The Way of Zen (Alan Watts)

Children are conditioned to accept the codes of their given society. They are reinforced with different symbol-systems from their parents, religions, schools, communities, cultures, peer groups, and so on, internalizing these systems (to varying degrees) overtime. They eventually think, feel, and act in accordance with these “reality tunnels,” despite whether they rebel against or conform with them. Ultimately, they will assimilate certain “realities” into their identities.

One of the first symbol-systems they learn is language. They learn what the agreed upon symbols to designate meaning are. Different cultures have different tacit agreements over not only what some words mean but what should be said and not said, what should be in one category and not another — essentially how their chosen realities are to be divided to make sense.

Children not only have to learn the codes of language, but they learn, whether consciously or not, many other forms of agreement.

“For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles — father, teacher, worker, artist, ‘regular guy,’ gentleman, sportsman, and so forth.” (Watts, Alan)

People identify with the categories, and sometimes stereotypes, chosen and placed upon them. They aren’t merely one role, but a multitude of related roles. Father and son, laborer and high-school drop-out. Daughter and sister, amputee and white veteran. Son and brother and fatherless. Methodist and Japanese. Out of the innumerable roles available, people learn to identify with a conventional view of “self.” They believe that they have a persistent identity with a history, apart from everything and everyone else.

“According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real ‘me’ than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is a firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!” (Watts, Alan)

The history of a person’s identity, of their memories of past events, is continuously selected for and interpreted (often without conscious awareness, depending on the emotional intensity and regularity of those events). Out of an infinitude of events that transpire in one’s life, some are chosen as significant while others are not. Experiences that are seen as insignificant, nonsensical, irrelevant, and so on, are discarded overtime.

People interpret the events of their lives using the different symbol-systems that they have internalized. Experiences are processed through their mental filters to make sense to their perspectives. They select one type of past and not another. One event is seen as good or bad, right or wrong, scary or pleasant, but not another. Some experiences are chopped up into familiar signs, while other experiences are forgotten. These signs represent only a narrow spectrum of “reality” out of all the information that exists.

What is represented is only a finger pointing to the moon. As Alfred Korzybski wrote, “The map is not the territory.”

Furthermore, people communicate their realities with language. Their language is an “abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once — a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms.” (Watts, Alan)

To account for all that happens in the universe, to even perfectly describe a “a particle of dust,” would take an infinite amount of time. Thinking (communicating with ourselves), speaking (communicating with others), using a string of symbols abstracted from the past, will never fully grasp “every breath, every beat of the heart, every neural impulse.” (Watts, Alan)

“Taoism [on the other hand] concerns itself with unconventional knowledge — with knowing life directly, instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.” (Watts, Alan)

Conventional thinking isn’t shunned, but rather, is used as a tool and not as the Truth. Taoism is based on a hunch, an intuitive state. Peripheral vision of the mind. Taoists will “feel” a situation and know it, without limiting it. While the intellect is trying to box the world into rigid categories, and grasp at the past and future, the Taoist doesn’t cling to their experiences. The intellect will exhaust itself in seeking the Tao, in its need to define it.

Chaung-Tzu once said, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.”

The mind isn’t reduced to idiocy, although those who are conditioned to accept Western systems as true may believe that to be the case. The Taoist plays with his innate intelligence, spontaneous and aware. Instead of forcing out a solution, she lets go of her mind until stilling into a pure naturalness. Then he directly knows the Tao, unconscious of good and bad, moral and immoral, black and white, up and down.

Rather than darkness or light, there are infinite shades of the Tao.
To define the Tao is to not know the Tao. To grasp it is not to grasp it.
In the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, as in Taoism (which heavily influenced Zen), there is no “true” division in life. Human beings, but not nature itself, are the ones to separate “things, facts and events” into categories. These categories are relative to different perspectives, but they are never truly fixed, permanent, or absolute.

“Ordinarily a human organism is counted as one thing, though from a physiological standpoint it is as many things as it has parts or organs, and from a sociological standpoint it is merely part of a larger thing called a group.” (Watts, Alan)

For a Buddhist, to describe “reality” in a fixed, linear manner with symbols, is not to know “reality.” To describe it, or the self, as permanent and separate, is to not grasp the changing ineffability of life. There is no enduring self that persists, for “the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch.” (Watts, Alan)

Every moment is a rebirth, a coming back to the present. Buddhism above all is a practice, seeing the world with clear awareness. “Such awareness is a lively attention to one’s direct experience, to the world as immediately sensed, so as not to be misled by names and labels.” (Watts, Alan)

There is a watching of sensations, feelings, thoughts, without any purpose or judgement. Like a mirror, the mind is “passively active,” purely reflecting what arises and falls away. When there is nothing to be grasped, there is no one to grasp it. When there is no one to grasp, then there is no division, no subject and object.

The Buddha did not try to create a philosophical system to satisfy the questions of restless minds. He often maintained a “noble silence” about questions dealing with gods and the origins of the universe and absolute reality, because to him, they were irrelevant when understanding the way to liberation from suffering (dukkha).

To seek such answers is to cling to abstractions again. Lost in the perpetual cycle. Many of the questions that people ask about meaning, life and death, are merely subtle ways of trying to categorize the world, turning their uncertainty and fear into familiar ideas. “Thus the world that we know, when understood as the world as classified, is a product of the mind, and as the sound ‘water’ is not actually water,’ the classified world is not the real world.” (Watts, Alan)

To be liberated is to have no intention of liberation. To try to become someone important, to achieve something outside of oneself, to adhere to some dogma of ultimate truth, is to be confused with the compulsive habit of symbolizing. The more one tries to figure out the Answer, the more frustrated he or she becomes.

“I have no peace of mind,” said Hui-k’o. “Please pacify my mind.”

“Bring out your mind here before me,” replied Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it!”

“But when I seek my own mind,” said Hui-k’o, “I cannot find it.”

“There!” snapped Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!”

To try to empty the mind is to get caught up in the mind again. To let go of the mind, of thoughts and impressions, “neither repressing them, holding them, nor interfering with them” is to free the mind. To practice no-thought is not to block all thoughts from coming in. Then one would be as good as a stone. Thoughts come and go. That is all. To let go is to trust in one’s natural spontaneity. There is no effort.

Línjì Yìxuán said, “There is no place in Buddhism for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Relieve your bowels, pass water, put on your clothes, and eat your food. When you’re tired, go and lie down. Ignorant people may laugh at me, but the wise will understand…. As you go from place to place, if you regard each one as your own home, they will all be genuine, for when circumstances come you must not try to change them.”

One doesn’t try to silence one’s feelings, thoughts, impressions. One is not trying to be indifferent or removed from the world. There is an awareness of what is. Subject and object, knower and known, white and black, arises relative to everything else. Everything depends on everything else to be.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter-’ with the verb ‘to be,’ we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.

If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here-time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. ‘To be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of ‘non-paper elements.’ And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without ‘non-paper elements,’ like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

There is no such thing as a separate self. Everything relies on everything else to be given a shape, even non-shapes. One’s mind-body gives structure to experience, while there isn’t experience without one’s mind-body. Sunlight makes sight as sight makes sunlight. The “individual” and “external universe” are simply abstract limits that one has set up. There is no “between” between the two, because the division is not truly there. People give importance to their ideas of what is “me” and “mine” in contrast to the experiences that they have, as if they are apart from them, as if they “have” them. They identify with narrowly selected memories and social roles and feel as if they are permanent. Meanwhile life passes them by and they don’t notice. They have become so fixated on their ideas of what life is rather than seeing what is happening to them.

To even get caught up in ideas about what Zen is, and what Zen isn’t, is to stink of Zen. One can be as attached to their spiritual self as to their material self, believing they are a certain type of person and not another.

“For this reason the masters talk about Zen as little as possible, and throw its concrete reality straight at us. This reality is the ‘suchness’ (tathata) of our natural, nonverbal world. If we see this just as it is, there is nothing good, nothing bad, nothing inherently long or short, nothing subjective and nothing objective. There is no symbolic self to be forgotten, and no need for any idea of a concrete reality to be remembered.” (Watts, Alan)

Once a master drank tea with his two students. Then he suddenly tossed a fan at one of them.

“What’s this?” he said.

The student opened it and fanned himself.

“Not bad,” he said.

He passed the fan to his other student.

His other student placed a piece of cake on it and offered it back to his master.

When there are no longer any names, the world isn’t “classified in limits and bounds.” While most people want to classify things in their proper places, a master trusts in spontaneity, in “no second thought.” Zen masters are not emotionless beings without pain or hunger pangs. They can be sad, jealous, angry, and so on. The difference between them and others is that they are wholehearted, neither blocking out nor indulging in what they are aware of.

Zen is not to “confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” (Watts, Alan)

Thoughts fall away when they’re not necessary anymore. Muddy water is best cleared when left alone. Zen is about seeing reality concretely — undivided by labels and titles and names and numbers and right and wrong. To sit in quiet awareness is to let the distinctions of me and other, subject and object, come go and come again. Without commentary, without purpose, there only is. Zen masters are neither gods nor are they perfect. They are simply human. Nothing special.

As Ikkyu said:

“We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;

This is our world.

All we have to do after that —

Is to die.”

One awakens to what reality isn’t. Ideas of what one is, of what the universe is, seem more nonsensical the deeper one goes into it. Reality is ineffable, despite whether someone claims that “they are nothing” or “they are something” or “they are everything.” Rather than flitting from system to system, all people are already here, their “senses fully open to receive the world.”

There is nothing to be achieved, no one to blame, no past, no future, no birth, no death.

Only here, only now.

To some Westerners, the present seems like “nothing more than the infinitesimal hairline,” dividing the past from the future. For the linear-minded, for those who only know about reality through their compulsive thinking, the world will rush past them. Their ideas seem all-important to them, but their symbolizing can never sustain their heart beating, their breath, or the operation of their muscles, glands, senses, and organs.

They believe they are consciously in charge, but their minds only grasp at slivers of experience, which they are constantly interpreting and analyzing, dividing and separating. Yet in only a moment, they can see life as it truly is. The past and future, which they are so preoccupied with, is an abstraction. There is only this moment, moving but still. it’s here for everyone. Precious and timeless.

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