An Orchestra of Monkeys

"In practising spiritual disciplines as well as in trying to acquire
faith, most of us are like monkeys. We do not understand the saint's
inner state, and we are trying to attain it by the mere mimicry of its
outward signs. We copy his actions and ideas, but because they do not
really mean
anything to us the task is an unproductive drudgery. For example, a
monkey might, with some accuracy, describe an orchestra as a collection
of people who blow through metal and wooden tubes, thump upon the skins
of pigs, and scrape the entrails of dead cats with lengths of
horsehair. We, of course, can give a fuller and more intelligible
description of the work and nature of an orchestra because we
understand its true meaning, which is music. But to a monkey music
means nothing; it is simply a succession of noises produced by blowing,
thumping, and scraping. Yet because the monkey is envious of human
accomplishments, he may readily be persuaded (until bored) to imitate
human actions that mean nothing to him, to go through the motions of
playing a trumpet or a violin with results far from meaningful and
musical. A human being, too, can learn and master all the techniques of music and yet never be an inspired musician.

too, the moral splendour, the interior peace, and the spiritual power
of saints and mystics are things which millions of us would like to
possess. But it avails nothing to ape the exterior actions or even the
interior ideas of such inspired persons unless we understand the
meaning which these ideas and actions express. Apart from knowledge and
appreciation of this meaning, our efforts to be like the great ones are
so many attempts to produce the cause by the effect, to make the tail
wag the dog. Now the meaning which saint and mystic express in idea and
action is God. They think and act as they do because they are in a
special way possessed by this life which is God, somewhat as the heart
and mind of a dancer are possessed by the music which he interprets as
bodily movement.

The idea of God is itself no more than
an interpretation of the mysterious reality whereby the saint is moved
and possessed; it is a life, a being, translated into a form of thought
as one might try to represent a colour by a shape, striving to
interpret beauty of tone by beauty of line. Such interpretations are
the genesis of all religious doctrine, both metaphysical and moral;
they are the instruments and techniques for expressing the divine
meaning. But in the hands of so many persons they become like musical
instruments in the hands of monkeys; they lack all inner significance
to those who use them and those who watch them so used. The one hopes
that this process of imitation will somehow make him a saint and a
possessor of eternal life, though he knows not the true nature of these
ideals. The other stands by in sheer bewilderment at so much activity
without meaningful result.

Christian faith and practice have lost
force because the enormous majority of Christians, both devout and
nominal, do not know what they mean. Let it be said at once that such
knowledge is not a matter of mere learning, of philosophical and
theological acumen. Indeed, the theologian has often just as little
grasp of the meaning of his religion as anyone else. He knows ideas; he
knows the relations between these ideas; he knows the historical
events–the story of Christ–upon which these ideas are based. He knows
the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and
the Atonement and can describe them with accuracy. But because he does
not know, or even apprehend, what they mean, having no consciousness of
union with God, his description of them–while correct as far as it
goes–is as uninformative and lacking in significance as the monkey's
description of an orchestra.

This theologian does not fail to
grasp the meaning of his religion just because he is a pure academician
without interest in its practice. For his practice, as much as his
thought, is imitation. Monkey-fashion, he imitates the actions of the
Fathers and the saints along with their ideas, attributing the fact
that he does not become a saint to not imitating hard enough."

Alan Watts
Behold the Spirit
Written in 1947

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    • Ben
    • November 29th, 2007

    Good epigraph. Reminded me of why I was turned on to Watts when I first read some of his essays. And interestingly enough, I was thinking about this very subject today and yesterday- that is, that many many people today, namely, the religious minded, have lost or haven't grasped the meaning behind the symbolic language the use. Personally, I find this not just a result of human ignorance but the by product of making an originally esoteric religion, exoteric, and prostituting it's sacred rites and symbols to masses of people.

  1. Everyone must follow their own heart and find their own spiritual resonance. While Christian symbols work for some they do not work for everyone. Does Watts recognize that?

  2. He doesn't think there's too much wrong with Christian symbols. In fact, he was an episcopalian priest at the time he wrote this. What he's saying is that using the symbols without any inner meaning and connection with God is useless.

  3. Definitely. Watts points out that even the stewards of Christianity do not understand it.

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