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.

What is Hope?

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“If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, then there is a possibility that you can contribute to making a better world.”

Noam Chomsky

Hope is an expectation of a positive outcome. To be hopeful is to be confident, to be optimistic. It is to desire a favorable event and believe in its likelihood. It is to see the possibilities for future change.

Charles R. Snyder, an American psychologist who specialized in the study of Positive Psychology, developed Hope Theory. For Snyder, three interrelated elements comprise the idea of hope: goals, pathways, and agency.

Hopeful people use different pathways to reach their goals. They are realistic about the challenges they face, motivated to overcome them. After training in Hope Theory, individuals develop practical plans, set deadlines, and visualize how they can succeed. 

Hope can be beneficial when it motivates people to be in the right mindset to achieve their goals. Even when negative situations happen, a hopeful person can examine what they can do and can’t do, before acting on what is possible.

Hope can be dangerous, however, when beliefs about positive outcomes are too unrealistic. People may imagine a perfect future, but if their thinking is deluded or fallacious, they will suffer when confronted with real barriers.

Pragmatic optimism, however, can often be valuable. Robert Anton Wilson, agnostic philosopher and author, once said in Eye in the Triangle: “Optimistic people outlive pessimistic people consistently if you compare them by sex, by eating habits, by diet, by lifestyle, by race, by all sorts of things. The optimists live longer. Also, optimists have more fun. And besides, maybe things are going to turn out okay, in which case, the pessimists are killing themselves and being miserable for no good reason at all. And the final reason is that if everything is going to turn out terribly, the optimists are having more fun before the final tragedy comes.”

Wilson wrote that optimists look for possibilities, while pessimists are blind to them. Pessimists have concluded that there are no more solutions, even when other options are present. For Robert Anton Wilson, intelligence is the ability to “receive, decode and transmit information efficiently.” To be stupid is to block information from coming in. Those who ignore, or resist, or deny the possibilities of life cannot function efficiently. They are stuck in robotic reality-tunnels.

Buddhists look at hope in another sense. People often strive to do more, to be more. They want to achieve, achieve, achieve. They believe that they will finally be happy only after they drive around in a fancy convertible, get promoted to office manager, marry, raise children, read the canon of Western literature, win a game, or whatever else they can think up. Once they get what they desire, they desire more, while fearing that they will lose what they have. As they possess more, they still feel unfulfilled. They’re often disappointed when what they strived for didn’t bring them lasting satisfaction.

Ordinary hope is unskillful. People crave what they do not have. They cling to abstractions of happiness, unable to let go. They expect to be a certain way, to produce a certain result, to maintain a certain persona, but are secretly afraid of uncertainty and impermanence.

For people to be honest with themselves, they must first be mindful of what they can and can’t change. For Oren Jay Sofer, author of Say What You Mean: A Mindful Approach to Nonviolent Communication, “The wisdom of equanimity understands that we choose neither the circumstances of our life, nor the results of our actions. Both are beyond our control. What we can choose is how we relate, and how we respond.”

To accept what is happening in the present moment is to be alive. There is no denial, no resistance. Through awareness, people can transform themselves. They can look at the possibilities of their choices and how those choices will impact the world.

Those who practice the Dhamma are hopeful. They are confident that they are walking the path toward liberation. Rather than attaching themselves to dualistic ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure, they accept the fleeting nature of the world. They’re mindful of each moment, guided by wisdom and compassion.

In Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that “Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

Those who endure hardships often find value in hope. Even when they are subject to abuse, injustice and death, they remember the small kindnesses of life. They desire a better future for themselves and those they care about. A path may not exist for them yet, but they believe that there is more, much more, than what is known.

Albert Camus, existentialist philosopher and author, wrote a book called The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. In it, he said that people look for purpose in an indifferent and chaotic universe. They’re often confronted with the absurdity of their own existence, desperate for an objective meaning that doesn’t exist.

They can choose to commit suicide, but then, the point of their lives would only seem more absurd. They can refuse to examine and question and think for themselves, conforming to different belief-systems, which promise them answers. Through this second choice, they are surrendering their inner freedom for the dictates of others.

Camus proposed a third option after not being able to accept the former two. People are free to subjectively create their own meanings and values and purposes. While they have the tremendous freedom to choose, they are ultimately responsible for their choices.

Camus rejected the idea that people should have hope for an afterlife, but considered each person’s meanings (or lack thereof) to be made by them in each moment. When people prepare for another life after their death, but do not embrace their fleeting time on earth, they minimize the value of their existence.

Hope should be highly personal for each individual. People cannot ignore the fact that they will change, that they will die, that they will pursue meaning in a universe, which is not objectively meaningful.

They must be aware of these underlying tensions. They must decide how they will live, who they will be, before they perish.

There is a close connection between hope and despair. When people avoid looking honestly at their suffering and seek only pleasure, they do not find happiness. Even those who have a lot of money and power are not immune. They can only transform themselves once they are aware of their suffering.

When people understand themselves as they are, they can cultivate compassion. Like a gardener, they can plant seeds of kindness, seeds of happiness, seeds of peace, in every moment. When they are compassionate toward themselves, they can be compassionate toward others.

Roshi Joan Halifax, hospice caregiver and Zen teacher and activist, wrote an essay called Yes We Can Have Hope. In it, she suggested that people can be wisely hopeful rather than unskillfully hopeful. Whereas ordinary hope is based on a person’s desires and expectations, wise hope develops from an acceptance of life.

Through this perspective, people can embrace the impermanence of their joys and sorrows. To be hopeful is not to deny reality, but to be fully alive, helping others to awaken out of their suffering.

Halifax said, “Wise hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them, addressing them, and remembering what else is present, like the shifts in our values that recognize and move us to address suffering right now.”

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca wrote his own advice about acceptance and choice. He had told Lucilius, the then procurator of Italy, that people should adapt themselves to the present rather than projecting their wishes too far into the future. To live for the future is to be anxious in expectation. “Fear keeps pace with hope” because people not only want to fulfill their desires, but fear not getting what they desire, and losing what they have.

Seneca cautioned against having too many desires. When a person limits their desires, however, they can still be hopeful. They are grateful for what they have been given, and appreciate who they are, while not craving what is unnecessary. Many people wish for more than they have, worried that their expectations won’t be fulfilled. They “suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Potential dangers may not have happened, but they fear that they will happen. They anticipate terrible futures so much that their anticipations become habits. Their minds exaggerate their sorrows. Every moment that they worry is a moment of lost time.

Seneca wrote in his thirteenth letter, On Groundless Fears, “It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.”

Seneca advised that people should not worry about what hasn’t happened or will not likely happen. Misfortunes don’t always last or remain misfortunes. Sometimes the unexpected happens too. Rather than despairing, individuals can meditate on what choices are available and then act wisely. When people indulge their hearts on fears of the future, they prevent themselves from living.

The only way to live is in the present. Tomorrow has no meaning except in the eternal now. Pasts and futures are abstractions, but people are conditioned to live for conceptualizations of time, until they can’t relate anymore to the time they’re in.

In the Money and Materialism section of Just So, Alan Watts lectured, “So only people who live in proper relationship with the material present have any use for making any plans at all, because then if the plans work out, they’re actually capable of enjoying them. But if you aren’t fully here and your mind is always off somewhere else, you’ll remain starved and always rushing to get someplace else. And there’s nowhere to go except here.”

“Our schools don’t prepare us to relate to the material present. Instead, we’re educated to become bureaucrats, accountants, lawyers, and doctors, who are all good at making money, which is said to be incredibly important. And the children who aren’t considered fit for the college education that these careers require are encouraged to take reluctantly offered courses in trades and manual skills. You hear these jokes about being able to receive your bachelor’s degree in basket weaving from any American university, but that would actually be an improvement on our current state of affairs. The larger point is that we are encouraged to become obsessed with the life of abstractions, with problems of status, and with problems of the world as symbolized rather than the world to be symbolized. This explains our hang-ups when it comes to money. When it comes down to it, most of us are incapable of relating directly to physical existence at all.”

It is easy to mistake the finger for the moon. The finger may point the way, but it doesn’t cast an illumination. In order for life to reveal itself, people must let go of what they think they know. They can only tend to the future when they tend to each moment. While they may forget, their practice is to return to life, again and again.


Sources:

“Albert Camus (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus And Other Essays. Vintage, 2012.

Halifax, Joan. “Yes, We Can Have Hope.” Lion’s Roar, 20 Jan. 2021, www.lionsroar.com/yes-we-can-have-hope/.

Hạnh, Nhất, and Thich N. Hanh. Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Bantam, 1992.

“Hope (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, plato.stanford.edu/entries/hope/.

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium. Penguin UK, 2004.

Snyder, C.R. Psychology of Hope: You Can Get Here from There. Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Watts, Alan. Just So: Money, Materialism, and the Ineffable, Intelligent Universe. Sounds True, 2020.

Wilson, Robert A. “The Eye in the Triangle.” YouTube, 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p5oHdKZNBA. Accessed 2021.

Yeshe, Ayya. “Ask the Teachers: What is the Buddhist View of Hope?” Lion’s Roar, 11 Aug. 2020, www.lionsroar.com/ask-the-teachers-what-is-the-buddhist-view-of-hope/.


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Cosmos in a Tree: Wordless Poems (excerpts)

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“Cosmos in a Tree” is a book of short poems written in the Zen spirit.

It is a finger pointing to the moon, a glimpse of direct experience.

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“A haiku is not just a pretty picture in three lines of 5 — 7 — 5 syllables each. In fact, most haiku in English are not written in 5 — 7 — 5 syllables at all — many are not even written in three lines. What distinguishes a haiku is concision, perception and awareness — not a set number of syllables. A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. As Roland Barthes has pointed out, this record neither describes nor defines, but ‘diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation.’ The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness. In the mind of an aware reader it opens again into an image that is immediate and palpable, and pulsing with that delight of the senses that carries a conviction of one’s unity with all of existence. A haiku can be anywhere from a few to 17 syllables, rarely more. It is now known that about 12 — not 17 — syllables in English are equivalent in length to the 17 onji (sound-symbols) of the Japanese haiku. A number of poets are writing them shorter than that. The results almost literally fit Alan Watt’s description of haiku as “wordless” poems. Such poems may seem flat and empty to the uninitiated. But despite their simplicity, haiku can be very demanding of both writer and reader, being at the same time one of the most accessible and inaccessible kinds of poetry. R. H. Blyth, the great translator of Japanese haiku, wrote that a haiku is ‘an open door which looks shut.’ To see what is suggested by a haiku, the reader must share in the creative process, being willing to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the words. A wrong focus, or lack of awareness, and he will see only a closed door.”

Cor van den Heuvel

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Lessons of Alan Watts

We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.”

We’re not separate from this universe. We’re interwoven in the cosmos, apart of the energetic patterns of spacetime. We’re like waves in an ocean. Always changing, transforming, connected to more than merely ourselves.

The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.

We strain ourselves in our search for ourselves, in our pursuit of an ultimate meaning, believing that we need to be more famous, more successful, more talented, stronger, smarter, better-looking, in love with the perfect spouse, owning a bigger house, and so on.

We cannot enjoy the present moment because we’re consumed with our stories, regrets, future ambitions, dramas. If we do finally achieve all our dreams, we’re left unfulfilled.

Rather than discovering the miracle of life every day, we have ignored life, attaching ourselves to abstract ideas of meaning and success and purpose.

We often sacrifice what is here for what isn’t.

Rather than being truly alive, aware of our joys and sorrows, we lose ourselves in thought. We’re worried about our futures, ambitious for recognition, avoiding what is unpleasant, clinging to more desires.

If we’re always chasing after meaning, we will waste our lives until our lives are over. The point of life is to live life. What matters is the journey itself.

But the attitude of faith is to let go, and become open to truth, whatever it might turn out to be.

True wisdom is in knowing what we don’t know. Rather than judging, forming opinions, claiming that only we understand, we need to deeply listen and open ourselves to what is mysterious, uncertain, beyond our current paradigms.

Instead of clinging to notions of Absolute Truth, we can live our questions.

Our models of reality are not reality themselves. Our symbol-systems are only representations of limited knowledge. There is so much in this universe that we don’t know.

Sometimes what we learn is too painful to hear. Sometimes we are too emotionally immature, ignorant, and uneducated to understand fully. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know.

We’re only human beings — organizing experience into comprehensible models with our nervous systems, filtering what is “essential” to us from what’s “not essential” (socially, biologically, physiologically), taking in a limited number of signals unconsciously, while not being aware of other signals, while we exist on a tiny planet, in an ever-expanding universe.

We don’t need to form definite conclusions. When we humble ourselves, opening to what is unfamiliar, uncertain, and mysterious, we can grow.

Dharma Bums

Jack Kerouac idealized Gary Snyder in “Dharma Bums,” similar to his idealization of Neal Cassady in “On The Road.” Both figures, although so different from each other, were made into glorious saints of the beat movement through Kerouac’s vision.

Snyder was a humble poet living in a shack lit with wax candles. He bought working class clothes only from thrift stores, meditated, drank wine in the Chinese restaurants of San Francisco, read, studied, and translated many ancient Buddhist texts, and hiked up mountain peaks with a high, echoing yodel.

Kerouac carried a lot of assumptions about what Buddhism is or could be — looking for a kind of “absolute truth” by climbing to the top of a mountain. Awake briefly in awe only to forget again.

At his most lyrically beautiful, he reminded me of a mystic filled with insight about the infinite grace of the cosmos.

Then at other times, he made Buddhism into a chore of daily understanding, a ritualized act of acquiring more and more knowledge just to show off, a literary dabbling into primary sources.

Sometimes he wrote with boyish fantasy, with naive hope, that after years of seeking, he had finally found an ultimate experience, one that would give him full understanding and end all his suffering.

Then there were moments when he was too arrogant with what he had learned about Buddhism (that others didn’t or couldn’t ever know). At those times, he basked in a false spiritual wisdom — like the main narrator in Fight Club — perceiving his role in the universe as a Chosen Bodhisattva, which seemed more like he was putting on a mask of spiritual vanity to compensate for insecurity.

Throughout “The Dharma Bums,” there was a confusion between his ideas about non-duality and what he was really like as a person, as a man who desired to fuck and eat and love and do drugs and shit and travel and be understood, as a lost bum poet who cared too much and felt too strongly and wandered through all of America with a great self-consciousness.

He always seemed to almost get the point of zen, before losing himself in a tangle of symbols. His Catholic background might have conditioned him to seek some fixed idea of Buddhism. Some odd merging of God and Jesus and Nirvana and Heaven and Hell and Buddha and so on. There was so much struggle in his search, in thinking over and again that he had finally got what It was about, that he often missed what was in front of him all along. Being a Buddha is to be nothing special, just here, now. Awake in the moment, not grasping. Not stuck.

As Lin-Chi once said, “Just be ordinary and nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when you’re tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise will understand.”

There is no out there to get to, no special place, no person to give all the answers. But ironically enough, even in Kerouac’s search, whether it’s judged as right or wrong, it is still as much zen as anything else, in the same way that right implies wrong, outside an inside, and in form, there is emptiness.

Only minds make distinctions and get lost in those distinctions without looking at the passing moment. To walk round with a head full of ideas about anything, even Buddhism, is to hold an overflowing cup.

As Dogen Zenji wrote, “Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.”

Kerouac, in his need for truth (more in finding his own subjective truth even when filtered through a particular person or philosophy) still came across as beautiful because of his talent, because of his earnestness, because he wanted harmony and peace and spontaneous joy, folding evermore inward on himself.

He romanticized a bohemian lifestyle, one in which artists move round the country, hitching in cars and on freight trains, meeting up briefly, smoking joints together under a roof as rain falls, pitter-patter, reading haiku to each other in coffee houses, having orgies with each other, loose and free and open to what comes.

By having an authentic lifestyle in such conflict with the conformist notions of his time, there were drawbacks. There was the uncertainty of where to eat and sleep, poverty, judgement, a threat of prison, relationships that came in moments of ecstasy only to go. There were those abused by life on the road, rootless to anyone and everything, who became victims to fear, alcoholism, paranoia, loneliness, and starvation.

Kerouac, in a sense, became a victim of his own life — dying under the pressures of fame and alcoholism and unsatisfied yearning.

The sensitivity that made his writing great brought him intense joys and sorrows. He had such perceptiveness into others but also could rationalize his own delusions, such as with “Ray’s” unfeeling talk with a paranoid Rosie before her suicide, where he never truly cared about her well-being. He spouted Buddhist philosophy only for his own ego, not out of compassion or love. Such compartmentalization shows, as the Tao Te Ching said, “Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”

Despite Kerouac sometimes being possessed with delusions of grandeur, and his inability to get his family to understand his disconnected insights, he was not hard to like. His affinity for all of life and reveling in its ecstasies, made him a wanderer, a loner, a rebel, spiritual in his longing and despairing in his fall. He inspired countless generations of hippies and hipsters and seekers and artists and found himself a guide for those who want meaning outside of a conventional world.

Tao: The Watercourse Way

without an inside,
there is no outside,
by taking away evil,
there is no good,
without black,
there is no white,
without joy
there is no suffering,
there is no before
without an after,
no feminine
without masculine,
ugliness without
beauty,
life without death:
both are inseparable
like poles on a magnet

everything relates to everything
and then returns back to itself,
from one to two to three to
the ten thousand things,
one is not one without
the ten thousand things

when there are
no opinions,
no purpose,
no action,
things come and go
of themselves

when there is mystery
in what cannot be named,
to name it is to not know it,
to know it is not to talk of it

people take care of themselves
when they are not forced,
snow cracks the most rigid pines
while the willow yields and bends

a great warrior doesn’t need to fight
even though a weapon is available

the most powerful ruler is not free
but is burdened with worry, fear, isolation

the truly powerful have
no ambition, no status,
they do not hold themselves above anyone,
they do not praise or blame,
they act by not acting,
they do not force others,
and everything is still accomplished

the wise ones behave righteously
with no thought of good and bad,
they decide on what to do and do
but do not preach to others

when striving for peace,
there will be war,
when seeking pleasure,
there will be suffering,
when there is youth,
there will be old age,
when there is health,
there will be sickness,
from trying to control,
there is a lack of control

there are transformations
along the path of life to death:
not minding what comes or goes,
there is joy in every change

to desire or strain not to desire,
one is still in the Tao,
not a part of it, but It

let the mind alone
and it will harmonize,
force the mind
and it will resist