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The Way of Zen Paperback – January 26, 1999
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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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I am amazed at the proliferation of books on the subject to be currently found on Amazon.com. 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.
Watts' own philosophy was expressed in "The Book (on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.)" Pairs of contraries such as light/dark, form/space, self/other, being/non-being, are not enemies but complementaries necessary to each other. Live joyously, with the wisdom and serenity that come from understanding that everything passes, that we are masks the Universe puts on briefly. As a philosophy of life I rate this highly, but it isn't Zen.
In fact Alan Watts was badly wrong about Zen and he created a durable and harmful misconception. He never practised intensively and was acidic about long periods spent "sitting on your (behind)". He saw the regimentation and hours of meditation in Japanese monasteries as the antithesis of carefree Zen, and he misconstrued Chinese Masters or quoted them out of context to prove his point. Back then, he was sure, the Master would just gently explain the contents of "The Book" to his disciple.
This is all so far astray. Chinese Zen monks lived most un-carefree lives: long hours of meditation, long hours of labour, inadequate food and sleep. Zen is not about going with the flow and doin' what comes naturally, rather about uncovering our true Unconditioned nature hidden beneath layers of habit and conditioning. Prolonged meditation happens to be the best way of doing this. Intense effort must be combined with relaxed detachment.
He drops a few clangers, like interpreting the saying that the Zen Master can "snatch away the hungry man's food, drive away the farmer's ox," to mean that the Master is Above Good and Evil. But this is a technical term: it means to rob the student of comforting conceptions and rationalisations, to create a state of helpless bafflement in which true understanding can arise...
Much to enjoy here, then, but also much that's misleading.
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. Parallels between the unforced, natural way of Taoism and the spontaneity of Zen Buddhism are explored in a most convincing and engaging manner. Along the way we learn a little about Hinduism and Confucianism.
The chapters on the principles and practices of Zen, comprising a goodly portion of the book are nothing short of marvelous, full of wit and sly observations, revealing Watts's thorough knowledge of Zen and his deep appreciation. Here are some examples of Watts at work:
Referring obliquely to the rise of communism (a word he never uses in the book) he writes, "When the throne of the Absolute is left vacant, the relative usurps it..." (p. 11) Perhaps Watts is also indicating why he believes that humanism is not a complete answer.
On the cosmology of the Tao: "...the natural universe works mainly according to the principles of growth...If the universe were made, there would of course be someone who knows <how> it is made..." He adds, "...the Tao does not <know> how it produces the universe..." (pp. 16-17)
"Since opposed principles, or ideologies, are irreconcilable, wars fought over principle will be wars of mutual annihilation. But wars fought for simple greed will be far less destructive, because the aggressor will be careful not to destroy what he is fighting to capture." (pp. 29-30)
"Hindu philosophy has not made the mistake of imagining that one can make an informative, factual, and positive statement about the ultimate reality." (p, 34)
"Buddhism has frequently compared the course of time to the apparent motion of a wave, wherein the actual water only moves up and down, creating the illusion of a of water moving over the surface. It is a similar illusion that there is a constant <self> moving through successive experiences, constituting a link between them in such a way that the youth becomes the man who becomes the graybeard who becomes the corpse." (p. 123)
In his exploration of koans used by the Rinzai School of Zen, it becomes clear that one of the purposes of the koan is to put doubt into the mind of the young aspirant that he knows anything at all. From that redoubtable position, real learning can begin. I was reminded of a saying attributed to baseball's Earl Weaver, the very successful manager of the Baltimore Orioles in their glory years: "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."
Here is a story from the Ch'uan Teng Lu, told by Watts about "a fascinating encounter between Tao-hsin and the sage Fa-yung, who lived in a lonely temple on Mount Niu-t'ou, and was so holy that the birds used to bring him offerings of flowers. As the two men were talking, a wild animal roared close by, and Tao-hsin jumped. Fa-yung commented, --referring, of course, to the instinctive (klesa) of fright. Shortly afterwards, while he was for a moment unobserved, Tao-hsin wrote the Chinese character for on the rock where Fa-yung was accustomed to sit. When Fa-yung returned to sit down again, he saw the sacred name and hesitated to sit. said Tao-hsin, At this remark Fa-yung was fully awakened...and the birds never brought any more flowers." (pp. 89-90).
While this is an excellent introduction to Zen--and more--for the educated person, it is especially a delight for those of you who have already read a few books on Zen. There is no other book that I know of that goes as deeply into Zen as agreeably as does The Way of Zen.
--Dennis Littrell, author of "Yoga: Sacred and Profane (Beyond Hatha Yoga)"