The Way of Zen

Book Thoughts is a series where I write about things books make me think about. Simple as that. Not exactly summaries. Not exactly reviews. Just thoughts that occasionally veer away from the books.

Sitting just to sit is the hard part.

It’s one of the things I’ve learned after reading the Way of Zen. This book, by the legendary Alan Watts, was an utter joy to read. It took me a bit to get into, likely because Zen Buddhism and Taoism are so contrary to all norms of modern society that they’re almost incomprehensible at first.

Luckily, Watts is a master at weaving poetic metaphors into his prose to paint the picture, resulting in what felt like a meditative journey that slowly rewired my brain to a more mindful state.

That is, until you jump back into the real world and slowly revert back to the norms of scattered attention, shallow breathing, and living everywhere but the moment.

It’s like getting braces and taking them off too soon. Your teeth slowly find their way back to old positions.

That’s why it may take years to quiet the chatter of the mind and become more Zen. It’s about finding a new position for the mind, one that feels more grounded in nature than everyday life is for most of us.

Watts says there is no goal to it. In fact, if you seek Satori (i.e. true awakening, or seeing into one’s nature) you will never attain it. It’s like planning to be spontaneous; planning and spontaneity are contradictory in nature, so it doesn’t work. As Watts said,

If a man seeks the Buddha, that man loses the Buddha.

I’m skimming the surface of the surface and it almost feels painful to put into words for a subject like this that deserves lengthy time and devotion.

For now, let’s look at some snippets that stuck out …

The centipede was happy, quite, Until a toad in fun Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?” This worked his mind to such a pitch, He lay distracted in a ditch, Considering how to run.

In other words, the centipede already knows how to run by its very nature, just like you know how to be Zen, yet thoughts are what get in the way.

To travel is to be alive, but to get somewhere is to be dead, for as our own proverb says, “To travel well is better than to arrive.

Ah, to live in the moment. Constant thinking about the destination, the next book, the next day — it all takes away from the only moment that exists, which is now. As Watts said in another passage:

For there is never anything but the present, and if one cannot live there, one cannot live anywhere.

I feel like this is pretty clear in theory, and yet so hard to practice. It’s the old peasant who just sits to sit and absorbs the day. It’s the Japanese Macaque, wading in hot springs. It’s the tree that sways in the wind.

That was one of the things about this practice that was so intriguing and likely incomprehensible to those in the West. He’d cite seemingly non-sequitur answers to questions like “what is the Buddha?” answering, “three pounds of flax” or … well never mind, I can’t find the quote now, but I imagine you could insert just about anything and it would still work. This didn’t make much sense at first, just like this description likely makes little sense to you, but the more you bask in it the more it starts to click.

Basically, everything is everything, and the shackles of rigid thinking leave us struggling to grasp the immensity of this natural reality.

But reading this book was a start, and I’m hungry for more.

Love always from Planet Earth,