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  • Nikhil Dhawan

The Way of Zen - Part 1 (Alan Watts)

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts is a non-fiction book from 1957 about Zen Buddhism.

Part 1 starts with the philosophy of Tao. These notes are mostly for me to remember what I read and to comprehend it on a more profound level.

Within the first paragraph of the book, I was able to quickly realize what drew me to the book. Zen is known as a way and view of life rather than a religion or a philosophy. Zen is also not considered a science or psychology, but rather a “way of liberation”.

The mere concept of being liberated and having the ability to fly caught my attention immediately. I’ve always felt that society and the people within society have a stronghold on humans and the decisions we make (some of these feelings we’ve self-projected in our minds). As a people (any culture, any age), we’re often scrutinized for doing what we want in life; we tend to feel obligated to conform to a certain extent. Being liberated removes those obligations, worries, and anxieties. It’s a way of freeing us from ourselves, in order to be better selves.

Alan Watts uses an interesting example early in this book about language and assigned roles. The language bit talks about rules that we’ve created within societies that define our conventional knowledge. The tricky part about that is it limits our ability to communicate using only the words we’ve been taught. For example, there can be times where we feel a certain way and want to describe it, but we have a tough time finding the words; maybe because the words don’t exist. Those feelings can tend to lose their relevance or how long they last, because they’re indescribable. Conversations last longer and are more engaging when words can be found and everyone shares a similar understanding of the definitions of those words.

The concept of ‘assigned roles’ fascinates me because it does good and causes harm. I’ll quote Alan, “For a man who is a father may also be a doctor and an artist, as well as an employee and a brother. And it is obvious that even the sum of these role labels will be far from supplying an adequate description of the man himself, even though it may place him in certain general classifications.” This is something that I struggled with for quite some time. Titles seemed to be an extremely important part of society, or maybe I took it more seriously than I needed to, but I always felt the pressure of job titles and status titles, etc. It took experience, learning, and growth to begin to shed those conventions and liberate myself from those thoughts.

One of my favorite parts about this first section is where Watts uses sight as an analogy for how we can live. He talks about ‘central vision’ and ‘peripheral vision’. “Central vision is used for accurate work like reading, in which our eyes are focused on one small area after another like spotlights. Peripheral vision is less conscious, less bright than the intense ray of the spotlight.”

What the author is referring to is...rather are, ALL the simple things we take for granted in life. Imagine having to think about breathing every time we inhaled or exhaled. Imagine thinking to blink, then blinking; we don’t need to! What about the process of digesting our food? What work are we consciously doing to have our food be digested for us? Probably not much. Those are all peripheral things; they get done on their own. So if these extra important things are happening to us on their own, then what else can we trust life with? If we can find ways to liberate ourselves by not over-analyzing every little thing in our lives, then we’ve understood zen.

It’s a way of freeing us from ourselves, in order to be better selves.


One of the ways I enjoy understanding any concept in life is by trying to understand its origin; where it came from and why it came to be. Zen has multiple origins; part one talks about Taoism. It starts by saying that “the function of Taoism is to undo the inevitable damage of this discipline (rigid rules of convention), and not only to restore but also to develop the original spontaneity.” Watts goes on, “For the spontaneity of a child is still childish, like everything else about him. His education fosters his rigidity but not his spontaneity.” This next part is fascinating. “In certain natures, the conflict between social convention and repressed spontaneity is so violent that it manifests itself in crime, insanity, and neurosis, which are the prices we pay for the other undoubted benefits of order.”

This statement is important considering todays time of Mental Health awareness. Social convention, rigidity and order have obvious benefits; although it may not seem like it, the world we live in today is surprisingly better than past times. Just take a look at this TED Talk by Hans Rosling for the stats. The fascinating part of the statement is that it talks about both sides of the argument. Repressing spontaneity seemingly leads to our Mental Health issues within society, for example crime, insanity, and other mental health disorders.

I appreciate the way that statement is written, but personally don’t have enough information to elaborate on the matter. What I can say from personal experience, however, is that I truly believe rigidity counters liberation and freedom. It feels very restricting and limits me from flying and being free. Rigidity is the opposite of zen. If we foster rigidity, we’re restricting freedom, but if we encourage spontaneity, we’re stimulating liberation.

Imagine for a second fighting social orders or constructs; although it may not be easy, it’s definitely possible. But to go against something that is believed to be absolute by oneself, it must be far more difficult to conquer, and in turn, more challenging to find liberation. This part is mostly for introspection based on personal beliefs.

Watts goes on to talk about Taoism in relation to Zen. He says in order to understand Zen and Taoism better, “we must at least be prepared to admit the possibility of some view of the world other than the conventional, some knowledge other than the contents of our surface consciousness, which can apprehend reality only in the form of one abstraction (or thought) at a time.” The best part is, it’s not that difficult to comprehend this concept considering we can admit that we already “know how to move our hands, how to make a decision, or how to breathe, even though we can hardly begin to explain how we do it in words”.

My understanding of Zen thus far is quite simplistic, even though it’s not entirely comprehensive. Being spontaneous, using our “life peripherals”, being less rigid, and ultimately liberating us from ourselves. Sometimes when I think about how to follow through with this philosophy, it leads me to think of absent-mindedness. But then Watts articulates it well, “the idea is not to reduce the human mind to a moronic vacuity, but to bring into play its innate and spontaneous intelligence by using it without forcing it.” Finding balance.


I won’t elaborate on some of these next few quotes, but I have to share them.

”It forgets that reason cannot be trusted if the brain cannot be trusted, since the power of reason depends upon organs that were grown by ‘unconscious intelligence’”.

”And if such security is to be got from wine, how much more is to be got from Spontaneity.”

”It is a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club.”

”The baby looks at things all day without winking; that is because his eyes are not focused on any particular object. He goes without knowing where he is going, and stops without knowing what he is doing. He merges himself with the surroundings and moves along with it. These are the principles of mental hygiene.”

Lao-Tzu was the founder of Tao and he is also quoted in part 1. “Superior virtue is not conscious of itself as virtue, and thus really is virtue. Inferior virtue cannot dispense without virtuosity, and thus is not virtue.”

This line really sticks with me because of the time and place in which we live. When our contemporaries do good deeds with the purpose of getting recognition and sharing it on social media, it seems an inferior virtue. But the deeds that are done quietly and without the outward desire for recognition, are indeed superior.

Te is a concept within Taoism which is the “unthinkable ingenuity and creative power of man’s spontaneous and natural functioning — a power which is blocked when one tries to master it in terms of formal methods and techniques.

For example,

The centipede was happy, quite,

Until a toad in fun

Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”

This worked his mind to such a pitch,

He lay distracted in a ditch,

Considering how to run.

Using te and Taoism to understand The Way of Zen is just the beginning. Zen is a liberation from convention and of the creative power. It cannot be conveyed either by words or by silence.


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