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The Way of Zen Paperback – January 26, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

After D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts stands as the godfather of Zen in America. Often taken to task for inspiring the flimsy spontaneity of Beat Zen, Watts had an undeniably keen understanding of his subject. Nowhere is this more evident than in his 1957 classic The Way of Zen, which has been reissued. Watts takes the reader back to the philosophical foundations of Zen in the conceptual world of Hinduism, follows Buddhism's course through the development of the early Mahayana school, the birth of Zen from Buddhism's marriage with Chinese Taoism, and on to Zen's unique expression in Japanese art and life. As a Westerner, Watts anticipates the stumbling blocks encountered with such concepts as emptiness and no-mind, then illustrates with flawlessly apt examples. Many popular books have been written on Zen since Watts' time, but few have been able to muster the rare combination of erudition and clarity that have kept The Way of Zen in readers' hands decade after decade. --Brian Bruya


“No one has given such a concise...introduction to the whole history of this Far Eastern development of Buddhist thought as Alan Watts.” ―Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (January 26, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375705104
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375705106
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (152 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #12,656 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

132 of 136 people found the following review helpful By Joseph P. Reel on December 30, 2005
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Receiving my first copy of The Way of Zen in 1959 set me on the path of exploring both the literature and the practices of Eastern traditions for the next 47 years. My original copy became so well-worn that I recently had to relegate it to archive status and purchase a new working copy. All these years later, this title still remains for me the classic work for Western understanding of Buddhism.

I am amazed at the proliferation of books on the subject to be currently found on Separating the wheat from the chaff can be a daunting challenge. Many interpretations of the Dharma, especially by Western authors, often seem to be tainted by naive New Age idealism on the one hand, or dry pedantry on the other. Although Watts was academically disciplined, reading the text with appropriate reflection can be simultaneously an intellectual and experiential endeavor (although not in the "how-to" sense). Watts wisely points out, with ample historical support from past Zen masters, that while so-called techniques for enlightenment may serve as transitional supports along the path, they ultimately lead to dead ends.

The Way of Zen, despite some rather petty criticisms by pedants and literalists over the years, has survived as one of the most lucid expositions of Zen specifically and Buddhism in general. Highly recommended...still.
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128 of 140 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 19, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This can be seen as a significant book in the transmission of the dharma to the Western world, even though, or perhaps especially because, it is written by a Westerner. Consistently admired since its first publication in 1957, and reprinted many times, The Way of Zen is that rarest of books, a popular and academic success. You will not read far before seeing why. Watts's style is reasoned and reasonable, clear and authoritative, but without a hint of affectation. Watts knows what he is talking about and to whom he is speaking. Because of his perspective between two worlds, he is, more than almost any other writer on Zen, able to match the ideas of the East to the mind of the West, and in doing so make the broader outlines of Zen as clear as the polished, dustless mirror.

The book is divided into two parts, "Background and History" and Principles and Practice," each with four chapters. There is a bibliography also divided into two parts, the first referring to original sources and second to general works on Zen in European languages. There are 16 pages of Chinese Notes in calligraphy keyed to the text, and an Index.

"The Way" in the title refers to the "watercourse way" from Taoism, a philosophy to which Zen owes much, as Watts makes clear in the first two chapters, "The Philosophy of the Tao" and "The Origins of Buddhism." The first chapter is one of the best on Taoism that I have ever read, replete with insight and wisdom. Throughout, Watts expresses himself in an infectious style, even in the very scholarly chapters on the history of Buddhism where he traces Zen from its origin in India, through the Buddha under the Po tree, to Ch'an in China, and finally into Japan.
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72 of 77 people found the following review helpful By on June 11, 1999
Format: Paperback
Generally speaking, Watts doesn't appeal to new-age crystal fairies, channelers, and so forth, and if you prefer your Zen texts all poetical and mysterious, then this book isn't for you; but if you want a treatment of Zen as an important, credible and viable philosophical tradition, then you'll like this book. It's not an easy read, but this is good, solid, hardheaded Watts.
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44 of 46 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 5, 1996
Format: Paperback
Scan the "Eastern Philosophy" racks at your local bookstore
and you'll see the problem--books with titles like "The Tao
of Love and Relationships" or "The Zen of Career
Advancement." Much of the literature on eastern philosophy
written by westerners is distorted as it is re-focused
through the prism ("prison," some would argue) of western
thought and language.

Alan Watts appreciates and addresses these difficulties in
The Way of Zen, an excellent introduction to the Zen
Buddhism. Watts explores Zen's historical background,
tracing it from Buddhism's migration from India to China,
where it absorbed elements of Confucian and Taoist thought,
to its final development in Japan. The second half of the
book describes Zen's underlying principles and its
practices, such as the absence of "self" and the futility
of purpose.

Rich in scholarly detail, yet accessible to the lay reader,
The Way of Zen, is remarkable in its lucidity. Watts uses
analogies and allusions culled from daily life to
illustrate Zen principles and does much to clear up western
misconceptions about Zen thought. He also warns of the
difficulties many westerners face trying to understand Zen.
With the English language's clear separation between the
observer and the observed, the action and the actor and its
rigid division of time into past, present and future, Zen
thought often strikes westerners as mystical or moronic.

While Watts may champion Zen, he never stoops to mere
cheer-leading. Instead he has produced a highly readable
book that explains and de-mystifies Zen.
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