I have, of late, decided that I need to spend a little more time working on meditation, on myself. I’ve carried out a fair bit of investigation, mostly in mindfulness, but I’ve decided that I need something a little more rigorous: something I can make a more concerted effort with.
So it was that I decided to read up a little more on Zen. And what better place to start than with Alan Watts? Known for his copious writing on religions and esoterica, his The Way of Zen is considered a landmark work, something that introduced Zen Buddhism and Eastern philosophy to younger, Western audiences.
I’d read Watts before and was prepared to find this book half delightful, and half a little embarrassing, like an uncle that insists on his own coolness. But I was pleased to note that unlike, say, The Book, seems slightly more rigorous. Of course, the text is a bit stilted at times. There’s quite a few furthermores that could have been excised. But given that this text dates from the late 1950s, it’s hardly a surprise.
Overall, however, the book seems well annotated, and doesn’t take too many flights of fancy. It’s a fairly straightforward explanation of the histories of the Eastern religions – Buddhism and Taoism, mostly – that led to Zen Buddhism. Key figures are covered, schools compared, and Zen is explained, at least how Watts understands it.
What I found appealing is that Watts is very aware of the gnomic nature of Zen practitioners, and of the cultural differences that may make aspects of a Buddhist practice difficult to stomach – or, at least, difficult to parse. He covers well the fact that the West is very much enmeshed in a subject:object relationship, which makes the continual now of Zen difficult to grab hold of, at least initially. He also covers the fact that many readers might find it difficult to approach the ideas within as being goalless – or rather as ideas in which having a particular end in mind might fuck up the ability to reach that goal. After all,
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.”
Aside from a recapping of religious history and an explanation of what Zen is not, Watts reserves a chapter late in the book for explanation of how the concepts influence both lifestyle and art: his writing on the simple intricacy of the tea ceremony is delightful, as is the enthusiasm with which he approaches sumi e.
I must admit, I was a little disappointed that Watts didn’t really cover much of the mechanics of how to engage with Zen. I mean, he does discuss the idea of zazen (sitting meditation) but only in the abstract: rather than a how-to manual, he’s keen on writing a why-to manual. True, this is more to do with my expectations than with Watts’ intentions, but I was still bummed.
If you’re unsure whether this book – or Watts as a whole – is for you, then you should check out some of his lectures. Here’s one on Zen; many more are to be found online.
As a leaping-off point, though, The Way of Zen is as good a place to start as any: its persistence in print over more than 60 years has occurred for a reason, after all.
(My Goodreads profile is here.)