There is so much to talk about with Alan Watts that as with our lives there seems no beginning or ending. What should be important to us, verses things of little relevance. What guided so much of his writing and books in the 1950’s and 60’s was how identifiable patterns in nature repeat themselves and correspond with our own soul’s journey. From the smallest things we encounter to the immense. His books, works and writing contributed to the understanding of who we are and most importantly, who we are yet to become.
In so many ways looking to Watts, is like entering the flow of universal thought and transcendence and saying thank you. The first challenge is getting into the right frame of mind and simply going there. He would say “detachment means to have neither regret for the past nor fears for the future; to let life take its course without attempting to interfere with its movement and change, neither trying to prolong the stay of something pleasant nor to hasten the departure of things unpleasant. To do this is to move in time with life, to be in perfect accord with its changing music, and this is called Enlightenment. In short, it is to be detached from both the past and future and to live in the eternal Now. For in truth neither past nor future have any existence apart from this Now; by themselves they are illusions. Life exists only at this very moment… You may believe yourself out of harmony with life and its eternal Now; but you cannot be, for you are life and exist Now – otherwise you would not be here. Hence the infinite Tao is something which you can neither escape by flight nor catch by pursuit; there is no coming toward it or going away from it; it is, and you are it. So, become what you are.”
This follows the First Noble Truth of Buddhism – That we are here to move beyond suffering.
First, I am not an authority on Zen, I am a student. Simply a storyteller who tries to see how it all fits together. How is it we become transcendent in our thoughts and universal through our actions. The key for me and good writing is to allow others to see themselves and say “yes, can I come along too?” Not to try to own a particular way of thinking, but to sample our way through life finding shoes (transposed as our thoughts and actions through cause and effect) that fit. This fits in the ideas of two others attributes that exemplify Zen being impermanence and absence of any self.
I think Alan Watts speaks so well as to the essence of Zen that translates into the meaning of our lives. It seems that on the one hand, it is necessary to be sympathetic and to experiment personally with the way of life to the limit of one’s possibilities. On the other hand, one must resist every temptation to “join the organization”, to become involved with its institutional commitments, that say we must work, get a job, and conform or comply with the status quo. We do those things, but not in such a way that they define who we are… unless we use what we do to do so.
As Ram Dass taught us years ago, “The person we are from nine to five is not who we are from five to nine. That we get too busy doing not being….” Residing or finding a friendly neutral position, we are apt to be disowned by both sides. For the relationship between two positions becomes far clearer when there is a third with which to compare them. Thus, even if this study of Zen does no more than express a standpoint which is neither Zen nor anything Western, it will at least provide that third point of reference. This is what Alan Watts was attempting to do… to take us there. To not only be willing to “change our thoughts”, but also “decide how to get there”. As with the essence of the I Ching and what is reflected in Taoism teaches us… we must be willing to change from within ourselves. To adapt ourselves to and with the flow of universal thought and to go there acknowledging that the key to wisdom and transcendence is illumination, spontaneity, and to go or follow where our innermost thoughts want to take us. That it is as Franklin Roosevelt told America at the height of the depression back in the 1930’s, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” The context may be different, but the meaning is the same. To rise up out of where we are, we must be willing to do things differently and not to let fear of change itself or staying in the status quo define or overtake us.
The problem for many from the essential standpoint of Zen is that it refuses to be organized, or to be made the exclusive possession of any institution. If there is anything in this world which transcends the relativities of cultural conditioning, it is Zen – by whatever name it may be called. This is an excellent reason for Zen’s not being institutionalized, and for the fact that many of its ancient exponents were “universal individualists” who were never members of any Zen organization, and never sought the acknowledgment of any formal authority. They lived “outside the lines or box” of what was/is excepted at the time. Today they would be called an “outlier”. This is the ultimate paradox we all live. Staying within the lines for eternity’s sake, while living outside the lines to find life’s true meaning.
For myself, it is as if happiness, i.e., our purpose, is always present in our life. It’s just a matter of connecting to it and allowing it to flow through us that’s challenging. That we stop trying to please and start respecting our values, principles, and autonomy. It is as if we live two lives as referred to above. Watts’s fascination with the Zen (or Chan) tradition—beginning during the 1930s—developed because for him, that tradition embodied the spiritual, interwoven with the practical, as exemplified in the subtitle of his Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East. “Work”, “life”, and “art” were not to be demoted, but became the extension of a spiritual focus. In his writing, he referred to it as “the great Chan (or Zen) synthesis of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism after AD 700 in China.” Watts published his first book, The Spirit of Zen, in 1936. Two decades later, in The Way of Zen he disparaged The Spirit of Zen as a “popularization of Suzuki’s earlier works, and besides being very unscholarly it is in many respects out of date and misleading.” A mid-course direction as if now twenty years later, knowing more he needed to re-define his take on things.
Carl Jung said, “To rest in Tao means fulfillment, wholeness, mission done, the perfect realization of the meaning of existence innate in things. Personality is Tao. The emergence of a new center in the personality, that with the Tao we can find the synchronicity of life. That synchronicity asserts that what appears as coincidence is actually connected by a similarity of meaning. What the Tao and I Ching represent is the continuous creation of a pattern that exists in all eternity”.
Watt’s continues: In contrast to spiritual teachings based on doctrine or divine revelation, the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism is based on thousands of years of observing nature, especially patterns of change and transformation. How it all fit together. What may be seen as divine, already exists within you. All that is necessary is to connect your pre-existing spirit with transcending universal rhythms and vibrations that speak to your own endeavor and destiny. Over time, the Chinese came to see these patterns of change as resulting from a universal creative spirit, or energy, which they called the Tao. Similar to that found in air and water. That change is dynamic and always evolving. The Tao likened to the currents and vortices in air and water. Sometimes it was depicted as tightly coiled lines or threads; other times, as dragons, flowing along wave-like lines of change.
Carl Jung and Alan Watt’s contribution to understanding the human condition as we reconcile our “place” in nature was immeasurable once we see from where we are doing “it” from. What is important is to see knowledge and wisdom as the unending flow of nature. It’s as if there is a stepping stone of never-ending thought waiting for us to tap into.
Living beyond what is expected of you at the moment. Sometimes it’s like being here, but not really present. For Taoist sages and Zen masters the universe that surrounds us is to be experienced as our “original face”. It’s the Source of all that exists, a living matrix of creativity that we all belong to that has brought each one of us into being. For myself, it is that we are to do the best that we can with what we have while we are here. To begin to grasp Zen, we must first take a look at both Confucianism and Taoism, then to the I Ching and Mahayana Buddhism as our teachers.
Confucianism pre-occupies itself with maintaining social order. An individual defines himself and place in society thusly. I saw this play out with many of my friends in Qufu over the years. The home of Confucius where everyone seemed intent on finding their place in what was seen as the norm. Whereas, Taoism resides more with the individual, and with older men who have the time to pursue a more inward liberation from the bounds of conventional patterns to thought and conduct. Seeing things in an unconventional way, understanding life directly instead of only rational, abstract thoughts, or ways of thinking. In short spontaneity, that may allude us when the rigors of life’s travails seem omnipresent. What keeps us from opening our minds is that the Absolute cannot be confused with abstract thinking. What can be known – verses what will be forever unknowable. It was here through the use of the I Ching, one could use what might be call “peripheral vision”, or our ability to feel a situation and act accordingly. In doing so, we often see the need to move beyond who, and where, we are now because we’ve moved beyond our present thinking. According to Watts, Taoism, is the original way of liberation, which combined with Indian Mahayana Buddhism produces Zen. It is the liberation from convention and of the creative power of te, or virtue. With te as the unthinkable ingenuity and creative power of man’s spontaneous and natural functioning – a power which is blocked when one tries to master it in terms of formal methods and techniques. In Zen, ensō (円相, , “circle”) is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.
As Alan Watts put it: “If you see yourself in the correct way, you are all as much extraordinary phenomena of nature as trees, clouds, the patterns in running water, the flickering of fire, the arrangement of the stars, and the form of a galaxy. You are all just like that…”
While this is not difficult to comprehend conceptually, it can be challenging to experience directly and frequently. Not buying into the rat race mentality of modern cultures is an essential first step. Training mindfully in an art form or sport, learning to meditate or do yoga, will provide us with a system of practice that assists greatly. With this we learn to grow beyond the emotional propensities of the past. To make the ordinary become extraordinary through the virtue that resides within each of us. Easier said than done, because in the West we become tied to the Christian concept of an Absolute, or accepted moral order. When we become at odds with this, we are denying our own nature or found rejecting God. As we learn to meet the world like an empty cup, we allow inner and outer realms of our lives to flow together. Where there had been separation before, now there is greater unity and love. Every living being we meet, every experience we have, can be seen as magical in some way.
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh describes this as a deepening awareness of inter-being, the fundamental unity and interconnectedness of every “thing” in the Cosmos. In a flower exists water from clouds, energy from the sun, molecules from the earth, atoms created billions of years ago within stars…. Just like us. This understanding is very important if one wishes to grasp Buddhist teachings about emptiness, as Thich Nhat Hanh explains:
A flower cannot be by herself alone. To be empty is not a negative note… A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So, to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos.
Such an attitude and recognition bring greater peace and happiness in our lives (and wisdom in our actions) because instead of trying to manipulate outcomes and take from the world we become more aligned with Nature, moving in unison with life, like a musician or dancer. To even what embodies the true meaning of tai chi – not just to see, but to get things by the feel of them. Using intuition, our inner knowing, to decide for us how to proceed. It comes to us by what is known as ‘spontaneous action’”. “Zen professes itself to be the spirit of Buddhism, but in fact it is the spirit of all religions and philosophies. When Zen is thoroughly understood, absolute peace of mind is attained, and a man [or woman] lives as he ought to live.” ― D.T. Suzuki
It is as if all divine energy is already pre-existing waiting to come forth, change, and blossom from within every atom. That what exists in all nature occurs through a process of synchronicity as these atoms constantly emerge as building blocks from one thing to the next, coming forth over and over through time. First as one thing and then the next. A blending or coalescing together that originates from within as the natural universe works mainly on the principle of growth. What we, and all things found in nature are now and yet to become.
Dao and De (The Way of Virtue)
- The more we come to know quantum physics, the better we understand the science of how this works. Over thousands of years in both philosophical and practical terms, this grew in understanding to become the I Ching, to Taoism, to Chan Buddhism… to what we know as Zen. It became the culmination or consummation, “the blending” of all that came before it. It’s also who we are. With our essence, our soul as you might say and thoughts that take us there, co-mingling with eternity.