Way of Zen

Alan Watts
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A super easy to digest overview and history of Zen Buddhism.

Part One: Background & History

The Philosophy of the Tao

In the west we learn to identify ourselves with a conventional view of “myself.”

  • For the conventional “self” or “person” is composed mainly of a history consisting of selected memories, and beginning from the moment of parturition.
  • According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real “me” than what I am at this moment.
  • For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is the firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!
  • It is important to recognise that the memories and past events which make up a man’s historical identity are no more than a selection.
  • The very nature of conventional knowledge is that it is a system of abstractions.

But when we have learned to put excessive reliance upon central vision, upon the sharp spotlight of the eyes and mind, we cannot regain the powers of peripheral vision unless the sharp and staring kind of sight is first relaxed. It is not simply calmness of mind, but “non-graspingness” of mind. In Chuangtzu’s words, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives, but does not keep.”

"Te" is the unthinkable ingenuity and creative power of man’s spontaneous and natural functioning–a power which is blocked when one tries to master it in terms of formal methods and techniques. It is like the centipede’s skill in using a hundred legs at once.

The centipede was happy, quite, Until a toad in fun Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?” This worked his mind to such a pitch, He lay distracted in a ditch, Considering how to run.

The Origins of Buddhism

Even so, all forms of Buddhism subscribe to the Middle Way between the extremes of angel (deva) and demon (preta), ascetic and sensualist, and claim that supreme “awakening” or Buddhahood can be attained only from the human state.

Consider for a moment that it is impossible to isolate a single fact, all by itself. Facts come in pairs at the very least, for a single body is inconceivable apart from a space in which it hangs. 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.

For this reason both Hindus and Buddhists prefer to speak of reality as “nondual” rather than “one,” since the concept of one must always be in relation to that of many.

The anitya doctrine — not the simple assertion that the world is impermanent, but rather that the more one grasps at the world, the more it changes. Reality in itself is neither permanent nor impermanent; it cannot be categorised.

Nirvana can only arise unintentionally, spontaneously, when the impossibility of self-grasping has been thoroughly perceived.

As used in Buddhism, the term dhyana comprises both recollectedness (smriti) and samadhi, and can best be described as the state of unified or one-pointed awareness (sometimes referred to as meditation).

Perhaps, then, we are now able to understand the celebrated summary of the Buddha’s doctrine given in the Visuddhimagga: Suffering alone exists, none who suffer; The deed there is, but no doer thereof; Nirvana is, but no one seeking it; The Path there is, but none who travel it.

Mahayana Buddhism

I cannot get rid of this desire, since it is one and the same desire as the desire to get rid of it! This is the familiar, everyday problem of the psychological “double-bind,” of creating the problem by trying to solve it, of worrying because one worries, and of being afraid of fear (see self fulfilling prophesy and backwards law)

Mental boxes are probably formed in our minds long before formal thought and language supply labels to identify them. We have begun to classify as soon as we notice differences, regularities and irregularities, as soon as we make associations of any kind.

The Rise and Development of Zen

In other schools of Buddhism, awakening or bodhi seems remote and almost superhuman, something to be reached only after many lives of patient effort. But in Zen there is always the feeling that awakening is something quite natural, something startlingly obvious, which may occur at any moment.

Zen flavor is 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.

Part Two: Principles & Practice

Empty and Marvellous

We do not sweat because it is hot; the sweating is the heat.

When we are no longer identified with the idea of ourselves, the entire relationship between subject and object, knower and known, undergoes a sudden and revolutionary change. It becomes a real relationship, a mutuality in which the subject creates the object just as much as the object creates the subject. The knower no longer feels himself to be independent of the known; the experiencer no longer feels himself to stand apart from the experience.

This is not a philosophy of not looking where one is going; it is a philosophy of not making where one is going so much more important than where one is that there will be no point in going.

The difficulty of Zen is, of course, to shift one’s attention from the abstract to the concrete, from the symbolic self to one’s true nature.

When reading a difficult book it is of no help to think, “I should concentrate,” for one thinks about concentration instead of what the book has to say.

Professor Irving Lee, of Northwestern University, used to hold up a matchbox before his class, asking “What’s this?” The students would usually drop squarely into the trap and say, “A matchbox!” At this Professor Lee would say, “No, no! It’s this–” throwing the matchbox at the class, and adding, “Matchbox is a noise. Is this a noise?”

Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing

Thermostat Analogy

The mind has something resembling a “feed-back” system. Feed-back enables a machine to be informed of the effects of its own action in such a way as to be able to correct its action. Perhaps the most familiar example is the electrical thermostat which regulates the heating of a house.

  • By setting an upper and a lower limit of desired temperature, a thermometer is so connected that it will switch the furnace on when the lower limit is reached, and off when the upper limit is reached. The temperature of the house is thus kept within the desired limits.
  • Every feedback system needs a margin of “lag” or error. If we try to make a thermostat absolutely accurate—that is, if we bring the upper and lower limits of temperature very close together in an attempt to hold the temperature at a constant 70 degrees—the whole system will break down. For to the extent that the upper and lower limits coincide, the signals for switching off and switching on will coincide!
  • Whereupon the mechanism will start “trembling,” going on and off, on and off, until it shakes itself to pieces. The system is too sensitive and shows symptoms which are startlingly like human anxiety.
  • When a human being is so self-conscious, so self-controlled that he cannot let go of himself, he dithers or wobbles between opposites. This is precisely what is meant in Zen by going round and round on “the wheel of birth-and-death,” for the Buddhist samsara is the prototype of all vicious circles.

The effort to remain always “good” or “happy” is like trying to hold the thermostat to a constant 70 degrees by making the lower limit the same as the upper. The identification of the mind with its own image is, therefore, paralysing because the image is fixed—it is past and finished. But it is a fixed image of oneself in motion! To cling to it is thus to be in constant contradiction and conflict.

“In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” — Hence Yün-men

In other words, the mind cannot act without giving up the impossible attempt to control itself beyond a certain point. It must let go of itself both in the sense of trusting its own memory and reflection, and in the sense of acting spontaneously, on its own into the unknown.

Zen is a medicine for the ill effects of this conditioning, for the mental paralysis and anxiety which come from excessive self-consciousness.

It is just as if I had been absorbed in a tug-of-war between my two hands, and had forgotten that both were mine.

Za-zen and the Koan

For the practice of Zen is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view, and when it has no end in view it is awakening—the aimless, self-sufficient life of the “eternal now.”

To put it in another way: one does not practice Zen to become a Buddha; one practices it because one is a Buddha from the beginning—and this “original realization” is the starting point of the Zen life.

Awakening is to know what reality is not. It is to cease identifying oneself with any object of knowledge whatsoever.

The assumption that “I am nothing” would, of course, be equally wrong since something and nothing, being and non-being, are related concepts, and belong equally to the “known.”

Zen in the Arts

A world which increasingly consists of destinations without journeys between them, a world which values only “getting somewhere” as fast as possible, becomes a world without substance. One can get anywhere and everywhere, and yet the more this is possible, the less is anywhere and everywhere worth getting to.

It is not just that satori comes quickly and unexpectedly, all of a sudden, for mere speed has nothing to do with it. The reason is that Zen is a liberation from time. For if we open our eyes and see clearly, it becomes obvious that there is no other time than this instant, and that the past and the future are abstractions without any concrete reality.

But through “awakening to the instant” one sees that this is the reverse of the truth: it is rather the past and future which are the fleeting illusions, and the present which is eternally real. We discover that the linear succession of time is a convention of our single-track verbal thinking, of a consciousness which interprets the world by grasping little pieces of it, calling them things and events.

Thus the superficial consciousness can awaken to the eternal present if it stops grasping. But this does not come to pass by trying to concentrate on the present—an effort which succeeds only in making the moment seem ever more elusive and fleeting, ever more impossible to bring into focus. Awareness of the “eternal now” comes about by the same principle as the clarity of hearing and seeing and the proper freedom of the breath. Clear sight has nothing to do with trying to see; it is just the realisation that the eyes will take in every detail all by themselves, for so long as they are open.