Zen and the Beat Way

Zen and the Beat Way

by Alan Watts
When Jack Karouac wrote about Zen in Dharma Bums he was echoing the sentiments of the Beat generation, who found in Zen credence for a way of life unencumbered by the limits of "square" society. And it was Alan Watts who first wrote and spoke about Zen and Eastern culture in terms accessible to mainstream Western audiences.

Through his popular radio


When Jack Karouac wrote about Zen in Dharma Bums he was echoing the sentiments of the Beat generation, who found in Zen credence for a way of life unencumbered by the limits of "square" society. And it was Alan Watts who first wrote and spoke about Zen and Eastern culture in terms accessible to mainstream Western audiences.

Through his popular radio series Way Beyond the West Alan Watts brought listeners a delightful and practical side of Zen, which he prescribed as "a cure for education and culture." By the early sixties his radio programs were renowned for their synthesis of Eastern wisdom and everyday life. Several of these radio talks have been selected and edited by Mark Watts, Alan's oldest son, to introduce a new generation to Zen and the Beat Way.

Through this collection we see influences of D.T. Suzuki, C.G. Jung, Gary Snyder and others. Specific chapters discuss Zen influences on traditional Japanese and Chinese arts and explore the celebrated concept of the "controlled accident" within the rich tradition of Zen aesthetics. Also included is "Return to the Forest," an essay that explores the works of Joseph Campbell on the earliest Beat tradition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Alan Watts was the unofficial spiritual leader of the Hippies and an intimate of the Beat Poets. Since Watts's untimely death in 1973, his son Mark has devoted himself to bringing out his father's work in new editions by transcribing this master's tapes into exceptional little books. This book is another in that labor of love. These six lectures are among the best and least heard of Watts's tapes. "Introduction to the Way Beyond the West" comes from his early Berkeley radio show and shows an affable Watts full of reminiscence. "The Beat Way of Life" is one of the most valuable statements of Beat consciousness. Watts's early thinking on Zen meditation and his struggle to reconcile it with modern psychology is found in "Consciousness and Concentration," one of a trio of essays on Buddhist subjects. The last transcription, "Return to the Forest," is an early discourse on his friend Joseph Campbell's work. This book is an excellent record of the early Watts, and a delightful read. (July)

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Introduction to the Way
Beyond the West

A little over six years ago [1953], I began a series of radio programs that have been running ever since under the general title Way Beyond the West. I think I may as well give you a short explanation of that title. It obviously has a double meaning. The first is geographical. The West Coast of the United States faces Asia across the Pacific. The Asian world is therefore literally way beyond the West. The second reason for choosing this title is that the English word way is perhaps the nearest translation that we can make to the Chinese word tao. It is usually pronounced "dow." The Tao means many things. Primarily, it means the way of nature, the process of the universe. But it also means a way of life, a way of living in accordance with that process. For example, in Japan there are many crafts and arts, and even sports, that have been influenced by Eastern philosophy and are called "ways." You all know the word judo. Ju means "gentle," do is the Japanese way of pronouncing tao. Therefore, judo is the gentle way. Similarly, the Japanese also speak of fencing as kendo, the way of the sword. They speak of the tea ceremony sometimes as chado, the way of tea. In Japanese culture there are all sorts of these dos, and they not only indicate the technique or mastery of the technique of performing the given art but also imply that the art involves a way of life. Indeed, in almost the ancient Western medieval sense, every Japanese art is a mystery. One used to speak, you see, of the mystery of being a goldsmith, the mystery of being a stonemason, the mystery of being a carpenter. Today that probably strikes us as extraordinarily peculiar terminology. But the meaning of it was that every man's vocation in life--what the Indians call svadharma, which means approximately one's own function, one's own calling--is also a way of initiation into the mystery of life. It has a sort of religious function. So then, the "way" in this title, Way Beyond the West, is the way of deeper understanding, or something like that. But why do I say that this way of deeper understanding is beyond the West? The answer, I think, is that we have lost the idea that our occupations are vocations. Not everybody has. But to a very large degree, our idea of an occupation is that it is a way of making money. We make a very, very destructive division between work and play. We spend eight hours, or whatever it may be, at work in order to earn the money to enjoy ourselves in the other eight hours. And that is a perfectly ridiculous way of living. It is much better to be very poor indeed than to do something so stupid as boring ourselves and wasting ourselves for eight hours in order to be able to enjoy ourselves the other eight hours. The result of this fantastic division between work and play is that work becomes drudgery, and play becomes empty. When we say that our occupation should also be our vocation, we are speaking of a conception of life within which work and play should be identical.

It is interesting that Hindus, when they speak of the creation of the universe, do not call it the work of God, they call it the play of God, the Vishnu-lila, lila meaning "play." And they look upon the whole manifestation of all the universes as a play, as a sport, as a kind of dance--lila perhaps being somewhat related to our word lilt. We in the West have tended to lose the idea of our work, our profession, as being a way, a tao. Furthermore, our religions tend very much to lose sight of themselves as being a tao, or way. To a very large extent, Christianity, in what we might call its standard brand forms, does not quite fulfill the function that Buddhism and Vedanta, which is the central doctrine of Hinduism and Taoism, fulfill in Asian society.

Now, mind you, these ways I am talking about in Asia are not followed by an enormous number of people, except in a kind of nominal, superficial way. And I am not trying to make any vast comparisons between Asian society and Western society or to say that the total Asian way of life is superior to ours. I do not think it is, but I do not think it is necessarily inferior, either; it is just different. But the fact remains that there is an aspect of Asian religion and philosophy that is very subdued in Western religion and philosophy, so that you might say that the Way, in the sense of the Chinese Tao, does not quite exist in the West, in any recognizable form. It does exist, yes. It exists unofficially, it exists occasionally, but it is never clearly recognized. So, therefore, I want to devote some time now to going quite thoroughly into what these Eastern Ways are.

Now, when we are first introduced to such subjects as Buddhism or Vedanta or Taoism or Confucianism, we usually encounter them as some form of religion. We may have read books on comparative religion in which these phenomena are classified with Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and so on. But this is really very misleading. It is as misleading as if you were to get a textbook on botany, on flowers, and suddenly came across a few chapters on birds. You would think this was a rather odd classification. Well, if you know anything much about these forms of Asian spirituality, you get the same kind of a funny shock when you see them classified along with such things as Christianity or Judaism. This is not to say that they are superior to Christianity and Judaism; they are simply different. They have different functions. And when we classify them all as various forms of religion, then a discussion arises as to which is the best one for everybody or the best for you or me. But I think the difference is much more subtle than that. And I can best approach this difference by saying that in the West we have primarily three forms of wisdom--religious, philosophical and scientific--but a way in the Asian sense is none of these.

First of all, the word religion comes from the Latin root religare, which means "a rule of life." Religare means "to bind, to bind oneself to something." We say of a person who has become a monk or a nun that he or she has gone into religion, which means that they have accepted a rule of life involving certain vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and other things as well. And the rule of life that constitutes a religion seems to me to consist of a creed, first of all, which is a system of revealed ideas about man and the universe and God, which one believes in and puts one's faith in.

The great Asian ways that I am speaking of do not, strictly speaking, have any creeds. They do not involve belief. That is to say, they do not involve committing oneself to certain positive opinions about life. Almost to the contrary, they abandon ideas and opinions because what they are concerned with is not ideas, not theories, but experience; experience in the sense almost of sensuousness, for instance, as they say, you drink water and know for yourself that it is cold. So, it is knowledge rather than faith that they are concerned with. Faith, as I am using it here, refers to a system of belief rather than a sense of trust. Very often it seems to me that faith and belief could be opposed. Belief comes from the Anglo-Saxon root life, which means "to wish." Belief is the fervent hope that certain things are true. Whereas I rather feel that faith is an openness of attitude, a readiness to accept the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. It is a commitment of oneself to life, to the universe, to one's own nature as it is, in the realization that we really have no alternative. When you get into the water to swim, you have to trust yourself to the water. If you tighten your muscles and cling to the water, you will sink.

It seems to me that a religion, in addition to having a creed, also has a code. That is to say, it has a system of ethical and moral principles that one abides by because they are revealed as expressing, in the field of human conduct, the nature and will of the divine. And these Eastern ways do not have a code in that sense. One often speaks of the moral code of Buddhism, but this is a little inexact. What is involved here is not any attempt to make man accord with the nature of God or the will of God, but rather to suggest certain principles of action that are conducive to the discovery of the experience lying at the heart and the root of Buddhism. In addition to a creed and an ethical code, the idea of religion seems to me also to include a cult, a system of symbols and rites and ceremonials that in a certain way symbolically integrate the worshiper with the Godhead. And although there are rites and forms in Buddhism and Hinduism, not so much of worship but of thanksgiving, they are not regarded as very essential. They are not essential in the same way, for example, that Catholicism regards the rite of the mass as essential. So, all in all, it would be difficult to say that Buddhism and Vedanta and Taoism are religions, if Christianity or Judaism defines what we mean by religion. I do not want to dogmatize about the meaning of this word, but this is the way I use it, to mean a rule of life that has as its function the integration of a community, the binding together of a community. When one becomes a Jew, when one becomes a Christian, what one essentially does is join a society. We join a community. And in a way, we could say the function of a religion is what is called in Sanskrit loca san hai, which means the upholding of the world, the upholding of the order of the community. Every community must have rules. We must have rules of language in order to be able to communicate with one another. We must agree that we are going to use the noise cloud when referring to those things in the sky, instead of yun, the noise the Chinese use for them. We say "cloud"; they say "yun." Which is the right noise? It does not matter so long as the community in question agrees. This is what we call a convention. We agree by convention to drive on the right side of the road. So, every community needs a system of conventions, and it seems to me that what religion originally provided was, as it were, a divinely sanctioned system of conventions under which the community lives.

Now, the function of Buddhism is not so much the creation of a community. The function of Confucianism is to create a community, to lay down rules and conventions for a community. Parts of Hinduism, what one calls the caste system or the Laws of Manu, are concerned with laying down the rules for a community. But Vedanta and Buddhism and Taoism have almost the opposite function, which is not to enforce the conventional rules but to liberate the mind from enchantment by social convention. This is not a revolution against social convention, it is a perception that the rules of society are only conventions and that, in other words, the rules of a society, of language, of thought, of conduct, are not identical with the laws of God--or if you prefer, the laws of nature, the processes of nature.

We know perfectly well, for example, that it is very convenient to agree upon lines of latitude and longitude so that we can establish positions on the face of the globe. But we jolly well know that when we cross the equator we are not going to trip over a wire; it is an imaginary line, it is not really there.

Well, in the same way, all sorts of things that we believe to be real--time, past and future, for instance--exist only conventionally. A person who lives for the future, who (like most of us) makes his happiness dependent upon what is coming in the future, is living within an illusion. He or she has confused a convention with a reality. As even our own proverb says "Tomorrow never comes."

One of the functions of a way of the Tao is to deliver human beings from what Whitehead called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness"; from confusing convention with reality; from confusing the laws of society with the actualities of the concrete, real world. It is in this sense, then, that the Tao is a way of liberation from social convention.

Now, just as these ways are not religion, so are they not philosophy, in the Western sense of the word. Philosophy, as we know it academically in the West, consists of a primarily verbal activity: constructing ideas and speculating about man and life, about the nature of knowledge and the nature of being, and about the problems of ethics and aesthetics. And, of course, more recently modern analytical philosophy has concerned itself with the logical structure of ideas. It is fundamentally, we might say, antimetaphysical because it feels that a great many metaphysical ideas are simply the result of linguistic and logical confusions. But by and large, you see, philosophy is concerned with ideas and their expression in words--that is to say, with the building up of a purely intellectual structure. That is philosophy as we know it in the West: the academic kind of philosophy.

Here again, Eastern ways are not philosophy. Just as they are not concerned with beliefs, they are also not concerned with intellectual theories, except in a purely secondary way. The heart of Buddhism and Vedanta is a transformation of man's consciousness, something that we in the West might call "mystical experience."

I do not like the word mystical, because it often has very, very weird connotations. One might speak more strictly of metaphysical experience; but even here, I do not really like that phrase, either. I prefer something much more solid. The experience the Buddhists are concerned with, for instance, is very concrete. It is not anything abstract. Abstractions belong to the realm of theory. Instead, the transformation of consciousness that the Buddhists talk about is almost, you might say, a new way of using one's senses. And thus it is not at all wishy-washy; it is not at all misty--if the word mysticism has any associations with mist.

And just as the Tao is not religion or philosophy, it is also not quite science--although in some respects it is very close to science.

Scientists are very often men of real faith. An honest scientist is a person who wants to know what this world really is. They do not want to be bamboozled by theories and hypotheses; they want to face the facts.

But the great interest of science, it seems to me, is not actually the facts or the concrete world but the representation of the concrete world in terms of certain codes--the codes of numbers, of algebraic symbols, or of formulae of various kinds--by which the scientist represents the world. These codes are rather like a photograph of a person's face reproduced in a newspaper. Look closely at a newspaper reproduction of a person's face and you will see that it is composed of a lot of little dots. Well, you jolly well know that a person's face is not really made out of a lot of little dots, even if you can arrange little dots on paper in such a way that they will look like a face. In other words, these dots merely re-present the face in terms of dots. Similarly, science re-presents human experiences, gained through our senses and through scientific instruments, in terms of linear symbols, in order to predict the future course of events. In other words, the practical function of science is prediction, and by such means the human control of the environment.

It is at this point that a way of liberation departs from what we mean by science because the focus of its interest is not so much on the future, on what will happen, but on the present. Because, after all, if we open our eyes and do not let our mind interfere too much with what we are actually perceiving, it is surely clear that we live only in the present. It is always now. So, this may seem tautological and redundant. It may seem to be something that everybody knows. But it really is not. Most of us judge the duration of the present by the little lines on our watches that mark off the seconds. They are just as thin as they can be. Therefore, the present is no time at all. And so, you see, we in the West all get the feeling that we have no time. Everybody says, "I am so busy. I have no time for this or that or the other thing." This feeling arises because we are beguiled by time. We are beguiled by watches. We really believe that the present lasts only a split second. All these Eastern ways are concerned with waking up, with coming to be dehypnotized--in the sense that every culture hypnotizes us. Waking up is what Buddhism means by bodhi, or enlightenment. Buddha is a title; it means "the man who woke up" or "the awakened one." But the moment a child comes into the world, people start talking or suggesting to it, and they very soon persuade it that the world is in fact the way they and their particular culture view it. Well, as the song says, it ain't necessarily so. The concept of time is one of the great ways in which we are fooled. We believe that the past and the future are, as it were, more solid and of longer duration than the present. In other words, we live in a sort of hourglass with a big bulb at one end (the past) and a big bulb at the other end (the future); we are at the little neck in between, and we have no time. Whereas when our vision becomes changed, we see that the truth of the matter is that we have, in fact, an enormous present in which we live and that the purely abstract borders of this present are the past and the future.

A coin has two faces, but they are merely surfaces; they are Euclidean and abstract; they have no thickness. The reality of the coin is the metal between the two surfaces. So, in somewhat the same way, the reality of time is the present lying between the past and the future, and the past and future are merely abstractions.

Now, although Eastern ways share something of the scientists spirit of openness and nondogmatism, they are not sciences. They are not primarily concerned with predicting the future. That is not to say that they reject the future. They just do not care about it. One might put it this way: there is no point in caring about the future and making plans unless you are capable of living completely in the present, because when your plans mature and the future comes, if you cannot live in the present, there is no use you can make of the plans that have matured. You cannot enjoy what has happened if you cannot live in the present. You will always be looking over the shoulder of the event that has become present for something else still to come.

I have tried to show, by contrasting it with the three great forms of Western wisdom, what the Way beyond the West is all about. It exists for a minority in Asia, and I feel that in the present climate of Western science and philosophy, our great religious upheaval, and our discontent with our own traditions, it is enormously interesting and of great value to us. I am not--I must be very emphatic about this--a missionary for Zen Buddhism or Taoism trying to convert Western people to these things. On the contrary, I am trying to integrate their ideas with our own. American civilization is a syncretism of cultures of peoples, and this integration of Eastern and Western ideas is simply going to happen. And it is that integration that is the Way beyond the West.

Meet the Author

Alan Watts was born in England in 1915 and received his early education at King's School, Canterbury. He received a master's degree from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Illinois and an honorary doctorate of divinity from the University of Vermont. He wrote his first book, The Spirit of Zen, at the age of twenty and went on to write over twenty other books including The Way of Zen, The Book, and Tao: The Watercourse Way, which though never fully completed was published after the author's death and introduced thousands of readers to Taoist thought.

In addition to being an acclaimed author and philosopher, Dr. Watts was also an Episcopalian minister, professor, graduate-school dean and reasearch fellow of Harvard University. By the early 1960s, he moved to Sausolito, California, and held seminars and lectures throughout the United States. Alan Watts died in 1973.

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