2000-03-26: The Way of Zen

The Way of Zen (1957)

by Alan W. Watts (1915-1973)

I started to read this book some years ago, judging by the position of a bookmark I apparently left in it. My impression was that I was not very impressed with it on an earlier reading, though I didn’t remember much about it. Near the start of this reading, I noticed some features in the first part (Background and History) that reminded me of this negative impression. Soon, however, I began to appreciate the work, and finished it this time. Most of the quotes in this report are from the second part (Principles and Practice).

I find its date (1957) interesting; and he says he has been interpreting the East to the West for more than twenty years. I would like to know who was influenced by the appearance of this book, and his other works.

As Smullyan says, the first chapter on the philosophy of the Tao is excellent. A passage I particularly liked (for its memetic ideas):

The reason why Taoism and Zen present, at first sight, such a puzzle to the Western mind is that we have taken a restricted view of human knowledge. For us, almost all knowledge is what a Taoist would call conventional knowledge, because we do not feel that we really know anything unless we can represent it to ourselves in words, or in some other system of conventional signs such as the notations of mathematics or music. Such knowledge is conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication. Just as people speaking the same language have tacit agreements as to what words shall stand for what things, so the members of every society and every culture are united by bonds of communication resting upon all kinds of agreement as to the classification and valuation of actions and things.

Thus the task of education is to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes – the rules and conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself together. There is first the spoken language. The child is taught to accept “tree” and not “boojum” as the agreed sign for that (pointing to the object). We have no difficulty in understanding that the word “tree” is a matter of convention. What is less obvious is that convention also governs the delineation of the thing to which the word is assigned. For the child has to be taught not only what words are to stand for what things, but also the way in which his culture has tacitly agreed to divide things from each other, to mark out the boundaries of our daily experience. Thus scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake, and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions. How arbitrary such conventions may be can be seen from the question, “What happens to my fist [noun-object] when I open my hand?” The object mysteriously vanishes because an action was disguised by a part of speech usually assigned to a thing! In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs – so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.

Besides language, the child has to accept many other forms of code. 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. To the extent that we identify ourselves with these stereotypes and the rules of behavior associated with them, we ourselves feel that we are someone because our fellows have less difficulty in accepting us – that is, identifying us and feeling that we are ”under control.” A meeting of two strangers at a party is always somewhat embarrassing when the host has not identified their roles in introducing them, for neither knows what rules of conversation and action should be observed.

Once again, it is easy to see the conventional character of roles. For a man who is a father may also be a doctor and an artist, as well as an employee and a brother. And it is obvious that even the sum total of these role labels will be far from supplying an adequate description of the man himself, even though it may place him in certain general classifications. But the conventions which govern human identity are more subtle and much less obvious than these. We learn, very thoroughly though far less explicitly, to identify ourselves with an equally conventional view of “myself.” For the conventional “self” or “person” is composed mainly of a history consisting of selected memories, and beginning from the moment of parturition. 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 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 the 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!

It is important to recognize that the memories and past events which make up a man’s historical identity are no more than a selection. From the actual infinitude of events and experiences some have been picked out – abstracted – as significant, and this significance has of course been determined by conventional standards. For the very nature of conventional knowledge is that it is a system of abstractions. It consists of signs and symbols in which things and events are reduced to their general outlines, as the Chinese character jen stands for “man” by being the utmost simplification and generalization of the human form.

The same is true of words other than ideographs. The English words “man,” “fish,” “star,” “flower,” “run,” “grow,” all denote classes of objects or events which may be recognized as members of their class by very simple attributes, abstracted from the total complexity of the things themselves.

  communication by conventional signs …  gives us 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. …

The linear, one-at-a-time character of speech and thought is particularly noticeable in all languages using alphabets, representing experience in long strings of letters. it is not easy to say why we must communicate with others (speak) and with ourselves (think) by this one-at-a-time method. …

Now the general tendency of the Western mind is to feel that we do not really understand what we cannot represent, what we cannot communicate, by linear signs – by thinking. …

Watts goes on to invoke “peripheral mind” as an adjunct to linear thinking, capable of a sort of holistic grasp of the world around us. He then goes into the complementary traditions of Confucianism and Taoism, and later contrasts this complementarity with the Western notion of the Absolute. There is a lot in this one chapter, but I can see where on first read it might be off-putting because of its broad scope and claims, and Watts’s somewhat breathless, rushing attempt to put it all in words.

Watts is well aware of the difficulties of his task. In the preface he describes the sort of person who ought to write the book he thinks is needed, and then acknowledges there is no such person, so he will do it himself, despite his own shortcomings, particularly his partisanship and lack of authority. He says “It is both dangerous and absurd for our world to be a group of communions mutually excommunicate.” Of course, I agree.

The second and third chapters on the origins of Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism are tougher going. I think I would have enjoyed them more if there has been a roadmap explaining the points Watts wanted to make. Nevertheless there is a lot of information; I don’t know how authoritative Watts is on the subject.

His chapter on the rise and development of Zen is interesting, in the way it makes explicit the way that Taoism informs Zen, but also the way Indian Buddhist thought was adapted by the Chinese and Japanese practitioners. This is interesting to compare with The Tao of Zen, which I have also reported on.

Watts starts the second part with comments on the subjective nature of the subject:

Our problem is that the power of thought enables us to construct symbols of things apart from the things themselves. This includes the ability to make a symbol, an idea of ourselves apart from ourselves. Because the idea is so much more comprehensible than the reality, the symbol so much more stable than the fact, we learn to identify ourselves with our idea of ourselves. Hence the subjective feeling of a “self” which “has” a mind, of an inwardly isolated subject to whom experiences involuntarily happen. With its characteristic emphasis on the concrete, Zen points out that our precious “self” is just an idea, useful and legitimate enough if seen for what it is, but disastrous if identified with our real nature. The unnatural awkwardness of a certain type of self-consciousness comes into being when we are aware of conflict or contrast between the idea of ourselves, on the one hand, and the immediate. concrete feeling of ourselves, on the other.

When we are no longer identified with the idea of ourselves, the entire relationship between subject and object, knower and known, undergoes a sudden and revolutionary change. It becomes a real relationship, a mutuality in which the subject creates the object just as much as the object creates the subject. The knower no longer feels himself to be independent of the known; the experiencer no longer feels himself to stand apart from the experience. Consequently the whole notion of getting something “out” of life, of seeking something “from” experience, becomes absurd. To put it another way, it becomes vividly clear that in concrete fact I have no other self than the totality of things of which I am aware. This is the Hua-yen (Kegon) doctrine of the net of Jewels, of shih shih wu ai (Japanese ji ji mu ge), in which every jewel contains the reflection of all the others.

The sense of subjective isolation is also based on a failure to see the relativity of voluntary and involuntary events. This relativity is easily felt by watching one’s breath, for by a slight change of viewpoint it is as easy to feel that “I breathe” as that “It breathes me.” We feel out actions are voluntary when they follow a decision, and involuntary when they happen without decision. But if a decision itself were voluntary, every decision would have to be preceded by a decision to decide – an infinite regression which fortunately does not occur. Oddly enough, if we had to decide to decide, we would not be free to decide. We are free to decide because decision “happens.” We just decide without having the faintest understanding of how we do it. In fact, it is neither voluntary nor involuntary. To “get the feel” of this relativity is to find another extraordinary transformation of our experience as a whole, which may be described in either of two ways. I feel that I am deciding everything that happens, or, I feel that everything, including my decisions, is just happening spontaneously. For a decision – the freest of my actions – just happens like hiccups inside me or like a bird singing outside me. …

Man’s identification with his idea of himself gives him a specious and precarious sense of permanence. For this idea is relatively fixed, being based upon carefully selected memories of his past, memories which have a preserved and fixed character. Social convention encourages the fixity of the idea because the very usefulness of symbols depends upon their stability. Convention therefore encourages him to associate his idea of himself with equally abstract and symbolic roles and stereotypes, since these will help him to form an idea of himself which will be definite and intelligible. But to the degree to which he identifies himself with the fixed idea, he becomes aware of “life” as something which flows past him – faster and faster as he grows older, as his idea becomes more rigid, more bolstered with memories. The more he attempts to clutch the world, the more he feels it as a process in motion.

After a short discussion about feedback mechanisms, such as a furnace/thermostat system, and the need for a finite lag or deadband to avoid the system destroying itself by constantly turning on and off, he has the following:

Now human life consists primarily and originally in action – in living in the concrete world of “suchness.” But we have the power to control action by reflection, that is, by thinking, by comparing the actual world with memories or “reflections.” Memories are organized in terms of more or less abstract images – words, signs, simplified shapes, and other symbols which can be reviewed very rapidly one after another. From such memories, reflections, and symbols the mind constructs its idea of itself. This corresponds to the thermostat – the source of information about its own past action by which the system corrects itself. The mind-body must, of course, trust that information in order to act, for paralysis will soon result from trying to remember whether we have remembered everything accurately.

But to keep up the supply of information in the memory, the mind-body must continue to act “on its own.” It must not cling too closely to its own record. There must be a “lag” or distance between the source of information and the source of action. This does not mean that the source of action must hesitate before it accepts the information. It means that it must not identify itself with the source of information. We saw  that when the furnace responds too closely to the thermostat, it cannot go ahead without also trying to stop, or stop without trying to go ahead. This is just what happens to the human being, to the mind, when the desire for certainty and security prompts identification between the mind and its own image of itself. It cannot let go of itself. It feels that it should not do what it is doing, and that it should do what it is not doing. It feels that it should not be what it is, and be what it isn’t. Furthermore, the effort to remain always “good” or “happy” is like trying to hold the thermostat to a constant 70 degrees by making the lower limit the same as the upper limit.

The identification of the mind with its own image is, therefore, paralyzing because the image is fixed – it is past and finished. But it is a fixed image of oneself in motion! To cling to it is thus to be in constant contradiction and conflict. Hence Yün-men’s saying, “In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” In other words, the mind cannot act without giving up the impossible attempt to control itself beyond a certain point. It must let go of itself both in the sense of trusting its own memory and reflection, and in the sense of acting spontaneously, on its own into the unknown. …

But reflection is also action, and Yün-men might also have said, “In acting, just act. In thinking, just think. Above all, don’t wobble.” In other words, if one is going to reflect, just reflect – but do not reflect about reflecting. Yet Zen would agree that reflecting about reflection is also action – provided that in doing it we do just that, and do not tend to drift off into the infinite regression of trying always to stand above or outside the level upon which we are acting.

Anyone who knows me should see why I like this passage! (And anyone who likes this passage, knows something about me.) He goes on:

Thus Zen is also a liberation from the dualism of thought and action, for it thinks as it acts – with the same quality of abandon, commitment, or faith. The attitude of wu-hsin is by no means an anti-intellectualist exclusion of thinking. Wu-hsin is action on any level whatsoever, physical or psychic, without trying at the same moment to observe and check the action form outside. This attempt to act and think about the action simultaneously is precisely the identification of the mind with its idea of itself. It involves the same contradiction as the statement which says something about itself – “This statement is false.”

The same is true of the relationship between feeling and action. For feeling blocks action, and blocks itself as a form of action, when it gets caught in this same tendency to observe or feel itself indefinitely – as when, in the midst of enjoying myself, I examine myself to see if I am getting the utmost out of the occasion. Not content with tasting the food, I am also trying to taste my tongue. Not content with feeling happy, I want to feel myself feeling happy – so as to be sure not to miss anything.

Whether trusting our memories or trusting the mind to act on its own, it comes to the same thing: ultimately we must act and think, live and die, from a source beyond all “our” knowledge and control. But this source is ourselves, and when we see that, it no longer stands over against us as a threatening object. No amount of care and hesitancy, no amount of introspection and searching of our motives, can make any ultimate difference to the fact that the mind is

Like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself.

In the end, the only alternative to a shuddering paralysis is to leap into action regardless of the consequences, Action in this spirit may be right or wrong with respect to conventional standards. but our decisions upon the conventioal level must be supported by the conviction that whatever we do, and whatever “happens” to us, is ultimately “right.” In other words, we must enter into it without “second thought,” without the arrière-pensée of regret, hesitancy, doubt, or self-recrimination. Thus when Yün-men was asked, “What is the Tao?” he answered simply, “Walk on!”.

But to act “without second thought,” without double-minded-ness is by no means a mere precept for our imitation. For we cannot realize this kind of action until it is clear beyond any shadow of doubt that is actually impossible to do anything else. In the words of Huang-po:

Men are afraid to forget their own minds, fearing to fall through the void with nothing on to which they can cling. They do not know the void is not really the void but the real realm of the Dharma. … It cannot be looked for or sought, comprehended by wisdom or knowledge, explained in words, contacted materially (i.e., objectively) or reached by meritorious achievement.

Now this impossibility of “grasping the mind with the mind” is, when realized, the non-action (wu-wei), the “sitting quietly, doing nothing” whereby “spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.”

There is more, but you should read it yourself, in context. I wonder how many people read this much, and took it as license for a pursuit of a deliberately hedonistic lifestyle?

Watts describes the practice in Zen monasteries/schools of using the koan method. This institutionalized form of Zen training apparently arose when people sent their sons to the monasteries for training, and the masters needed a way to control a lot of exuberant youths. Watts clearly has greater affinity for the older “methods” of the T’ang masters for “not-seeking”. He ends

Bankei’s Zen without method or means offers no basis for a school or institution, since the monks may just as well go their way and take up farming or fishing. As a result no external sign of Zen is left; there is no longer any finger pointing at the moon of Truth – and this is necessary for the Bodhisattva’s task of delivering all beings, even though it runs the risk of mistaking the finger for the moon.

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