Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen [1957] – ★★★★★the way of zen book cover

“…the true practice of Zen is no practice, that is, the seeming paradox of being a Buddha without intending to be a Buddha” [1957: 95, 96]. “The basic position of Zen is that it has nothing to say, nothing to teach. The truth of Buddhism is so self-evident, so obvious that it is, if anything, concealed by explaining it” [1957: 163].

This non-fiction book by a British philosopher and writer illuminates one of the least understood concepts in the world – Zen. Patiently, Watts traces the origins of Zen Buddhism– its Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism foundations, and then explains very clearly some of its basic principles and practices (such as the nature of direct experience, “no-mind”, the present “Now” and sitting meditation). The last chapter in this book is devoted to the application of Zen to a number of arts: from haiku (a form of Japanese poetry) to archery, with the author explaining how Zen started to permeate virtually every aspect of life. The Way of Zen is a short and remarkably lucid account of Zen which is very informative, on top of being a pure pleasure to read.

The book starts by tracing the origins of Zen, explaining Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. At this point, the author contrasts the Eastern thought with the Western one, pointing out that Taoism concerns itself with going “beyond conventional knowledge” that so preoccupies the West and emphasising spontaneity, “non-graspingness” and calmness of mind. Zen itself is all about direct experience, simplicity and “naturalness” as “the perfection of Zen is [merely] to be perfectly and simply human” [1957: 162]. The reader of this book should probably have a bit of open-mindedness as the author talks about “the empty and illusionary character of the visible world” [1957: 41] and the inherent “elusiveness” of the world, focusing on intuition as a source of ultimate knowledge/experience. Some parallels with the Western canon can also be drawn. For example, versions of the so-called “holy fools” have been present in the histories of many cultures around the world and the unreality of the present world, as well as the importance of childish simplicity, are also hinted in the Gospels: “[Jesus said] infants being suckled are like those who enter the kingdom”; [Who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Jesus continued]: “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside as the outside, and the outside as the inside, and the upper as the lower, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the male is not male and the female not female, and when you make eyes in place of an eye, and a hand in place of a hand, and a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then shall you enter [the kingdom]” [Gospel of Thomas, Saying 22].

The point that the book tries to convey is that the Final Truth or the Way cannot be discovered by gaining any knowledge or even by thinking (the Real Truth need not be said – it is understood immediately by everyone in their hearts) – this “unspoken” is “something beyond material existence and cannot be conveyed by words or silence” [1957: 28]. Instead, one must have experienced a direct awakening, which may happen at any moment. Symbols and ideas will only distort the Truth. This is one of the paradoxes of Zen, the author states, since even to have a goal to reach awakening is, paradoxically, no longer trying to reach the Way because one has already started thinking about it in a conventional way. The conclusion is that one must not think about it all or even desire it in order to gain it. Some of the examples used by Watts may be questionable and there is a fair amount of repetition in this book, but the clarity and presentation of the topic are simply excellent. Near the end of the book, Watts goes on to explain the application of Zen to the arts: haiku, calligraphy, gardening, tea-ceremony, painting and even archery. It becomes clear, for example, why Japanese poems are written in this particular fashion, why the Japanese language/literature/artworks favour minimalism and how tea became the very essence of Zen.

The Way of Zen illuminates the path of Zen which was previously shrouded in mystery and secrecy as the author dispels common misconceptions about Zen and points to various outside forces that shaped it in modern times. The result is a very clear and convincing introductory text on this topic.

12 thoughts on “Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

  1. Great review, Diana! I’ve read Watts’s “The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety” a few years ago and I remember loving it. He uses a lot of that “paradoxical” wisdom, which I think is a hallmark of Buddhism. Your review has convinced me to bump this up my TBR. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Zen is an attitude, Buddhism is a religion and Watts is not conventionally religious, because his philosophy comes down to the path that human beings have to take to find the truth “know who you are”

    Liked by 1 person

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