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Alan Watts, “The Way of Zen”

THE PHILOSOPHER ALAN Watts has fallen out of fashion somewhat in the last thirty or so years, in part due to the rising skepticism in the West towards religion––though Alan Watts belonged to no faith and was more spiritual than religious––and in part due to the death of the hippie movement in the late 1970s.  The views he expressed in innumerable essays and articles and lectures remain, in my eyes, if not necessarily life-changing then certainly worthy of consideration and discussion, and Watts, whose oratorical style is so absent of the tedious piety and gravity which you tend to associate with those who deal with the “spiritual” side of life, is still the best communicator of Eastern religions to the West. You wonder, for that matter, whether Watts’s work isn’t overdue for a revival, when you consider the rise of those who identify as “spiritual, but not religious”––those to whom Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists is addressed––and who are struggling to quell the agitation of the sense of the numinous and the transcendent that the rituals and the music and the art of religion used to provide. As well-developed and considered as the conclusions at which Watts arrived and adopted are his instructive efforts on myth and religion and on individual religions, such as his bestselling 1957 book The Way of Zen.


You wonder, for that matter, whether Watts’s work isn’t overdue for a revival, when you consider the rise of those who identify as “spiritual, but not religious”––those to whom Alain de Botton’s book Religion for Atheists is addressed––and who are struggling to quell the agitation of the sense of the numinous and the transcendent that the rituals and the music and the art of religion used to provide.


In The Way of Zen Watts examines his subject far more deeply than authors such as D. T. Suzuki do in similar efforts, many of which are written by practicing and orthodox Buddhists and necessarily reflect the simplicity of Buddhist doctrine. But Watts also looks far wider outside the subject than those authors, at Zen’s origins in more orthodox Chinese and Indian Buddhism, and also in Taoism and Hinduism and Vedism, which both predated and sowed the seeds, so to speak, for Buddhism. His task is made all the more difficult by the indefinability and paradoxical nature of many aspects of Zen and the difficulty in explaining it in a way comprehensible to the so-called Western mind, but he accepts the task with characteristic patience and good humour, weaving in pithy anecdotes, quotations and lines of poetry to break up descriptions that are dense. As a result The Way of Zen is, in spite of its subject matter, immensely readable and enjoyable, not to mention enlightening, if you’ll excuse the pun.

What you will find if you sit down to read Watts’s book for any length of time is that you’ll feel a degree of the equanimity that characterises practicing Zen Buddhists, and there’s a sort of Buddhist clarity and freshness to Watts’s prose that is underpinned by his very British sense of humour. (You can take the boy out of England, but you can’t take England out of the boy.) It’s perhaps fitting that Watts seems so eager in his book to do away with the misconception that Zen is dull or sterile in some way; he emphasises not only the semi-permanent state of bliss in which the most devout Zen Buddhists live but also their––often childish––sense of humour. He tells amusing and surprising stories of Zen masters winding up their students, and dedicates a portion of the book to some of the religion’s more colourful characters such as the eccentric Sōtō Zen monk Ryōkan, who would get drunk on rice wine and “toss off a few lines of calligraphy” and once got naked so he could give his clothes to a thief disappointed to find there was nothing to steal.


What’s certain is that Watts had a gift for bringing about enthusiasm for his interests in others. To put it another way, he was, if not necessarily the most knowledgeable about the subject––which is not to say he wasn’t very knowledgeable––he was without a doubt its best communicator.


A significant departure of The Way of Zen from other introductions to Zen Buddhism is Watts’s diminution of the importance of zazen, or Zen sitting meditation––something for which Watts was almost roundly criticised by fellow students of the religion. Even those with a casual interest in Buddhism or Zen Buddhism will know that the Sōtō school founder Dōgen considered zazen to be the same as studying Zen. As he put it in the first sentence of Zazen-gi (“Principles of Zen”): “Studying Zen … is zazen.” This oversight seems uncharacteristic of Alan Watts, who was perhaps a victim of the time in which he wrote the book. (It is, ironically, partly thanks to the work of Watts that others in the West developed sufficient interest in Buddhism to educate us on the significance of zazen to Zen.) The firmly established fact that meditation is important to Zen leads you to wonder what else Watts might have downplayed or even misunderstood, although the chances are that if you’re drawn to a book like The Way of Zen you have enough basic knowledge of the subject to answer that question partly.

What’s certain is that Watts had a gift for bringing about enthusiasm for his interests in others. To put it another way, he was, if not necessarily the most knowledgeable about the subject––which is not to say he wasn’t very knowledgeable––he was without a doubt its best communicator. (You might say the same about someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who is more a populariser of science than he is a scientist.) The Way of Zen reminds us that his death left a void that is yet to be filled, and is a particular loss to those who are areligious but nonetheless interested in the immaterial and the mystical.

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