THE WAY OF ZEN by Alan Watts

Arkana Penguin 1990. Originally Pantheon 1957. ISBN 0-14-019255-7

Alan Watts was an Englishman who spent a lifetime studying religion and philosophy, principally as a lecturer and teacher in the United States. His main interest was in Eastern religion and thought and by the age of twenty he had written The Spirit of Zen, the book that foreshadowed this one.

To identify the interest in Zen Buddhism, Watts states that," … the course of our thinking and of our very history has seriously undermined the common-sense assumptions which lie at the roots of our social conventions and institutions. Familiar concepts of space, time, motion, and of natural law, of history and social change, and of human personality itself have dissolved, and we find ourselves adrift without landmarks in a universe which more and more resembles the Buddhist principle of the "Great Void"…..

…This is why, I think, there is so much interest in a culturally productive way of life which, for some 1500 years, has felt thoroughly at home in "the Void", and which not only feels no terror for it but rather a positive delight. To use its own words, the situation of Zen has always been-

Above, not a tile to cover the head;
Below, not an inch of ground for the foot.

He takes the stand of being sympathetic to Zen and experimenting with it personally but keeping a distance from the Zen hierarchy. This leaves him in a sort of no-mans land that has its advantages. As he says, Westerners who explore Zen tend to analyse it but miss the point (he calls this eating the menu rather than the meal) or get the point and lose interest in explaining it.

The book is divided into two parts, Background and History, and Principles and Practice.(top)

Watts traces the Zen "Way" or way of liberation back to its very early Indian and Chinese roots. He shows the dominant Taoist/Chinese influence and the final flowering from the twelveth century onwards in the culture of Japan.

The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu (born about 700 B.C. around the same time as Confucius) figures largely as a Zen source and as Watts says, the Tao is very much connected to the idea of wu-wei, wu meaning "not" or "non-" and wei meaning "making", "doing", "striving", "straining", or "busyness".

This may be a recipe for doing nothing and it seems that it could be (!) but should you be engaged in an activity it seems that there is a Zen way to do it. Eugen Herrigel, a German professor who taught philosophy at the University of Tokyo in the inter-war period trained with a Zen master in archery for six years recounting the difficult experience in his book Zen in the Art of Archery. He talks about the endless practice and a loss of self in the moment, of lack of ego and respect for the the moment, the bow, the arrow, the target and the ceremony in its entirety

The same ideas seem to appear in Csikszentmihalyi's book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety , mostly with regard to sport. He uses the word "Flow" for this satisfying unselfconscious skilled action.

Watts in Principles and Practice, entitles his chapters ;
"Empty and Marvellous"
"Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing"
Za-zen and the Koan
Zen and the Arts

This book is highly recommended.

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