The Most Important Teachings From Alan Watts’ “The Way Of Zen”

ISBN: 0375705104

Alan Watts (1915-1973) was a British philosopher who helped popularize Eastern philosophy to Western audiences. After gaining value from his Youtube lectures, I picked up The Way Of Zen to further educate myself on his teachings.

For the sake of simplification, there are three main schools of Eastern philosophy: Buddhism, Zen, and Tao. Depending on who you ask, Zen is seen either as its own unique school of thought or a flavor of Buddhism, especially when it’s written as “Zen Buddhism.”

As for the principal difference among the schools, the level of asceticism required decreases as you go from Buddhism to Zen to Tao. A Buddhist religiously meditates away from the masses to receive enlightenment, often in mountainous escapes, while a Taoist can theoretically receive enlightenment in his apartment in the middle of New York City. Buddhism requires more of you from behavior while Taoism requires more of you in understanding the “path.” Since Zen exists in the middle between the two, it takes components from both, but in reality there has been so much mixing between all the schools that having distinctions is not particularly useful.

The great Tao flows everywhere,
to the left and to the right.
All things depend upon it to exist,
and it does not abandon them.
To its accomplishments it lays no claim.
It loves and nourishes all things,
but does not lord it over them.

Compared to his lectures, this book was more dry and academic in tone because he wanted to trace the history and mechanisms of the various philosophies instead of giving you teachings that could be immediately put to use, but there were still many interesting segments.

It is fundamental to both Taoist and Confucian thought that the natural man is to be trusted, and from their standpoint it appears that the Western mistrust of human nature—whether theological or technological—is a kind of schizophrenia.

In the materialist West, you are trained for hating who you are and what you have. You are a car that is eternally in disrepair, and must be always taken to this mechanic or that to be diagnosed and fixed. Forced self-improvement and accomplishment never ends, as well as the pursuit of pleasure to momentarily numb yourself from the lacks and aches that you have been programmed to think you have. The end result is that you come to believe that there is a problem with human existence itself, and that living life as you are, without conscious improvement, is a mistake.

It is fundamental to every school of Buddhism that there is no ego, no enduring entity which is the constant subject of our changing experiences. For the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch. We can, for example, imagine the path of a bird through the sky as a distinct line which it has taken. But this line is as abstract as a line of latitude. In concrete reality, the bird left no line, and, similarly, the past from which our ego is abstracted has entirely disappeared. Thus any attempt to cling to the ego or to make it an effective source of action is doomed to frustration.

In all Eastern philosophies, the ego is seen as the bringer of suffering, a parasite that forces behavior upon humans for its own ends instead of benefit to the human. Many men have died in duels or other fights solely because the ego was injured, not the body or soul. Taoists like Osho claim that the ego is an artificial program installed by civilization, and while that can’t quite be verified since most humans of the world have been touched by civilization, it’s clear that human nature is deeply compatible with getting hijacked by the ego.

Man is involved in karma when he interferes with the world in such a way that he is compelled to go on interfering, when the solution of a problem creates still more problems to be solved, when the control of one thing creates the need to control several others. Karma is thus the fate of everyone who “tries to be God.” He lays a trap for the world in which he himself gets caught.

[…]

…the human situation is seen for what it is—a quenching of thirst with salt water, a pursuit of goals which simply require the pursuit of other goals, a clutching of objects which the swift course of time renders as insubstantial as mist.

[…]

…to seek to become Buddha is to deny that one is already Buddha—and this is the sole basis upon which Buddhahood can be realized! In short, to become a Buddha it is only necessary to have the faith that one is a Buddha already.

When you solve one problem, a new problem immediately appears. The second you answer a critical question about life, a new question pops into your mind. Humans believe in the false notion that once a certain situation is attained, happiness or enlightenment will occur, but as Osho has said, “Enlightenment is a realization, not a situation.” We are spending time and resources to put ourselves into a specific situation, and then once we get in that situation, we adapt to it, feel that we are still suffering or that we lack yet one additional critical component, and then go about spending more time and resources into achieving a new situation, but what we’re doing is no different than a child who thinks a new toy will provide him with permanent entertainment and stimulation.

There is nothing that exists in the material world that can provide perpetual fulfillment, because it is simply adapted to, and while something may provide intense meaning for a time, that meaning will inevitably fade, and the truth of this reality can never be escaped no matter how much more achievement is attained.

The way I know I’m pursuing a false goal—a false God—is if it’s something in the material world, whether money, an object, or a woman. Working on its attainment will keep me busy, will make me feel alive or useful for a duration of time, and will satisfy my ego which wants me to have more material or more accomplishments so that it can say it is superior to others, but will not produce anything everlasting compared to an understanding or realization of what life really is.

The illusion of significant improvement arises in moments of contrast, as when one turns from the left to the right on a hard bed. The position is “better” so long as the contrast remains, but before long the second position begins to feel like the first. So one acquires a more comfortable bed and, for a while, sleeps in peace. But the solution of the problem leaves a strange vacuum in one’s consciousness, a vacuum soon filled by the sensation of another intolerable contrast, hitherto unnoticed, and just as urgent, just as frustrating as the problem of the hard bed. The vacuum arises because the sensation of comfort can be maintained only in relation to the sensation of discomfort, just as an image is visible to the eye only by reason of a contrasting background.

[…]

For when a human being is so self-conscious, so self-controlled that he cannot let go of himself, he dithers or wobbles between opposites.

To fully know or experience a thing, you must know its opposite. The highest pleasure can only be felt by someone who has experienced the deepest pain. The feeling of being fully awake, or enlightened, can only be experienced by someone who was asleep or ignorant. You will not receive satisfaction from plenty unless you know what it’s like to be lacking. A thing is defined by its opposite, which explains how unconsciously you will go back and force between extremes instead of staying in the middle. When you dive into one intense behavior, what you’re doing is compressing a spring to propel you into its opposite.

Philosophers do not easily recognize that there is a point where thinking—like boiling an egg—must come to a stop.

This applies not just to thinking, but also experience. Right now, I have enough knowledge to understand my place in the world and those around me. I do not need more knowledge or information. I do not need to sleep with more women, travel to more countries, taste more foods, see more movies, read more books, or write more articles. There is nothing more the material world can give me beyond what I already have, know, or understand. While I will of course gain more knowledge and have more experiences in the future, I’m not fooling myself in that it will complete me or finalize my essence. Once you’ve reached a certain level of material comfort and understanding, more is not the answer, only existence is.

Yet it should be obvious that action without wisdom, without clear awareness of the world as it really is, can never improve anything. Furthermore, as muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone, it could be argued that those who sit quietly and do nothing are making one of the best possible contributions to a world in turmoil.

I will agree that Eastern philosophy is useful for elites who wish to control humans. There is no easier human to control than one who is happy with things as they are, who meditates all day, and who does not seek power. This is why the KGB was interested in Buddhism because of how it spreads ideas of inaction, and allows those with power to keep that power without competition.

Yet we must ask what is best for the individual versus what is best for society, and how sole focus on the latter can be destructive because of how it treats humans as aggregates, cogs, units, and tools of production. You can walk in an American city today, and marvel at its cleanliness, relatively low crime, and “civilization,” but behind that orderly facade is massive illicit drug use, pharmaceutical abuse, sterile relationships, internet addiction, and mental suffering. How much of our efforts should be focused on the individual, and how much on the societal? That is the question of the day.

The perfection of Zen is to be perfectly and simply human. The difference of the adept in Zen from the ordinary run of men is that the latter are, in one way or another, at odds with their own humanity, and are attempting to be angels or demons.

Those who suffer the most in this life are the ones who want to change and control others, because they believe that their own happiness or enlightenment cannot occur until other human beings behave or act in a way they demand, which involves controlling the instincts and drives of potentially millions of living organisms. The same applies to men such as myself who want to constrain female nature with patriarchal rules that would improve society, but which come at the cost of conflict for the man who must now expend energy to enforce those rules and also for the woman who is prevented from acting in full accordance with her destructive animalistic urges.

Zen has no goal; it is a traveling without point, with nowhere to go. To travel is to be alive, but to get somewhere is to be dead, for as our own proverb says, “To travel well is better than to arrive.” 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.

There is no escaping the reality of existence, where suffering must be felt if you want to experience pleasure and where there is no material pot of gold at the end of a rainbow of experience. Merely understanding those facts is helpful to see that there is no problem with you specifically, and getting angry at your perceived lacks in the same as being angry at the world that you’re a part of, at the rules that govern our reality.

The Way Of Zen did provide a helpful background on Buddhism, Zen, and Tao, but beyond the quotes I shared above, it won’t give you more than what you can freely find within his online lectures. Start with those first, and if you need more of an academic understanding of Eastern philosophy, this book will be worth your time.

Read More: “The Way Of Zen” on Amazon

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