Zen Happens

By | August 14, 2011

I hear persistent rumors that Alan Watts has died. In fact, some say it happened way back in the ’70s. I really should get into town more often. But when I do, I find that the more I learn, the less I want to know. Like that Watts is actually dead. Or worse yet, that others would believe he is dead. We need him and his buddies Snyder, Leary, Kerouac, and Ginsberg to rescue us from suburbanism. It’s become a religion, you know. Secular Catholicism. Without them, we’d be stuck in the ’burbs of our minds without one of the most effective purgatives to come along in a while—Eastern philosophy, particularly Zen Buddhism.

However, unlike his contemporaries, Watts is criticized by several prominent figures in Zen Buddhism for making it more appealing to the Western bourgeoisie palate by stripping it of many of its beliefs and ritual practices. And they are literally right. Watts maintains that actively striving for enlightenment is a profoundly counterproductive enterprise—effort is the antithesis of being. “When you get the message,” he says, “hang up the phone.”

But are his critics also right regarding principle? For research on my next Zen book, I’m combing through dozens of ancient manuscripts for windows into the minds of the early sages. I’m finding them, but wouldn’t you know it—they left it up to us to look through them. Buddhist practice helps us look. I can see why the Buddhist hierarchy gets nervous with Watts’ efforts to strip the Buddhism from Zen—they’d be out of a job. Watts describes Zen as being agnostic about everything, so he has little interest in substituting one “ism” for another.

Zen claims nothing; it is simply the state of being, with the stress on “simply,” explains Watts. There are none of the beliefs or practices by which “isms” define themselves and offer guidance to their followers. Nor does Zen lay out a way of life. If it does anything, it strips these things away. With them goes habit, pretense, and illusion—all that enslave and cripple us, reducing what could be a vibrant life to mere existence.

What then are we left with? A continual explosion of the now, an endless journey into the frontier of fear and unknowing. There will nearly always be food, but hardly ever a feeling of fullness.

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