Alan Watts: The Way of Zen

A summary of chapters 1 and 2, on the history of Taoism and Buddhism

Like Taoism and Yoga, Zen is a “way of liberation,” which can have no formal definition. It must instead be defined by what it is not.

Zen is the product of Taoism and Buddhism. We may find it difficult to understand because Chinese thinking is different from Western thinking. Almost all Western knowledge is conventional, meaning that we can represent it in words and concepts. Conventional because the meaning of these words and symbols is a social convention. Education is the learning of these conventions, but not just words. Also how we will delineate and divide the world. Even where we draw the line between events and objects. For example, “What happens to my fist when I open my hand?” The object disappears! Because it was confused with an action or event. A fist is an action of your hand, but English makes it a noun. In Chinese, it is more obvious that objects are also events, and that the world is made of processes, not entities.

There are many codes beyond language, including laws, ethics, and roles. This causes a person to be identified more by their role (and their past), then by who they are at the present moment. All conventions are always abstractions, general outlines of infinitely complex forms. This is how we know the world, like drinking the ocean in discrete cups, or measuring a curve as a series of straight lines. This is like a digital signal. A “one-at-a-time” translation of a universe where everything is happening at once. This character of thought is particularly noticeable in languages with alphabets, like English. Why must we apprehend the world this way? It seems somewhat like central vision, where we see one point at a time (like when reading), then add it all up. The world seems very complex from this perspective. Imagine trying to describe in this way every process in our body during this one moment. It would take years. It would be “like trying to drink water with a fork instead of a cup.” But there are other ways to experience the world, analogous to our peripheral vision, which takes in everything at once. We use it all the time, but it is less academically and philosophically respectable. 

So, in ancient Chinese culture, there were two currents: Confucianism and Taoism. The former was concerned with conventional knowledge, and the latter with reality as it is. The former was the focus of work and society, while the latter was the focus of older men, liberated from conventional roles. It undoes the damage of convention, restoring the original spontaneity of life, termed tzu-jan or “self-so-ness.” The West has no equivalent, because our religions identify God (the Absolute) with the world of convention (moral and logical). This “weighs the Western social order with excessive authority,” leading to oppression and rebellion. This “nurtures a sense of guilt so preposterous that it must issue either in denying one’s own nature or in rejecting God.” 

So Taoism as a Way of Liberation is concerned with non-conventional knowledge. We have much of it. We “know” how to move our hands, pump our blood, speak out loud, despite the impossibility of explaining it in words. The first text is the I Ching, a sort of book of divination. Watts argues that it is a bit like Rorschach blots. We see this as superstition, but our rigorous, scientific methods for decision making only work in narrow circumstances where variables are few and we have time to decide. Most of the time we make choices based on hunches and feelings, and so any tool that may help us hone our “peripheral vision” of thinking may be very useful indeed. Following the Tao can be thought of as learning to trust the intuitive mind without trying to control it.

The Tao is the undefinable, concrete process of the world. It means “way,” or speech. The difference between the Tao and other forms of God: God produces the world by making (wei), the Tao produces the world by not-making (wu-wei), or growing. Spontaneity, not plan. The Tao does not know HOW it makes the world. Just as we do not know how we make our brains.

Whereas the Western God is the supreme intellect that plans and crafts the world, the Tao is aimless and organic, yet intelligent. In the West we believe our intelligence must have been produced by a higher intelligence. Taoism believes that our intelligence was created spontaneously, or rather that our intelligence is of a different sort. The intellect cannot then capture the Tao. As with vision, the peripheral vision only works when we relax it, and do not look at the object directly.

In Chinese thought, natural man is to be trusted, whereas in Western religion we mistrust human nature (original sin, etc.).

Tao as unconscious intelligence? “It is a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club.”

Fundamental Indian myth: atma-yajna — self-sacrifice, where God gives birth to the world. Eventually life realizes its true nature and reintegrates itself with God. Basically God forgets himself, or dismembers himself, and plays all the roles in this vast game, until remembering himself. The One becomes Many and the Many become One. “When the play comes to an end, the individualized consciousness awakes to find itself divine.”

This myth attempts to describe reality in a way that cannot be done with rational concepts. 

Also, this conception of the world is based on the existence of polarities. All things are part of God. Good and Evil. Black and White.

Thus, Hindu thought is similar to Taoism in that it is a way of liberation rather than a philosophy, expressed through nonconventional knowledge, through the experience of the self as beyond all categories. “I am Brahman” is a way of saying that I am not anything else. I am fundamentally identical to God, and to everything.

The Sanskrit root of Brahmanbrih — means “to grow.” Like the Tao, this reminds us that God acts through natural spontaneity, not through rational planning. Thus in the Indian tradition, God is not personal. We are not God in the sense that we know everything, at least not in conventional terms.

So the way of liberation is “a progressive disentanglement of one’s Self from every identification.” The fundamental reality is not something we can conceive of in conventional terms.

This is moksha, or liberation from maya. Maya is the veil — the world of form, category, convention. The etymology of maya means to measure, and to measure means to divide. Thus, any attempt to name or classify reality is maya. Facts, objects, events — these are as abstract as any unit of measurement, such as lines of latitude, feet, or inches. And so a jivan-mukta sees the same world we do, but does not mark it off in the same way. He might as well see the skin as what connects us to the world as what divides us from it. Or both. He sees all identifications and distinctions as relative, dualistic, and ultimately illusory. Also, all form (rupa) is maya because it is impermanent. So when we stop grasping at reality with names and measurements, form again becomes Brahman — when we accept the eternal flux of the world. This is God. Zen has the image of a ball in a mountain stream. This flux can be a source of suffering (if we resist it), or a source of bliss (if we embrace it).

“It is precisely this realization of the total elusiveness of the world which lies at the root of Buddhism.”

This is liberation from maya, but also samasara, the cycle of life and death. It cannot be communicated in words. It is an experience, perhaps transmissible by non-verbal means. One version of Buddhism claims the Buddha passed on this experience by pointing at a flower.

The Buddha is also said to have expressed his awakening in the form of the Four Noble Truths, in the “form of a physician’s diagnosis and prescription: the identification of the disease, and of its cause, the pronouncement as to whether it may be cured, and the prescription for the remedy.

The first is dukkha, suffering. Perhaps frustration. Not as the true nature of life, but as what happens when we try to grasp life in our net. This is often paired with anitya, impermance, and anatman, no-Self, as the characteristics of being. No individual self, certainly (which is simply an abstraction from memory), but also no underlying Self: This is the last refuge of maya: the belief that there is a Self, eternal or not, that may be grasped by experience or concepts.

The second Truth is trishna, clinging or grasping, based on avidya, which is ignorance or unconsciousness. Avidya is the state of mind when spellbound by maya, when we mistake objects and events for their underlying reality. It is ultimately based on the ignorance of the relational aspect of all things. The more we try to control the world, the more we control ourselves, like a dog chasing its tail. This desire for control over the environment and the self is based on a mistrust of reality. This contradiction leads to endless frustration, which is samsara, the cycle of life-and-death. The active principle of this cycle is karma, or conditioned action. Karma is action that seeks a result, the kind of action that leads to more required actions, pushing the goal ever further off. You are involved in karma when you interfere with the world in a way that creates more desire to interfere. “He lays a trap for the world in which he himself gets caught.” Some see this cycle as literal reincarnation. But others, including Zen, see it as more figurative: we are reborn moment to moment, as long as we identify with a continuing ego. 

The third Truth is nirvana, the ending of the cycle of frustration and grasping. Nirvana is the cessation of striving. It is the goal of Yoga (yogash citta vritti nirodhah). It is liberation, moksha, the state of no longer living in maya. It is understood as escape from samsara. It is an undefinable state of mind, beyond duality and all conceptions. One cannot desire nirvana — it must arise spontaneously, when one has fully perceived the futility of self-grasping.

The fourth Truth is dharma, the Eightfold Path, the method of curing the disease of self-frustration. These touch on understanding, action, and meditation. In the end, Buddhism is the project of transcending duality (especially of the knower and the known), by breaking the spell of convention. “The anxiety-laden problem of what will happen to me when I die is, after all, like asking what happens to my fist when I open my hand, or where my lap goes when I sit up.”

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