The Way of Zen | Alan W. Watts

Summary of: The Way of Zen
By: Alan W. Watts


Welcome to an illuminating journey through the world of Zen, a philosophy that unravels the complex human psyche and offers a path to spiritual awakening, clarity, and contentment. By delving into the origins of Zen, its connections with Buddhism and Taoism, and the principles of spontaneity, naturalness, and sudden enlightenment, this summary of ‘The Way of Zen’ by Alan W. Watts aims to make the concepts of Zen accessible and relatable. Get ready to explore the intricate web of illusions the mind creates, the essence of Mahayana Buddhism, and the powerful impact of Zen art.

Taoist Philosophy and the Foundation of Zen Buddhism

Breathing is an involuntary action; we all do it, but few understand the physiological processes behind it. Westerners perceive knowledge as fact-based, but there are many things we know without understanding their precise workings. This is the concept of knowledge in Taoism, which laid the foundation for Zen Buddhism. The I Ching, or Book of Changes, originated Taoist thought, which involves divination to predict the future. Decision-making based on rationality alone is not possible since there’s always more information to collect. Taoists believe good decisions depend on good intuition, which comes from being in the Tao. Trusting in the mind’s natural abilities and having a clear mind are also central to Zen Buddhism.

Buddhism and the Art of Disentanglement

Buddha’s realization under a tree highlights the central aspect of Zen, which grew from the overarching philosophy of Buddhism. To know yourself in Buddhism, you must disentangle your self from all forms of identification, emphasizing negative knowledge. The goal of life is to liberate yourself from the illusions created by arbitrary human descriptions, and reintegrate with the One God who gave birth to the world and fractured into many pieces.

Mahayana Buddhism and the Path to Enlightenment

Mahayana Buddhism emerged as a response to those seeking an easier path to enlightenment, but it offered a challenging resolution to psychological conundrums in traditional Buddhism. The Mahayana approach realized that grasping reality was impossible, and hence, enlightenment could not be an object to attain. If individual entities did not exist, then one must already be in a state of enlightenment. To follow the Mahayana, one should free themselves from the motivation to attain enlightenment and deny the belief that they are not already Buddha. The Mahayana approach was central to the later Zen tradition.

The Origins of Zen

Zen originated in China with the work of a few insightful monks. Seng-chao’s doctrines played a central role in its development, particularly his view on time and change. Hui-neng introduced the concept of chih-chih, the demonstration of Zen through nonsymbolic actions or words, which remains a fundamental aspect of Zen teachings. The purpose of this unusual question-and-answer format is to express the Zen master’s Buddha nature. Two principal schools of Zen in Japan still follow these teachings today.

Disintegrating the Illusions of the Mind

Zen philosophy teaches us that pursuing happiness is futile since it’s only possible to experience comfort because of discomfort. This pursuit is based on false premises, and in Zen, it’s impossible to be a helpless victim of your circumstances. Rather, you and your surroundings are inseparable. Zen can help shatter the illusion of the self that our minds construct, freeing us from the burden of our past and future, and helping us focus on the present. The real you is simply the sum of all the things you are aware of at this very moment.

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