Alan Watts on Death, Rebirth, and Compassion

Alan Watts wrote 25 books that introduced many people of my generation to Buddhism and Hinduism. Though his personal life was marred by alcoholism, Watts was a graceful writer and transcendent lecturer. (Genuine insight and questionable behavior can co-exist in the same person.)

During 1959, KQED in San Francisco broadcast a series of lectures by Watts — Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life. One of them focused on death. Following are excerpts from that program (which you can watch in full here).

Suppose that I make two statements. Statement 1: After I die, I shall be reborn again as a baby, but I shall forget my former life. Statement 2: After I die, a baby will be born.

Now I believe that those two statements are saying exactly the same thing.

The vacuum created by the disappearance of a being‚ by the disappearance of his memory system‚ is simply filled by another being who is “I” just as you feel that you are “I.”

The funny thing, though, about being “I,” about feeling that one is sort of a center of the universe‚ is that you can only experience this “I” sensation in the singular. You can’t experience being two or three “I’s” all at the same time.

It seems to me that this idea has three very important consequences.

One is that the disappearance of our memory in death is not really something to be regretted. Of course, everybody wishes to hold forever to the memories and to the people and to the situations that he particularly loves. But, surely, if we think this through, is that what we actually want? Do we really want to have those we love‚ however greatly we love them‚ for always and always and always? Isn’t it inconceivable that even in a very distant future we wouldn’t get tired of it?

This, indeed, is the secret of the thing. This is why the demon of impermanence is beneficent. Because it is forgetting about things that renews their wonder.

So there will always be “I”‘s in the world. Every “I” is, in a way, the same “I.” We all might be anyone else. And there is no escape. It goes on and on and on. So long as there is consciousness anywhere, there is “I.”

You, then, look out through all “I”‘s. And that, perhaps, is the secret of the great virtue of compassion.