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The Way of Zen
by Alan W. Watts


Alan Watts' "The Way of Zen" is a comprehensive exploration of Zen Buddhism, placing it within the historical and philosophical contexts of Chinese Taoism and Indian Mahayana Buddhism. The book offers a unique perspective as Watts, a Westerner immersed in Eastern thought, strives to bridge the cultural gap and make Zen accessible to a Western audience.

Part One: Background and History

  • The Philosophy of the Tao: Watts introduces the concept of "unconventional knowledge" through Taoism, contrasting it with the Western emphasis on conventional, abstract knowledge. He explores the Tao as the indefinable, concrete process of the universe and emphasizes the concept of "wu-wei" (non-action) as a means to access the Tao through spontaneity and naturalness.
  • The Origins of Buddhism: Watts addresses the challenges in understanding ancient Indian Buddhism due to the complexities of interpreting Sanskrit texts and the lack of clear historical records. He then explores the central theme of "atma-yajna" (self-sacrifice) in Hinduism, revealing the myth of the divine play (lila) and the concept of liberation (moksha) through Self-knowledge (atma-jnana).
  • Mahayana Buddhism: Watts explores the differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, highlighting the Mahayana's focus on skillful means (upaya) to achieve liberation. He delves into the Bodhisattva doctrine, the concept of Buddha-nature, the Sunyavada (Doctrine of the Void) by Nagarjuna, and the Dharmadhatu (Dharma realm) doctrine, ultimately emphasizing the Mahayana's affirmation of the everyday world in its "suchness."
  • The Rise and Development of Zen: Watts delves into the origins of Zen, considering the potential influence of early Chinese Buddhist figures like Seng-chao and Tao-sheng, who advocated for immediate awakening. He examines the traditional account of Bodhidharma, the "28th Patriarch" who brought Zen to China, and the early development of the school through the "question-and-answer" (wen-ta) method. The book then traces the evolution of Zen through the teachings of key figures like Hui-neng, Shen-hui, Ma-tsu, Nan-ch'üan, Huang-po, and Lin-chi, highlighting their emphasis on "naturalness" and "no-mind." Watts concludes Part One by analyzing the emergence of the koan system and the two main schools of Zen in Japan: Rinzai and Soto.

Part Two: Principles and Practice

  • "Empty and Marvelous": Watts explores the central Zen principle of nonduality, demonstrating the illusory nature of separating good from evil and the futility of striving for a better future. He emphasizes the importance of seeing the world in its "suchness," recognizing the relativity of all experiences, and abandoning the pursuit of goals which are ultimately illusory.
  • "Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing": Watts examines the Zen practice of "za-zen" (sitting meditation) as a means to access the "original mind" through quiet awareness and letting go of the ego. He explains the underlying principle of "wu-wei" (non-action) as a key to achieving spontaneity and naturalness. He uses the analogy of a feedback system to illustrate the mind's self-correcting processes and the pitfalls of excessive self-consciousness.
  • Za-zen and the Koan: Watts explores the koan system as a method of training in Zen, examining its use in the Rinzai school and its history in the development of the Zen tradition. He analyzes the various types of koan, the stages of training, and the purpose of the "doubt" that is cultivated through koan practice. He discusses the relationship between the koan master (roshi) and the student, stressing the importance of the student discovering the truth for themselves through self-reflection and overcoming their own mental barriers.
  • Zen in the Arts: Watts examines the expression of Zen principles in various art forms, including Chinese calligraphy (sumi-e) and painting, Japanese haiku, cha-no-yu (tea ceremony), and the art of rock and sand gardens. He analyzes the artistic principles of "naturalness" and "spontaneity" as reflections of the Zen worldview. He discusses the key artistic moods of "sabi," "wabi," "aware," and "yugen" as expressions of the Zen aesthetic and highlights the importance of "controlled accidents" and the "marvelous emptiness" of nature.

Overall, "The Way of Zen" offers a fascinating and accessible exploration of Zen philosophy and practice. Watts' insightful analysis and engaging style make this book a valuable resource for anyone interested in exploring the unique wisdom and beauty of Zen.