Sunday, December 9, 2007

Alan W. Watts - The Way of Zen

Zen Buddhism

"has directness, verve and humour, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like ‘Why is a mouse when it spins’."

(Preface, p. 10)

This wonderful old book is another of my finds in the Secret Book and Record Store here in Dublin (for a mention of a few others, see here). Well, when I say old I mean 1957. That's not exactly from-back-before-the-automobile antiquity, but it's a nice aged Penguin paperpack - Pelican, actually, since it's non-fiction.

Now, this blog is mostly about fiction, specifically novels; however, the last post was about a combination of a recent film and an illustrated Zen poem, so I do like to mix it up a bit. This particular post is not only linked to the theme of that piece, but also to a general thread which has been running through the blog as a whole, right through the write-ups of Kerouac and Pirsig; there is a whole vein of American sub-culture, or counter-culture, which takes from Zen as its inspiration and influence.(For more Zen, see this post on Hardcore for Nerds)

This is, most of all, a very useful text. What The Way of Zen does as a book is, chiefly, provide a "'account of an esoteric doctrine', as the blurb describes. A quote from the New Statesman calls it

"Certainly the most explicit and orderly of it [Zen] that has yet appeared in English."

At the top of the blurb, in italics, is the prophetic (or rather anti-prophetic) quote

Those who know do not speak;

Those who speak do not know

Watts makes a great deal out of the non-verbal, not-literary nature of Zen: it is not something - at least not in itself something - to be learned out of a book. The traditional Zen way of indicating this is, roughly, to say that the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself - as illustrated in this Yoshitoshi print:

"The night clouds dissolve

Hotei pointing at the moon

holds no opinion"

('Moon of Enlightenment', from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Views of the Moon, via

Watts does a good job of finding the balance between accuracy and authenticity, on the one hand, and on the other, presenting Zen in an attractive, accessible manner. The style of the book is somewhat academic, and slightly dated by this stage, but it's still an easy read. It is split into two sections, 'Background and History', and 'Principles and Practices'. The first traces the evolution of Zen thought through the history and culture of Buddhist and pre-Buddhist thought. The second deals with both the central philosophical ideas of Zen and the traditional images we have of its practices - particularly za-zen, or sitting meditation, and koans, or metaphysical riddles, which separate the two major schools of Zen itself. There is a rich discussion on these issues in the book, and some of the more incidental sections on Zen in the Arts (the tea ceremony, formal gardens) are fascinating. It's a very sympathetic text, but also quite scholarly; it travels an interesting path between objectivity and subjectivity, some of which is explained in the extract below.

The Way of Zen is more than a worthwhile, comprehensive introduction to Zen Buddhism: it is to a degree a cultural text of itself, a book 'of its time'. Watts, the author, is mentioned by pseudonym in at least one Kerouac novel. The 1950s was a boom period for Buddhism in the US, particularly in California and San Francisco city. What exactly Watts made of Kerouac's idiosyncratic take on Buddhism would be interesting to find out, because whatever about hedonism, Zen is all about idiosyncracy - at least when it's not about strict discipline, that is, but I digress - and thus is more than just a spiritual tradition, but an artistic and cultural medium. As Watt mentions below, there is a 'parallelism' between advanced Western science and the Eastern metaphysical tradition; a subject later much covered by Fritjof Capra's best-selling The Tao of Physics.

While, as the blurb says, "it is unfortunately still easier to say what Zen Buddhism is not that what it is", there is a lot to be said for what Zen can be linked to outside of itself. So this book is best thought not of as a spiritual guide, but as a work of discovery for those who want to know about the culture, philosophy and life of Zen. I may return to this book and discuss some of the substantive aspects of it, but for now I'll leave you with an extract. This is exactly the first couple of pages from the author's preface:

"During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism. Since the Second World War this interest has increased so much that it seems to be becoming a considerable force in the intellectual and artistic world of the West. It is connected, no doubt, with the prevalent enthusiasm for Japanese culture which is one of the constructive results of the late war, but which may amount to no more than a passing fashion. The deeper reason for this interest is that the viewpoint of Zen lies so close to the ‘growing edge’ of Western thought.

The more alarming and destructive aspects of Western civilization should not blind us to the fact that at this very time it is also in one of its most creative periods. Ideas and insights of the greatest fascination are appearing in some of the newer fields of Western science – in psychology and psychotherapy, in logic and the philosophy of science, in semantics and communications theory. Some of these developments might be due to suggestive influences from Asian philosophy, but on the whole I am inclined to feel that there is more of a parallelism than a direct influence. We are, however, becoming aware of the parallelism, and it promises an exchange of views which should be extremely stimulating.

Western thought has changed so rapidly in this century that we are in a state of considerable confusion. Not only are there serious difficulties of communication between the intellectual and the general public, but 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, and motion, of nature and 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’. The various wisdoms of the West, religious, philosophical, and scientific, do not offer much guidance to the art of living in such a universe, and we find the prospects of making our way in so trackless an ocean of relativity rather frightening. For we are used to absolutes, to firm principles and laws to which we can cling for spiritual and psychological security.

This is why, I think, there is so much interest in a culturally productive way of life which, for some fifteen hundred 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.

Such language should not actually be so unfamiliar to us, were we truly prepared to accept the meaning of ‘the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head’.

I am not in favour of importing Zen from the Far East, because it has become deeply involved with cultural institutions which are quite foreign to us. But there is no doubt that there are things which we can learn, or unlearn, from it and apply in or own way. It has the special merit of a mode of expressing itself which is as intelligible – or perhaps as baffling – to the intellectual as to the illiterate, offering possibilities of communication which we have not explored. It has directness, verve and humour, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like ‘Why is a mouse when it spins’. At its heart there is a strong but completely unsentimental compassion for human beings suffering and perishing from their very attempts to save themselves."

(Preface, p. 9-10)


Andrew said...

I finished Hot Water Music. It ruled. Thanks again for the recommendation!

gabbagabbahey said...

Good! Glad you enjoyed it...