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The Way of Zen

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236 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1957

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About the author

Alan W. Watts

217 books6,771 followers
Alan Wilson Watts was a British philosopher, writer and speaker, who held both a Master's in Theology and a Doctorate of Divinity. Famous for his research on comparative religion, he was best known as an interpreter and popularizer of Asian philosophies for a Western audience. He wrote over 25 books and numerous articles on subjects such as personal identity, the true nature of reality, higher consciousness, the meaning of life, concepts and images of God and the non-material pursuit of happiness. In his books he relates his experience to scientific knowledge and to the teachings of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 888 reviews
Profile Image for Florencia.
649 reviews1,940 followers
December 1, 2019
In terms of immediate perception, when we look for things there is nothing but mind, and when we look for mind there is nothing but things. For a moment we are paralyzed, because it seems that we have no basis for action, no ground under foot from which to take a jump. But this is the way it always was, and in the next moment we find ourselves as free to act, speak, and think as ever, yet in a strange and miraculous new world from which “self” and “other,” “mind” and “things” have vanished. In the words of Te-shan:

Only when you have no thing in your mind and no mind in things are you vacant and spiritual, empty and marvelous.

A detailed book that shows a thorough understanding of Zen. The language is accessible so it's not an impediment for grasping most of the concepts (which doesn't necessarily mean that anyone without an iota of knowledge about Zen will) but the exhaustive analysis might be too much, even with the beautiful poems Watts included to illustrate each idea - a break from this scholarly study.
It was a struggle at times. I lost my interest at 62% and skipped Part II-3 but found myself captivated again in Part II-4, "Zen in the arts" because, as might be expected, it brims with poetry.
According to Watts, the soft spot that Zen masters had for short, gnomic poems–at once laconic and direct like their answers to questions about Buddhism is naturally connected with haiku.
In Zen a man has no mind apart from what he knows and sees, and this is almost expressed by Gochiku in the haiku:

The long night;
The sound of the water
Says what I think.

And still more directly–

The stars on the pond;
Again the winter shower
Ruffles the water.

Haiku and waka poems convey perhaps more easily than painting the subtle differences between the four moods of sabi, wabi, aware, and yugen. The quiet, thrilling loneliness of sabi is obvious in

On a withered branch
A crow is perched,
In the autumn evening.

But it is less obvious and therefore deeper in

With the evening breeze,
The water laps against
The heron’s legs.

In the dark forest
A berry drops:
The sound of the water.

Sabi is, however, loneliness in the sense of Buddhist detachment, of seeing all things as happening “by themselves” in miraculous spontaneity. With this goes that sense of deep, illimitable quietude which descends with a long fall of snow, swallowing all sounds in layer upon layer of softness.

Sleet falling;
Fathomless, infinite


March 3, 19
* Later on my blog.
** Credit: photo via wonderopolis
Profile Image for Ruth.
Author 10 books478 followers
December 1, 2007
There ought to be a special star (green? purple?) for books that meant something to you a long time ago, but which you know you would hate today.
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,119 reviews44.8k followers
February 3, 2022
"If Christianity is wine and Islam coffee, Buddhism is most certainly tea."

I like this quote a lot, that much so I decided to start my review with it because I think it says a great deal about the nature of Zen.

I've been told I have good Zen and although I don't consider myself a Buddhist, I actively try to live by many Buddhist principles. To be Zen is to be calm. To be Zen is to be free. To be Zen is to see things as they actually are. And this can only come from liberation, liberation of consciousness and liberation of being. But what does this mean? Becoming Zen means learning how to achieve this; it means practicing thought and behaviour that grant us the wisdom to separate ourselves from earthly desires.

What’s really important here though is understanding that not all of us can achieve this, simply because we don’t all want to be this way. And in this, Alan Watts provides an intellectual and academic study of Zen. This book is not a pamphlet promoting ideology. It is a Eurocentric dialogue attempting to understand eastern philosophy. It’s an explanation. It’s an attempt of the west trying to understand the east, and his been handled in a very thoughtful and delicate way. It’s respectful and informative.

The Way of Zen is loaded with history and research over the development of Zen practice and thought. It details the different practices of it. I especially enjoyed the section on Zen in the arts. Poetry plays an important role, as does capturing the essence of an image through a precise and perfect rendering of the Haiku form. All art is subjective, though there is something strikingly natural about a Haiku done well because it captures a moment in time exactly as it is and can offer much more.

Overall, this is a very good book on the subject matter. Having read many of this type, I wish I had started here because it feels like a strong introduction. I recommend reading this before moving onto books written by eastern Zen practitioners and teachers themselves.


You can connect with me on social media via My Linktree.
Profile Image for Leonard.
Author 6 books107 followers
April 13, 2014
In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts introduces us to Zen Buddhism and to some extend Taoism to the average John and Jane. The history and background of Zen and Taoism in part one helps us understand the cultural contexts behind these philosophies: how Taoism developed in China, how Buddhism spread to China and how Zen developed in China and spread to Japan.


Watts explains Zen, to the extend that it can be explained, so that we can understand it, to the extend we should try to understand it. Though Zen is a branch of Buddhism, it responds to the formal ritual of its progeny with spontaneous thoughts and actions. The emptiness and silence of Zen contrast with our hectic everyday life amid rush hour traffic. The preoccupation of the self as the one to think and feel and to act and improve, and the desire for enlightenment all hinder our spiritual walk.


I particularly like the section on Zen and the arts. Zen has influenced artwork and poetry in China and Japan. Through Zen, we realize the white spaces in the paintings and the silence within the poems are as important as the brush strokes and the words. And cha-no-yu, or the tea ceremony, is as much a spiritual experience as an aesthetic one.

Alan Watts

If you are curious about Zen, this is the book to start with. Zen 101 for beginners.
Profile Image for Worthless Bum.
43 reviews29 followers
September 19, 2008
I see the Way of Zen not so much as an exposition of a secularized version of Zen Buddhism (or Eastern thought more generally), explained in a manner easily understood by Westerners (which it is), but more as an accoutrement to Eastern spiritual practices like meditation and other numinous experiences derived from Eastern thought. This book is easily as good as anything I've read on spirituality, and probably the very best. It is important to read between the lines in this book if the full benefit of the spiritual practices of the East is to be had. Whenever I read this book I am overcome by a profound feeling of the numinous, comparable to, but not quite reaching the highest hights of, the most profound spiritual experiences of my life. The best work of Alan Watts I have read to date, this book is highly recommended for anybody interested in Eastern spirituality.
Profile Image for David.
Author 1 book30 followers
February 9, 2020
Alan Watts' "The Way of Zen" influenced me in my 20's. If there's nothing better out there, this is a useful book for everybody. But you don't have to go from where you are to Zen Buddhism to find "the Way". Sufism includes a lot of Zen principles, especially the Mullah Nasr-ad-Din stories. Also African folk tales like Ananse Tales, Ananse being a clever spider, with an upside down interpretation of things like a spider would naturally have.

I would think Jesus himself might have been influenced by a Zen philosopher who got off at the wrong airport. In fact, I've often wondered why our alternative culture types would rather travel to India to "find themselves" or join the Hare Krishnas dancing at airports than sit down and apply oneself to the task of studying the Bible with all its wisdom and the work of many ancient Jewish rabbis in the tradition of religious philosophers like Maimonides and Hillel the Elder.

In other words, Zen is at home if you look hard enough: Uncle Remus, folk tales of The Old West, Native American myths. How about ancient Greek myths--plenty to draw on from there.
Profile Image for Diana.
349 reviews86 followers
May 16, 2023
The Way of Zen [1957] – ★★★★★

The book is a short and remarkably lucid account of Zen, which is also both – informative and a pleasure to read.

“…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 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.
Profile Image for Rein.
Author 60 books307 followers
December 31, 2012
It might be that I am a little too generous with my stars here, but this was the first book on Japanese (and Chinese) philosophy that I ever read. I was very much taken with Watts' attitude - respect without too much enthusiasm, no effort to convert the reader into anything, but also no self-inflicted distance that would view the subject matter entirely as a topic of purely academic interest. Of course, Japanese studies have advanced considerably from those days, important texts have been translated, some even several times, and there are many more competent introductions to the topic (Kasulis, Zen Action/Zen Person for example). Nonetheless Watts deserves all the praise for this book, even if we should not forget that it has been written more than half a century ago and under quite different circumstances.
Profile Image for Brian.
321 reviews58 followers
June 9, 2020
I’ve long been fascinated from afar by Zen Buddhism, while knowing essentially nothing about it. (I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance years ago, but that’s about it.) I heard good things about this book, so I thought I’d read it to give myself a beginner’s education about Zen.

The Way of Zen is a good short introduction to Zen. In the first half of the book, Watts explores the Taoist and Buddhist roots of Zen and describes how Zen developed from those roots. In the second half, he tries to illuminate the nature or “flavor” of Zen—what it is and how it is taught and practiced.

I gleaned some insights into Zen from the book, but I have to confess that most of what Watts says goes over my head, probably because it requires such a different mindset from the one I’m used to. “Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a ‘way of liberation …’” “It is a liberation from convention …” I suppose I’m too conventional to quite understand it.

Nonetheless, I’m glad I read the book, and I would like to learn more about Zen. According to Watts, though, “in studying or practicing Zen it is of no help to think about Zen. To remain caught up in ideas and words about Zen is, as the old masters say, to ‘stink of Zen’.” But I think I’d have a long way to go before I would run that risk.
Profile Image for A.
163 reviews26 followers
June 19, 2012
I picked this up on a whim whilst searching for books on Buddhism at the library. Actually, an online friend years ago had mentioned Watts among several other recommendations on the subject of Buddhism, so as I was searching this one immediately popped out. I wasn't interested in reading about Zen specifically, but then it's not something I know a ton about and the book was a pretty reasonable length, so why not?

I'm glad I got this book, because now I feel much more knowledgeable and conversant on the subject of Zen, along with feeling a little more confirmed on my opinion of Buddhism in the general sense. What I like primarily is that Watts very clearly lays out a history of Buddhism, its historical foundations in Vedantic religion/philosophy, and its travel through China to Japan. He covers the influences of Confucianism and more notably Taoism, from which Zen gets its emphasis on unfettered naturalness, and then moves on to the growth of Zen monastic tradition and related practice. Like Zen itself, Watts's style is straightforward and unfettered by terminology. He has a knack for translating sometimes difficult Eastern concepts into a Western context, showing the limitations of that context and highlighting the common mistranslation of said concepts. He uses concrete metaphors and sometimes comparisons to Western philosophical/religious concepts to clarify, which for someone like me is always the clearest and easiest approach.

I didn't personally find the approach too meandering or overly prone to tangents--or, if there were tangents, they seemed clearly enough related to the subject at hand to maintain focus/interest. He packs the text with lots of references and footnotes, and there's a nice thick bibliography I'll be scouring later tonight. The last chapter on Zen aesthetics was mostly redux for me and will be for anyone who's studied Chinese and Japanese art in any depth. I took a class on Japanese art in college and while we didn't go in too much depth with Zen, we did cover enough that I understood the basics. He does go into some detail as well on haiku and Zen forms of poetry, which might be helpful for those trying to understand the forms better beyond simply construction and delve into the necessary philosophical underpinnings.

While he kinda hurries through the aesthetics to the conclusion, I nevertheless liked how he pulled it all together. Overall, it's very effective at what it aims to do (inform the reader in detail on Zen Buddhism), and it gave me exactly what I needed without any irritations or distractions. There were a few instances where its age showed, being that this was written prior to the 60's, with its explosion of interest in Eastern and "alternative" belief systems, but for the most part it has a timeless feel and seems as useful today as it must have been 50 years ago.
Profile Image for Ahmed Ibrahim.
1,197 reviews1,646 followers
September 11, 2019
يدور الكتاب حول الروح العامة لبوذية الزن وبداية تأسسة الجماعة في الصين والاختلافات التي مرت بها عن البوذي الأولى، حيث كان زن متوافق مع الروح العامة للصينيين والتاوية التي كانت أكثر تأثيرا هناك في ذلك الوقت.
كتاب جميل.
Profile Image for Жор.
269 reviews77 followers
May 11, 2021
Втората половина, където Уотс разказва за практическата част на дзен, е много по-силна от първата.
Profile Image for Richard.
15 reviews12 followers
February 7, 2008
Written in Watts' eminently readable attractive prose style, concise and provocative, The Way of Zen has annoyed American practitioners since its 1957 publication. Philip Kapleau went out of his way to denounce it in the introduction to his Three Pillars of Zen for downplaying zazen.

Watts' critique of zazen does in fact have merit, to the extent that Buddhadharma is reduced to sitting and nothing else. The other very interesting point he makes in his chapter on meditation is the introduction of Tariki or Other Power, the way of Shin Buddhism. He mentions Shinran Shonin (founder of the Jodo Shin Shu sect) and the myokonin Kichibei to show the possibility of another way to come to realization.
27 reviews3 followers
September 17, 2020
For close to ten years I had had the question of what consciousness is on my mind and been looking for a satisfactory answer. Far from finding a satisfactory answer, I hardly ever even found a satisfactory question! It is all too common for those who make attempts at this question to (intentionally or unintentionally) replace what is commonly called ``the hard problem of consciousness" with something that conveniently omits the core of the problem, namely how subjective experience comes to be, present a theory dealing with whatever they feel matters in the remaining husk and declare triumph. What is particularly infuriating is the latest trend in such circles to promulgate patently absurd ``emergence" theories of consciousness. It boggles the mind how people claiming a monist, scientific, and materialist viewpoint can make such dualist, fantastic, and frankly inane assertions as ``the whole is more than the sum of the parts." We can of course form and assign concepts that apply to the whole but not to the individual parts, but those are just that: concepts. In terms of what is real, what can be said to exist in the real world, the whole can never be any more or any less than the sum of the parts. Anyone arguing otherwise has no claim whatsoever to monism and materialism.
You won't find any of that nonsense here. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the the Buddhist (and Zen) view of this problem as presented by Watts is uncompromisingly materialist. The current fashion in Western thought is (and has been for some time) to begin with matter and then search for mind--a state of affairs the development of which I find curious given Descartes' ``cogito ergo sum." Buddhism however approaches the problem in the only way that has any hope of success: starting with mind and seeing where that leads. The Buddhist view is uncompromisingly materialist since it admits the existence of only one sort of ``material" or ``thing:" mind. And just like that it is made evident that the question of ``What is mind?" has no meaning whatsoever:

``It should be obvious that what we are, most substantially and fundamentally, will never be a distinct object of knowledge. Whatever we can know-life and death, light and darkness, solid and empty- will be the relative aspects of something as inconceivable as the color of space. Awakening is not to know what this reality is. As a Zenrin poem says:

As butterflies come to the newly planted flowers,
Bodhidharma says, `I know not.'

Awakening is to know what reality is not. It is to cease identifying oneself with any object of knowledge whatsoever. Just as every assertion about the basic substance or energy of reality must be meaningless, any assertion as to what `I am' at the very roots of my being must also be the height of folly. Delusion is the false metaphysical premise at the root of common sense; it is the average man's unconscious ontology and epistemology, his tacit assumption that he is a `something.' The assumption that `I am nothing' would, of course, be equally wrong since something and nothing, being and non-being, are related concepts, and belong equally to the `known.'"

Or more briefly the mind is

Like a sword that cuts, but cannot cut itself
Like an eye that sees, but cannot see itself

At one point I started to wonder where exactly my interest in ``Zen" had come from. Retracing my steps I arrived at Hoftstadter's ``Gödel, Escher, Bach" and was struck by the similarity of Hofstadter's ideas to some of what I had read in this book, however it seems to me (not quite sure, never actually finished either ``GEB" or ``I am a Strange Loop.") that Hofstadter's theory, although ostensibly explaining consciousness, actually explains the mechanism behind the ``ego" or ``self."
Thinking back to the time when I was reading Hofstadter's book I am reminded of just how much this question of what consciousness is had been weighing on me all this time. It had influenced my academic choices and ambitions and had consequently exerted the greatest influence on my trajectory for the past ten years. I do not exaggerate when I say that halfway into this book I started sleeping better at nights! I haven't found any answers, but I can finally give up the question.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 9 books100 followers
November 15, 2009
One of the first books that taught me how to think philosophically about the world around me. Watts has been an inspiration to me and I turn to his work to gain perspective when times are tough, or even when times are going well and I need something to focus my mind again. I love how he can synthesize complex philosophical topics in a way that anyone, even the uninitiated could really feel comfortable discussing.
"We have come to feel ourselves as centers of a very, very, tender, sensitive, vulnerable consciousness, confronted with a world that does not give a damn about us. And therefore, we have to pick a fight with this external world and beat it into submission to our wills. We talk about the conquest of nature; we conquer everything. We talk about the conquest of space, of mountains, of cancer. We are at war with everything. And it's because we feel ourselves to be lonely ego principles, trapped in, somehow intextricably bound up with, a world that does not go our way unless somehow we can manage to force it to do so. This sensation of the ego as a centered, stable, or easily localizable self somewhere behind our eyes, is a hallucination." Great Stuff.
Profile Image for Taka.
687 reviews529 followers
October 5, 2016
Great exposition of Zen Buddhism, its history, philosophy, practice, and cultural/artistic influences. Alan Watts is definitely an awesome writer who's capable of not only clearly explaining the intricate concepts foreign to Western sensibility but also respecting and handling fine linguistic and conceptual differences between cultures. Aside from his gripes with Soto and Rinzai Zen practice resembling boarding school discipline, I loved it, especially Zen's Chinese and Indian philosophical roots as well as its influence on Japanese and Chinese arts (Sado, Kendo, Sumi-e, and poetry). My discoveries and new must-reads include: Bankei, Takuan, Hakuin, and Ryokan. And of course I'll definitely read Watt's other writings.
Profile Image for Amirtha Shri.
241 reviews56 followers
September 11, 2018
Zen tangles, paintings, sayings, haiku, made me ever so curious about Zen. Also, a few books I read recently set in China and Bhutan, and a few non-fictions gave a glimpse of the liberal and understanding religion of Buddhism. Alan Watts has cleaved the book into two halves, the first half explains the (possible) origins of Zen and the second half is about practices, forms, masters, and art. Both the parts were equally critical and with this thorough introduction through the eyes of a westerner, I have become even more curious to learn and understand the Zen state, the process, and the way of life.
Profile Image for Juraj Holub.
153 reviews23 followers
January 23, 2018
“Paradoxical as it may seem, the purposeful life has no content, no point. It hurries on and on, and misses everything. Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world.”
Profile Image for Edward.
151 reviews11 followers
August 8, 2016
It's amazing how many books have been written about Zen in the West, since almost all of them admit right off the bat that Zen cannot be explained, at least in words. It might seem like a futile endeavor, and yet we can't help both writing and reading them. But if Zen, and Buddhism in general is about avoiding extremes, then it's not the heresy it appears to be. We just have to remember that a book, like anything else, is not the thing itself. It's a measurement, an aspect of "conventional" wisdom as Watts puts it, and not the wisdom of the Tao or Dharma.

Watts is well aware of this, which is why his work is especially valuable. Being a westerner himself, he knew the mindset we come from, and how to best overcome the obstacles it presents. A key focus for him was our view of language: our high regard for rigorous classification is a two-edged sword. On the one hand it makes scientific and rational inquiry possible, on the other it tends to overwhelm our sense of the "big picture." Even the idea of "two-ness" itself is from language:

"Now classification is precisely maya. The word is derived from the Sanskrit root natr-, 'to measure, form, build, or lay out a plan,' the root from which we obtain such Greco-Latin words as meter, matrix, material, and matter. The fundamental process of measurement is division, whether by drawing a line with the finger, by marking off or by enclosing circles with the span of the hand or dividers, or by sorting grain or liquids into measures (cups). Thus the Sanskrit root dva- from which we get the word 'divide' is also the root of the Latin duo (two) and the English 'dual.'
To say, then, that the world of facts and events is maya is to say that facts and events are terms of measurement rather than realities of nature. We must, however, expand the concept of measurement to include setting bounds of all kinds, whether by descriptive classification or selective screening. It will thus be easy be easy to see that facts and events are as abstract as lines of latitude or as feet and inches. Consider for a moment that it is impossible to isolate a single fact, all by itself. Facts come in pairs at the very least, for a single body is inconceivable apart from a space in which it hangs. Definition, setting bounds, delineation--these are always acts of division and thus of duality, for as soon as a boundary is defined it has two sides."

Thoughts like this are echoed in the "Perennial Philosophy," another book by a westerner deeply interested in the mystical and non-rational. There is a consistent thread within this tradition of the "essential badness of division" (as Huxley put it). As soon as you measure or mark off, you create an "other." This can lead to all kinds of linguistic conundrums, like the fist/open hand parable Watts gives, but ultimately the real danger is something deeper--confusing symbols, such as words, with whatever it is they are trying to describe. The signifier becomes the signified.

So how do you avoid this trap? If you start to feel a sense of panic at this point, you aren't alone. Division is embedded in language itself, because what is a word if not a way of separating a thing from other things? Watts points out that language is ultimately a convention society agrees upon. It is complex and takes generations to build, but in the end the reason we call a tree a "tree" in English is because we have collectively decided that it is, and not "boojum." It could have been boojum, theoretically, because there is no such thing as a word that is inherently "tree-ish." Here the Middle Path is again useful. The trick is not to defy convention, but to understand it, or as Watts says "to be free from convention is not to spurn it but not to be deceived by it. It is to be able to use it as an instrument instead of being used by it."

Grasping this is a small step, but one on the path to liberation.
Profile Image for Johanne.
54 reviews6 followers
December 31, 2011
I have read this book in the hopes of gaining some background knowledge on Zen Buddhism, to help me in my studies of Japanese Art. Although the book is indeed very thorough and supplies a wealth of knowledge of the origin of Zen and of Buddhism as a whole, before moving on to the specifics of its appliance to the arts in China and Japan, it is written in such a way that is often hard for the uninitiated to follow and understand. Buddhism being as it is foreign to most Westerners, the Indian vocabulary that goes with it is an obstacle for many, and this book, although excellent for the quality of its information, does a poor job at vulgarizing it for lay people.

Worth a read if you're interested in the subject, but be prepared to make a focused reading.
Profile Image for MP.
72 reviews72 followers
January 21, 2019
Read slowly and take note.

Nho giáo tựa như 1 người gương mẫu, đầy chuẩn mực của xã hội. Anh ta sống trong xã hội, phụ thuộc vào xã hội. Còn Đạo giáo thì hoàn toàn ngược lại, như 1 kẻ nổi loạn có trình độ, anh ta sống thuận theo ý mình, thuận theo tự nhiên, luôn giữ cho tâm bất biến giữa dòng đời vạn biến - my thought on this book.

Lần đầu tiếp xúc với chủ đề tôn giáo mà lại bắt đầu vs cuốn này thật sự là 1 thử thách quá lớn vì quá khó hiểu, có lẽ là vs 1 ng trẻ trc h chỉ quen vs kiểu suy luận logic như mình.
Tuy vậy, nhưng vẫn take note đc nhiều đoạn khá là hay, để dành suy ngẫm trong lúc rảnh.
Nếu có thời gian sẽ quay lại nghiền ngẫm sau.
Profile Image for Angela Serban.
502 reviews18 followers
March 12, 2019
Alan Watts ne învață cum să ne reîncărcăm bateriile. Ne îndeamnă să ne creăm un ritual prin care să ne deconectăm. Să ne lăsăm gândurile libere şi să stăm, pur şi simplu, să stăm. Să fim doar o suprafață lucioasă care să reflecte lumea fără a interveni, analiza, clasifica, categorisi, judeca şi orice altceva mai obişnuim noi să facem. Cu alte cuvinte, să ne desprindem, să fim, din când în când, exact opusul a ceea ce ne defineşte ca fiind oameni. Starea de zen nu presupune eliminarea gândurilor, ci a analizei lor, a aspirației către ceva, a planurilor, aşteptărilor şi a strategiilor. Calea zen te reduce la a fi nimic şi nimeni, ca oglinda unui lac, perfect nemişcată în care lumea se vede aşa cum e, neafectată de simboluri şi concepții.

Câteva momente zilnice sau săptămânale de contemplare zen, “de a şedea doar pentru a şedea” ar putea fi cel mai bun medicament sau tratament pentru mințile şi trupurile noastre agitate, ale occidentalilor. Calea Zen este acceptarea imposibilității de a cuprinde mintea, este opusul dualității şi exclude acțiunea. S-a născut din mii de ani de tradiții indiene şi chinezeşti, combinând daoismul cu budismul Mahayana şi depăşind granițele realitații, ale limitărilor, regulilor, simbolurilor, concepțiilor şi orice altă formă materială.

Zenul poate fi leacul perfect pentru anxietatea conştiintei, prin eliberarea spontaneității şi naturalului. Nu ai nici un fel de intenții şi nici un fel de aşteptări, nu îți doreşti nimic, nu ai visuri de viitor, nu cunoşti constrângerile şi formele realității impuse, te desprinzi de absurdul lumesc, doar exişti şi dispari în infinit. Eşti nimeni şi nimic.

Tot ceea ce înseamnă autocontrol se opune iluminarii. Atingerea acestei stări se face la fel de inconştient ca acțiunea de a respira şi bătaia inimii. Involuntară şi necondiționată.

Nirvana apare în momentul în care renunțăm să ne mai agățăm de viața. Este starea naturală a minții, neîngrădită de percepție. Nu poate reprezenta un scop deoarece aspirația către ceva contravine ideologiei Zen. Nirvana este atinsă spontan şi în mod neintenționat. Nu este nevoie să fii superior sau inferior, bun sau rău pentru că atingerea ei semnifică depăşirea oricărei idei de dualitate sau comparație. Calea Zen nu practică discriminarea, oricine poate atinge eliberarea absolută.

Budismul nu împărtăşeşte viziunea occidentală potrivit căreia există o lege morală impusă de divinitate sau de natură ce trebuie respectată. Neimplicarea şi detaşarea contemplării zen exclud şi anulează ca inutile porunci de genul: nu fura, nu ucide, nu minți. În lumea budistă, acțiunea ce implică schimbarea este evitată din start.

Contemplarea budistă este definită de cuvântul dhyana în chineză, tradus ca zen în japoneză. Watts totuşi atenționează asupra sensului modificat prin traducere deoarece nu este nici medițatie, care implică analiza, nici transă. El sugerează a se folosi termenul original aşa cum este folosit cel de Nirvana şi Zen. Dhyana este clipa şi starea de conştiință a Eternului Acum. Budismul zen este singura şcoală budistă ce vede iluminarea ca pe ceva realizabil în orice moment fără nici un fel de instruire anterioară şi fără a fi neapărat nevoie de parcurgerea cu răbdare a mai multor vieți. Dacă-ți laşi mintea liberă să emită gânduri fără a le reține, deforma sau a interveni în vreun fel asupra lor, Nirvana este doar următorul pas.

Zenul nu este indicat a fi importat, dar în doze mici poate avea capacitatea de a-ți ușura viața, de a-ți încânta și exaspera sufletul, în aceeași măsură, de a-ți întoarce mintea pe toate părțile pentru a o aerisi și de a-ți dizolva din grijile și apăsarea cotidiană. Trebuie privit ca un stil de viață, nu ca o religie pentru ca budismul zen nu-l privește pe Buddha ca pe o divinitate ci ca pe ceea ce cu toții suntem deja. Este un dar prețios al Asiei pentru omenire care poate avea puterea de a mai pune puțină ordine în haosul zilnic al vieții occidentale, dacă este privit cu gândirea unui asiatic și renunțăm câteva clipe la percepția europeană asupra vieții.
Profile Image for Mack.
440 reviews17 followers
November 15, 2017
This is the first real exposure I've had to Alan Watts. I've read a few books about Buddhism this year and I feel like this was, far and away, the best. He covers a lot of ground in a little bit of time and he's a really gifted communicator. Heady concepts become really understandable in his hands. Considering most diehard fans of his I've met can be pretty head-in-the-clouds and/or dogmatically New Agey, I really appreciated how his treatment of Zen Buddhism was done in a down-to-earth, open-palm way. Great and beneficial overview of both the history and philosophy of Zen.
July 24, 2021
Alan Watts. What a guy.

This was a fantastic introduction to Zen and a complete paradigm shift in thinking. Although it was written 64 years ago, his writing is so contemporary.

It’s a bit of a mindfuck, really - a way of thinking that one couldn’t possibly fathom without this kind of instruction. It’s really given me a lot to think about and it’s set me on a journey of discovery.
Profile Image for Teo 2050.
840 reviews82 followers
September 17, 2020

2020: This is still one of my favorite books on Zen. I loved the narration by Sean Runnette.

Another quote from this time around:

The problem of “what” the mind is can now be seen to be the same as the problem of “what” the real world is. It cannot be answered, for every “what” is a class, and we cannot classify the classifier.


Update after listening to Patrick Horgan’s unabridged narration: This felt to me like medicine when I first read it, and it did the same when listened to.

My 5/5 is based less on the history and characters and mostly on the first and last ~thirds of this book, which felt most relevant to process and personally implement to the extent that I view few (or no) people I know as “overdoing WoZ’s message”, and many people overdoing the “Western cybernetics” that WoZ (and many other books by Watts) feel like perfect counterbalances for. (OTOH, I tend to know more analytical-introspective people than people from the other end, that of extreme spontaneity.)

Narrationwise, Horgan felt fitting for Watts.

This was a very enjoyable and healthy reminder that’ll likely be returned to many times throughout life until something better-put shows up.

Read 2014.07.21:

My first enthusiasm with Watts was through this book, recommended to me by a friend who’d first liked him as a speaker. There seem to be a lot of interesting ways and modes of thinking and being in the Eastern traditions, the exploration of which can counterbalance ~Western bubbles of analytical loops, especially deep self-absorption that can lead to heavy blocks and paralysis in deciding and reacting. One of the ideals in the Eastern traditions is, as illustrated by the quotes below, a frictionless continuity between deciding and acting, making everything you do more and more spontaneous until the mind sees itself no more than a clear eye sees itself as blotches in the air. (Is it paradoxical to talk of making oneself more spontaneous or less self-aware?)

I read this — perhaps too fast, as it keeps coming back to me — at a cottage last summer, and below are some (more or less direct) quotes that I had to type down.


Whereas God produces the world by making (wei), the Tao produces it by “not-making” (wu-wei) ≈ growing. It does not “know” how it produces the world just as we do not “know” how we construct our brains.

wu-wei : not-/non-{action/making/doing/striving/straining/busyness} : to let one’s mind alone, trusting it to work by itself.

wu-hsin (no-mind) : un-self-consciousness : 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. If the ordinary man is one who has to walk by lifting his legs with his hands, the Taoist is one who has learned to let the legs walk by themselves.

The true mind is no mind, just as the eyes are seeing properly when they do not see themselves, in terms of spots or blotches in the air.

To be unconscious of one’s feet implies that the shoes are easy. The intelligence being unconscious of positive and negative implies that the heart (hsin) is at ease. And he who, beginning with ease, is never not at ease, is unconscious of the ease of ease.

The culture of Taoism and Zen proposes that one might become the kind of person who, without intending it, is a source of marvelous accidents.

Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.

+ various analogies between {relaxing central laserfocus vision to allow for more peripheral vision} and {replacing conventional Western linear thought-patterns with more wu-wei, using the “peripheral” or “non-grasping” mind}

[Taoism and Zen as interpreted by Watts seems like a way as good as any to find out more about why I’ve for a long time had much more sympathy for many Eastern concepts than for, well, mostly forms of Christianity with focuses on ego and hierarchy and control, with God as some entity/concept, “the ultimate boss” relevantly distinct from naturecosmos’verse.]

The “Zen type” is an extremely fine type -- as types go -- self-reliant, humorous, clean and orderly to a fault, energetic though unhurried, and “hard as nails” without lack of keen aesthetic sensibility. The general impression of these men is that they have the same sort of balance as the Daruma doll: they are not rigid, but no one can knock them down.

(...) Yet Zen is a liberation from this pattern, and its apparently dismal starting point is to understand the absurdity of choosing, of the whole feeling that life may be significantly improved by a constant selection of the “good.” One must start by “getting the feel” of relativity, and by knowing that life is not a situation from which there is anything to be grasped or gained -- as if it were something which one approaches from outside, like a pie or a barrel of beer. To succeed is always to fail -- in the sense that the more one succeeds in anything, the greater is the need to go on succeeding. To eat is to survive to be hungry.

The illusion of significant improvement arises in moments of contrast, as when one turns from left to the right on a hard bed. The position is “better” so long as the contrast remains, but before long the second position begins to feel like the first. So one acquires a more comfortable bed and, for a while, sleeps in peace. But the solution of the problem leaves a strange vacuum in one’s consciousness, a vacuum soon filled by the sensation of another intolerable contrast, hitherto unnoticed, and just as urgent, just as frustrating as the problem of the hard bed. The vacuum arises because the sensation of comfort can be maintained only in relation to the sensation of discomfort, just as an image is visible to the eye only by reason of a contrasting background.

It [Zen] enters into everything wholeheartedly and freely without having to keep an eye on itself. It does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.

One method of muscular relaxation is to begin by increasing tension in the muscles so as to have a clear feeling of what not to do. In this sense there is some point in using the initial koan as a means of intensifying the mind’s absurd effort to grasp itself. But to identify satori with the consequent feeling of relief, with the sense of relaxation, is quite misleading, for the satori is the letting go and not the feeling of it. The conscious aspect of the Zen life is not, therefore, satori -- not the “original mind” -- but everything one is left free to do and to see and feel when the cramp in the mind has been released.

A good haiku is like a pebble thrown into the pool of the listener’s mind, evoking associations out of the richness of his own memory. It invites the listener to participate instead of leaving him dumb with admiration while the poet shows off.

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 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.

My idea of myself is not myself.

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 depend 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 that 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.

Buddhism has frequently compared the course of time to the apparent motion of a wave, wherein the actual water only moves up and down, creating the illusion of a “piece” of water moving over the surface. It is a similar illusion that there is a constant “self” moving through successive experiences, constituting a link between them in such a way that the youth becomes the man who becomes the graybeard who becomes the corpse.

Connected, then, with the pursuit of the good is the pursuit of the future, the illusion whereby we are unable to be happy without a “promising future” for the symbolic self. Progress towards the good is therefore measured in terms of the prolongation of human life, forgetting that nothing is more relative than our sense of the length of time. (...)

This is not a philosophy of not looking where one is going; it is a philosophy of not making where one is going so much more important than where one is that there will be no point in going.


Watts A (1957) (07:37/07:19) Way of Zen, The

Part One: Background and History

1. The Philosophy of the Tao
2. The Origins of Buddhism
3. Mahayana Buddhism
4. The Rise and Development of Zen

Part Two: Principles and Practice

1. “Empty and Marvelous”
2. “Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing”
3. Za-zen and the Koan
4. Zen in the Arts
Profile Image for Chintushig Tumenbayar.
462 reviews32 followers
June 25, 2016
Зен буддизмийн талаарх анхны гадаад ертөнцөд зориулан бичигдсэн бүрэн хэмжээний гэж хэлж болох энэ номонд зен буддизмийн үүсэл гарал энэтхэгийн буддизм, хятад дахь таоизмийн хамаарал болоод хэрхэн зен японы арлуудад хүрсэн түүхэн баримтуудийн дурдсан байна. Шашин бус ямар нэг итгэл үнэмшил дээр тулгууралдаггүй өөрийгөө чөлөөлөх арга замд хөтөлдөг зен буддизмийн талаарх чанартай бүтээлүүд өдий хэр нь ховор. Сузуки багшийн эссенүүд төдий л олны хүртээл болоогүй нь дээр ихээхэн ойлголт тэвчээр шаарддаг нь өрнийхонд хаалттай байсан хэвээр.
Profile Image for Cruz Cáceres.
33 reviews12 followers
February 6, 2020
La lucidez de Alan Watts es abrumadora, el intento que hace para poder traspasar a un lenguaje occidental la filosofía y la religión oriental es un trabajo, como el entiende incluso, imposible. Sin embargo, a través de una prosa casi poética logra plasmar entre frase y frase la sensación misma del Zen y nos los hace entender mas allá de las meras palabras, sino con alegorías y ejemplos, que son los que finalmente te hacen sentido y con los que puedes comparar con tus propias experiencias. Una joya.
Profile Image for Michael A..
415 reviews80 followers
April 1, 2020
My impression of Watts before reading this book was he was sort of this weird guy who just said deep-sounding things that appealed to stoners. Maybe he is, but in this book I didn't really get that feeling. This is a fairly serious scholarly work, it seems, on Zen Buddhism, both theoretically and practically. I felt like the first part was better than the second part, but both parts are good and worth reading.
Very interesting stuff, and helped re-ignite an interest for Buddhism and Eastern philosophy more generally.
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