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Alan Watts on Zen

[Part 2]

Spacer So the reason why there is, in the practice of Zen, what we did before this lecture began, to practice Za-zen, sitting Zen. Incidentally, there are three other kinds of Zen besides Za-zen: Standing Zen, Walking Zen, and Lying Zen. In Buddhism, they speak of the three dignities of man. Walking, sitting, and lying. And they say when you sit, just sit. When you walk, just walk. But whatever you do, don't wobble. In fact, of course, you can wobble, if you really wobble well.

When the old master Hiakajo was asked,"What is Zen?"
He said, "When hungry, eat, when tired, sleep."
And they said,
"Well isn't that what everybody does? Aren't you just like ordinary people?"
"Oh no," he said, "they don't do anything of the kind. When they're hungry, they don't just eat, they think of all sorts of things. When they're tired, they don't just sleep, but dream all sorts of dreams."

Spacer I know the Jungians won't like that, but there comes a time when you just dream yourself out, and no more dreams. You sleep deeply and breathe from your heels. Now, therefore, Za-zen, or sitting Zen, is a very, very good thing in the Western world. We have been running around far too much. It's all right; we've been active, and our action has achieved a lot of good things. But as Aristotle pointed out long ago--and this is one of the good things about Aristotle. He said "The goal of action is contemplation." In other words, busy, busy, busy, busy, busy, but what's it all about? Especially when people are busy because they think they're GOING somewhere, that they're going to get something and attain something.

Spacer There's quite a good deal of point to action if you know you're not going anywhere. If you act like you dance, or like you sing or play music, then you're really not going anywhere, you're just doing pure action, but if you act with a thought in mind that as a result of action you are eventually going to arrive at someplace where everything will be alright, then you are on a squirrel cage, hopelessly condemned to what the Buddhists call 'samsara', the round, or rat-race of birth and death, because you think you're going to go somewhere. You're already there. And it is only a person who has discovered that he is already there who is capable of action, because he doesn't act frantically with the thought that he's going to get somewhere.
Spacer He acts like he can go into walking meditation at that point, you see, where we walk not because we are in a great, great hurry to get to a destination, but because the walking itself is great. The walking itself is the meditation. And when you watch Zen monks walk, it's very fascinating. They have a different kind of walk from everybody else in Japan. Most Japanese shuffle along, or if they wear Western clothes, they race and hurry like we do. Zen monks have a peculiar swing when they walk, and you have the feeling they walk rather the same way as a cat. There's something about it that isn't hesitant; they're going along all right, they're not sort of vagueing around, but they're walking just to walk. And that's walking meditation.

Spacer But the point is that one cannot act creatively, except on the basis of stillness. Of having a mind that is capable from time to time of stopping thinking. And so this practice of sitting may seem very difficult at first, because if you sit in the Buddhist way, it makes your legs ache. Most Westerners start to fidget; they find it very boring to sit for a long time, but the reason they find it boring is that they're still thinking. If you weren't thinking, you wouldn't notice the passage of time, and as a matter of fact, far from being boring, the world when looked at without chatter becomes amazingly interesting.
Spacer The most ordinary sights and sounds and smells, the texture of shadows on the floor in front of you. All these things, without being named, and saying 'that's a shadow, that's red, that's brown, that's somebody's foot.' When you don't name things anymore, you start seeing them. Because say when a person says 'I see a leaf,' immediately, one thinks of a spearhead-shaped thing outlined in black and filled in with flat green. No leaf looks like that. No leaves--leaves are not green. That's why Lao-Tzu said: "The five colors make a man blind, the five tones make a man deaf," because if you can only see five colors, you're blind, and if you can only hear five tones in music, you're deaf. You see, if you force sound into five tones, you force color into five colors, you're blind and deaf. The world of color is infinite, as is the world of sound. And it is only by stopping fixing conceptions on the world of color and the world of sound that you really begin to hear it and see it.

Spacer So this, should I be so bold as to use the word 'discipline of meditation' or Za-zen, lies behind the extraordinary capacity of Zen people to develop such great arts as the gardens, the tea ceremony, the caligraphy, and the grand painting of the Sum Dynasty, and of the Japanese Sumi tradition. And it was because, especially in tea ceremony, which means literally 'cha-no-yu' in Japanese, meaning 'hot water of tea,' they found in the very simplest of things in everyday life, magic.
Spacer In the words of the poet Hokoji, 'marvelous power and supernatural activity, drawing water, carrying wood.' And you know how it is sometimes when you say a word and make the word meaningless, you take the word 'yes'--yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. It becomes funny. That's why they use the word 'mu' in Zen training, which means 'no.' Mu. And you get this going for a long time, and the word ceases to mean anything, and it becomes magical.

Spacer Now, what you have to realize in the further continuence of Za-zen, that as you-- Well, let me say first in a preliminary way, the easiest way to stop thinking is first of all to think about something that doesn't have any meaning. That's my point in talking about 'mu' or 'yes,' or counting your breath, or listening to a sound that has no meaning, because that stops you thinking, and you become fascinated in the sound. Then as you get on and you just--the sound only--there comes a point when the sound is taken away, and you're wide open. Now at that point, there will be a kind of preliminary so-called satori, and you will think 'wowee, that's it!' You'll be so happy, you'll be walking on air.
Spacer When Suzuki Daisetz was asked what was it like to have satori, he said "Well, it's like ordinary, everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground." But there's another saying that the student who has obtained satori goes to hell as straight as an arrow. No satori around here, because anybody who has a spiritual experience, whether you get it through Za-zen, or through LSD, or anything, you know, that gives you that experience. If you hold on to it, say 'now I've got it,' it's gone out of the window, because the minute you grab the living thing, it's like catching a handful of water, the harder you clutch, the faster it squirts through your fingers. There's nothing to get hold of, because you don't NEED to get hold of anything. You had it from the beginning. Because you can see that, by various methods of meditation, but the trouble is that people come out of that and brag about it, say 'I've seen it.' Equally intolerable are the people who study Zen and come out and brag to their friends about how much their legs hurt, and how long they sat, and what an awful thing it was. They're sickening. Because the discipline side of this thing is not meant to be something awful. It's not done in a masochistic spirit, or a sadistic spirit: suffering builds character, therefore suffering is good for you.

Spacer When I went to school in England, the basic premise of education was that suffering builds character, and therefore all senior boys were at liberty to bang about the junior ones with a perfectly clear conscience, because they were doing them a favor. It was good for them, it was building their character, and as a result of this attitude, the word 'discipline' has begun to stink. It's been stinking for a long time. But we need a kind of entirely new attitude towards this, because without that quiet, and that non-striving, a life becomes messy.

Spacer When you let go, finally, because there's nothing to hold onto, you have to be awfully careful not to turn into loose yogurt. Let me give two opposite illustrations. When you ask most people to lie flat on the floor and relax, you find that they are at full attention, because they don't really believe that the floor will hold them up, and therefore they're holding themselves together; they're uptight. They're afraid that if they don't do this, even though the floor is supporting them, they'll suddenly turn into a gelatinous mass and trickle away in all directions.
Spacer Then there are other people who when you tell them to relax, they go like a limp rag. But you see, the human organism is a subtle combination of hardness and softness. Of flesh and bones. And the side of Zen which has to do with neither doing nor not doing, but knowing that you are IT anyway, and you don't have to seek IT, that's Zen-flesh. But the side in which you can come back into the world, with this attitude of not seeking, and knowing you're IT, and not fall apart--that requires bones. And one of the most difficult things--this belongs to -of course- a generation we all know about, that was running about some time ago--where they caught on to Zen, and they started anything-goes painting, they started anything-goes sculpture, they started anything-goes way of life.

Spacer Now I think we're recovering from that today. At any rate, our painters are beginning once again to return to glory, to marvelous articulateness and vivid color. There's been nothing like it since the stained glass at Chartres. That's a good sign. But it requires that there be in our daily use of freedom, and I'm not just talking about political freedom. I'm talking about the freedom which comes when you know that you're IT, forever and ever and ever. And it'll be so nice when you die, because that'll be a change, but it'll come back some other way. When you know that, and you've seen through the whole mirage, then watch out, because there may still be in you some seeds of hostility, some seeds of pride, some seeds of wanting to put down other people, or wanting to just defy the normal arrangements of life.
Spacer So that is why, in the order of a Zen monastery, various duties are assigned. The novices have the light duties, and the more senior you get, the heavy duties. For example, the Roshi very often is the one who cleans out the _benjo_, the toilet. And everything is kept in order. There is a kind of beautiful, almost princely aestheticism, because by reason of that order being kept all of the time, the vast free energy which is contained in the system doesn't run amok.

Spacer The understanding of Zen, the understanding of awakening, the understanding of-- Well, we'll call it mystical experiences, one of the most dangerous things in the world. And for a person who cannot contain it, it's like putting a million volts through your electric shaver. You blow your mind and it stays blown. Now, if you go off in that way, that is what would be called in Buddhism a pratyeka- buddha--'private buddha'. He is one who goes off into the transcendental world and is never seen again. And he's made a mistake from the standpoint of Buddhism, because from the standpoint of Buddhism, there is no fundamental difference between the transcendental world and this everyday world.
Spacer The 'bodhisattva', you see, who doesn't go off into a nirvana and stay there forever and ever, but comes back and lives ordinary everyday life to help other beings to see through it, too, he doesn't come back because he feels he has some sort of solemn duty to help mankind and all that kind of pious cant. He comes back because he sees the two worlds are the same. He sees all other beings as buddhas. "He sees them," to use a phrase of G.K. Chesterton's, "but now a great thing in the street, seems any human nod, where move in strange democracies the million masks of god." And it's fantastic to look at people and see that they really, deep down, are enlightened. They're IT. They're faces of the divine. And they look at you, and they say 'oh no, but I'm not divine. I'm just ordinary little me.' You look at them in a funny way, and here you see the buddha nature looking out of their eyes, straight at you, and saying it's not, and saying it quite sincerely.
Spacer And that's why, when you get up against a great guru, the Zen master, or whatever, he has a funny look in his eyes. When you say "I have a problem, guru. I'm really mixed up, I don't understand," he looks at you in this queer way, and you think 'oh dear me, he's reading my most secret thoughts. He's seeing all the awful things I am, all my cowardice, all my shortcomings.' He isn't doing anything of the kind; he isn't even interested in such things. He's looking at, if I may use Hindu terminology, he's looking at Shiva, in you, saying 'my god, Shiva, won't you come off it?'
Spacer So then, you see, the 'bodhisattva', who is--I'm assuming quite a knowledge of Buddhism in this assembly--but the 'bodhisattva' as distinct from the pratyeka-buddha, the bodhisattva doesn't go off into nirvana, he doesn't go off into permanent withdrawn ecstasy, he doesn't go off into a kind of catatonic 'samadhi'. That's all right. There are people who can do that; that's their vocation. That's their specialty, just as a long thing is the long body of buddha, and a short thing is the short body of buddha.
Spacer But if you really understand that Zen, that buddhist idea of enlightenment is not comprehended in the idea of the transcendental, neither is it comprehended in the idea of the ordinary. Not in terms with the infinite, not in terms with the finite. Not in terms of the eternal, not in terms of the temporal, because they're all concepts.
Spacer So, let me say again, I am not talking about the ordering of ordinary everyday life in a reasonable and methodical way as being school-teacherish, and saying 'If you were NICE people, that's what you would do.' For heaven's sake, don't be nice people. But the thing is, that unless you do have that basic framework of a certain kind of order, and a certain kind of discipline, the force of liberation will blow the world to pieces. It's too strong a current for the wire.
Spacer So then, it's terribly important to see beyond ecstasy. Ecstasy here is the soft and lovable flesh, huggable and kissable, and that's very good. But beyond ecstasy are bones, what we call hard facts. Hard facts of everyday life, and incidentally, we shouldn't forget to mention the soft facts; there are many of them. But then the hard fact, it is what we mean, the world as seen in an ordinary, everyday state of consciousness. To find out that that is really no different from the world of supreme ecstasy, well, it's rather like this:
Spacer Let's suppose, as so often happens, you think of ecstasy as insight, as seeing light. There's a Zen poem which says:

Spacer A sudden crash of thunder.
Spacer The mind doors burst open,
Spacer and there sits the ordinary old man.

Spacer See? There's a sudden vision. Satori! Breaking! Wowee! And the doors of the mind are blown apart, and there sits the ordinary old man. It's just little you, you know? Lightning flashes, sparks shower. In one blink of your eyes, you've missed seeing. Why? Because here is the light. The light, the light, the light, every mystic in the world has 'seen the light.' That brilliant, blazing energy, brighter than a thousand suns, it is locked up in everything.
Spacer Now imagine this. Imagine you're seeing it. Like you see aureoles around buddhas. Like you see the beatific vision at the end of Dante's 'Paradiso.' Vivid, vivid light, so bright that it is like the clear light of the void in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It's beyond light, it's so bright. And you watch it receeding from you. And on the edges, like a great star, there becomes a rim of red. And beyond that, a rim of orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. You see this great mandela appearing this great sun, and beyond the violet, there's black. Black, like obsidian, not flat black, but transparent black, like lacquer. And again, blazing out of the black, as the 'yang' comes from the 'yin', more light. Going, going, going. And along with this light, there comes sound. There is a sound so tremendous with the white light that you can't hear it, so piercing that it seems to annihilate the ears. But then along with the colors, the sound goes down the scale in harmonic intervals, down, down, down, down, until it gets to a deep thundering base which is so vibrant that it turns into something solid, and you begin to get the similar spectrum of textures.
Spacer Now all this time, you've been watching a kind of thing radiating out. 'But,' it says, 'you know, this isn't all I can do,' and the rays start dancing like this, and the sound starts waving, too, as it comes out, and the textures start varying themselves, and they say, well, you've been looking at this, this as I've been describing it so far in a flat dimension. Let's add a third dimension; it's going to come right at you now. And meanwhile, it says, we're not going to just do like this, we're going to do little curlicues. And it says, 'Well, that's just the beginning!' Making squares and turns, and then suddenly you see in all the little details that become so intense, that all kinds of little subfigures are contained in what you originally thought were the main figures, and the sound starts going all different, amazing complexities of sound all over the place, and this thing's going, going, going, and you think you're going to go out of your mind, when suddenly it turns into... Why, us, sitting around here.

Alan Watts

Alan Watts

Source: Zen Buddhism

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