The Way of Zen // Alan W Watts
I was nineteen years old, sitting in a coffee shop with a couple of my professors from university. One was lecturing on the Old Testament, the other on Zen Buddhism. I had handpicked a few courses out of the religion and philosophy curriculums, and was building my own comparative religion degree, which really ended up being a double major in philosophy and religion.
I was searching for nodal points, those anchors around which every religion and folk philosophy seemed to orbit, seeds of truth that pierced the veil across every culture and time.
No two points on the compass of human understanding seemed to weigh as heavily as the Torah and the Zen teachings: which were really as simple as the Indian art of meditation ultra-refined through the Chinese, and then the Japanese, into a kind of essential oil of just sitting.
Decades before me, a young Alan Watts had done the same thing, although much better, fusing his Christian upbringing with a heavy leaning toward the east. By the time The Way of Zen came out in 1957, Watts had been writing about eastern religions, and trying to fuse them with everything else he had learned thus far, for over two decades.
This book was surely an influence on other writers I was just discovering: Peter Matthiessen, maybe D.T. Suzuki and definitely Robert Aitken.
It was one of the first, and best, attempts by a western writer to help people understand Zen and eastern philosophies from a lay perspective.
But what lies beneath this book, running like mycelium through everything he touched, is Watts’ own enlightenment. His ability to speak not just to the history and the practice of eastern thought, but to his own understanding of the world, through his weathered eyes. He isn’t translating a foreign text so much as living it in a different language.
And maybe that’s the secret to explaining a philosophy that seems to belie any explanation – you have to live it.