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All Along the Watchtower: A Buddhist Reading


#1

All Along the Watchtower: A Buddhist Reading

cc: @mikenz66 - who I think will appreciate this

All Along the Watchtower

Bob Dylan

“There must be some way out of here”
Said the joker to the thief
“There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth”

“No reason to get excited”
The thief, he kindly spoke
“There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now
The hour is getting late”

All along the watchtower
Princes kept the view
While all the women came and went
Barefoot servants too
Outside, in the distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
The wind began to howl

A Buddhist Reading

Here we have a poem about two "saṃ"s of Buddhism: saṃvega and saṃsāra

The song begins with saṃvega:

“There must be some way out of here”
Said the joker to the thief

The sense of spiritual urgency here is heavy. Both the joker and the thief have “been through” enough to get a sense of disillusionment with the world. They are two outcasts (pabbajita?) looking for an escape from death.

The Buddha, like Dylan, also sometimes speaks in praise of those on the margins of society or metaphorically casts those of a spiritual bent in cheekily negative terms:

One without faith, a house-breaker,
One who acknowledges nothing,
Empty of hope, with a ruined life,
They are indeed the superior man

~ Dhp97 (my own translation based on B. @Sujato’s)

The poor joker and thief of our present fable, however, are not so lucky as to have a Buddha to show them the escape. They remain blind to the middle way — stuck in the extremes of nihilism and self-indulgence (respectively).

The joker, despite his ability to laugh at the absurdity of it all, feels deeply the pain (dukkha) of life:

There’s too much confusion
I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line
Know what any of it is worth"

He lements how ordinary people don’t make any good out of their precious, human lives. Dylan is, of course, saying this himself, but creates some ironic (humble) distance by calling himself a “joker” — one who fiddles away his life creating riddles and music, entertainment and (yes) irony. Who is he, the courtly fool, to chastise others for wasting their lives?

The thief (representing the more hedonistic response) is aware that the pleasures of life “came and went” (anicca) and were never really his to begin with (anatta). He gently corrects the joker’s misapprehension of the wine and earth as "his” and reassures the joker that their “fate” (kamma) is at least better than those “princes” who, despite standing on their watchtower, remain blind to these three characteristics.

The Buddha once compared mindfulness to a watchman:

Suppose there was a king’s frontier citadel with fortified embankments, ramparts, and arches, and six gates. And it has a gatekeeper who was astute, competent, and clever. He kept strangers out and known people in.

A swift pair of messengers would arrive from the east and say to the gatekeeper, ‘Mister, where is the lord of the city?’

They’d say, ‘There he is, sirs, seated at the central square.’

Then that swift pair of messengers would deliver a message of truth to the lord of the city and depart the way they came.

A swift pair of messengers would come from the west … north … south … and deliver a message of truth to the lord of the city and depart the way they came.

I’ve made up this simile to make a point.
‘City’ is a term for this body made up of the elements, produced by mother and father, built up from rice and porridge, liable to breaking up and destruction.

‘Six gates’ is a term for the six senses.

‘Gatekeeper’ is a term for mindfulness.

‘A swift pair of messengers’ is a term for serenity and insight.

‘The lord of the city’ is a term for consciousness.

‘The central square’ is a term for the four elements: earth, water, fire, and air.

‘A message of truth’ is a term for extinguishment.

~SN35.245

The swift pair of messengers in the above contrast quite strikingly with the more ominous approach which ends All Along the Watchtower:

Outside, in the distance
A wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching
The wind began to howl

The approach of death here is dark and foreboding, especially in contrast to the women and servents. When the hour of death arrives, neither family nor wealth can be of any use against death:

“What do you think, Dhanañjāni? There is the case where a certain person, for the sake of his mother & father, does what is unprincipled, does what is unjust. Then, because of his unrighteous, unjust behavior, hell-wardens drag him off to hell. Would he gain anything by saying, ‘I did what is unrighteous, what is unprincipled, for the sake of my mother & father. Don’t throw me into hell, hell-wardens!’ Or would his mother & father gain anything for him by saying, ‘He did what is unprincipled, what is unjust, for our sake. Don’t throw him into hell, hell-wardens!’?”
“No, master Sāriputta. Even right while he was wailing, they’d cast him into hell.”

~MN97

And yet, it doesn’t feel like the end of the story. Dylan’s poem ends on an abrupt and expectant note, its ending (like life’s) taking us by surprise. It’s hard to accept that this is the end of the story and, indeed, it’s easier to imagine that these few lines are merely the prelude to a much longer epic.

So while the approaching riders offer the hope of an escape (of a world outside the citadel), even their approach (like the coming and going of the women) prefigures their eventual departure (“back the way they came”). Death gives way to life, and the poem circles back on itself endlessly asking

“There must be some way out of here”


#2

:sweat_smile:
I’ve seen Bob perform this several times. I believe it’s his most performed song. His live performances have the first verse repeated…
Unfortunately, old age has put an end to the Hendrix - inspired guitar duels, which were pretty cool, but his piano playing has improved and it’s awesome if you can get over his seriously trashed vocal cords…

On one occasion, in the Guitar days, early 2000s, he ditched the guitar for the keyboard for the repeat of the first verse. It was the last encore and the sound guy didn’t notice until half way through so there was no vocal sound for a while but Bob was so focused on the performance that either didn’t t notice or didn’t care. Since I was standing near the stage I didn’t care either. The circus was in town, what more could you want?

:heart: