the guru, or spiritual guide, in Hinduism, and thus "the means of grace" would be the correct equivalent of upaya. But it does not seem to have occurred to most Christians that the means of grace might include trickery-that in his cure of souls the Lord might use placebos, jokes, shocks, deceptions, and all kinds of indirect and surprising methods of outwitting men's wonderfully defended egocentricity. (I am speaking now in purely Christian terms, on a level where we know nothing as yet of tat tvam asi.) [ Tat tvam asi is a Sanskrit term that is at the heart of Hinduism: "thou art that" or "thou art god".]

But, alas, the Lord is supposed to be totally devoid of wit or humor. His official utterances, the holy scriptures, are understood as if they were strictly Solemn Pronouncements-not, perhaps, to be taken quite literally, but certainly as bereft of any lightness of touch, innuendo, irony, exaggeration, self-caricature, leg-pulling, drollery, or merriment. Yet what if this show of solemnity is actually a sort of dead-pan expression? If the Lord is said to veil his glory, lest it be too bright for mortal eyes, might he not also veil his mirth-perhaps as something much, much too funny for men to stand?

"Al Padre, al Figlio, allo Spirito Santo"
comincio "Gloria" iutto il Paradiso,
si che m'inebbriava il doice canto. Gio ch' io vedeva mi sembiava un riso
dell' universe; per che mia ebbrezza,
entrava per I'udire e per lo visa.

(Translation: "To Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," all Paradise began its song, "be glory!"-so that I was drunken with its sweetness. And what I saw before my eyes seemed a laughter of the universe; whereby my drunkenness found entrance through both sound and sight. Paradiso, xxvii, 1-6.)

If, then, as Dante suggests, the angels' hymn of praise to the Holy Trinity sounds like the laughter of the universe, what is the Joke?


3 It is only fair to reveal my own prejudices, whereby the term "Catholicism" includes the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and the Anglican Churches, because these are the principal Churches that center their worship around the altar as distinct from the pulpit. That is to say, they are still essentially "mystery religions," and not just societies for listening to lectures and promoting good works.

all of this is from Chapter two of:



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