Eastern Thought – A Beginner’s Guide

These are the basic historical facts about Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Taoism:


Buddha was a man, not a god – albeit a Prince. . No one is exactly sure of the correct dates for his lifetime, but best guesses are around circa 563 BCE to 483 BCE. He was raised as a Hindu.


Taoism began in China around the same time and was founded by with Lao Tse (The Old Fellow)   and Chuang Tzu, his successor. Lao Tse was a contemporary of Confucius, who disapproved of Taoism as lax and libertine. Lao Tse was responsible for the spiritual text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching. Watts translates this as “The Way and Its Power’. The ‘Tao’ is simply ‘The Way’.


The Buddha was Gautama Siddhartha. ‘Buddha’ means, ‘the man who woke up’. The story of his enlightenment is well known: he was born a prince, and his privileged life insulated him from the sufferings of life. One day, he went outside the royal enclosure where he lived. There, he saw an old man, a sick man and a corpse. This greatly disturbed him and he learned that sickness, age and death were the inevitable fate of human beings.


He decided to become a monk, and lived as a homeless holy man. He searched for a way to escape the inevitability of old age , death and pain but studying with religious men. But he found no answer.   He encountered an Indian ascetic, who encouraged him to follow a life of extreme self-denial and discipline, and practice meditation. But this did not satisfy him either.


One day, seated beneath the Bodhi tree, meditating, he achieved enlightenment. Of what this enlightenment consisted is usually explained by the Four Noble Truths (see below).


Two main schools of Buddhism emerged after Gautama Buddha’s death.


The earliest form of Buddhism is the ‘little vehicle’ Hinayana (sometimes known as Theravada) found today in Sri Lanka and Thailand. ‘The Little Vehicle’ is a form of insult, and was formulated by those who later adopted Mahayana Buddhism ( see below). Theravada Buddhist believed that only a very few people could ever achieve Buddhahood


“In the early stages of its development, Buddhism was perceived as an ascetic practice, emphasizing the mind over the body.   Indian Buddhism entered into a world where Hinduism was well established, and became influenced by it.


“It quickly went from a philosophy to a religion, and thereby the kind of religion in which ‘holy men’ lived apart from normal society, as a kind of sanyassin or seer. A holy man would attain a state of perfect enlightenment, nirvana, and be unassailed by the troubles of the world, floating above them in a kind of spiritual bubble.


Hinayana Buddhism was later superseded by Mahayana Buddhism ‘The Great Way.’ Which could be found in Tibet, Mongolia, Japan. Mahayana was founded around 100 BC and developed through to 400 AD.    This was much more democratic in its approach, teaching that every sentient being could become a Buddha.


Buddhism is not so closely tied to Asian cultures as, say Shinto or Confucianism to China or Hinduism to India. Buddhism has the flexibility to migrate everywhere. It is international.


“Buddhism is Hinduism stripped for export. Hinduism goes far beyond what we in West call religion, it’s a whole way of life. You can’t export Hinduism any more than you can Shinto from Japan.


Buddhism came to China as early as 60AD. But didn’t make a great impression. This began to happen around 400 AD, when Kumara Jiva came to China and started teaching Chinese scholars Sanskrit and translated Buddhist scriptures.

Sometime Before 500 AD Bodhi dharma came to China, and touched off Zen.

Zen (in Chinese Ch’an, which is in turn the Chinese pronunciation of the Indian word ‘Dhyana’ indicating a mind involved in meditation) was a merging of Taoism, Buddhism and to a lesser extent, Confucianism.


“Zen was a much more worldly version of Buddhism. The Chinese were a practical people who had no time to sit around on the side of mountains have elevated thoughts. They wanted a philosophy that could incorporate work, and sex and ordinary daily life. Hence Zen Buddhism.” writes Alan Watts.


“The Indian attitude modified when Buddhism came to China, because the Chinese found Taoist meanings. There was no humour in Indian Buddhism. Whereas Chinese life is full of humour.


“ The Chinese are not interested in Buddhist celibacy, this was incomprehensible.   The whole Chinese world is about family. They could never get through their heads the idea that sexual desire was bad – which is part of Hindu thinking (which became part of Buddhism). The Indian Buddhists thought it (sex) dissipated spiritual energies.

“The Chinese aimed at being awake and fully active in the ordinary world, completely involved in life. But
inwardly living on top of a mountain.


“Chinese Zen is the pre-eminent expression of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucian practicality.”


Around 1100 -1200 AD Zen shifted to Japan, where it changed in quality and tone. The Japanese were very neurotic about the ‘right thing’ to do or right way to behave. Zen, with its emphasis on spontaneity provided a release.


“Japanese culture is very ritualistic. There is a right way of doing everything. You have to know what is good form. Such as the tea ceremony. Or flower arranging. The Japanese are very worried about this. In bringing presents, do we give them more than them? There is the debt you owe your parents, and your Emperor, which can never be paid. Japan is a very nervous culture. Is one playing the rituals correctly? So it needs an outlet. Zen provides that.


After its export to Japan, it slowly faded away in China and in the 20th century, faded in Japan as well – as Watts says, “it is no longer authentic, just people going into family business.


In the 1950’s and 60’s Zen moved primarily to the West Coast of America – where Alan Watts largely carried out his studies and teaching.




Most people have a very confused idea of Buddhism – which is hardly surprising, given how many versions of it there are, and taking into account all the mistakes possible in translation from Pali or Sanskrit. Even those who have a good schooling in the traditions tend to interpret is it very differently from Watts.


Many others think of Buddhism in its religious version, with a holy text (the Sutras), a ‘god’ (Buddha) and a number of schools not unlike the many schools of Christianity.


But Buddhism – as Alan Watts conceived it and as the Buddha himself taught it– involves thinking for yourself, not following any established rules or pre-existing beliefs.


Watts often pointed out that Buddhism was an early form of psychotherapy. But rather than stating that an individual – say a depressive- may suffer a belief system that is inaccurate and harmful to themselves and possibly others, Buddhism states that humankind in general suffers from a belief system that is inaccurate and harmful.


We are all, in short, crazy – particularly in the West.


Others may not think of Buddhism strictly as a religion in the Western sense, but believe that it has a number of very particular beliefs and practices that are similar to religious beliefs.


It is often held that Buddhism involves a belief in karma and samsara, the wheel of birth-and-death, which involves a sort of transmigration of souls, in which good in this life will be rewarded by rebirth as a higher form of life, and bad in this life will be punished by a appearing as a lower form of life. Karma is thus inseparable from the idea of re-incarnation and re-birth. As Watts put it,


“Reincarnation is the idea you are a soul on a pilgrimage, as thought of in the Western mind…working your way up to human form…from a slug or something…”

Alan Watts’ interpretation of karma is very different from the orthodox interpretation. He translates it as ‘action’, and reads it as simply meaning ‘you did it’ as in ‘you did your accident’. He describes the widespread idea of karma as a form of cause and effect as ‘popular superstition’ (‘ See ‘What Makes Things Happen’ Chapter)


Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, is also identified with an ascetic lifestyle, often involving robes and a shaven head. Pacifism and vegetarianism are often involved, and there is a heavy emphasis on zazen, or sitting meditation. Most people believe you have to do a lot of meditation and strict spiritual practice to ‘become’ enlightened.


Alan Watts own life stands against myth. A sensualist, serial adulterer, epicurean, smoker and alcoholic, Watts had, by all accounts, a joyful, bohemian, life, understanding Zen deeply without feeling he had to follow any particular lifestyle.


Zenism makes no prescriptions whatsoever about how you behave. You don’t have to chant, or be a vegetarian, or wear orange, or believe in peace. It simply requires that you see straight, directly, with an unblocked mind – a ‘beginner’s mind’ in Taoist terminology.


You can ‘sin’, take drugs, eat hamburgers, wear any clothes you like. You can be an ordinary Joe doing an ordinary job with a home and family. You could be an evil Buddhist – it is entirely possible to be violent. And you certainly don’t have to be a vegetarian or a pacifist.


“None of can live at all without killing something,” says Watts.


Buddhism, according to Watts, and contrary to popular belief, has no particular moral code. The only thing is to cultivate is a certain condition of mind – a liberated mind. It is then extremely unlikely that you will want to do any harm. Liberated from the command to be good, you may well become genuinely good.   But ‘bad behaviour’ is not proscribed. It is merely suggested that, say, living a life of crime, or taking drugs, will not help to achieve liberation.


Watts, however, was caution of the libertinism implicit in Zen – as, he believed, it was practiced by the “Beats’ of the 1950’s, most particularly, Jack Kerouac (who featured Watts as ‘Arthur Whane’ in his book ‘Dharma Bums’)


“Kerouac is always a shade too self conscious, too subjective and too strident to have the flavour of Zen. When Kerouac gives his philosophical final statement, ‘I don’t know. I don’t care. And it doesn’t make any difference’- the cat is out of the bag, for there is hostility in these words which clangs with self defence.


“ Just because Zen truly surpasses convention and its values, it has no need to say ‘To hell with it’ nor to underline with violence the fact that anything goes. “


You do not even have to meditate. This was one of Watts’ most controversial views and led to many attacks from the Zen Buddhist community. He dismissed the core Zen idea of zazen (which meant spending hours seated in contemplative meditation) as unnecessary.


‘A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away,’ was his interpretation of Zazen. Slightly less forgiving was his comment on what he called the ‘uptight’ school of Zen who ‘seem to believe that Zen is essentially sitting on your ass for interminable hours.’


The goal of Buddhism is popularly thought to be samsara or enlightenment. In this condition, you are thought to float above wordly concerns, since you no longer suffer from attachment. You are, therefore, detached. Watts would have condemned this as an ego-trick. To be detached and ‘above it all’ is just a way of showing off, or ‘drunk on Zen’.


Detachment does not mean that nothing really troubles you. It does not mean you do not have desires, and therefore your desires are never frustrated.


It is attachment to a particular set of ideas that the liberated mind will be free from.     You will, or may be, very attached to your life and people around you. The more ordinary your life is, the more Zen it is. Zen is simply an attitude, an orientation towards life, nothing more.


‘Detachment ‘ does not mean you are inoculated from emotion. You just won’t waste your emotions trying to square circles or achieve the impossible. This is what meant by dukkha – ‘frustration’ or ‘discord’, rather than suffering.


“Detachment…is not being without emotion or feeling, but being one in whom feeling is not sticky or blocked and through whom the experiences of the world pass like the reflections of birds flying over water. “


No philosophy will protect you from suffering. Likewise, no philosophy can render you completely calm in the face of all provocation. Watts says if you are like that you might just as well be a stone Buddha. A real Zen master can become so angry the room rattles. He just gets over it very quickly.

The Buddhist goal of ‘liberation; or ‘enlightenment’, being at one with ‘Brahma’ or God, according to Watts, most people imagine to be a bit like seeing the world as a kind of pink jello.


“ ’Brahman’ is not a vast blob of transparent jello that penetrates the whole world. The whole point is missed when you form any image at all in your mind…It is simply what we are actually…you cannot think it or imagine it…thought cannot think what is higher than thinking…


“Brahman is the power which generates the mind. Thought and imagination are annihilated trying to grasp it.”



Being liberated isn’t some otherworldly experience. The more normal, the more Zen. It’s just like everyday life. Only experienced lightly, as if you were walking a few inches above the ground




Quite apart from feeling lighter and more energetic, if you are liberated, you will be relatively untroubled by guilt, regrets about the past and anxieties about the future. Liberation is nothing mysterious. It simply means living in the active present, or rather recognizing that you have no choice but to live in the present – since even regret about the past and anxiety about the future happen in the present.


For someone who is liberated, death is likely to seem less problematic than it once did (see ‘A Few Cheerful Words About Death’ Chapter) Life will be freer, since you are no longer tilting at windmills.


Liberation is above all about not tying yourself in knots. It is not an escape from suffering or loss or pain or fear, but a technique for accepting those facts of human life as inevitable or even, in a way, positive. It is not about denial, but accepting the truth about suffering (in this regard it shares a great deal with philosophical stoicism).  It is not about faith, but facing reality. It is not about belief, it is about accurate perception.


Furthermore, Buddhism is not necessarily hard work. Watts was fond of Japanese Shinsho or ‘Pure Land’ Buddhism, which emphasized tariki or ‘other power’ as opposed to jariki ‘self power’.


‘The person who attempts to make spiritual progress by his own efforts is battling against the biggest obstacle…because he suffers from pride that his own will, his own energy, is sufficient to change himself.


“If he needs changing at all, it is the character of his own will…and how is it going

to be changed by a will that so needs to be changed? It’s like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. Impossible.



At the heart of conventional Buddhist philosophy are the ‘Four Noble Truths’. Watts had his own definition of these precepts.


Dukkha, the First Noble Truth, is usually translated as ‘suffering’. Hence the widespread belief that Buddhism has a pessimistic worldview, since the common view of Buddhism is that it starts with the precept ‘life is suffering’


Watts is anxious to point out that a better translation is ‘frustration’ – which makes much more sense to those living in the West, with its high standard of living, today.


Dukkha is ‘anguish’, ‘suffering’, ‘frustration’. This is the name of the disease from which all human beings suffer. It really means ‘chronic frustration’ as a result of trying to do things which are inherently impossible or contradictory, like trying to draw a square circle. “


The Second Noble Truth is ‘Trishna’’ – the cause of the disease of dukkha.


“Trishna is’ clutching’, or ‘grasping’ – desire. It is based on unconsciousness or ignorance, Avidya, ‘not knowing’ – failing to understand that the world is not composed of bits (see Things and Thinks Chapter)


He emphasizes that trishna is also rooted in the failure of humans to understand fundamental impermanence of all things. We do not accept the transitoriness of life, so we are constantly trying to grab at it – but it is like trying grab at disappearing mist.


“We also run into frustration because we fail to see that the world in which we live is fundamentally impermanent. All things, however solid they seem to be, are in a state of flux. The world we live in is not entities, but processes. Everything is flowing pattern. The substance of life is like water or smoke. I can cup my hands gently to hold water, but if I clutch at it I immediately lose it.


Just as Watts’ doctrine of ‘radical acceptance’ has echoes in Greek and Roman stoicism, so the Buddhist doctrine of perpetual change in flow is echoed in the writings of Heraclitus, who famously wrote ‘panta rei’ – everything flows.


“Everything is alive because it flows, and we fail to see this. So we try to possess it.


“We think of ourselves as stuff underlying the changing patterns, the doer behind words and thoughts and deeds. The Experiencers behind the experiences. But we are all action, all deed. When we realize this, then the do-er vanishes. There vanishes this idea of man as something separate. When the experience of our own separateness disappears we have Nirvana.


Nirvana is the Third Noble Truth. This is also misunderstood in the West. We tend to think of this as an unrealistically perfect state of permanent bliss that at only Yogis or mystics achieve, but Watts defines it simply as the relaxation of a certain sort of mental tension which arises from not thinking clearly and which is available to everyone in their everyday lives.


“Nirvana is grossly mistranslated as meaning a state of being doped up, in ecstasy, or dreamy bliss.


“ It means being very wide awake, completely aware. The etymology is disputed but the one I like is ‘to blow out’. You lose your breath, you expire, you heave a sigh of relief…Nirvana is the sigh of relief…the giving up of the attempt to clutch at life to hold it in a fixed form, to resist change”


“Breath is one of the fundamental symbols of life. ‘Spirit’ originally means ‘breath’. It’s like, I need my breath, so I breathe in desperately. But you have to breathe out. You have to lose your breath, in order to have breath.


Clinging – Trishna – is trying to hold on to one’s breath, to one’s life. The blown-out life is Nirvana.”


“Nirvana is not suppressing thoughts and emotions. If this was so, then a piece of rock would be an enlightened Buddha.”


Finally, he addresses the Fourth Noble Truth, Marga or ‘path’.


This ‘path’ has eight elements, the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’.


This is organized further into three subdivisions: ‘Wisdom’ – Right View and Right Thought, ‘Ethical Conduct’ – Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood and ‘Concentration’ – Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.


The fourth precept of the Eightfold Path, ‘Right Action’ contains an ethical foundation for life based on the principle of non-exploitation of oneself and others. It involves the ‘Five Precepts’ – To abstain from taking life, to abstain from taking what is not given, to avoid ‘sensual misconduct’, to abstain from ‘false speech’ and to not consume intoxicants.

Despite being central to the teaching of most forms of Buddhism, Watts largely ignores the Eightfold Path throughout his writings and teachings. Clearly he found all the cataloguing, monastic divisions, categories and subdivisions, tedious and beside the point.

He was fond of recounting a story in which the great Zen teacher DT Suzuki was asked about the eightfold path. “ First path, ‘Right view’. Second path – oh, I forget second path. Look it up.”


Watts is not interested in instructions for living life, which is presumably why he skims over the Eight Noble Truths – which may be seen as invocations, instructions or suggestions, depending on your view of them.


Instead, he concentrates instead on the spirit of marga, which is ‘the balanced life’, or the ‘middle way’ – which does not mean, incidentally, ‘moderation in all things’.


The Middle Way must be carefully distinguished from mere compromise or moderation. It is not so much that which is between extremes as that which is born of their union, as the child is born of man and woman…in this sense the middle way is the first principle of life, for all that is born proceeds from the union of two opposites.”


“This is not the same as compromise. In Buddha’s time, people were trying to escape suffering by mortification of the flesh, or intense pleasure seeking. Buddha said both these roads were ignoble. The middle way is not a compromise it is ‘the balanced life’.


Watts’ explanation of the Noble Eightfold Path – insofar as he bothered defining it – will be quite hard to recognize from any dictionary definition. Any such a definition will imply moral behavior as well as psychological orientation. Watts, perhaps because of his background in Christianity, perhaps because of his personal libertinism, was very wary of moral teachings. His understanding of Buddhism was, more or less, get ‘in tune’ with yourself and you will have no desire to do anything ‘wrong’.


Buddhism might seem lax, and passive, but in fact it can be very challenging.


“If you have a relationship with a Buddha it will show you that all your ideas are spurious, and you are in a vertigo. You are no longer on firm ground or universe has turned into water, air, empty space. There is nothing to hold on to. Nothing is safe, everything is falling apart, in a state of change.


“When you really accept that, there’s nothing left to be afraid of.”


“The method of Buddhism, the Dharma, is to knock the stuffing out of you, to cleanse you of all concepts of what life is about. It has no doctrines that you have to believe in.


“We have to swim or sink. You have to learn how to swim”.


Self-denial – asceticism – is not the answer to finding out to swim, either.


“Don’t cling to suffering – ‘I know I’m right so long as it hurts’. Suffering offers no security. There is no security. Everything is in flux. Go with it.”


Missing from this explanation of Buddhism is the idea of karma or rebirth, meaning the transmigration of souls. Watts did not believe that any such belief was necessary for Buddhism.


“In Buddhism, the idea of rebirth still prevails and yet Buddhism specifically denies the idea of the reincarnating soul. In the doctrine of the ‘Three Signs of Being’, there is Dhukka – frustration that arises from you desiring more than you can get, Anitya impermanence, everything in flux and, crucially Anatman which means, ‘nothing has its own soul. ‘


“ It shocking for a Christian that nothing has its own soul. Like ‘soulless’. Animals have no souls.


“ But ‘Atman’ is not soul. Anatman means nothing exists – sabhava -nothing has any real sabhava, because no individual thing of any kind exists except in relation to other things..


“ The universe coheres by everything depending on everything else. Nothing exists in its own right. That’s what anatman means. There is not some kind of gaseous spook which outlasts the existence of the physical body and migrates into new body


“It is more like the continuation of a wave. If you throw a stone in the water, ripples emerge and go out. You can follow one of them and say, ‘I am watching a wave’. But what is ‘a wave’?.


“No specific volume of water is moving outwards from the point where the pebble dropped. The water is staying quite still as far as lateral motion is concerned. But the water is moving up and down. And these up and down movements create the illusion of ‘a wave’ that moves out from the central point.


It’s similar to watching a barber’s pole revolving. Which seems to be a procession of something coming from top to bottom, but it’s just a pole going around.”


Such ‘visual illusions’ are analogous to what happens to us conceptually.


Conceptual illusions are often rooted in language.


“In the case of the wave, the only ‘thing’ that is going outwards is motion. And motion is about as abstract as you can think.


This is the whole root of the Indian idea of maya. As a construct. As something that exists only in your mind. “


You are relieved of re-birth as soon as you get rid of the illusion that something is going on. Continuity. This-after-this-after-this etc. all linking up together into a chain.


“A flame of a candle appears to be a constant flame which we can identify as a thing. But as a matter of fact it is a stream of hot energy, flowing upwards and disappearing. The flame is the conversion of candle wax into gas. We have a noun for it, but it is a process, it is not a flame, it is a flaming.


“Just in the same way you and I are the conversion of air and water and food and light into shit. Which then again converts into something else. We are the flowing vibration through which all this goes and not for one moment are we the same.


“The meaning of the Buddhist doctrine is that you who live today are never going to die. Because the one that’s going to die will not be the one who’s here now.


“And likewise the one that’s here now was never born.”


Karma or causation by past, is maya or unreality… the eternal now is not the consequence of the past…it creates it…”


This was clarified by Dogen, the Zen philosopher, living around 1200 AD.


“The spring does not become the summer. The summer does not become the autumn. There is spring. Then there is summer. When you burn wood there are ashes. But the wood does not become the ashes. There is wood. And then there are ashes. “


Watts clarifies:


“Each is sufficient to itself. It’s like vibrations or wave crests, where the water doesn’t move laterally.


“By analogy, the spring does not become the summer.


“By watching the wave, you yourself impose motion on the up and down of the water. So you say, ‘the spring becomes the summer’. So likewise, you say, ‘the baby becomes the adolescent becomes the adult becomes the crone becomes the corpse’


“The Buddhist says ‘no’. These states follow in the same apparent motion of a wave.


“So live the moment your in there is no other place to be. You will not die and you were never born. If you see through the illusion.”




Taoism was founded by Lao Tse, a Court librarian wearying of insincerity of court life. If he existed – which is a matter of dispute – he was responsible for the spiritual text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching. Watts translates this as “The Way and Its Power’. The ‘Tao’ is simply ‘The Way’.


Watts described Lao Tse as


‘The master of the law of reversed effort who declared that those who justify themselves do not convince, that to know truth one must get rid of knowledge, and that nothing is more powerful and creative than emptiness.”


What is ‘The Tao’? It is not easy to grasp, since it is by definition, indefinable. You can only get at it by saying what it is not. It is rather like ‘nature’ or ‘God’, but it is usually translated as ‘The Way’. Lao Tse said, “That Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao”


Watts says it is best to leave it untranslated, but


The general idea behind the Tao is that of growth and movement; it is the course of nature, the principle governing and causing change, the perpetual movement of life which never for a moment remains still…For man clings to on to things in the vain hope that they remain still and perfect; he does not reconcile himself to the fact of change; he will not let the Tao take its course.


“This doctrine can very easily degenerate into mere laissez faire and thus Taoism eventually became an easy-going fatalism, whereas the original teaching was nothing of the kind. For coupled with the doctrine of Tao is the teaching of wu-wei, the secret of mastering circumstances without asserting oneself against them.


‘We-wei is the principle underlying ju-jitsu – the principle of yielding to an oncoming force in such a way that it is unable to harm you, and at the same time changing its direction by pushing it from behind instead of attempting to resist it from the front.


“Thus the skilled master of life never opposes things..he treats them positively; he changes them by acceptance, by taking them into his confidence, never by flat denial.   It is the principle of controlling things by going along with them.


The world is basically – we don’t know what. Form alone? But there is nothing to contrast it with. We don’t have word for ‘all that there is.’


Within this ‘all there is’ is the interplay of opposites, which is why the symbol of the Tao, Yin and the Yang, represents a cyclical view of existence




“When all the world recognizes beauty to be beautiful there is already ugliness. To be and ‘Not to be arise mutually. High and low are distinguished mutually – Lao Tse. Thus it is from Taoism that Zenism recruits the concept of ‘mutual arising’ ( see Rhythms, Waves, Vibrations, Polarities, Mutual Arisings . )



“The alternation of the passive and active principles is called the Tao. From the result (of their alternation) comes goodness, for herein is manifested the completeness of nature.


Lao Tse wrote, ‘your life is not your own.   It is the delegated adaptability of Tao. Your offspring are not your own. They are the outputs of Tao. You move. You know not how. You rest. You know not why. These are the operations of Tao. So how could you have it for your own?”


“The Yang and the Yin is the basic symbol of Taoism. Male and female, positive and negative, yes and no, light and dark. A world divided into opposites in order that we can think about them.”


Lao Tse says you can’t characterize reality as being or non-being, substance or form. It is not possible, because one is defined against the other. Opposites are inseparable and this hints at underlying unity. The unity is Tao. Our intuition feels this unity. Tao is a reality we apprehend deeply without being able to find it.


Taoism contains a lot that is counter-intuitive to the Western mind. For instance,

whereas in the West we put great store on knowledge and learning, Taoists believe that you need to achieve your original state of ignorance – before you were filled up with all kinds of useless and contradictory concepts and ideas.


The scholar learns something every day. The man of Tao unlearns something everything every day.”


This idea that there is a ‘beginner’s mind’ results from a deep trust in nature, which man, including his consciousness, is a part of. The first principle of Taoism is Tzu-jan ‘Of itself, so’.


“This is a bit like nature. Operating of itself, there is nothing standing over it and making it go. One’s own body operates of itself. You don’t decide when or how to beat your heart. It goes along of itself. Tzu-jan can’t be defined or controlled. You can’t get outside yourself to define yourself. You can’t get outside of nature, because you are part of it. We are not ‘in’ nature. We are nature.”


Instead of controlling ourselves and our lives by thinking, willing and conceptualizing, we simply set up a tension inside the system, and this tension puts us out of accord with the way of things, the Tao.


This leads naturally to the second principle of Taoism – Wu Wei which translates a ‘not doing’ ‘not forcing’ ‘not obstructing.’


“Applied to the Tao, the activity of nature does not self obstruct, it works as a unit. ‘Wu-wei’ is when people do not get in their own way, stand in their own light. This is whole Taoist principle – ‘action without forcing’.


“When we try to be loving or virtuous or sincere, all we actually do is think about trying to do it. That is blocking yourself. “


Another key concept in Taoism is li.


“Look out for the grain of things, the way of things, and move in accordance with it. Li – which mean something like ‘the marking in jade or grain in wood’ an organic pattern. It is like the complex order we see in the stars, something very indeterminate.


“If we are cutting wood, if we go against grain, its very difficult to cut. Going with the grain, it splits easily.”


The Tao is also known as the ‘Watercourse Way’ because it advocates following, like water, the line of least resistance. Watts was fond of suggesting that living life was much more of a nautical business, since everything flows, is not solid. He thought one should try and think like a sailor, or a airline pilot, watching for interior currents and weather, and ‘tacking’ to bring yourself into line with them. This is working with the Tao. To live a successful, life, according to Watts and the Taoist view, you needed the combined mindset of a sailor and a gambler.


Panta rei says Heraclitus – everything flows, and you cannot step twice into the same stream. The flow of water, of wind, and of fire is obvious, and also the flow of thought. “The flow of earth and rock is less obvious, but in the long run, the hard is as liquid as the soft.”


“The world, the vibration system, is more airy and liquid than solid”


Watts suggested you must react to it as “ swimmers, sailors and airmen rather than landlubbers”


The Tao cannot be defined and you cannot ‘try’ to accord with it.   A teacher was asked ‘what is the Tao?” ‘Usual life’ he replied. ‘Well, how do we bring ourselves into accord with it?’ ‘If you try to accord with it, you will get away from it”


This brings us to a strange predicament. Acceptance of the opposites and consequent harmony of life is not to be had by trying. Nor is it to be had by studied not-trying. You cannot get it by doing something about it; you cannot get it by doing nothing about it.


“At this point, we may be tempted to throw away all the books on psychology and religion into the fire, to stop worrying about our mental and spiritual condition and head for the nearest nightclub. But if you can’t find the Tao in philosophy and religion, you won’t find it in a nightclub either. For wherever you look for it, it runs away; and if you try to deceive the devil by pretending to yourself that you are not looking for it, you certainly won’t deceive the Tao. It will elude you just as quickly”


The answer is not to try or not try – it is just to be aware and to accept life in all its manifestations. The Tao is nothing mysterious. It is our everyday experience. Which is just another way of saying that ‘the mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced’ (Art Van Der Leeuw)


“To work with Tao is said to possess virtue in the Chinese sense, or Te. Te is like healing virtue of plant, a kind of skill at living. The superior kind of virtue is not conscious of itself as virtue. And thus really is virtue. The inferior kind of virtue is so anxious to be virtue that it is not virtue.


“In Taoist way, the inferior virtue ‘stinks of virtue’. Real virtue is natural. The living of human life in such a fashion as not to get into our own way.


“As we grow we begin to get in our own way, stand in our own light.

“This is why we should aim for a mind like that of a child – a beginner’s mind. Battering against life, that balls it up. Get out of your own way. Fighting ourselves makes us less efficient, it ties us up in knots.”


“The wonderful thing about a great human being is that he is like an animal or a flower. When a flower opens, it has no hesitations or doubts. The mystic has seen the meaning of being alive is just to be alive.”


To ‘follow’ the Tao cannot be specified, but


“Although this provides no specific directions as to how on should act, it changes the mood and feel of action, influencing it somewhat as a change in the tone of voice can alter the effect of one and the same set of words – from a peremptory command to a polite request”


Taoism has almost no form of moral code.


Taoism, being an organic vision of the world is also, unlike Christianity, democratic

“ The Tao flows everywhere. It loves and nourishes all things, but it does not lord it over them” wrote Lao Tse.


This sits starkly against the tyrannical version of the universe described in the Christianity that Watts was steeped in as a child.


“ I am the Lord and there is no-one else. Me only shalt thou serve, for there are no other gods beside me”




Zen Buddhism, according to Watts

“ … is so markedly different from any other form of Buddhism, one might even say from any other form of religion, that it has roused the curiosity of many who would not ordinarily look to the ‘unpractical’ East for practical wisdom


“Zen synthesized the idealism, the immovable serenity and the austerity of Buddhism with the poetry and fluidity of Taoism, with its reverence for the incomplete, the ‘imperfect’, and the changing as showing the presence of life”


“Zen is not always a gentle breeze, like decadent Taoism; more often it is a fierce gale which sweeps everything ruthlessly before it, an icy blast which penetrates to the heart of everything and passes right through to the other side. Zen is the religion of life.


“Zen accepts and affirms the birth, growth, decay and death of men; there are no regrets for the past, and no fears for the future”


“Zen does not attempt to be intelligible – that is, capable of being understood by the intellect. The method of Zen is to baffle, excite, puzzle and exhaust the intellect until it is realized that intellection is only thinking about…. in short, the aim of Zen is to focus attention of reality itself, instead of on our intellectual and emotional reactions to reality – reality being that ever-changing, ever-growing, indefinable something known as ‘life’ which will never stop for a moment for us to fit it satisfactorily into any rigid system of pigeon-holes. Zen cannot be made to fit into any ‘-ism’ or’’-ology’; it is alive and cannot be dissected and analysed like a corpse”


“Therefore if we have any doubts about the sense and sanity of the sayings of the Zen masters, let us, to begin with, give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that there is wisdom in their complete disregard for logic.


“Zen is so hard to understand just because it is so obvious. With our eyes on the horizon, we do not see what lies at our feet”


“It has been said that to define is to kill and if the wind were to stop for one second for us to catch hold of it, it would cease to be the wind”.



Central to Zen is the idea of the extraordinariness of the ordinary. The everyday is sacred.


“There is nothing ‘otherworldly’ about Zen. For it is a constant attitude of mind, just as applicable to washing clothes as to performing religious offices”


This is summarized by the saying of Eight-century Zen disciple Ho Koji


“ Marvelous power and supernatural activity, drawing water, carrying wood”


“While the philosophers of the Mahayana were considering these things intellectually, Zen passed beyond all discursive thinking. When asked about the ultimate mysteries of Buddhism it replied ‘The Cypress tree in the courtyard!’ ‘The bamboo grove at the foot of the hill!’ ‘The dried-up dirt scraper!’. Anything to bring the mind back from abstractions to life!”


“Because truth is alive it will not be bound by anything which shows no sign of life…for once we imagine that we have grasped the truth of life, the truth has vanished, for truth cannot become anyone’s property, the reason being that truth is life”


Zen had little time for traditional Buddhist scriptures. Zen master Te-shan wrote,


“Nirvana and Bodhi (Enlightenment) are dead stumps to tie your donkeys to. The twelve divisions of the scriptures are only lists of ghosts and sheets of paper fit to wipe the dirt from your skin. And all your four merits and ten stages are mere ghosts lingering over your decaying graves. Can these have anything to do with your salvation?”


Zen traditionally emphasizes the practical over the verbal rather than the non-verbal. It concentrates on the idea of meditation and koans ­­– apparently insoluble riddles, like ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping’ – to break through the chains our minds have cast themselves in.


Not only is Zen full of absurd questions with no answers, Watts points out “Zen is full of nonsensical responses to perfectly reasonable questions. “ This is to train the student to break out illusion that words can ever ‘make sense’.


A Zen master, asked about the meaning of Zen, is as likely to give you a slap on the face as try and formulate any kind of reply. Why?


“Mere obscure words or strange movements might be interpreted as symbolism but about smack on the face there can be no mistake. here is something so thoroughly alive, so quick that it cannot be grasped, so emphatic that there can be no ‘philosophising’ about it”


“Zen is life; to chase after Zen is like chasing after one’s own shadow, and all the time one is running away from the sun”.


‘Zen’ is untranslatable. It roughly means, ‘one pointedness of mind’ or ‘total presence of mind.’ It’s the opposite to ‘not all there’. To be completely here, totally and absolutely now.


“ The Zen follower can still think about past and future. But he is not distracted.

He has a mind of no hesitation, of going straight ahead.


“Zen is like a improvising comedian, very fast on your feet, thinking quickly and spontaneously.”


The ideal is mu-shin, which means an empty mind, unawareness of self, or ‘no mind’. Shin means the ego, or sense of self, rather than the entire mind.


Zenism, which I define as the different schools of Eastern thought that Alan Watts brought together, is less wary of talk – obviously because Watts himself was a great talker.


“Zen plays a game. It says, ‘because you talk about it, you don’t understand it’. ‘Those who know do not say.   Those who say do not know.’ says Lao Tse. Yet he says that!


“Poetry is the art of saying what cannot be said. Poets know that nothing is describable, even an ordinary rusty nail. Whatever you say something is, it isn’t. But we know what we mean when we talk. If you share experience you can talk about it.


“But Zen people plays tricks and games. ‘Zen’ is the Japanese way of pronouncing Dyana (Sanskrit). It is difficult to translate – meditation, contemplation, but that suggests inactivity, stillness and passivity.


“But Zen is very active. There is no real English word for Dyana. But do things in this spirit: When you drive a car. You don’t think about it. It is the same with the rider of a horse.


“When you have excellent dancing partner, who leads and who follows? That is Zen. It is when a person doesn’t react to life, or try to dominate it, but when the internal world and external world move together. That is Zen.


“The real concern of Zen is to realise that the inside world and the outside world is all one world, and all one being, one self, and you’re it. Once you know that you’ve abolished problems that arise from believing you are stranger in the world.”


“Don’t iron out the thoughts. It’s like trying to smooth rough water with flat iron. To be fully in what were doing makes for peace and efficiency. Achieve this not by force, but insight.


“There is no ego to whom thoughts happen, to whom experience happens.


As the Zen patriarch Seng-ts’an put it,


“The wise person does not strive

The ignorant man ties himself up

If you work on your mind with your mind

How can you avoid an immense confusion?”


Zen also famously emphasizes the ‘nowness’ of events.


“We don’t move from past to present, there is no past, there is only present.


“We don’t have to try and live in present, we have only to understand there is no other place to live.


“ Thus, with a huge pile of dishes, you only have one dish to wash, ever. You don’t have to try and forget it.


“That is Zen.


One meeting. One lifetime’ goes the Zen saying. Every encounter, every moment, every experience is a lifetime, is all there is.


“We feel a constant fight with time. A sense of having to struggle. To beat time. It doesn’t do anything for us at all. It just puts us in conflict with ourselves, which holds us up.


“So, in Zen, you must be quiet. To be all here. An enormous importance is attached to knowing how to sit. A Zen person just sits quietly.


“A person who can’t really sit as if there were nothing else to do, can never be able to act, because they will never be all here. To sit quietly with none of that jazz going on inside. “


The Zen personality is very different from the ordinary Japanese personality. It’s about knowing how to live in present, and to not be fidgety about whether or not you’ve done the right thing. It’s about how to be comfortable in all circumstances.


“In Japan, everyone is always watching themselves, having second thoughts about everything. Zen is about being unselfconscious. We think,’ if I don’t watch myself I’ll become a criminal.’ We have distrust in our own spontaneity. Zen people don’t hold clubs over themselves. They are perfectly spontaneous but don’t do bad things.  


“We are brought up to make sense of ourselves in words, so we are always developing a second self, the ‘observing self’, who comments on us all the time, asks ‘what will other people will say,’ does what I do make any sense?’   The ‘interiorised other’. We have an idea of what the reaction of other people is to us. The second self, commenting all the time on what we’re doing.


“This warps us. We all admire spontaneity of children, but the child becomes more and more self-conscious. He’s always trying to fit his order of nature into the order of words.


“ This process of upbringing warps our nature. Zen is about curing that disease that we contract as a byproduct of being civilized. Zen is about restoring person to their original spontaneity.”


This training can be a traumatic experience.


“Zen tries to bring you to a state when you have doubt about everything you do. You have a kind of breakdown.


“This is the beginning of ‘satori’ or sudden awakening. Then the observing self dissolves and disappears.   Now everything you do is right instead of wrong.”


At the heart of Zen is the idea of spontanaiety, of unpremeditated, unmotivated action.


“You and life are spontaneous occurrence. The spontaneous is not something you can preconceive by going against social convention. Truly spontaneity only happens of itself. You cannot arrange it.


“Does this mean ‘take things as they come’ ‘live day to day’?   No.


“ If a person says that, they don’t take things as they come. They have a concept of what it would be like to be like that. They take an ordinary person anxious, full of plans and schemes, and they do the opposite. That is like fake spontaneity.


Also, spontaneity doesn’t mean you imitate a placid attitude.


“Zen masters get very angry, so angry the room rattles, but then they forget about it immediately.”


Watts’ interpretation of Zen, however, was heavily influenced by easy-going Taoism. He wrote, after seeing D.T. Suzuki at the World Congress of Faiths in 1936,


“ The mood and atmosphere of Suzuki was more Taoist than Zen Buddhist. He didn’t have the skin-headed military zip that is characteristic of many Zen monks nor their obedient seriousness.


“For my feeling, this was good riddance”





























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