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What is Zen

The talks by Alan Watts that comprise the book What Is Zen? are sporadically entertaining but generally unsatisfying, marred by excessive exclamation marks and a frustrating disorganization. The original lectures were given late in Watts's life (he died in 1973) and were published in 2000, transcribed from tapes and edited by his son Mark. Watts begins with the observation in his first seminar ("A Simple Way, A Difficult Way") that, "Zen is really extraordinarily simple as long as one doesn't try to be cute about it or beat around the bush!" Alas, he then proceeds immediately into coy evasion.

But there are some interesting and important tidbits. For instance, he quotes from the Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch:

If somebody asks you a question about matters sacred, always answer in terms of matters profane. If they ask you about ultimate reality, answer in terms of everyday life. If they ask you about everyday life, answer in terms of ultimate reality.

And in his chapter "Space" Watts tells a striking parable:

There was once an Englishman and an Indian sitting in a garden together, and the Hindu was trying to explain basic Indian philosophy to the Englishman. So he said, "Look now, there is a hedge at the end of the garden—against what do you see the hedge?"

The Englishman said, "Against the hills."

"And what do you see the hills against?"

He said, "Against the sky."

"And what do you see the sky against?" And the Englishman didn't know what to say.

So the Hindu said, "You see it against consciousness."

A wonderful image—but Rudyard Kipling perhaps did it better ...

^z - 2009-07-21