The Way of Zen

July 23, 2008

What encourages a person to practice Buddhism? Is it to relieve human suffering? Or is it to become an enlightened human and attain nirvana?

The two outcomes may not really different. Attaining enlightenment frees a person from suffering. Still, it is not unusual to read a book on Buddhism that employs language loaded on one side or the other. This is especially true of two authors that I have been reading this summer. Thich Nhat Hanh writes lyrically on the theme of mindfulness and the relief of suffering. Alan Watts, on the other hand, writes incisively on Zen mind and Zen enlightenment, while almost completely ignoring suffering, compassion, loving kindness, and so on.

Watts’ view of Zen (and Buddhism in general) is intriguing, but it feels lopsided. In The Way of Zen, he rarely quotes from the Buddha’s teachings, but refers repeatedly to Taoist verses and the sayings and doings of Zen masters, particularly when they achieve satori. He also posits (and repeats) a number of analogies and metaphors that suggest what enlightenment might be and how it might arise. (Since he cannot get beyond the metaphorical stage, these metaphors are both suggestive and vaguely frustrating.) Enlightenment, and how an enlightened person views the self and the world, seem to be the only things that interest him. How enlightenment reduces suffering or changes one’s dealings with one’s fellows is hardly mentioned.

This approach makes the book intellectually stimulating, but strangely cold-hearted. Ignoring the emotional, moral, and ethical dimensions of Buddhism limits the book’s appeal for me. I want to bring a “good heart” (compassion, loving kindness, etc.) to my daily affairs and I am more interested in learning how I might do this through Buddhist practice than I am in piercing the secrets of Zen word games. That said, I confess that I enjoyed the book’s description of the historical development of Buddhism, its migration from India through China and Japan, and its emergence in the form of Zen in China and Japan, the metaphors regarding satori and the discussion of koan, and the (short) description of pre-1960 Zen practice in Japan. If these are sound, then this is a worthwhile, if unbalanced, introduction to Zen.


2 Responses to “The Way of Zen”

  1. I think Zen can be contrasted with the modern culture of presumption. You might enjoy the short Zen tale I just posted at

    • Alan said

      Thanks for sharing your comment and story. I think “presumption” nails it. Not only culture, but also me as a part of this culture. The master in your story says “too full”. That’s me.

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