You are on page 1of 8

Matthew Erbes

Noreen Herzfeld
The Way of Zen
Alan Watts is a curious man. A speaker, writer, and philosopher, he is most famous for bringing
Zen Buddhism to the West, and interpreting Eastern philosophies for a Western audience. Recordings of
his talks can be found online. One of the more popular ones is a video with clips of his various beliefs
animated by the creators of South Park before South Park was even a thing. Through this short ten
minute video it jumps from lecture to lecture giving highlights and insights into his views and
philosophy. He advocates against strict divides between ideas in our world. That life somehow evolved
from nothing and life is somehow innately separate from us. How life is some weird mix between
abstract and logic. That the world is made up of particles and waves. Emptions and numbers. That we
need to live life like a soundtrack. Not living for to get that next step in life but instead to live in the
moment and enjoy the rhythm of life. Wonderful ideas that certainly make you think of life a little bit
differently. Shifting your perspective just so. The most interesting sentence is the one opening it. A
statement that seems contradictory to what his life is about. I am not a Zen Buddhist. I am not
advocating Zen Buddhism. I have nothing to sell. I am an entertainer. This coming from a man who has
written and sold many books on Zen and who trained in Zen in New York for many years. He is a
religious man, of sorts, but he does not seems to care what you do with his message, or if you value his
words. If his book The Way of Zen comes from this point of view, it is very entertaining.
The Way of Zen begins without outline or pretense. There is no introduction and it does not
attempt explain its structure. If one skips the brief preface, that was added years after it was first
published, the first words someone will read is the section and chapter titles. It is refreshingly direct in
its approach, jumping right into things. The Way of Zen has an ambition. Its ambition is to help teach the
reader about Eastern thought. Since Zen Buddhism does not belong to any formal category of Western
thought, according to Watts, he spends most of the first half of the book not even formally saying what
Zen is. Merely stating it is a way of liberation. The book is in fact split into two halves. The first half is
Background in History. This half is where he introduces the reader to the eastern way of thinking that
are different than western philosophy. So in order to have the reader understand them he goes through
history of various eastern philosophies and religions, and explains their philosophical underpinnings to
the reader so as to not overwhelm them when he gets to finally explaining Zen. The very first chapter of
the book is dedicated to explaining the Tao, but even this requires some ideas to be set. It should be
noted that I cannot adequately explain each and every philosophy and concept the Watts introduces, this
book in an introduction to eastern thought and my review is but my view on it. Watts explains the
concepts here with lucidity and a clear vision that makes them easy to digest and difficult to argue with.
He explains that words are abstractions of the world.
The English words man, fish, star, flower, run, grow, all denote classes or events
which may be recognized as members of their class by very simple attributes, abstracted from
the total complexity of the thing themselves (7).
From here Watts builds upon language as an abstraction of the world to that our understanding of linear
thought is an abstraction of life, like electrical impulses that create an image on a TV. This is how Watts
introduces the Philosophy of the Tao. His first stop on a historical tour and exploration of Eastern
philosophies. Laying the groundwork and building a framework so that the reader can eventually come
to The Way of Zen.
Tao is explained as something pursued by older men in China who no long need to be confined
by the strict guidelines of Confucianism. It is concerned with unconventional knowledge. This knowledge
is comparable to how one knows how to breathe, walk, move, and decide without needing a scientific
treatise explaining in minute detail the movement of muscles and the firing or neurons. In this way the
Tao is about learning how little we actually know. About unlearning all of the conventions places upon
us. That most traditional knowledge is no more than abstractions of life as it is. Its origin is either in Lao-
Tzu a pupil of Confucian, or the I Ching, an ancient book of divination. The I Ching possesses more of a
philosophic feel of the Tao then any specific teaching. Using many documents from various advocated
and teachers of the Tao, both contemporary and ancient, Watts does an admirable job of explaining a
philosophy so abstract. The Tao can be likened to a force, unlike God, because it does not have purpose
and does not lord over its creation. Instead the Tao grows the world, or the world grows because of the
Tao. Things groan divide themselves into parts, from within outwarda universe which grows utterly
excludes the idea of knowing how it grows in the clumsy term of language (17). The Tao is like water
for plants in sense, nourishing all and demanding nothing. The rest of the chapter is devoted to the art
of Wu-wei. Not-doing/straining/action. Not a calmness of the mind but a non-grasping. The hope is
to reduce the mind to its innate spontaneous intelligence without forcing it. There are more points that
Watts brings up about Taoist philosophy, such as its abhorrence to strict classifications of experience.
Limiting the infinite into simple division distracts from the subtlety and shading of life. Many of the ideas
introduced here, when combined with Mahayana Buddhism, come to produce Zen. Then again there is a
pointlessness in this summary as even Watts seems to believe he is doing the subject a disservice and it
merely trying to convey ideas to someone unfamiliar with them. He compares talking about the Tao to
trying to explain three dimension on a two d plain. In the end you are only working with length and
The next chapter is about the origins of Buddhism. When China absorbed Buddhism like it has so
many other ideas and cultures, it inevitably changed to suit China in a way apart from its Indian origins.
Becoming more a philosophy of day to day life. This is where the book becomes dated. As when it was
written in the 1950s the primary source texts for Indian Buddhism are incomplete in there translation
and contradictory texts as to what is the original form of Buddhism. And the oldest text, the Pali Canon,
is still a built upon and an elaboration of an older doctrine. Watts makes admiral attempts to put historic
context, and dates to the names, but he is limited to the resources of his time. Like the previous chapter,
before explaining the religion of Buddhism and giving its origins he first lays the philosophical ground
work so that it can be understood. This is given to us through Watts explanation of Hindu philosophy, to
which Buddhism is linked. Watts doesnt give a factual introduction to Hinduism instead focusing on its
philosophy. First the world was created when God split apart to create all. Second that the world is
defined by opposites that give each other meaning, up and down, light and dark. All making up a divine
play which goes through endless cycles of death and rebirth. The goal of Hinduism is to escape all that
and achieve mokasha or liberation.
On the whole it is safer to say that Indian philosophy is primarily *moksha or liberation+; it is
only quite secondarily a system of ideas which attempt to translate the experience into
conventional language (36).
An interesting interpretation, that one wonders whether it is shared by its many followers. Moksha is
about realizing that one is god or Brahman. In that it is self-evident truth one doesnt know in a
conventional sense, similar to the Tao. Since one cannot know it in a conventional sense the focus is to
make the mind like an empty pipe through which Moksha can flow, for to fill the minds void with an
idea be to exclude the fact. This is achieved through Sadhama. A physical discipline with the goal of
realizing there is no self, and reality is not any conceivable object. At this point it feels necessary to
mention that given Watts talk about language as abstractions he chooses to use the original words
unaltered instead of giving any western equivalent. One can easily see his reasoning, however he only
briefly given an explanation as to many word meaning when they are first introduced. There are dozens
new term presented to the reader and the lack of a glossary is troubling. There is an index however
which is helpful when word reappear after being unused for chapters at a time. So just remember the
first time what exactly maya means.
Maya is the world of facts and events, said to be an illusion which veils the one underlying
reality of Brahman. These facts and events are terms of measurement and not the reality of nature.
Definition, setting bounds, delineation- these are always acts of division and thus of duality, for as soon
as a boundary is defined it has two sides (39). This is not like Western philosophies which believe the
world to be an illusion, but instead it is so much greater that it is impossible to grasp with language and
concepts. The world is also impermanent. It is fluid in a way that makes static ideas and form irrelevant.
This brings us to Buddhism. Watts introduces the first Buddha or Gautama as following the same
patterns of many Hindu sages of this era. A person abandons family and caste, instead focusing on
achieving liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. When Buddha achieves this he calls it
unexcelled complete awakening. Watts fails to explain why Buddhism became a separate religion
while these other Sages of the time are still under the umbrella of Hinduism. Maybe it is not the focus of
the book but one cant help but wish for an explanation. Instead Watts explains the difference between
Mahayana Buddhism, which evolves in Zen, and other schools. Zen believes that when Buddha
experiences awakening he never said a word, despite all that is attributed to him.
the actual content of this experience was never could never be put to words. For words are
the frames of maya, the meshes of its net, and the experience is of the water which slips
through (45).
Despite this Watts still goes on to explain the Four Nobel Truths and the Eightfold path which make the
foundation of Buddhism. Watts explains in great detail and elaborates these truths in a way that makes
it more comprehendible and gets to the meaning beyond a simple word for word translation, and
explains a deeper meaning behind them than what one might first believe. The first truth is that
suffering exists, which Watts calls self-frustration. And that there is no ego, or entity apart and subject
to our experiences. The second truth is the origin of suffer. The origin is from trying to control the self or
our environment. It is impossible, futile, and self-contradictory, like trying to grasp your own hand. The
Fourth Nobel truth is the Eightfold Path. A path that ends suffering/self-frustration. The method is called
dhyana. Watts describes dhyana as the sensation of knowing without subject or predicate. To relieve
us of the convention we are wrapped up in.
There is another more opaque form of Buddhism that is more directly influences the creation of
Zen. This is Mahayana Buddhism, the goal of which is the experience of liberation, not a philosophical
system. It concerned merely with the end, the means are relative, and can be judged only so far as they
are successful. The origin of Zen is found mostly in legend, and through guess work. Mahayanists
attribute their origin to private teachings from the Buddha that the world was not yet ready for. The
main difference is that Buddhism is about rigorous effort and self-control and to lay aside all in the
pursuit of nirvana. Mahayanists see this as an
absurd vicious circle of desiring not to desire, or of trying to get rid of selfishness for
oneselfFor if nirvana is the state in which the attempt to grasp reality has wholly ceased,
through the realization of its impossibility, it will obviously be absurd to think of nirvana as
something grasped or obtained (60-61).
Real nirvana cannot be desired because it cannot be conceived. For to be conceived is to give it
definition. Just as Buddha says that abstract distract from what is real so even abstracts like nirvana and
samsara distract from awakening. In its essence Nirvana is samsara and void is form. This leads to
another contradiction as one cannot stop seeking nirvana, for that imply intention or the grasping we
are trying to avoid. There comes a point where all attempt are in vain. The pursuit of goal that lead
simply to more goals. And there is no way out, no way of letting go, which can take by effort, by a
decision of the willBut who is it that wants to get out? Ultimately one can only give up, and live life
spontaneously, without effort to be spontaneous. Ideals, and ambition are all unnecessary. There is only
the moment.
If one were not already confused by the concept in The Way of Zen the chapter on Mahayana
Buddhism is the most difficult to comprehend, because of the innate contradiction that lay within it. It is
full of seeming contradiction and circular logic that is can only be defined with itself. This is the biggest
problem with the book, but it cannot be blamed on Alan Watts, for it is the nature of Eastern Buddhism
that it is impossible to understand the real with abstraction like language. In essence this entire book is a
contradiction, Watts can only state explain as succinctly and clearly as he can the theories of Buddhism.
Watts now goes on to explain Mahayana Buddhism as seen today. Buddha is seen as a
personification of reality. When one sees Buddhist temples, and statues of Buddha they are being
venerated, not as gods, but instead as personifications of ones true nature. The one of the largest
takeaways from Mahayana Buddhism is to take the world without dualities, but instead in its natural
suchness, as Watts calls it. Void is form, dying is the living. He concludes the chapter with an
explanation of the Yogacara a method and philosophy for Mahayana Buddhism; which can be simplified
as everything is mind. Everything we see in the world is something produced spontaneously from our
mind which flows through our discriminating consciousness that separates into forms lastly it goes
through our senses which in projected as the classified external world. The purpose of yoga is to
eliminate and still these processes of our mind and see the world in it unclassified suchness. With all
this Watts finally proceeds to the rise and development of Zen Buddhism.
What separates Zen from other Buddhist schools is can best be described as is characteristic
flavor for being direct. Pointing directly at the truth with seeming to.
In Zen there is always the feeling that awakening is something quite natural, something
startlingly obvious, which may occur at any moment. If it involves a difficulty, I is just that it is
much too simple (77).
Zen is something that must be grasped in its entirety in the present, and thereby cannot be taught in a
traditional sense. As for Zens origins it is difficult to say. There is no directly lineage that can be traced
to India, although the principles can be found there. The first recorded individual that Zen can be traced
to is the scholar-monk Kumarajiva and his pupil Seng-chao. Who translated and wrote works directly
linked to Zen Buddhism. Watt then goes through the history of Zen and links specific Zen beliefs to
figures both historical and mythical. Sheng-chao is a pioneer of the belief of time being self-contained
and quiescent (82). The Book of Chao is the directly link between Tao and Zen, containing the
terminology of Tao applied to the philosophy of Buddhism. Zens own account of its origin lies in the
monk Bodhidharma, a pupil of first Buddha. Although no historical records exist of him Watts defends
his existence in China, given the presidence of other monks traveling to china at the time. From here
Watts goes through the legends of many of the pioneers of Buddhism in China describing the legends
that surround them and detailing the lessons they imparted to as to further our understanding of
Buddhism. There are Six Patriarchs of Zen detailed though only the fifth and sixth have reliable history
attributed to them. Watts details what each Patriarch adds to the still evolving Zen Buddhism. It is with
the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng that marks when Chinese Zen is fully formed. Like Mahayana Buddhism
Hui-neng believed that enlightenment cannot be obtained through effort. To strive to empty ones head
of all attachments, ideas feelings even conscious is to become not better than a block of wood or lump
of stone (93). Instead the mind should be like the empty sky, thoughts come through, unattached,
neither repressed nor interfered with. Like birds through the sky they leave no trace. The Patriarchate
ceased with Hui-neng and instead split among his disciples. Each disciple has their own method of
teaching Zen. Hung-po would strike his disciples when they asked questions. Lin-chi would use informal
almost vulgar speech. Po-chang created a monastery characterized by labor and self-sufficiency. But all
of these and many more are about when a man is almost miraculously natural without intending to be
so. His Zen life is not to make himself but to grow that way (103). A sharp change comes over Zen
practice in the East at this point that forever changes it, although the goal is the same the process will
change for better and for worse.
After the Taoist Emperor Wu-stung prosecution Buddhism is china, Zen ended up rising above
other schools to become a major force of Buddhism in China and later Japan. This led to an increase in
popularity that almost inevitable leads to a deterioration of quality. During this time Zen became an
established institution. Zen monasteries became boarding schools for adolescent boys, so discipline
became paramount. Paradoxically Zen masters had to instill convention of manners and morals while
simultaneously liberating them. Plus, due to the number of students standardization was required, so as
to test competency in Zen. As the master cannot independently devise teaching for dozen of students. .
This lead to the invention of the Kung-an, koan, or Zen Problem. The student shows his understanding
of these problems by a specific, usually nonverbal, demonstration discovered intuitively. These koans
were controversial, and believed by some to encourage the seeking of awakening which thrusts it away.
Or worse a false awakening that is no more than an emotional reaction to the solving of these Koans.
Regardless, koans became widespread throughout. This brings us to how Zen is practiced in the modern
day. Many modern monasteries have the practice of Za-zen, or sitting meditation. It involves countless
hours of practice where correct posture and breathing is paramount. The conflict between this is
addressed more extensively later in the book. Watts believes that Za-zen is most likely just a form of
sitting us to sit to rest agitated minds and bodies. This concludes the first half of the book. The history
complete, the gaps fulfilled. The second half of The Way of Zen now explores Zen as it exists in the
modern world. In both practice, and it implementation through art, music, and life.
After spending so long laying the groundwork many of the principles of Zen laid out in the
second half is Watts reiterating and enhancing ideas already introduced in previous chapters. First there
is the illusion of duality. Opposites are mutually arising and give each other meaning. In this way
sensations like comfort can be maintained only in relation to discomfort, the dualities of life are so
inseparable that they become on in the same. To choose comfort does not forgo pain, since both are the
same. There is no choice. To jump is to fall, as to fall is to jump. There is, however, no causality in Zen.
All this are independent and mutually arising. We are hardwired to think by cause in effect. For Zen
however this is not the case. Watts explains through the metaphor of the moon, and the reflection in
the water. The water does not wait to receive the image of the moon, and the moon does not wait for
the water to cast its reflection. They manifest in each other but neither is the cause. This lead to the
illusion to the self. For Zen, there is no self apart from the mind-body. The self if a concept that is given
too much weight because, concepts have permanence the reality lacks. When self is gone, then the
relation between subject and object is gone. Object creates subject, subject creates object. The knower
is not independent of the known. Which loops around to the illusion of choice. There is no distinction
between voluntary and involuntary events. Voluntary is an illusion, for we do not decide to decide.
Instead decisions are neither voluntary nor involuntary. Decisions like everything is mutually arising,
there is not difference between something involuntary like a hiccup and the flying of birth. The relativity
of time is also brought up. Since all things are independent and mutually arising, each moment is spate
unto itself and entirely tranquil. For there is only the present, and if one cannot live there, one cannot
live anywhere (24). In summary Zen begins at a point where nothing further can be gained. The goal
of Zen is to present reality as it is, in its suchness. The more one tries to define the world, the more
meaningless the symbols turn out to be. The result of these beliefs is a freedom that comes when one
no longer sees the world as an obstacle standing against one. The freedom of everyday life no longer
confined by a world that is inflexible.
The next chapter show the life where Zen has be applied. When Zen has been gained everything
is expressed in earnest spontaneous action that is in no way contrived. One cannot try and be natural,
however. This is a posturing and false. Instead it is just to act. One must be free of pretense and not be
self-conscious. When over reliant on knowledge, one waddles between opposites, accomplishing
nothing. There is an ultimate irony in the situation. Like being told to forget a monkey, to do, is not to
do. You cant actively forget something. If you cannot help but remembering the monkey, are you
doing it on purpose? Does one have the intent of being intentional, a purpose for being
purposive?(144). Then one realizes that their very intending is spontaneous. Even attempts to control
the self, arise from the unconscious and natural state. It is impossible not to be spontaneous, for what
one cannot help doing is done spontaneously. At this point in Zen one just simply laughs. All of this
result in nonsense. A reality with no meaning, and nothing beyond itself. For to even to try and break
away from Zen is Zen, and to try and achieve Zen is not Zen. Yet to Zen and Taoism alike this is the very
life of the universe, which is complete at every moment and does not need to justify itself by aiming at
something beyond (146). Watts argues that this is not aimless. For an empty mind of the Zen can enter
anything and everything wholeheartedly and freely without being self-conscious or even a thought
geared toward the self. In this way Zen is so simple it is confusing.
In the next chapter Watts attempts to explain the seeming contradiction found in the practical
study of Zen found in most monasteries, and the nature of Zen previously discussed. For these
monasteries there is no distinction between a sudden realization and the cultivation of Zen in practice
and meditation. The practice of Zen is not true practice so long as it has an end in view, and when it has
no end in view it is awakening-aimless and self-sufficient (154). Za-zen is best seen as sitting for sittings
sake. Anything gained from it is self-arising and does not originate from any purpose in mind. There is
further exploration of the ritualistic nature of these meditations. They can go on for over a dozen hours
at time, and student are struck if they fall asleep or they break form. Sometimes they have chanting or
incense other times not. He goes through many forms of these meditation, they have no purpose unto
themselves. Watts goes on to elaborate on koans introduced earlier. There are five groups of koans and
six stages. It take s40 years to go through them all but few actually do. The use of koans involves a
master pupil relationship. In the east the master is responsible for the pupil, and in return the pupil gives
his total obedience to his master. For Zen the pupil must take the initiative to create a relationship with
the master, due Zens official stance on having nothing to teach. Since the reality of Zen is so obvious,
helping only hinders. So a Zen master puts obstacles in a pupils way. This is the process of the koans.
Through the five steps all convention is broken. The pupil knows that he doesnt know. Many time the
question at the outset means nothing. The drawback of this system have already been explained. Watts
mostly believes that koans, like any tool, can be used or abused.
The final chapter focuses on the application of Zen teaching through the Arts. Since One
showing is worth a hundred saying, Zen art if valuable. Zen art can take any form, but their subject is
usually the natural world. Even Zen masters and Buddha are painted humbly, human, and even like
fools. The Arts are also about spontaneity and doing without effort. There is also no goal. To see a goal
makes the art impossible. For in the arts there the attitude of purposeless growth in which there are no
short cuts because every stage of the way is both beginning and end. These art are not rushed but fully
open to receive the world. The painting style of Sumi-e is nothing for its use of negative space, and
absence of symmetry. Watts goes to great length to explain the Zen philosophies of every aspect of
these painting. He does the same for Haiga paintings and the Haiku poems attached to them. He goes
through nearly two dozen haiku poems explaining the Zen principles underlying all of them. Each about
communication a pure picture of suchness so as to evoke a picture in the mind. Then there is the art
of Tea, which is linked to Buddhism like wine is to Christianity. It is a ceremony used to as a momentary
respite from the stress of daily life. Watts paints a picture of these ceremonies. Describing the place and
furnishings, how the tea is made and the importance of which tools were picked out for the situation. It
is a relaxing picture that one wishes they could participate. Finally there is the Zen garden, which
exemplifies the Zen art of intention-less intention. To create something entirely natural without directly
meaning to. Hence a natural looking setting despite effort put into it. Watts concludes with describing
how even breathing can be an art of Zen. Every human activity can become a form of za-zen. The
application of Zen in activity is not restricted to the formal arts, and does not require the specific sitting
technique of za-zen proper (199). Any art can be used to implement Zen, as Zen is universal and has
application in every aspect of life. Watts concludes the book with how Zen leads one to realize that
there is only the moment one is in right now. Though it is at this moment, there is no limit to this
moment, and herein is eternal delight (201). The finally chapter is the most redundant of them.
Frequently restating ideas presented before, applying them again and again to the different arts.
Sometimes it feels as if he is stretching the idea too far and finding Zen where there is none. Zen is
universal and found in all thing, according to Watts so it is difficult to criticize. It is the weakest chapter
as it does not add much to what has already been encapsulated in previous sections of the book.
When seeking to review something one most approach it with a certain impartiality so one can
give a critical opinion without pandering to any preconceived views. Unfortunately I dont see that as
possible. Intentionally or not I come to The Way of Zen from a biased mind of one seeking to understand
its contents. One that has put greater effort than the layman into probing its contents. In this state of
mind I have already complicity given my approval to this book and instead I can judge only as far as I am
stratified with what I hoped to gain from it. In this existent I believe The Way of Zen is masterfully done.
I have gained more than just a more honest understanding of Zen Buddhism, but insight into Eastern
philosophy as a whole. The history and teachings here are universal, and its application limitless. Watts
description are succinct and direct lacking both pretension and arrogance. I am an entertainer, says
Watts. Despite the books flaws it was an enlightening read from which I learned more from each
subsequent read.