‘The way of Zen’ – Alan Watts

The way of Zen – Preface

Zen is above all an experience. To know what it is, and what it is not, there is no alternative but to practice it.

Those who know do not speak;

Those who speak do not know.

There can be no doubt that the essential standpoint of Zen refuses to be organized, or to be made the exclusive possession of any institution. If there is anything that transcends the relativities of cultural conditioning it is Zen.

The book is based upon a study of the early Chinese records.

The way of Zen – Background and History

1. The Philosophy of the Tao

Historically, Zen must be regarded as the fulfillment of long traditions of Indian and Chinese culture, though it is much more Chinese than Indian, and since the twelfth century it has rooted itself deeply in the culture of Japan.

The origins of Zen are as much Taoist as Buddhist.

Conventional knowledge: western, linear, one-at-a-time, conscious, central vision

Unconventional knowledge: peripheral vision, peripheral mind

In ancient Chinese society there are two traditions playing complementary parts: Confucianism and Taoism.

Confucianism preoccupies itself with conventional knowledge; Taoism preoccupies itself with unconventional knowledge, with the understanding of life directly, instead of the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.

Taoism is a way of liberation. Tao, the ultimate Reality, the indefinable, concrete process of the world, the Way of life.

According to tradition, the originator of Taoism is Lao-tzu (500 B.C.), said to have been the author of the Tao Te Ching, a short book of aphorisms. But Chinese tradition ascribes both Taoism and Confucianism to a earlier source, dating from 3000 to 1200 B.C., the I Ching, or Book of Changes.

The Tao’s principle is spontaneity. [Tao Te Ching]

The Tao doesn’t know haw it produces the universe just as we don’t know how we construct our brains.

Lao-tzu said:

When the superior man hears of the Tao,

he does his best to practice it.

When the middling man hears of the Tao,

he sometimes keeps it, and sometimes loses it.

When the inferior man hears of the Tao,

he will laugh aloud at it.

If he did not laugh, it would not be the Tao.

It’s fundamental both Taoist and Confucian thought that the natural man is to be trusted.

The unconsciousness, the no-mind, is a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily. If the ordinary man is one who has to walk by lifting his legs with his hands, the Taoist is one who has learned to let his legs walk by themselves.

Hsin: the mental function which works through all. It would seem that Hsin means the totality of our psychic functioning, the center of that functioning. According to both Taoism and Zen the center of the mind’s activity is not in the conscious thinking process, not in the ego.

When a man has learned to let his mind alone he begins to show the power (or virtue) of Te. Not a virtue in the conventional moral sense, but in the sense of effectiveness (as the healing virtue of a plant). It’s the unthinkable ingenuity of and creative power of man’s spontaneous and natural functioning. It’s like the centipede ability to use a hundred legs at once.

Taoism is the original Chinese way of liberation which combined with Indian Mahayana Buddhism to produce Zen.

2. The origins of Buddhism

Chinese civilization was at least two thousand years old when it first encountered Buddhism. China absorbed Buddhism.

All forms of Buddhism subscribe to the Middle Way between angel and demon and claim that the supreme awakening of Buddhahood can be attained only by the human state.

–> Indian Buddhism, it is difficult to study because:

– of the difficult interpretations of the Sanskrit and and Pali texts in which ancient Indian literature is preserved;

– it is extremely difficult to know which was the original form of Buddhism;

– the Hindu-Buddhist tradition has few marks to indicate the date of a text.

Fundamental to the life and thought of India is the great mythological theme of self-sacrifice which which God gives birth to the world, and this act is the same by which the world is consummated.

Every life is a part in which God is absorbed.

In the beginning the world was Atman (the Self).

In the Upanishads, every positive statement about ultimate reality is made in the form of myth of poetry.

The foregoing myth is not expression of a formal philosophy, but of an experience called ‘liberation’.

Self-knowledge or Self-awakening is when one discovers who he is, when he’s no longer identified with any role or conventional definition of the person.

‘I am Brahman’ is a realization of identity with God.

The practical discipline of the way of liberation is a progressive disentanglement of one’s Self (Atman) from every identification. Ultimately, it is not even to be identified with any idea, as God or Atman.

Maya: the manifold world of facts and events, an illusion that veils the the one underlying reality of Brahman. It’s classification while Brahman has no duality, it has any opposite.

Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience of emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.

It is the realization of the total elusiveness of the world which lies at the root of Buddhism. This is the special shift of emphasis which distinguishes the doctrine of Buddha from the teaching of theUpanishads.

For seven years Gautama (Buddha) has struggled by the traditional means of yoga, contemplation and ascesis, to penetrate the cause of man’s enslavement to maya, to fin release from the vicious circle of clinging-to-life which is like trying to make the hand grasp itself. All his efforts had been in vain. The eternal atman, the real Self, was not to be found. The evening before his awakening he just ‘gave up’, relaxed his ascetic diet and ate some nourishing food. Yet the actual content of this experience was never and could never be put into words. For words are the frames of maya, the meshes of its net.

For Zen tradition Buddha didn’t transmit his awakening in words, but for the Pali canon he expressed it in FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS.

The First Truth is concerned with the problematic word duhkha, loosely translatable as “suffering” (or frustration) and which designates the great disease of the world for which the Buddha’s method (dharma) is the cure.

Birth is duhkha, decay is duhkha, sickness isduhkha, death is duhkha, so also are sorrow and grief.… To be bound with things which we dislike, and to be parted from things which we like, these also are duhkha. Not to get what one desires, this also is duhkha. In a word, this body, this fivefold aggregation based on clutching (trishna), this is duhkha.

The Second Noble Truth relates with the cause of frustration (which is trishna, grasping), based on ignorance or unconsciousness, avidya, the opposite of Awakening. Avidya is ignoring that that subject and object are relational, like the two sides of a coin.

The desire of perfect control, of the environment and of oneself, is based on a profound mistrust of the controller, avidya is the failure to see the basic self-contradiction of this position. Trying to grasp or control life is self-frustration that lead to the samsara (the Round of birth and death).

The active principle of the round is known as Karma, or conditioned action, action arising from an motive and seeking a result, it always requires the necessity for further action.

In Zen the Round of birth and death is taken in a metaphorical way, the rebirth is moment by moment.

The Third Noble Truth is concerned with the end of self-frustration, called nirvana.  To attain nirvana is also to attain Buddhahood, Awakening. But is impossible to desire nirvana, or to intend to reach it, because everything desirable is by definition not nirvana.

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

The Fourth Noble Truth describes the Eightfold Path of the Buddha’s Dharma:

1 Samyag-drishti, or complete view.

2 Samyak-samkalpa, or complete understanding.

3 Samyag-vak, or complete (i.e., truthful) speech.

4 Samyak-karmanta, or complete action.

5 Samyagajiva, or complete vocation.

6 Samyag-vyayama, or complete application.

7 Samyak-smriti, or complete recollectedness.

8 Samyak-samadhi, or complete contemplation.

The separation of the thinker from the thought, the knower from the known, the subject from the object, is purely abstract. There is just a process of experiencing in which there is nothing to be grasped, as an object, and no one, as a subject, to grasp it.

Can then thought review thought? No, thought cannot review thought. As the blade cannot cut itself, as a finger-tip cannot touch itself, so a thought cannot see itself.

The nonduality of the mind, in which it is no longer divided against itself, is samhadi.

Sitting meditation is not a spiritual exercise followed for some ulterior object, just the proper way to sit. Where there is purpose there is no dhyana, which is the original Sanskrit word for ZEN. Meditation isn’t a good translation of dhyana. Maybe it shouldn’t be translated, as for Nirvana and Tao.

The 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

The vast body of Mahayana doctrine arose to deal with the practical psychological problems encountered in following the Buddha’s way.

The great concern of the Mahayana is the provision of “skillful means” (upaya) for making nirvana accessible to every type of mentality.

Zen, a Chinese rather than Indian form of Buddhism, arose when Indian Mahayana was fully grown, from the central Mahayana doctrines.

The Bodhisattva, however, is one who realizes that there is a profound contradiction in a nirvana attained by himself and for himself. From the popular standpoint, the Bodhisattva became a focus of devotion (bhakti), a savior of the world who had vowed not to enter the final nirvana until all other sentient beings had likewise attained it.

But from a deeper standpoint it became obvious that the idea of the Bodhisattva is implicit in the logic of Buddhism, that it flows naturally from the principle of not-grasping and from the doctrine of the unreality of the ego.

The corollary of this position is that if there is nonirvana which can be attained, and if, in reality, there are no individual entities, it will follow that our bondage in the Round is merely apparent, and that in fact we are already in nirvana–so that to seek nirvana is the folly of looking for what one has never lost.

Mahayana answer to the question: how can I try to let go if trying is precisely not letting go? is that all grasping, even for nirvana, is futile–for there is nothing to be grasped.

The dialectic with which he demolishes every conception of reality is merely a device for breakingthe vicious circle of grasping, and the terminus of his philosophy is not the abject despair of nihilism but the natural and uncontrived bliss (ananda) of liberation.

It cannot be called void or not void,

Or both or neither;

But in order to point it out,

It is called “the Void”.

Again, Mahamati, what is meant by non-duality? It means that light and shade, long and short, black and white, are relative terms, Mahamati, and not independent of each other; as Nirvana and Samsara are, all things are not-two. There is no Nirvana except where is Samsara; there is no Samsara except where is Nirvana; for the condition of existence is not of a mutually exclusive character. Therefore it is said that all things are non-dual as are Nirvana and Samsara.

The insistence of the Mahayana texts on the unattainability of nirvanaand bodhi is not something to be accepted theoretically, as a mere philosophical opinion. One has to know “in one’s bones” that there is nothing to be grasped.


The Mahayana have another term for reality which is perhaps rather more indicative thansunya, the void. This is the wordtathata, which we may translate as “suchness,” “thusness,” or “thatness.”

Tathatatherefore indicates the world just as it is, unscreened and undivided by the symbols and definitions of thought. It is the true state of the Buddha.


According to the Yogacara the world of form iscittamatra–“mind only”–orvijnaptimatra–“representation only.”

The Yogacara does not, therefore, discuss the relation of forms of matter to mind; it discusses the relation of forms to mind, and concludes that they are forms of mind. As a result, the term “mind” (citta) becomes logically meaningless.

The mind is beyond all philosophical views, is apart from discrimination, it is not attainable, nor is it ever born: I say there is nothing but Mind. It is not an existence, nor is it a non-existence; it is indeed beyond both existence and non-existence.… Out of Mind spring in-numerable things, conditioned by discrimination (i.e., classification) and habit-energy; these things people accept as an external world.… What appears to be external does not exist in reality; it is indeed Mind that is seen as multiplicity; the body, property, and abode–all these, I say, are nothing but Mind.


A profound regard for te underlies the entire higher culture of the Far East, so much so that it has been made the basic principle of every kind of art and craft. While it is true that these arts employ what are, to us, highly difficult technical disciplines, it is always recognized that they are instrumental and secondary, and that superior work has the quality of an accident. This is not merely a masterful mimicry of the accidental, an assumed spontaneity in which the careful planning does not show. It lies at a much deeper and more genuine level, for what the culture of Taoism and Zen proposes is that one might become the kind of person who, without intending it, is a source of marvelous accidents.

[p. 38]


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