Alan Watts on the Transcendent Power of Zen and How NOT to Read Ancient Scriptures

Much has been written over the centuries about Buddhism and what its teaching really means.

The word “enlightenment” is tossed around like a giant ball of cotton candy — delicious, fluffy but, ultimately, without much substance. This happens because “while second-hand wisdom is valuable as a signpost pointing the way, it is too easily taken for the path itself or even for the goal,” writes Alan Watts (6 January 1915–16 November 1973) in his very first book The Spirit of Zen: a Way of Life, Work and Art in the Far East.

In the chapter titled “The Origins of Zen” Watts goes on to grapple with the oldest of questions: can one become enlightened by way of scriptures alone? His Zen answer is part affirmation, part refutation, part something else entirely; but as a whole is an invaluable fragment of fragments that we use to reconstruct a totality of truth beyond words.

Alan Watts.

Noting that “nothing is easier than to confuse the wisdom of a sage with his doctrine, for in the absence of any understanding of truth another man’s description of his understanding is easily mistaken for truth itself,” and with his particular gift for vivid similes and metaphors strung into a rosary of immense wisdom radiating immense bravado, Watts writes:

Just as it is impossible to explain the beauty of a sunset to a man blind from his birth, so is it impossible for sages to find any words which will express their wisdom to men of lesser understanding. For the wisdom of sages is not in their teachings; otherwise anybody might become a sage simply by reading the Bhagavad-Gita, the Dialogues of Plato or the Buddhist Scriptures. As it is, one may study these books for a life-time without being any the wiser, for to seek Enlightenment in words and ideas (to borrow a phrase from Dr Trigant Burrow) is like expecting ‘the sight of a menu-card to reach and satisfy the inner processes of a hungry man.’

Watts, of course, was not a proponent of epistemic skepticism — he was a champion of the human spirit and believed in its capacity for enlightenment. His lament, all the timelier today, is thus not a curmudgeonly complaint but an expression of honest concern about the reading choices we’re making daily, and a gentle reminder that “in a certain sense Zen is feeling life instead of feeling something about life.” He writes:

Enlightenment, however, is living and cannot be fixed down into any form of words; therefore the object of the Zen School of Buddhism is to go beyond words and ideas in order that the original insight of the Buddha may be brought back to life. It regards this insight as the one important thing; scriptures are no more than devices, mere temporary expedients, for showing where it may be found. It never makes the mistake of confusing teachings with wisdom, for essentially, Zen is that ‘something’ which makes the difference between a Buddha and an ordinary man; it is Enlightenment as distinct from doctrine.

Watts concludes by writing that “Gautama the Buddha (Enlightened One) was careful to avoid any descriptions of the illumination which he found while sitting one night under a giant fig-tree at Gaya,” which is why “when he was questioned upon the ultimate mysteries of the universe he ‘maintained a noble silence,'” and so he “never tired of saying that his doctrine [Dharma] was concerned only with the Way to Enlightenment, and he never claimed it as a revelation of Enlightenment;” hence the Buddhist verse:

When they curiously question thee, seeking to know what It is,
Do not affirm anything, and do not deny anything.
For whatsoever is affirmed is not true,
And whatsoever is denied is not true.
How shall anyone say truly what That may be
While he has not himself fully won to What Is?
And, after he has won, what word is to be sent from a Region
Where the chariot of speech finds no track on which to go?
Therefore, to their questionings offer them silence only,
Silence — and a finger pointing the Way.

Published in 1936 two decades before his more popular The Way of Zen, The Spirit of Zen is a fascinating read in its totality. Complement with Alan Watts on the paradox of ego awareness.

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