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What Is Zen?

What Is Zen?

3.8 6
by Alan Watts

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A fervent, lifelong student of Zen, Alan Watts shows us that it is both an experience — a singular, powerful moment of realization — and a simple way of life, with an awareness that affects every moment of every day. Adopted by mainstream America in a way that carries only a vague association of its roots in Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts makes it clear that any


A fervent, lifelong student of Zen, Alan Watts shows us that it is both an experience — a singular, powerful moment of realization — and a simple way of life, with an awareness that affects every moment of every day. Adopted by mainstream America in a way that carries only a vague association of its roots in Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts makes it clear that any exploration of Zen must understand and embrace its roots as a form of Buddhist practice derived from its Chinese and East Indian sources. Examining the background of Zen in East Indian religion, Watts shows us its evolution through the religion of China. Zen is a synthesis of the contemplative insight of Indian religion and the dynamic liveliness of Taoism as they came together in the pragmatic, practical environment of Confucian China. Watts gives us great insight into the living moment of satori and the release of nirvana, as well as the methods of meditation that are current today, and the influence of Zen culturally in the arts of painting and pottery.

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What is Zen?

By Alan Watts, Mark Watts, Marc Allen

New World Library

Copyright © 2000 Mark Watts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-57731-817-0


A Simple Way, A Difficult Way

Zen is really extraordinarily simple as long as one doesn't try to be cute about it or beat around the bush! Zen is simply the sensation and the clear understanding that, to put it in Zen terms, there are "ten thousand formations; one suchness." Or you might say, "The ten thousand things that are everything are of one suchness." That is to say that there is behind the multiplicity of events and creatures in this universe simply one energy — and it appears as you, and everything is it. The practice of Zen is to understand that one energy so as to "feel it in your bones."

Yet Zen has nothing to say about what that energy is, and of course this gives the impression in the minds of Westerners that it is a kind of "blind energy." We assume this because the only other alternative that we can imagine in terms of our traditions is that it must be something like God — some sort of cosmic ego, an almost personal intelligent being. But in the Buddhist view, that would be as far off the mark as thinking of it as blind energy. The reason they use the word "suchness" is to leave the whole question open, and absolutely free from definition. It is "such." It is what it is.

The nature of this energy is that it is unformulated, although it is not formless in the sense of some sort of "goo" which is just a featureless mess. It simply means that at the basis of everything, there is something that never could be made an object, and discerned, figured out, or explained. In the same way, our eyes have no apparent color to us as we look at things, and no form of their own. If they had a form of their own, that form would distort all the forms we see — and in some sense their very structure does distort what we see. If the eyes had a color of their own it would affect everything we see, and still we would never become aware of it. As it is, however, we are not aware of the color of the eye, or of the lens, because if it has a color to it that color is basic to all sight. And so in exactly the same way, you might never become aware of the structure and the nature of the basic energy of the world becauseyou are it, and in fact, everything is it.

But you might say, "Well, it really doesn't make any difference then." And that is true, it doesn't — but it does make a difference in the life and feeling of a person who realizes that that is so! Although it may not make any particular difference to anything that happens, it points directly to the crux of the matter. If there were no eye, there would be no sight, and this tells us something important about our role in the world. We see this sight and that sight, and the structure of the eye does not make any difference from this sight and that, but upon it depends the possibility of seeing. And so upon this energy depends the very possibility of there being a universe at all, and that is rather important.

It is so important, however, that we usually overlook it. It does not enter into our practical considerations and prognostications, and that is why modern logicians in their respective philosophy departments will argue that all assertions about this energy, including the assertion that it is there at all, are meaningless. And that in a way is true, because the world itself is — from the point of view of strict logic — quite meaningless in the sense that it is not a sign or a symbol pointing to something else. But while that is all taken for granted, it nevertheless makes a great deal of difference to how you feel about this world, and therefore, to how you act. If you know that there is just this; and that it is you; and that it is beyond time, beyond space, beyond definition; and that if you clearly come to a realization that this is how things are, it gives you a certain "bounce." You can enter into life with abandon, with a freedom from your basic fears that you would not ordinarily have.

You of course can become quite "hooked" on the form of life that you are now living. I can consider myself as "Alan Watts" to be an immensely important event — and one I wish to preserve and continue as long as possible! But the truth of the matter is that I know I won't be able to, and that everything falls apart in the end. But if you realize this fundamental energy, then you know you have the prospect of appearing again in innumerable forms, all of which in due course will seem just as important as this one you have now, and perhaps just as problematic too.

This is not something to be believed in, however, because if you believe that this is so upon hearsay, then you have missed the point. You really have no need to believe in this, and you don't need to formulate it, or to hang on to it in any way, because on the one hand you cannot get away from it, and on the other hand you — that is, you in the limited sense — will not be there to experience it. So there is no need to believe in it, and if you do believe in it that simply indicates that you have some doubts in the matter!

That is why Zen has been called the "religion of no religion." You don't need, as it were, to cling to yourself. Faith in yourself is not "holding on" to yourself, but letting go. And that is why, when a Zen master hears from a student the statement, "Ten thousand formations, on suchness," the Zen master says, "Get rid of it."

That is also why, in the practice of certain forms of Zen meditation, there is at times a rugged struggle of the person to get beyond all formulation whatsoever, and to throw away all hang-ups. Therefore the person endures long hours of sitting with aching knees in perpetual frustration to try to get hold of what all this is about. With tremendous earnestness they say, "I have to find out what the mystery of life is to see who I am and what this energy is."

And so you go again and again to the Zen master, but he knocks down every formulation that you bring to him, because you don't need one. The ordinary person, however, upon hearing that you don't need one, will forget all about it and go on and think about something else, and so they never cross the barrier, and never realize the simplicity and the joy of it all.

But when you do see it, it is totally obvious that there is just one energy, and that consciousness and unconsciousness, being and not-being, life and death are its polarities. It is always undulating in this way: Now you see it, now you don't — now it's here, now it isn't. Because that "on" and "off" is the energy, and we wouldn't know what the energy was unless it was vibrating. The only way to vibrate is to go "on" and "off," and so we have life and death, and that's the way it is from our perspective.

That is what Zen is about. And that is all it is about.

Of course, other things derive from that, but in Zen training, the first thing to do is to get the feeling of its complete obviousness.

Then what follows from that is the question, "How does a person who feels that way live in this world? What do you do about other people who don't see that that's so? What do you do about conducting yourself in this world?"

This is the difficult part of Zen training. There is at first the breakthrough — which involves certain difficulties — but thereafter follows the whole process of learning compassion and tact and skill. As Jesus put it, it is "to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves" — and that is really what takes most of the time.

You might then divide the training in Zen into two stages that correspond to the two great schools of Buddhism: the Hinayana stage and the Mahayana stage. The Hinayana stage is to get to nirvana — to get to "living in the Great Void." But then the Mahayana stage is to "come back," as the Bodhisattva comes back from nirvana out of compassion for all sentient beings to help even the grass to become enlightened. And it's that Mahayana aspect of Zen that occupies most of the time of learning to be proficient in Zen.

I offer this by way of introduction just to make everything clear from the start, and to begin without being deceptive about it or befuddling you with cryptic Zen stories! Although the stories are really quite clear, the point often does not come across very easily to Westerners. The fascinating principle underlying Zen stories with all their seemingly irrelevant remarks is quite simple. It is all explained in the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, when Hui-neng says,

If somebody asks you a question about matters sacred, always answer in terms of matters profane. If they ask you about ultimate reality, answer in terms of everyday life. If they ask you about everyday life, answer in terms of ultimate reality.

Here's an example: Someone says, "Master, please hand me the knife," and he hands them the knife, blade first. "Please give me the other end," he says. And the master replies, "What would you do with the other end?" This is answering an everyday matter in terms of the metaphysical.

When the question is, "Master, what is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?" then he replies, "There is enough breeze in this fan to keep me cool." That is answering the metaphysical in terms of the everyday, and that is, more or less, the principle Zen works on. The mundane and the sacred are one and the same.


Zen Reconsidered

Why study Zen? The first reason that occurs to me is that it is extremely interesting. Since childhood I have been fascinated by the mystery of being, and it has always struck me as absolutely marvelous that this universe in which we live is here at all. And just out of sheer wonder I have become interested in all of the various answers that people have given as to why all of this is here.

In this sense my approach to religion is not so much that of the moralist as of the scientist. A physicist may have a well-developed and highly concrete experimental approach to nature, but a good physicist is not necessarily an improved man or woman in the sense of being morally superior. Physicists know certain things, and their knowledge is power, but that does not automatically improve them as people. And the power they have may be used for good or for evil.

But indeed, they do have power, and they have gained that power through their knowledge. I have always thought that in many ways Zen is like Western science; Zen has been used for healing people's sicknesses, but it has also been used by the samurai for chopping off people's heads!

I am interested in Zen for what it reveals about the way the universe is, the way nature is, and what this world is doing. My interest is part and parcel of a greater inquiry, which boils down to this: If you read the literature of the great religions, time and time again you come across descriptions of what is usually referred to as "spiritual experience." You will find that in all the various traditions this modality of spiritual experience seems to be the same, whether it occurs in the Christian West, the Islamic Middle East, the Hindu world of Asia, or the Buddhist world. In each culture, it is quite definitely the same experience, and it is characterized by the transcendence of individuality and by a sensation of being one with the total energy of the universe.

This experience has always fascinated me, and I have been interested in the psychological dynamics of it: why it happens, what happens, and how it comes to be described in different symbols with different languages. I wanted to see if I could discover the means of bringing this kind of experience about, because I have often felt that the traditional ways of cultivating it are analogous perhaps to medieval medicine. There a concoction is prepared consisting of roasted toads, rope from the gallows, henbane, mandrake, a boiled red dog, and all manner of such things, and a great brew is made! I assume that someone in the old folk tradition from which these recipes came understood the potencies of the brew, and that this thing really did do some good. But a modern biochemist would take a look at that mixture and say, "Well, it may have done some good, but what was the essential ingredient?"

In the same way, I ask this question when people sit in Zen meditation, practice yoga, or practice the bhakti way of religious devotion. What is the essential ingredient? In fact I ask this question of all the various things people do, even when they take psychedelic chemicals. No matter what methods people choose, it is interesting to look at what element these methods share in common. If we eliminate the nonsense and the nostalgia that go with people's attachment to a particular cultural approach, what is left?

It has always struck me as a student of these things that Zen has come very close to the essentials. At least this was my first impression, partly because of the way D.T. Suzuki presented Zen. It seemed to me to be the "direct way," the sudden way of seeing right through into one's nature — right now, at this moment. There is a good deal of talk about that realization in Zen circles, and in some ways it is more talk than practice. I remember a dinner once with Hasegawa, when somebody asked him, "How long does it take to obtain our understanding of Zen?"

He said, "It may take you three minutes; it may take you thirty years. And, " he said, "I mean that."

It is that three minutes that tantalizes people! We in the West want instant results, and one of the difficulties of instant results is that they are sometimes of poor quality. I often describe instant coffee as a punishment for people who are in too much of a hurry to make real coffee! There is something to be said against being in a hurry.

There are two sides to this question, and it strikes me in this way: It's not a matter of time at all. The people who think it ought to take a long time are of one school of thought, and the people who want it quickly are of another, and they are both wrong. The transformation of consciousness is not a question of how much time you put into it, as if it were all added up on some sort of quantitative scale, and you got rewarded according to the amount of effort you put into it. Nor is there a way of avoiding the effort just because you happen to be lazy, or because you say, "I want it now!"

The point is, rather, something like this: If you try to get it either by an instant method because you are lazy or by a long-term method because you are rigorous, you'll discover that you can't get it either way. The only thing that your effort — or absence of effort — can teach you is that your effort doesn't work.

The answer is found in the middle way — and Buddhism is called the Middle Way — but it is not just some sort of compromise. Instead, "middle" here means instead "above and beyond extremes."

It is put this way in the Bible: "To him that hath shall be given." Or, to put it another way, you can only get it when you discover that you don't need it. You can only get it when you don't want it. And so instead you ask, "How do I learn not to want it, not to go after it, either by the long-term method or by the instant method?" But obviously if you ask that, you still are seeking it, and thereby not getting it!

A Zen master says, "If you have a stick, I will give you one. If you have not, I will take it away from you." Of course this is the same idea as "to him that hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath." So we find ourselves in a situation where it seems that all our normal thinking — all the ways we are accustomed to thinking about solving problems — doesn't work. All thinking based on acquisition is rendered obsolete. We have, as it were, to get into a new dimension altogether to approach this question.

A young Zen student I know said to me recently, "If I were asked what is really essential in Zen, it would be sanzen." Sanzen is the dialogue between the master and the student, the person-to-person contact. He said rather than zazen, or sitting meditation, it is sanzen that is the crux of it. It is in the peculiar circumstances of that dialog that we can get into the frame of mind I am talking about.

In effect this dialog acts as a mirror to one's own mind, because the teacher always throws back to the student the question he's asked! He really does not answer any questions at all, he merely tosses them back at you, so that you yourself will ask why you are asking it, and why you are creating the problem the question expresses.

And quickly it becomes apparent that it is up to you. "Who, me?" you may ask. Yes, you! "Well," you may say, "I can't solve this problem. I don't know how to do it."


Excerpted from What is Zen? by Alan Watts, Mark Watts, Marc Allen. Copyright © 2000 Mark Watts. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Alan Watts, who held both a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate of divinity, is best known as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism in particular, and of Indian and Chinese philosophy in general. Standing apart, however, from sectarian membership, he earned the reputation of being one of the most original and “unrutted” philosophers of the past century. He was the author of some twenty books on the philosophy and psychology of religion, including The Way of Zen; The Wisdom of Insecurity; Nature, Man and Woman; The Book; Beyond Theology; In My Own Way; and Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown. He died in 1973.

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What Is Zen? 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book gives a great overview of Zen as a spacial concept. It provides both concrete and abstract examples to support Watts'philosophical position.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great books !
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