Alan Watts on myth, culture and paradise regained

Originally published in 1963, The Two Hands of God: The Myths of Polarity is Alan Watts’s forgotten book on world mythology – myths of light and darkness, good and evil, and the mystical unity that sees the transcendent whole behind apparent opposites. Alan Watts is one of the world’s most popular interpreters of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Fans of the mythologist Joseph Campbell will immediately notice his influence throughout this book. Campbell and Watts were in fact friends during its writing, and Campbell shared notes and feedback on several chapters. One might even say that The Two Hands of God is Alan Watts’s own introduction to the mythology of the world’s religions, using the non-dual lens he was so well-known for in his Zen teachings and study.

When the critical intellect looks at anything carefully, it vanishes. This is as true of the solid substance of bodies as of historical generalizations, of entities such as nations, of epochs such as the Middle Ages, and of subject matters such as myth. The reason is, of course, that “things” exist only relatively – for a point of view or for convenience of description. Thus when we inspect any unit more closely we find that its structure is more complex and more differentiated than we had supposed. Its variety comes to impress us more than its unity. This is why there is something of the spirit of debunking in all scholarship and scientific inquiry. As a historian of science once put it, “Isn’t it amazing how many things there are that aren’t so?”

It is for this reason that no serious scholar will now propose any general definition or comprehensive theory of myth – at least, not without making numerous reservations. Nevertheless, the word “myth” remains useful. It designates a class of things which we all recognize clearly enough, provided we do not try to be too exact about it. Under the microscope, even the clean edge of a knife becomes ragged. But the stories of Hercules and Odin, the cosmologies of India and China, and the symbols of the lotus and the cross have something in common that we can call mythological – meaning by this word something very much more than the merely fanciful.

Some years ago I ventured to define myth as “a complex of stories – some no doubt fact, and some fantasy – which, for various reasons, human beings regard as demonstrations of the inner meaning of the universe and of human life.” Vague as this was, I should have made it yet vaguer by adding that myth includes not only stories but also symbols and images, for the yang-yin symbol of the Chinese and the neurological doctrines of Yoga are plainly mythological in the sense of my definition without being associated with any special narrative. The point is, I think, that myth is to be distinguished from religion, science, and philosophy because it consists always of concrete images, appealing to imagination, and serving in one way or another to reveal or explain the mysteries of life. Yet there is a sense in which both the poetic and the mythic image at once reveal and conceal. The meaning is divined rather than defined, implicit rather than explicit, suggested rather than stated. It is in this sense that an apocalypse is simultaneously a revelation of hidden things and a way of speaking in symbols so as to conceal them.

One of the more widely distributed themes of mythology is that the universe arises from the sacrificial dismemberment of a divine being. In Hindu mythology the cosmic drama of the One, Brahman, pretending to be the many is called atma yajna or “self-sacrifice,” meaning simultaneously that the plurality and differentiation of the world is the cutting up of a primal unity, and that the dismemberment is voluntary, for in the Godhead what happens and what is willed are one and the same. The obscure and unexplained reference in the Apocalypse to “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” has been worked up by theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Church into a whole doctrine of the creation of the world by kenosis, that is, the self-emptying or self-abandonment of God. The creation is seen as the same kind of divine action as the Incarnation, in which God the Son voluntarily lays aside his omnipotence and glory to “humble himself and become obedient unto death.” In Babylonian mythology heaven and earth are created from the sliced body of the dragon Tiamat, slain in battle by Marduk, the hero of heaven. In Norse mythology, too, Othin, Vili, and Ve create the world from the sundered body of Ymir, the hermaphroditic giant:

Of Ymir’s flesh the earth was fashioned,
And of his sweat the sea;
Crags of his bones, trees of his hair,
And of his skull the sky.
Then of his bones the blithe gods made
Midgard for sons of men;
And of his brain the bitter-mooded
Clouds were all created.

In Hesiod’s Theogeny Ouranos and Gaia, Heaven and Earth, are separated by the titan Kronos, who castrates his father, Ouranos, with a sickle and pushes him up out of the way. So also in the Maori creation myth Tane mahuta, the son of the sky father, Rangi, and the earth mother, Papa, has to rend his parents apart in order to emerge from the womb.

It follows quite logically, then, that where there is dismemberment in the beginning there is remembrance at the end – that the fulfillment or consummation of the cosmic game is the discovery of what was covered and the recollection of what was scattered. It is, perhaps, in the sense that we must understand the crucial moment of the Christian Mass when bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ in obedience to the commandment, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Is not this, also, why all the disciplines of spiritual integration are based on concentration or recollection for the purpose of overcoming scattered and distracted thoughts? “If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Get with it. Pull yourself together. A house which is divided against itself cannot stand. Make up your mind. The choice is between paranoia, being beside yourself, and metanoia, being with yourself – ordinarily translated as repentance.

Joseph Campbell has pointed out a curious contrast between the creation myths of the East and the West, namely, that in the East there is a primordial splitting apart of the Creator, whereas in the West, the Creator remains entire and the split transpires within the creature. Actually, this split and nonsplit situation of the Creator corresponds with what, in Vedanta philosophy, is called the nirguna Brahman and the saguna Brahman – the Godhead without differentiated qualities and the Godhead with such qualities, or the unmanifest and manifest aspects of the supreme Self. The Godhead is simultaneously involved and not involved in the production of the world, responsible and not responsible for the mystery of iniquity, omnipotently controlling everything and yet open to surprise, granting the creature freedom of will.

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad it is the Lord himself who becomes male and female, but in the West this ultimate identity of the many with the one is concealed. Duality and multiplicity pertain to the creature, never to the Creator, which is only to say that the Western situation is more “far out,” more adventurous, a more extreme dismemberment of the original unity, culminating as we have seen in the shrieking madness of everlasting damnation. In the Western mythologies man is more lost, more out on his own, and thus unaware of his fundamental identity with the eternal and indestructible Self of all selves. And for this very reason the culture of the West is more frantic, more exciting, and more active than any other culture in the world, whether Oriental or “primitive.”

Nevertheless, “the desire and pursuit of the whole” remains and is, as a matter of fact, all the stronger in mythological traditions which veil the ultimate identity of the many and the One. Almost invariably, our mythologies preserve the hint of a way back to the lost unity, though the price that has to be paid for it is a form of death. It may be death in its most literal sense, as in the orthodox Christian belief that the Beatific Vision is available in its fullness only to those who have died. But in other traditions this death is metaphorical: it is a denial or simply an abandonment of oneself, a refusal to believe in anxiety, a disenchantment with the will-to-live as a compulsion. For if I feel that I must go on living at all costs, survival becomes then and there an insupportable drudgery. Death – the treatment of oneself as already dead – makes all time borrowed time, makes life unnecessary and purely gratuitous. Such are the only terms upon which life is worth living at all.

And that is the state of “paradise regained.” For life is problematic and “fallen” so long as it seems that there is a real choice between the opposites. True integrity is therefore the recognition that it is simply impossible to take sides, except in play or illusion. To take the side of one’s own advantage in the struggle to survive is not so much a wickedness as an impossibility, for no being lives (i.e., survives) except in relation to the whole community of being. Human history seems to be showing that a chronic anxiety to survive is a major threat to survival, for the individual whom it afflicts is tormented inwardly and provokes aggression outwardly. The practical politics of survival amounts all too often to the solution of today’s problem at the cost of seven new problems to be solved tomorrow.

It is in contrast with such “practicality” that the sage often appears to be an idiot or “wild man.” A Hindu verse says:

Sometimes naked, sometimes mad,
Now as a scholar, now as a fool,
Thus they appear on earth –
The free men!

The Taoist, Chuang-tzu, says:

When a drunken man falls out of a cart, though he may suffer, he does not die. His spirit is in a state of security, and therefore he does not suffer from contact with objective existences. If such security may be gotten from wine, how much more from the spontaneity of Heaven?

Jesus says:

The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head…Be not anxious for the morrow – what you shall eat, what you shall drink, or how you shall be clothed…Sufficient to the day is the trouble thereof.


Alan Watts

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 more than 25 books and numerous articles applying the teachings of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy to our everyday lives.

Excerpted from the book The Two Hands of God. Copyright © 2020 by Joan Watts and Anne Watts, © 1963 by Alan Watts.

First New World Library printing September 2020

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