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Alan Watts on Zen

[Part 1]

Spacer Once upon a time, there was a Zen student who quoted an old Buddhist poem to his teacher, which says:

Spacer 'The voices of torrents are from one great tongue,
Spacer the lions of the hills are the pure body of Buddha.'
Spacer 'Isn't that right?' he said to the teacher.
Spacer 'It is,' said the teacher, 'but it's a pity to say so.'

Spacer It would be, of course, much better, if this occasion were celebrated with no talk at all, and if I addressed you in the manner of the ancient teachers of Zen, I should hit the microphone with my fan and leave. But I somehow have the feeling that since you have contributed to the support of the Zen Center, in expectation of learning something, a few words should be said, even though I warn you, that by explaining these things to you, I shall subject you to a very serious hoax. Because if I allow you to leave here this evening, under the impression that you understand something about Zen, you will have missed the point entirely. Because Zen is a way of life, a state of being, that is not possible to embrace in any concept whatsoever, so that any concepts, any ideas, any words that I shall put across to you this evening will have as their object, showing you the limitations of words and of thinking.
Now then, if one must try to say something about what Zen is, and I want to do this by way of introduction, I must make it emphatic that Zen, in its essence, is not a doctrine. There's nothing you're supposed to believe in. It's not a philosophy in our sense, that is to say a set of ideas, an intellectual net in which one tries to catch the fish of reality. Actually, the fish of reality is more like water--it always slips through the net. And in water you know when you get into it there's nothing to hang on to. All this universe is like water; it is fluid, it is transient, it is changing. And when you're thrown into the water after being accustomed to living on the dry land, you're not used to the idea of swimming. You try to stand on the water, you try to catch hold of it, and as a result you drown.
Spacer The only way to survive in the water, and this refers particularly to the waters of modern philosophical confusion, where God is dead, metaphysical propositions are meaningless, and there's really nothing to hang on to, because we're all just falling apart. And the only thing to do under those circumstances is to learn how to swim. And to swim, you relax, you let go, you give yourself to the water, and you have to know how to breathe in the right way. And then you find that the water holds you up; indeed, in a certain way you become the water. And so in the same way, one might say if one attempted to--again I say misleadingly--to put Zen into any sort of concept, it simply comes down to this:
Spacer That in this universe, there is one great energy, and we have no name for it. People have tried various names for it, like God, like Brahmin, like Tao, but in the West, the word God has got so many funny associations attached to it that most of us are bored with it. When people say 'God, the father almighty,' most people feel funny inside. So we like to hear new words, we like to hear about Tao, about Brahmin, about Shinto, and __-__-__, and such strange names from the far East because they don't carry the same associations of mawkish sanctimony and funny meanings from the past. And actually, some of these words that the Buddhists use for the basic energy of the world really don't mean anything at all. The word 'tathata', which is translated from the Sanskrit as 'suchness' or 'thusness' or something like that, really means something more like 'dadada,' based on the word 'tat', which in Sanskrit means 'that,' and so in Sanskrit it is said 'tat lum asi', 'that thou art,' or in modern America, 'You're it.'
Spacer But 'da, da'--that's the first sound a baby makes when it comes into the world, because the baby looks around and says 'da, da, da, da' and fathers flatter themselves and think it's saying 'DaDa,' which means 'Daddy,' but according to Buddhist philosophy, all this universe is one 'dadada.' That means 'ten thousand functions, ten thousand things, one suchness,' and we're all one suchness. And that means that suchness comes and goes like anything else because this whole world is an on-and-off system. As the Chinese say, it's the 'yang' and the 'yin', and therefore it consists of 'now you see it, now you don't, here you are, here you aren't, here you are,' because that the nature of energy, to be like waves, and waves have crests and troughs, only we, being under a kind of sleepiness or illusion, imagine that the trough is going to overcome the wave or the crest, the 'yin', or the dark principle, is going to overcome the 'yang' or the light principle, and that 'off' is going to finally triumph over 'on.'
Spacer And we, shall I say, bug ourselves by indulging in that illusion. 'Hey, supposing darkness did win out, wouldn't that be terrible!' And so we're constantly trembling and thinking that it may, because after all, isn't it odd that anything exists? It's most peculiar, it requires effort, it requires energy, and it would have been so much easier for there to have been nothing at all. Therefore, we think 'well, since being, since the 'is' side of things is so much effort' you always give up after a while and you sink back into death. But death is just the other face of energy, and it's the rest, the not being anything around, that produces something around, just in the same way that you can't have 'solid' without 'space,' or 'space' without 'solid.'
Spacer When you wake up to this, and realize that the more it changes the more it's the same thing, as the French say, that you are really a train of this one energy, and there is nothing else but that that is you, but that for you to be always you would be an insufferable bore, and therefore it is arranged that you stop being you after a while and then come back as someone else altogether, and so when you find that out, you become full energy and delight. As Blake said, 'Energy is eternal delight.' And you suddenly see through the whole sham thing. You realize you're That--we won't put a name on it-- you're That, and you can't be anything else. So you are relieved of fundamental terror.
Spacer That doesn't mean that you're always going to be a great hero, that you won't jump when you hear a bang, that you won't worry occasionally, that you won't lose your temper. It means, though, that fundamentally deep, deep, deep down within you, you will be able to be human, not a stone Buddha--you know in Zen there is a difference made between a living Buddha and a stone Buddha. If you go up to a stone Buddha and you hit him hard on the head, nothing happens. You break your fist or your stick. But if you hit a living Buddha, he may say 'ouch,' and he may feel pain, because if he didn't feel something, he wouldn't be a human being. Buddhas are human, they are not devas, they are not gods. They are enlightened men and women.
Spacer But the point is that they are not afraid to be human, they are not afraid to let themselves participate in the pains, difficulties and struggles that naturally go with human existence. The only difference is--and it's almost an undetectable difference--it takes one to know one. As a Zen poem says, 'When two Zen masters meet each other on the street, they need no introduction. When friends meet, they recognize one another instantly.' So a person who is a real cool Zen understands that, does not go around 'Oh, I understand Zen, I have satori, I have this attainment, I have that attainment, I have the other attainment,' because if he said that, he wouldn't understand the first thing about it.
Spacer So it is Zen that, if I may put it metaphorically, Jon-Jo said: 'The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing, it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.' And another poem says of wild geese flying over a lake, 'The wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection, and the water has no mind to retain their image.' In other words this is to be--to put it very strictly into our modern idiom--this is to live without hang-ups, the word 'hang- up' being an almost exact translation of the Japanese 'bono' and the Sanskrit 'klesa', ordinarily translated 'worldly attachment,' though that sounds a little bit--you know what I mean--it sounds pious, and in Zen, things that sound pious are said to stink of Zen, but to have no hang-ups, that is to say, to be able to drift like a cloud and flow like water, seeing that all life is a magnificent illusion, a plane of energy, and that there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Fundamentally. You will be afraid on the surface. You will be afraid of putting your hand in the fire. You will be afraid of getting sick, etc. But you will not be afraid of fear. Fear will pass over your mind like a black cloud will be reflected in the mirror.
Spacer But of course, the mirror isn't quite the right illustration; space would be better. Like a black cloud flows through space without leaving any track. Like the stars don't leave trails behind them. And so that fundamental--it is called 'the void' in Buddhism; it doesn't mean 'void' in the sense that it's void in the ordinary sense of emptiness. It means void in that it is the most real thing there is, but nobody can conceive it. It's rather the same situation that you get between the speaker, in a radio and all the various sounds which it produces. On the speaker you hear human voices, you hear every kind of musical instrument, honking of horns, the sounds of traffic, the explosions of guns, and yet all that tremendous variety of sounds are the vibrations of one diaphragm, but it never says so.
Spacer The announcer doesn't come on first thing in the morning and say 'Ladies and gentlemen, all the sounds that you will hear subsequentally during the day will be the vibration of this diaphragm; don't take them for real.' And the radio never mentions its own construction, you see? And in exactly the same way, you are never able, really, to examine, to make an object of your own mind, just as you can't look directly into your own eyes or bite your own teeth, because you ARE that, and if you try to find it, and make it something to possess, why that's a great lack of confidence. That shows that you don't really know your 'it'. And if you're 'it,' you don't need to make anything of it. There's nothing to look for. But the test is, are you still looking? Do you know that? I mean, not as kind of knowledge you possess, not something you've learned in school like you've got a degree, and 'you know, I've mastered the contents of these books and remembered it.' In this knowledge, there's nothing to be remembered; nothing to be formulated. You know it best when you say 'I don't know it.' Because that means, 'I'm not holding on to it, I'm not trying to cling to it' in the form of a concept, because there's absolutely no necessity to do so. That would be, in Zen language, putting legs on a snake or a beard on a eunuch, or as we would say, gilding the lily.
Spacer Now you say, 'Well, that sounds pretty easy. You mean to say all we have to do is relax? We don't have to go around chasing anything anymore? We abandon religion, we abandon meditations, we abandon this, that, and the other, and just live it up anyhow? Just go on.' You know, like a father says to his child who keeps asking 'Why? Why, Why, Why, Why, Why? Why did God make the universe? Who made God? Why are the trees green?" and so on and so forth, and father says finally, 'Oh, shut up and eat your bun.' It isn't quite like that, because, you see, the thing is this:
Spacer All those people who try to realize Zen by doing nothing about it are still trying desperately to find it, and they're on the wrong track. There is another Zen poem which says,

Spacer 'You cannot attain it by thinking,
Spacer you cannot grasp it by not thinking.'

Spacer Or you could say, you cannot catch hold of the meaning of Zen by doing something about it, but equally, you cannot see into its meaning by doing nothing about it, because both are, in their different ways, attempts to move from where you are now, here, to somewhere else, and the point is that we come to an understanding of this, what I call suchness, only through being completely here. And no means are necessary to be completely here. Neither active means on the one hand, nor passive means on the other. Because in both ways, you are trying to move away from the immediate now. But you see, it's difficult to understand language like that. And to understand what all that is about, there is really one absolutely necessary prerequisite, and this is to stop thinking.
Spacer Now, I am not saying this in the spirit of being an anti-intellectual, because I think a lot, talk a lot, write a lot of books, and am a sort of half-baked scholar. But you know, if you talk all the time, you will never hear what anybody else has to say, and therefore, all you'll have to talk about is your own conversation. The same is true for people who think all the time. That means, when I use the word 'think' -talking to yourself, subvocal conversation, the constant chit-chat of symbols and images and talk and words inside your skull. Now, if you do that all the time, you'll find that you've nothing to think about except thinking, and just as you have to stop talking to hear what I have to say, you have to stop thinking to find out what life is about. And the moment you stop thinking, you come into immediate contact with what Korzybski called, so delightfully, 'the unspeakable world,' that is to say, the nonverbal world. Some people would call it the physical world, but these words 'physical' 'nonverbal' are all conceptual, not a concept either, it's (bangs stick).
Spacer So when you are awake to that world, you suddenly find that all the so-called differences between self and other, life and death, pleasure and pain, are all conceptual, and they're not there. They don't exist at all in that world which is (bangs stick). In other words, if I hit you hard enough, 'ouch' doesn't hurt, if you're in a state of what is called no-thought. There is a certain experience, you see, but you don't call it 'hurt.' It's like when you were small children, they banged you about, and you cried, and they said 'Don't cry' because they wanted to make you hurt and not cry at the same time. People are rather curious about the things they do like that. But you see, they really wanted you to cry, the same way if you threw up one day. It's very good to throw up if you've eaten something that isn't good for you, but your mother said 'Ugh!' and made you repress it and feel that throwing up wasn't a good thing to do. Because then when you saw people die, and everybody around you started weeping and making a fuss, and then you learned from that that dying was terrible. When somebody got sick, everybody else got anxious, and you learned that getting sick was something awful. You learned it from a concept.

Spacer Alan Watts

Go to Part 2

Source: Zen Buddhism

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