Craig Payton/ Book Report: The Way of Zen

by Craig Payton

The Way of Zen

Alan Watts

Why this book?

I have been a student of meditation since my grade school years.  I have read many books on various aspects of this practice.  Zen is perhaps widely understood to be an equivalent of meditatino practices in general, or a meditative frame of mind to some.  In fact the word Zen -Japanese- comes from the word Ch’an -Chinese- which comes from the Indian word Dhyana, all of which mean meditation.  Although I have studied this subject quite extensively I have never read anything by Alan Watts, a westerner who is now widely credited with exposing the West to Chinese Taoist and Japanese Zen thought.  This book published in 1957 represents an historic effort to shed light on the mysterious topic of Zen at a time when matters of Oriental thought were tremendously more exotic and unknown in the West.

This succinct work of a mere 201 pages of text is an important and useful work to anyone interested in Asian studies, philosophy and meditation.  Watts divides the work into two parts; Background and history, Principles and practice.

I have studied and researched Taoist History and practices extensively and Buddhist history and practice somewhat less.  Watts analysis of the cross pollination of Taoism and Buddhism as the genesis of Zen is an important understanding to provided perspective to one trying to understand the Eastern philosophies.  The first two chapters of this book: The Philosophy of Tao & The Origins of Buddhism are a wonderfully realized succinct overview of these subjects both elegant and comprehensive.  If one had no prior knowledge of these topics this would be an excellent starting point.  With prior study these chapters represent a focused summary as reference to the student.

According to Watts;

“Zen does not belong to any formal categories of Western thought.  It is not a religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology of type of science.  It is an example of what is known in India and China as a ‘way of liberation’, and is similar in this fashion to Vedanta, Yoga and Taoism.”

Quoting a Taoist writer;

“For it is really impossible to appreciate what is meant by the Tao without becoming in a rather special sense, stupid.”

The idea is not to reduce the human mind to a moronic vacuity, but to bring into play its innate and spontaneous intelligence by using it without forcing it.   It is fundamental in 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.

Exponents of Zen later called this Wu-Tsin or No-Mind.  Which is to say un-self-consciousness.  It is a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily.  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 so that it functions in the integrated and spontaneous way that is natural to it, he begins to show the special kind of “virtue” or “power” called TE.  This virtue does not refer to moral rectitude, but to effectiveness, e.g. the healing VIRTUE of a medicinal plant.

When Confucians prescribed a virtue which depended upon the artificial observance of rules and precepts, the Taoists pointed out that such virtue was conventional and not genuine, not Tzu-jan, a word which means spontaneous.

“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.”

Superior virtue(TE) is not conscious of itself as virtue(TE) and thus is virtue(TE).  Inferior virtue cannot dispense with virtuosity, and thus is not virtue.”

The most essential Taoist work is “Tao Te Jing” by Lao Tsu.  The title of this work has been translated variously in English but I am confident the most clear translation is “The Classic of Tao and TE.”  A classic is a book which is regarded in a way analogously with the Bible in the West.  The Bible is also regarded as a “Classic” a “Jing” in Asia.  Thus “Tao Te Jing” means “The classic of Tao and Te.”

Arguably the second most important Taoist sage/writer after Lao Tsu is Chuang Tsu, a quote from whom finished the chapter on Taoism;

“Were language adequate, it would take but a day fully to set forth Tao. Not being adequate, it takes time to explain material existences.  Tao is something beyond material existences.  It cannot be conveyed either in words or silence.”

Chinese civilization was at least 2000 years old when it absorbed Buddhism.  The combination of Taoism and Confucianism extant in China at the time allowed for the new philosophy to become integrated into a much different soil than its native land of India.  The practicality and stability of the Chinese culture allowed for  the absorbtion of many ideas, indeed many peoples.  It may be argued that in China Buddhism began to have an expression which was more accessible to ordinary people with families and everyday work to do.  Watts argues that Far Eastern Buddhism is much more “according to nature” more palatable than it’s Indian or Tibetan counterparts which he says seem to be “aimed at superhuman ideals much more suitable to angels than to men.”  All Buddhist sects seem to agree thta the supreme awakening or Buddhahood can only be attained from the human state.

What follows are excerpts of specific Buddhist terms to create for myself a study guide for this chapter. This series of excerpts tie in with the flow of this chapter.

Moksha – Liberation.  That which is sought by Buddhists, achieved by the Buddha.

Illusion.  the Buddhist view of the world in general may be summed up by saying All is Maya.

Maya is the root of the word meaning measurement.  This points out that Maya indicates the world of facts and events which can be viewed as terms of measurement rather than the realities of nature.  A proper understanding of Maya is essential to the study of both Buddhism and Hinduism. The doctrine of Maya states not that all isone, for one must be considered always in relation to the duality of many, but that all is non-dual.  Thus the simiple definition of Maya is illusion, but the deeper definition is that true reality is beyond Maya, or beyond measurements, beyond being and non-being.

Advaita – Duality.  This refers to the world of opposites.  Buddhists seek to attain non-dual awareness.

Tathata – Suchness, thusness.  Indicates the world just as it is unscreened and undivided by the symbols and definitions of thought.  Non-Dual Awareness.


Pali – Jhana

Chinese – Ch’an

Japanese – Zen

English – Meditation

The common understanding of meditation in English is not correct in this context, e.g. thinking things over, musing or alternatively trance or absorbtion.  Watts proposes leaving Dhyana untranslated and brining it into English language just as Nirvana and Tao have entered.

sittin Dhyana, from a Buddhist perspective is the proper way to sit as long as there is nothing else to be done at the moment.  To regard Dhyana as having a purpose, or being a discipline or exercise creates the very condition which renders it no longer Dhyana.  Where there is seeking or grasping for results there is no Dhyana.  See also; Samadhi and Smriti.

Atman – The self

Lila – The Play (as in stage play).  Refers to the unreality of the world, to Maya.  Atman is a fragment of Brahman (all that is, the Universe, God) which has forgotten it is a fragment of the whole.  Brahman can only observe and understand itself through fragmenting and forgetting. These are the primal components of Hindu mythology which are also entrained within Buddhist thought.

Brahman – The All, Universe, Godhead.

Sadhana – Discipline of the way of liberation

Rupa – Form.  Significant in the importance of allowing consciousness to move beyond the realm of form & name to direct perception.

Svabhava – Self – nature

Nama – Name

Nama-rupa = Name and Form

Bodhi – awakening

Samsara – The cycle of birth and death.  Attainment of awakening, Buddhahood allows one to move beyond birth and death.  Some view this as not referring to actual birth-death and rebirth but as referring to mentation within one life, exemplified by the whole problem of action in vicious circles and the resolution thereof.  See also Dependant Origination.

Karma – Action that is arising from a motive and seeking a result, the type of action which always results in the call for further action.  All action undertaken in an un-awakened state creates Karma.

Trishna – grasping

Nirvana – The way of life which ensues when grasping at life has come to an end.  Nirvana can only arise spontaneously when the impossibility of self-grasping has been thoroughly perceived.

Avidhya – Ignorance or unconsciousness.  This is the formal opposite of awakening. Traditionally the beginning and end of the cycle of Dependant Origination.  This is an arbitrary selection as all 12 aspects are tied together.   They come into being (originate) with each one dependant on the other being there part of the cycle, therefore Dependant Origination.

The Four Noble Truths – Consist of;

Bhava – The three characteristics of Being, which describe the problem or disease together with the Fourth Noble Truth which constitutes the prescription, cure or solution to the problem also known as The Eightfold Path.

Bhava consists of: Dukkha – Suffering, Frustration, Anitya – Impermanence

Anatman – Unreality or absence of the Self.  The true self is non-self.  Therefore this is not to deny the existence of the self but to assert that there is no self or basic reality that may be grasped either by direct experience or concepts.

The Eightfold Path.

Each of the Eight are preceeded in the original language by Samyak, meaning “complete” or “perfect”.  In modern translations often translated as “right” or “correct”.  Watts maintains the term “complete” in his translation.  These 8 terms are seperated into categories of; Thought (1,2) Action (3-6) and Contemplation or Awareness (7,8).  The final two help to better describe the term Dhyana which is essentially the same word as Zen.

They are:

Complete View

Complete Understanding

Complete Speech

Complete Action

Complete Vocation

Complete Application

Complete Recollectedness, awareness

Complete Contemplation

Smriti – Recollectedness, awareness

Samadhi – Contemplation, becoming non-duality of mind.

The true meaning of Dhyana is comprised of both Smriti and Samadhi and can best be described as one pointed awareness.  It is knowing without the presence of the knower or the known.

Upaya – Skillful means.  In Buddhist context referring to the most effective methods to attainment.

Mahayana – A major Buddhist school whose name means; Great Vehicle, as contrasted with the Hinayana – Little vehicle which si how the Mahayanists refer to the earlier Buddhism coming from the Pali canon.  Great vehicle refers to the many Upaya (skillful methods) contained within this tradition.

Bodhisattva – The term may be historically attributed to Mhayanaists, defined popularly as one who having attained Nirvana, renounces it until all sentient beings can attain Nirvana.  The clearer interpretation is implicit in the deep logic of Buddhism.  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 someting which can be grasped or attained.  Mahayanists principle is “what has never arisen does not need to be annihilated.”

Dharma – Doctrine, teaching.  Specifically comprised of the eightfold path, more generally referring to ALL Buddhist teaching.

Prajna – Intuitive Wisdom.

Karuna – Compassion

If the Bodhisattva returned to the world on the basis that Samsara is Nirvana that “the void is precisely form”.  If Prajna is to see that “form is void”, Karuna is to see that “Void is Form.”  Karuna is an affirmation of the Suchness of the everyday world, which is one of the elements of Mahayana most strongly emphasized in Zen.  This is important to note that it refutes

a common perception of Buddhism as being a philosophy of “world-denial”.  This understanding became the principal inspiration for a type of art in China and subsequently Japan which stressed natural forms rather than religous symbols.

Citta – Mind

On the mind;  It is beyond all philisophical views, is apart from discrimination (i.e. classification), 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.

It is not an existence, nor is it a non-existence, it is indeed beyond both existence and non-existence.  Out of MIND spring innumerable things conditioned by discrimination 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.    From the Lankavatara Sutra

That which distinguishes zen of Ch’an from other Buddhism are difficult to put into words yet have unmistakable flavor perhaps best described as a certain directness.  There is in Zen a sense that awakening is something quite natural, something which could occur at any moment.

The creation of Zen can, Watts asserts, be sufficiently explained by the result of Mahayana Buddhism encountering the indigenous Taoists and Confucianists upon its arrival in China.

The genuine Zen flavor is when a man is almost miraculously natural without intending to be so.  The naturalness of Zen flourishes only when one has lost affectedness and self consciousness of every description.  But a spirit of this kind comes and goes like the wind, and is the most impossible thing to institutionalize and preserve.

In both life and art the cultures of the far East appreciate nothing more highly than spontaneity or naturalness (Tzu-jan), marking the action which is not studied or contrived.

“If it is held that there is something to be realized or attained apart from the mind, and thereupon, mind is used to seek it, (that implies) failure to understand that mind and the object of its search are one.  Mind cannot be used to seek something from mind…the day of success would never come.”

This impossibility of grasping the mind with the mind is, when realized, the non-action (We-wei). [My Taoist teacher names it "actionless action"]

Wu-hsin translates to “no mind”.

In acting, just act.  In thinking, just think.  Above all don’t wobble.

When one is so self conscious, self controlled that he cannot let go of himself, he dithers and 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.  Herein we see an interpretation of Samsara setting entirely aside any question of literal reincarnation showing that figurative birth and death and the escape from this vicious cycle are available at every moment.  To make an end of illusion the mind must stop trying to act upon itself, from the standpoint of the idea of itself which we call the ego.

Lack of spontaneity arises from the mental vicious circle of trying to be in control of the mind with the mind.  In more modern terms we often use the term ego here.  In myriad ways the ego interferes with spontaneous action.  We want to control.  We wan to feel secure about what will happen in the future.  We are concerned about what we did wrong in the past.  We worry how others will perceive us.  Examples of this ego interference are seemingly without end.  When we can drop all labels and attachments the ego has nothing to grasp and is therefore no longer in the way of our spontaneity.  I find the terms, being in the zone and also , being in the flow very useful to help understand this.  I have studied with a teacher of Tibetan wisdom tradition who likes to translate his art into “The Art of Being in the Flow”.

Zen culture emphasized experiencing Zen in every day life, not just Za-zen (sitting meditation).  IN fact Watts explains how the very success of the Zen schools led to a change of emphasis of the tradition.  Initially Zen training was for experienced older people who were trying to free themselves from the fetters of conventional thinking instilled by the rigid dictates of Confucian rules.  In this sense Zen took the same role which was earlier held by Taoism. With widespread success and great numbers of student, especially younger students necessitated a different emphasis.  Older more experienced students of Zen needed to learn to drop their conditioning, younger students were not yet sufficiently conditioned, or disciplined in any sense.  therefore the discipline of Za-zen became more prevalent in Zen training in order to instill discipline in young students and monks.  It is important to note that man zen scholars and accomplished masters warned about the dangers of “sitting to become the Buddha.”  In yet another Zen paradox it should be understood that trying to awaken by doing anything is to make oneself unable to awaken.

“If you train yourself in za-zen know that Zen is neither sitting nor lying…the Buddha is not a fixed form.  If you adhere to the sitting position you will not attain the principle of Zen.”

It follows from this the idea that Zen mind can be present in any activity.  this principle underlies such arts as; Tea ceremony, flute playing, calligraphy, brush painting, archery, fencing (Ken-do), ju-juitsu, Judo.  Note that several Modern Japanese, Okinawan and Korean martial arts end with Do which is the same word as the Chinese Tao, Way.  Way meaning path to liberation.

The famous Zen Ko-an riddle teaching method is a method of “direct pointing” developed early on in Zen history. Watts makes the point that also during the time of Zen’s great popularity there arose a problem of standardization due to the vast number of disciples.  Therefore Zen training developed a standard curriculum of Ko-an riddles to pose to disciples in order to bring them along step by step.  It seems that this method did create controversy in those who maintained that such standardization is fully in opposition to the concept of spontaneity.  Nevertheless the Ko-an system does seem to  have come down over a millennia as a successful means of passing on the way of Zen.

The practice of Zen is not the true practice so long as it has an end in view.  When it has no end in view it is awakening – the aimless, self sufficient life of the “eternal now”.  To practice with and end in view is to have one eye on the practice with the other on the end, which is a lack of concentration and lack of sincerity.

Watts book is so rich that I find it difficult to continue to extract from it without extracting ALL of it.  To summarize Watts does thorough work revealing the paradoxes of the Zen mind in the subjects of Za-zen, the Ko-an, how Zen applies to the arts and to living life.  this book is a resource and a guide which I hope to have access to in the future.  This review is also my study guide for now as “The Way of Zen” is another step on my path of understanding and exploring the mystery of the mind, consciousness and living.  As a study guide, this summary does jump around quite a bit, but I tried to do what Watts does which is to convey the flavor of Zen and the flavor of this work.  I assure you his 201 pages are much more elegantly organized.

It is my experience that these ancient concepts are being reflected and affirmed in our culture globally through modern understanding and research into psychology, quantum physics and other related areas of science.  These new understandings have distinct implications for the future.  I shall endeavor to explore further in more recent works which synthesize ancient philosophy with modern science.  Watts work all the way back in 1957 stands out as a groundbreaking introduction of these ancient thoughts to the West whose impact is still being felt.

June 26 2012

Verlyn Craig Payton

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