Insights from Alan Watt’s book, What Is Zen?

I was pulled into Alan Watt’s What Is Zen? book this week. Like really pulled into it. Into the present moment, as Zen does.

This book reminded me to take life one step at a time rather than multitask as I sometimes try to do. The multitasking usually only leads to unfocused thinking and un-productivity. Can you relate?

Anyway, the term Zen translates to “meditation”. And although I don’t always practice meditation, I find that when I do, my life improves.

Maybe it is for you, and maybe it’s not. If you’re interested in learning about Zen, I highly recommend Watt’s What Is Zen? Here are only a handful of insights from the book.

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“Zen cannot really be taught, but it can be transmitted through sessions of contemplation or meditation, called zazen, and through dialogues between student and teacher, called sanzen. In the dialogues between the student and Zen master the student comes squarely up against the obstacles to his or her understanding and, without making the answer obvious, the master points a finger toward the way.”

“Many hold Zen to be at one with the root of all religions, for it is a way of liberation that centers around the things that are basic to all mysticism: awakening to the unity or oneness of life, and the inward — as opposed to outward — existence of God. In this context the word God can be misleading because, as will be seen, the idea of a deity in the Western religious sense is foreign to Zen.”

“When Buddhism first came to China it was most natural for the Chinese to speak about it in terms of Taoist philosophy, because they both share a view of life as a flowing process in which the mind and consciousness of man is inextricably involved.”

“It is not as if there is a fixed screen of consciousness over which our experience flows and leaves a record. It is that the field of consciousness itself is part of the flowing process, and therefore the mind of man is not a separate entity observing the process from outside, but is integrally involved with it.”

“The practice of Zen is to experience the overall pattern directly, and to know one’s self as the essence of the pattern.”

“Zen is really extraordinarily simple as long as one doesn’t try to be cute about it or beat around the bush! Zen is simply the sensation and the clear understanding that, to put it in Zen terms, there are “ten thousand formations;  one suchness.” Or you might say, “The ten thousand things that are everything are of one suchness.” That is to say that there is behind the multiplicity of events and creatures in this universe simply one energy — and it appears as you, and everything is it.”

“The practice of Zen is to understand that one energy so as to ‘feel it in your bones.’ Yet Zen has nothing to say about what that energy is, and of course this gives the impression in the minds of Westerners that it is a kind of “blind energy.” We assume this because the only other alternative that we can imagine in terms of our traditions is that it must be something like God — some sort of cosmic ego, an almost personal intelligent being. But in the Buddhist view, that would be as far off the mark as thinking of it as blind energy. The reason they use the word “suchness” is to leave the whole question open, and absolutely free from definition. It is “such.” It is what it is.”

“That is why Zen has been called the “religion of no religion.” You don’t need, as it were, to cling to yourself. Faith in yourself is not “holding on” to your-self, but letting go.”

“Then what follows from that is the question, “How does a person who feels that way live in this world? What do you do about other people who don’t see that that’s so? What do you do about conducting yourself in this world?” This is the difficult part of Zen training. There is at first the breakthrough — which involves certain difficulties — but thereafter follows the whole process of learning compassion and tact and skill. As Jesus put it, it is “to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves” — and that is really what takes most of the time.”

“In each culture, it is quite definitely the same experience (the “spiritual experience”), and it is characterized by the transcendence of individuality and by a sensation of being one with the total energy of the universe.”

“I remember a dinner once with Hasegawa, when somebody asked him, ‘How long does it take to obtain our understanding of Zen?’ He said, ‘It may take you three minutes; it may take you thirty years.’ And, he said, ‘I mean that.’”

“There are two sides to this question, and it strikes me in this way: It’s not a matter of time at all. The people who think it ought to take a long time are of one school of thought, and the people who want it quickly are of another, and they are both wrong. The transformation of consciousness is not a question of how much time you put into it, as if it were all added up on some sort of quantitative scale, and you got rewarded according to the amount of effort you put into it. Nor is there a way of avoiding the effort just because you happen to be lazy, or because you say, “I want it now!” The point is, rather, something like this: If you try to get it either by an instant method because you are lazy or by a long-term method because you are rigorous, you’ll discover that you can’t get it either way. The only thing that your effort — or absence of effort — can teach you is that your effort doesn’t work.”

“And so, one of the essentials of Zen training is, to quote a certain parrot from Huxley’s Island, “Here and now, boys!” Be here. And in order to be here, you can’t be looking for a result!”

“To sit in zazen in order to perfect a technique for attaining enlightenment, however, is fundamentally a mistaken approach. Sit just to sit. And why not sit? You have to sit sometime, and so you may as well really sit, and be altogether here. Otherwise the mind wanders away from the matter at hand, and away from the present.”

“People have difficulties with these simple forms of meditation. Thoughts and feelings come up: ‘Is it only this? Is this all there is? Nothing seems to be happening. What’s going on? I feel a little frustrated, and I don’t particularly feel enlightened. There’s just nothing ‘special’ about this at all. Do I have to do this longer in order for something to happen?’
But nothing special is supposed to happen. 
It’s just this. This is it, right here.”