The World as Just So (Part 1)

Out of Your Mind 7

Alan Watts lectures on the origins and essence of Zen, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism that spread from India to China and Japan. He discusses key concepts like satori, no-mind, and non-attachment, and emphasizes Zen’s spontaneity, directness, and humor. Major figures covered include Bodhidharma, Hui-neng, Rinzai, and Dogen. Watts aims to illuminate Zen’s appeal in the West and convey the feeling of its practices.



To Say What Can’t Be Said


A lecture on Zen is always something in the nature of a hoax, because it really does deal with a domain of experience that can’t be talked about. But one must remember, at the same time, that there’s really nothing at all that can be talked about adequately. And the whole art of poetry is to say what can’t be said. So every poet—every artist—feels, when he gets to the end of his work, that there’s something absolutely essential that was left out. So Zen has always described itself as a “finger pointing at the moon.”


In the Sanskrit saying tat tvam asi, ‘that art thou,’ Zen is concerned with ‘that.’ ‘That,’ of course, is the word which is used for ‘Brahman,’ the absolute reality in Hindu philosophy. And you’re it—only in disguise, and disguised so well that you’ve forgotten it. But unfortunately, ideas like the Ultimate Ground of Being, the Self, Brahman, Ultimate Reality, the Great Void—all that is very, very abstract talk, and Zen is concerned with a much more direct way of coming to an understanding of ‘that.’ Or ‘thatness,’ as it’s called; tathātā in Sanskrit.


So Zen has been summed up in four statements:

  • a direct transmission outside scriptures and apart from tradition,
  • no dependence on words and letters,
  • direct pointing to the human mind,
  • and seeing into one’s own nature and becoming Buddha, that is, becoming enlightened—awakened—from the normal hypnosis under which almost all of us go ’round like somnambules.

It’s extraordinary how much interest has existed in Zen in the United States, especially in the years since the war with Japan. And, naturally, I’ve often meditated on the reasons for this interest. I think, first of all, the appeal of Zen lies in its unusual quality of humor. Religions aren’t, as a rule, humorous in any way. Religions are serious. And when one looks at Zen art and reads Zen stories it is quite apparent that something is going on here which isn’t serious in the ordinary sense, however sincere it may be.


The next thing I think that has appealed to Westerners is that Zen has no doctrines. There is nothing you have to believe, and it doesn’t moralize at you very much. It’s not particularly concerned with morals at all. It’s a field of inquiry rather like physics. And you don’t expect a physicist to discuss authoritatively about morals even though, as a human being, he has moral interests and problems. But as a physicist he is not a moral authority. Or, if you go to an oculist, or ophthalmologist, to have your eyes adjusted—that is so you can see clearly. And Zen is spiritual ophthalmology.


Another thing that appeals very much to Western students about Zen is that they read their Zen from Suzuki, and from some of my writings, and from R. H. Blyth, and these people present a rather different kind of Zen from that which you will find today in Japan. They present what is essentially early Chinese Zen from the old writings, ranging from about shortly before 700 A.D. to 1000 A.D. And that Zen has a very different flavor from modern Japanese Zen, and so, of course, many of the people who go to study Zen in Japan disapprove of Dr. Suzuki thoroughly. And also, naturally, of my exposition of Zen, because we don’t make a great fetish of studying Zen by sitting.


In Japan, today, they sit and they sit and they sit. R. H. Blyth asked a Zen master, “What would you do if you had only one half hour left to live?” And he [the Zen master] said, “I would do zazen,” which means he would sit like a Buddha, here, and practice meditation. And Blyth had given him several choices: “Would you like to listen to your favorite music? Would you have a dinner? Would you get drunk? Would you like the company of a beautiful woman? Would you take a walk? What would you do? Or would you just go on with your daily business as if nothing was going to happen?” In other words, would you wind up your watch? So he [Blyth] was very disappointed in this answer. And he said, “You know, sitting is only one way of doing Zen.”


Buddhism speaks of the four dignities of man: walking, standing, sitting, and lying. And so zazen is simply the Japanese word for ‘sitting Zen.’ There must also be walking Zen, standing Zen, and lying Zen. You should know, for example, how to sleep in a Zen way: that means to sleep thoroughly. Zen has been described as, “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” And when the student got that description he said, “Well, doesn’t everybody do that?” And the master said, “They don’t. When hungry, they don’t just eat but think of 10,000 things. When tired, they don’t just sleep but dream innumerable dreams.”


So, in a sense, this sounds like the old Western truism whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. But that’s not the same thing as Zen. A lot of people like to see if they could sum up Zen in that way. In the Latin motto of the school I used to go to in England: age dum agis, ‘act when you act,’ or while you act.


There’s a famous story which beautifully illustrates the current relationships between East and West. Paul Reps, who wrote—or rather, drew—a lovely book called Zen Telegrams, once asked a Zen master to sum up Buddhism in one phrase. And he said, “Don’t act, but act.” So Reps was simply delighted because he thought the master had said, “Don’t act but act.” And that, of course, would be the Taoist principle of wú wéi [無爲], of action in the spirit of not being separate from the world. Realizing so fully that you are the universe, too—that your action on it is not an interference, but an expression of the totality. But the master’s English was very bad indeed, and Paul Reps had misunderstood him. He had said, “Don’t act bad act.” And, you know, that is the sort of attitude that all clergy develop over the centuries. You know how it is when you go to church—if you do—so often the sermon boils down to, “My dear people, you ought to be good.” And everybody knows that—but hardly anybody knows how, or even what, ‘good’ is.


Zen’s Appeal to the West


The fascination of Zen, to the West, is that it promises a sudden insight into something that is always supposed to take years and years and years. The psychoanalysts—if you’re mixed up—they tell you the troubles you’ve got yourself into over all these years can’t be undone in a day, and therefore it will take many, many sessions—maybe twice a week for several years—for you to get straightened out.


The Christians say that if you embark on a path of spiritual discipline, you get yourself a spiritual director and submit yourself to the will of God, but you may not get into the high states of contemplative prayer for very many years. The Hindus, the Vedanta society people, the Buddhists also say it’ll require many long years of meditation, very hard concentration, very difficult practice, and stern discipline. Then, maybe, you’ll make enough progress in this life to become a monk in your next life, and then you’ll make enough progress to enter some of the preliminary stages leading to Buddhahood, but it’s all likely to take you many, many incarnations.


But when this artist, Hasegawa, was asked, “How does one see into Zen?” he said: “It may take you three seconds, it may take you thirty years. I mean that.” And so, you see, there is always the possibility that it may take only three seconds. Zen literature aboudns with stories, you see, in which there’s a dialogue—or what is called in Japanese mondō, which means ‘question-answer’—between a Zen teacher and his student, and these dialogues are fascinatingly incomprehensible. But it always seems to be that [at] the end of this swift interchange, the student gets the point. Sometimes he doesn’t.


I gave a book of these dialogues, once, to a friend of mine who was deeply interested in Eastern philosophy. He said, “I haven’t understood a word of it, but it has cheered me up enormously.” So this book—called the Mumonkan, which means ‘the barrier with no gate,’ or ‘the gateless gate’—contains such stories as the student—I say student rather than monk, because Zen students are not monks in our sense of the word ‘monk.’ Our monks take life vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and to make the grade you’re expected to spend your whole life in the monastic state. But I call the Zen monk a student because he’s more like a student in a theological seminary. He may stay much longer than the usual three years; he may stay thirty years or so, but it’s always possible for him to leave with dignity, and to graduate, and to go into lay life, or to become a regular priest who keeps charge of a temple, can get married and have a family, and only very few graduates of a Zen monastery become rōshi. Rōshi simply means ‘old teacher’—that is, the man in charge of the spiritual development of the students.


So one of these students in the book says to the master Jōshū, “I have been here in this monastery for some time, and I’ve had no instruction from you.” The master said, “Have you had breakfast?” “Yes.” “Then go wash your bowl.” And the monk was awakened. Now, you may think that the moral of the story is, “do the work that’s nearest though it’s dull at whiles, helping, when you meet them, lame dogs over stiles” [Charles Kingsley].


Or that the bowl might be a symbol of the great void, the all-containing universe, and that—probably—the monk had washed it already, because they immediately—after eating in Japan and China, in a monastery—they take tea and pour it into the bowl and swill it around, wash it and wipe it out. So maybe he had already washed the bowl. And in that case you might think that the master was saying, “Don’t gild the lily.” Don’t—to use a real nice Zen phrase—don’t put legs on a snake. Or a beard on a eunuch. No, the point of that story is so clear that that’s what’s difficult about it.


And all these stories resemble jokes in this sense. A joke is told to make you laugh. When you get the point of the joke, you laugh spontaneously. But if the point has to be explained to you, you don’t laugh so well; you force a laugh. There is some kind of sudden impact between the punchline and the laugh, and so in exactly the same way with these stories, there is expected to be something else than laughter, which is sudden insight into the nature of being. ‘Nature of being;’ that sounds—again—very abstract, but it was “go wash your bowl.”


So, another story in this book concerns a master who said, “When a cow walks out of the enclosure—the corral—the horns and head, the four legs, and the body all get through, but not the tail. How is it that the tail can’t get through?” And nobody could answer this.


Another story tells of a certain master called Bǎizhàng, who was so good that he had hundreds of students, and they couldn’t all be housed in one monastery. So he had to find one of the students who could also be a master. And so he arranged a test. He put down a pitcher in front of them all and said, “Without making an assertion, or without making a denial, tell me what is this?” And the senior monk said, “It couldn’t be called a piece of wood.” And the teacher didn’t accept this answer. But the monastery cook came forward and kicked the pitcher over and walked away, and he got the job. And the commentator remarks, “Maybe he wasn’t so smart after all, for he gave up an easy job for a difficult one.”


Direct Pointing


When an inquirer about Zen came to a master, often—you know—they approach a Zen master with a kind of key question. “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” Or, “Why did the bearded barbarian come from the West?” Because Zen is supposed to have been brought into China by a Hindu named Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma is always represented as having a huge bushy beard and very fierce eyes. Now, Bodhidharma always insisted that he had nothing to teach. And so, why did he come? That’s one of the fundamental questions.


You might say to me—I’ve often said when I’m giving a lecture—I’m not trying to improve you, I’m not trying to persuade you to a certain point of view; that is to say like a preacher would convert somebody. In fact, I have nothing to tell you at all. Because were I to presume that I had something to tell you, I would be like a person who picked your pocket and sold you your own watch. So you might say, then, why do I talk? You might ask the sky, “Why are you blue?” The clouds, “Why do you float around?” Birds, “Why do you sing?” And we’ve been busy trying to invent explanations for all this. And so there’s this great Zen saying; one of the old masters said, “When I was a young man and knew nothing of Buddhism, mountains were mountains and waters were waters. But when I began to understand a little Buddhism, mountains were no longer mountains and waters no longer waters.” In other words, when one starts scientific and philosophical inquiries, everything gets explained away in terms of its causes or other things that go with it. Or one sees that all the things in the world—what we think are separate things—are, as ‘things,’ illusions; there is nothing separate. So—but he said at the end, “But when I had thoroughly understood, mountains are mountains and waters are waters.” So this is what’s called direct pointing.


A Zen master was once talking with me, and he said, “When water goes out of the wash basin down the drain, does it go clockwise or anti-clockwise?” And this was all phrased in the middle of a very ordinary conversation and, you know, it just seemed like a speculative question. And I said, “Oh, it might go either.” He said, “NO! Like this!” Now he said, “Which came first, egg or hen?” I said, “Bwock bwock bwock bwock bwkeeeeeeek!” “Yeah,” he said, “that’s the point.”


Now, it is saying too much—I warn you—to say that Zen is trying to point to the physical universe so that you could look at it without forming ideas about it. That is saying too much, but it is the general idea. It’s in the direction of being the right idea. Zen people speak of the virtue of what they call mushin, which means ‘no mind,’ or munen, ‘no thought.’ That red lantern says munen on it. No thought. This is not an anti-intellectual attitude. The ordinary simple person is just as bamboozled by thinking as a university professor. You can think intellectually in a ‘no think’ way; that’s the art. It doesn’t mean not to have any thoughts at all, it means not to be fooled by thoughts; not to be hypnotized by the forms of speech and images that we have for the world. Not to be hypnotized by them into thinking that that is the way the world really is. So, if I say, “This is a fan,” it isn’t. To begin with, ‘fan’ is a noise, and this doesn’t make the noise ‘fan,’ but just ‘whoosh.’ But it can be many other things than a fan. It can be a back scratcher, very well. All sorts of things. Don’t let words limit the possibilities of life. Actually, this fan has an inscription on it, written by a Zen Master who is 100 years old, and it says, “I don’t understand, I don’t know anything about it.”


So that goes back to the story of Bodhidharma: that, when he first came to China sometime a little before 500 A.D., he was interviewed by the Emperor Wu, of Liang. The emperor was a great patron of Buddhism and said, “We have caused many monasteries to be built, monks and nuns to be ordained, and the scriptures to be translated into Chinese. What is the merit of this?” And Bodhidharma said, “No merit whatever.” Well, that really set the emperor back, because the popular understanding of Buddhism is that you do good things like that—religious things—and you acquire merit, and this leads you to better and better lives in the future so that you will eventually become liberated.


And so he was completely set back, so he said, “What is the first principle of the Holy Doctrine?” And Bodhidharma said, “Vast emptiness and nothing holy.” Or, “In vast emptiness there is nothing holy.” So the emperor said, “Who is it, then, that stands before us?” The implication being: aren’t you supposed to be a holy man? And Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”


So the poem says:

Plucking flowers to which the butterflies come,

Bodhidharma says ‘I don’t know.’

And another poem like it:

If you want to know where the flowers come from,

even the God of Spring doesn’t know.

So anybody who says that he knows what Zen is, is a fraud. Nobody knows. Just like you don’t know who you are. All this business about your name, and your accomplishments, your certificates, what your friends say about you—you know very well that’s not you. But the problem to know who you are is the problem of smelling your own nose.


When the great Japanese master Dōgen came back from China in about the year 1,200 A.D. to bring his school of Zen into Japan, they asked him, “What did you learn in China?” He said, “The eyes are horizontal, the nose is perpendicular.” This man went on to write a tremendous book about Zen. They are so contradictory, these people. Don’t expect consistency out of a Zen master. Big, big book called the Shōbōgenzō. I talked with a Zen master about this book—in Japan—and he said, “Oooh, that’s a terrible book! It explains everything so clearly!” It gives the show away. He said, “You don’t need any book for Zen.”


So, you see, it is this kind of way of going about things, this method of Zen, that has so fascinated the West. And everybody who reads about Zen wonders if somehow, you see, this understanding is right under your nose. You know how it is: sometimes, you get a crowd of people to come into a room, and you put something in the room that’s absurd—like, suppose there was a balloon floating on the ceiling—people could come in and not notice it at all. Or, you know, somebody puts on something weird—some kind of a funny necktie, or something—and you say to a person, “Well, haven’t you noticed? A woman in a new dress.” You know? “Haven’t you noticed?” You say, “Well, no. Wh—what is it?” You know? It’s right under your nose. It’s staring you in the face, but you don’t see it. And Zen is exactly like that.


It is very obvious. The master Bokuju was asked, “We have to dress and eat every day, and how do we escape from all that?” In other words, how do we get out of routine? And he said, “We dress, we eat.” He said, “I don't understand.” Bokuju said, “If you don't understand, put on your clothes and eat your food.”


Another Zen master, in quite recent times, was interviewing a student—you see, all these stories I’m telling you are connected, and what I want you to do is to grasp, intuitively, the connection—was interviewing a student—Western student—and he said, “Get up and walk across the room.” He got up and walked and came back. He said, “Where are your footprints?”


Another monk asked Jōshū, “What is the Way?” Tao, in Chinese. “The Tao.” He said, “Your everyday mind is the way.” “How do you get in accord with it?” He said, “When you try to accord, you deviate.”


The Origins of Zen


So here is this extraordinary phenomenon. Now, let me say—having presented you with all these fireworks—let me say a few sober things about Zen as a historical phenomenon. Zen is a subdivision of Mahāyāna Buddhism. And, as you know, that is the school of Buddhism which is concerned with realizing Buddha-nature in this world; not necessarily by going off to the mountains, or by renouncing family life, everyday life, et cetera, et cetera—as if that were an entanglement—but realizing, in the midst of life, the possibility of becoming a Buddha.


And so, the great ideal personality of Mahāyāna Buddhism is the Bodhisattva—a word now applied to somebody who has attained Nirvāṇa, but instead of disappearing, comes back in many, many guises. There’s a famous painting of one of the Bodhisattvas in the form of a prostitute. And Bodhisattvas in Zen art are often represented as bums. There’s the beautiful one over there, painted by Sengai, of the bum Hotei—or Bùdài in Chinese—who is always immensely fat. And he’s saying, “Buddha is dead. Maitreya”—who is supposed to be the next Buddha—“hasn’t come yet. I had a wonderful sleep and didn’t even dream about Confucius.” And he’s just stretching and yawning as he wakes up.


So Zen is Mahāyāna—Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism—translated into Chinese, and therefore deeply influenced by Taoism and Confucianism. Zen monks brought Confucian ideas to Japan. And the origins of Zen lie actually around the year 414 A.D., at which time a great Hindu scholar by the name of Kumārajīva was translating—with a group of assistants—the Buddha sūtras into Chinese. One of his students taught that all beings whatsoever have the capacity to become Buddha, to become enlightened—even rocks and stones—and that even heretics and evil-doers have the Buddha-nature, or Buddha potentiality, in them. And everybody said he was a dreadful heretic. But then a text called the Nirvāṇa Sūtra came from India, which said precisely that. So everybody had to admit that this man was right. He also began to teach that awakening must be instantaneous; it's a kind of all-or-nothing state. I don't mean that there aren't degrees of its intensity—but once you see the pinciple, you see the whole thing. As they say: when the bottom falls out of the bucket, all the water goes together. Those men, then, promulgated the way of sudden awakening. Bodhidharma came later, and he is supposed—in legend—to have been followed by a line of six patriarchs, of which he was the first.


The second was named Eka—I’m using the Japanese pronunciation—who was formerly a general of the army. Then the third was Sōsan, who wrote the Xìnxīn Míng, which is the most marvelous little summary of Buddhism in verse. And so on, until they came to Enō, the sixth patriarch. You know—perhaps, more familiarly—his Chinese name, Huìnéng. He died in 715 A.D. He’s the real founder of Chinese Zen; the man who synthesized the whole thing, and was the—at least, his collected discourses are contained in what is called the Platform Sūtra. And any student of Zen should read the Platform Sūtra.


But Enō really fused Zen with the Chinese way of doing things, and he emphasized very thoroughly: “Do not think you are going to attain Buddhahood by sitting down all day and keeping your mind blank.” Because a lot of those students who practice Dhyāna—which is Sanskrit for Chán, which is Chinese for Zen, which is, in turn, Japanese—it means ‘meditation’—or ‘contemplation,’ perhaps, would be a better translation in English. And everybody thought that the proper way to contemplate was to be as still as possible. But, according to Zen, that is to be a stone Buddha instead of a living Buddha.


Now, I can knock a stone Buddha on the head, clunk, and it has no feelings, and so it’s a stone Buddha. There was a famous Zen master called Tanka, who went to a little lonely temple on a freezing cold night. And he took the Buddha image—one of the Buddha images—off the altar, split it up, and made a fire. And when the attendant of the temple came in the morning—horrified! Broke the image, and Tanka took his stick, started raking in the ashes. And the temple priest said, “What are you looking for?” He said, “I’m looking for the śarīra,” that is to say, the jewels that are supposed to be found in the body of a genuine Buddha when he’s cremated. So the priest said, “You couldn’t expect to find śarīra from a wooden Buddha.” “In that case,” said Tanka, “let me have that other Buddha for my fire.”


That’s, you see, the difference between living Buddha and stone Buddha. But a person who thinks that, in order to be awakened, you have to be heartless—to have no emotions, no feelings, that you couldn’t possibly lose your temper, or get angry, or feel annoyed, or depressed—those people haven’t got the right idea at all. “If that’s your ideal,” said Enō, “you might just as well be a block of wood or a piece of stone.” What he wanted you to understand is that your real mind—while all those emotions are going on—is imperturbable. Just like when you move your hand through the sky you don’t leave a track. The birds don’t stain the blue when they pass by. And when the water reflects the image of the geese, the reflection doesn’t stick there.


So, to be pure-minded, in the Zen way—or clear-minded is a better way of translating it—is not to have no thoughts; it’s not a question of not thinking about dirty things. One great master of the Tang dynasty, when asked, “What is Buddha?” believe it or not, answered, “A dried turd.” So it’s not that kind of purity. It is purity, clarity, in the sense that your mind isn’t sticky. You don’t harbor grievances. You don’t be attached to the past. You go with it, with life. Life is flowing all the time. That is the Tao: the flow of life. You are going along with it whether you want to or not. You’re like people in a stream. You can swim against the stream, but you’ll still be moved along by it and all you’ll do is wear yourself out in futility. But if you swim with the stream, the whole strength of the stream is yours. Of course, the difficulty that so many of us have is finding out which way the stream is going. But certainly, as it goes, all the past vanishes. The future has not yet arrived. And there is only one place to be, which is here and now. And there is no way of being anywhere else. None whatever. If you understand that thoroughly, your task is finished. You then become instantaneous and also momentous.


The Golden Age of Zen


So this was Enō’s principle. As I said, he died in 715 A.D., and he left five very great disciples who taught, substantially, the same sort of thing. But as things go, then, these disciples had disciples, and those disciples had disciples, and there’s a genealogy. And Zen broke into what are called Five Houses. And these—some of them didn’t go on. Zen went on in two main forms: one is called, by the Japanese, Rinzai Zen, after the great master Rinzai, who lived towards the end of the 9th century, and the Sōtō School comes from another line, and they have a slightly different emphasis. Sōtō is more serene in its approach; Rinzai more gutsy. Rinzai people use the kōan method in Zen studies. Sōtō people don’t—at least not in the same way.


But this period between the death of the sixth Patriarch, Enō, and about the year 1,000 A.D., is the golden age of Zen. These were the really formative years. And after that, Zen began to decline in China. It became mixed up with other forms of Buddhism, and it suffered the fate of many, many forms of meditation-type, or Yoga-type, discipline. It got a little bit sidetracked into occult and psychic matters; what are called, in Buddhism, siddhi, or the development of supernormal powers. For Zen, this is completely beside the point. But it got involved with Chinese alchemy, with Taoistic alchemy, and all sorts of foolishness in that direction.


But a very strong strain of Zen went to Japan. The first being in about 1,130 A.D., the monk Eisai, and then about 1,200 A.D., the monk I told you about, Dōgen, who founded the great, beautiful, gorgeous, galluptuous monastery at Eihei-ji—which exists to this day. Now, in this golden age of Chinese Zen, the main method of study was walking Zen rather than sitting Zen. All monks were great travelers, and they walked for miles and miles through fields and mountains, visiting temples to see if they could find a master who would cause their spark to flash. To get what is called in Mandarin —or in Japanese, satori, or in Cantonese, ng.


This always rather fascinates me; the way this character is written. The word ‘I,’ in Chinese, is sometimes represented by this right-hand side of the character alone: five mouths, five senses. This one means your mind or heart, the heart-mind, xīn. Now, when we say something very surprising happened, “My heart came into my mouth.” Here it comes into all five. So this character means ‘awakening’—it’s the same, in a way, as the Sanskrit bodhi—awakening from the illusion of being a separate ego locked up in a bag of skin; discovering that you are the whole universe. And, of course, if you do discover that, and you see into it all of a sudden, it’s a shock—because your whole common sense is turned directly inside out. Everything is the same as you’ve always seen it, but completely different. Because you know who you are; you know that—what the devil were you worrying about? What was all that fuss? What was all that to do? Well, you see, it was part of the game. Everything, from one point of view, is fuss and to do. To do, to do, what is there to do?


But when you wake up, you see, and discover that all this ‘to do’ wasn’t you—what you thought was you—but was the entire works, which we can just call ‘it.’ That you’re ‘it,’ and that ‘it’ is it, and everything is ‘it,’ and ‘it’ does all things that are done—then that is a great surprise. But it sounds tasteless. It sounds empty, it sounds void, because if I say “Well, you’re all ‘it,’” that is a statement without the slightest logical sense—because we don’t know what is ‘it’ unless there’s something that isn’t ‘it’. But if it’s both all is’s and all isn’t’s, then we can’t think about it. Nevertheless, it is highly possible to see that that’s so in a way that’s so vivid it brings your heart into all of your five mouths.


No Mind, No Deliberation


In this morning’s talk I was going into some of the fundamental features of Zen, and today I want to concentrate on that aspect of Zen practice which is called in Chinese yìzhí zǒu, or ‘going straight ahead.’


A master who was once asked, “What is the Tao—the Way?” replied, “Walk on.” Actually, “Go!” As we say, “Go, man! Go!” Go, go. And it is this aspect of Zen which is what is truly understood by ‘detachment,’ or having a mind that isn’t ‘sticky’ and that isn’t stopped at any point in its whole working. To be stopped at a certain point is what is called ‘having a doubt,’ as when one fumbles, or wobbles, or hesitates about something—trying to find the right solution for the circumstances by thinking it out in a situation where there really is no time to think it out. So that when a Zen teacher asks his disciple a question, he expects an immediate answer, as it were, without thought or premeditation.


They speak in Zen—they use a phrase to “have a mind of no deliberation.” And they also speak of a kind of person, a man who doesn’t depend on anything—that is to say, on a formula, on a theory, on a belief—to govern his action. And this person who doesn’t stick anywhere is like Dante’s image at the end of the Paradiso, where he says—in the presence of the vision of God—“But my volition now and my desires were moved as a wheel revolving evenly by love that moves the sun and other stars.” And the image of the wheel which is not too tight on its axle, and not too loose—that is really with the axle—is the Zen principle of ‘not being attached;’ ‘not being sticky.’


It’s very difficult for us to function in that way because we’ve been brought up to believe that there are two sides to ourselves. One, the animal side, and the other, the human and civilized side. And these are expressed in what Freud calls the Pleasure Principle, which he classifies with the animal side—with the Id—and the other the Reality Principle, which he puts on the side of society and the super-ego. And man is so split, that he is in a constant fight between these two. Theosophists sometimes speak of our having two selves: the higher self, which is spiritual, and the lower self, which is merely psychic; the Ego. And therefore, the problem of life is to make the ‘oneself,’ the ‘higher one,’ take charge of the lower, as a rider takes charge of a horse.


But the problem that constantly arises is: how do you know that what you think is your higher self isn’t really your lower self in disguise? When a thief is robbing a house and the police enter on the ground floor, the thief goes up to the second floor, and when the police follow up the stairs he goes higher and higher until, at last, he gets out to the rooftop. And in the same way, when one really feels oneself to be the lower self, that is to say, to be a separate Ego, and then the moralists come along—they are, of course, the police—and say, “You ought not to be selfish!” then the Ego dissembles and tries to pretend that he’s a good person after all.


And therefore, one of the ways of doing this is for the Ego to say, “I believe I have a higher self.”

And I would say, “Why do you believe that? Do you know the higher self?”

“No. If I knew it I would behave differently. But I’m trying to get there.”

“Well, why are you trying to get there?”

“Well, then the police wouldn’t come around. Then the moralists wouldn’t preach at me. Then I could feel that I was doing my duty, behaving as a proper member of society.”


But all this is a great phony front. If you don’t know that there is a higher self and you believe that there is one, on whose authority do you believe this? You say, “Oh, such and such a teacher—Buddha, Jesus, Śaṅkara, the Upanishads—said that we have a higher self, and I believe it.” Catholics sometimes say they believe their religion because they’re told to, and they have to be obedient. The catechism starts out—I mean the Baltimore catechism—it starts out, “We are bound to believe that there is but one God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth,” et cetera. And they make jokes about Protestants and say, “They don’t have real authority in Protestant church because everybody interprets the Bible according to his own opinion. But we have an authoritative interpretation of the Bible.” But this always screens out the fact that it is fundamentally a matter of your own opinion, that you accept the authority of the Church to interpret the Bible.


You cannot escape, in all matters of belief, from opinion. In other words, it must become clear to you that you, yourself, create all the authorities you accept. And if you create them in order to dissimilate, in order to pretend that your motivations and your character are different, that you would like them to be different—this is the same old principle of the separate self trying to improve itself so that it will live longer, or survive in the spiritual world, or attain the riches and the progress of enlightenment. And the whole thing is phony.


Who Are You?


So, in Zen, a duality between higher self and lower self is not made. Because if you believe in the higher self, this is a simple trick of the lower self. If you believe that there is no really lower self—that there is only the higher self, but that somehow or other the higher self has to shine through—the very fact that you think that it has to try to shine through still gives validity to the existence of a lower self. If you think you have a lower self—or an ego—to get rid of, and then you fight against it, nothing strengthens the delusion that it exists more than that.


So this tremendous schizophrenia in human beings—of thinking that they are rider and horse, soul in command of body, or will in command of passions, wrestling with them—all that kind of split thinking simply aggravates the problem, and we get more and more split. And so we have all sorts of people engaged in an interior conflict, which they will never, never resolve. Because the true self—either you know it or you don’t. If you do know it, then you know it’s the only one; and the other, so-called lower self, just ceases to be a problem. It becomes something like a mirage. And you don’t go around hitting at mirages with a stick, or trying to put reigns on them. You just know that they are mirages and walk straight through them.


But if you were brought up to believe yourself split—I remember my mother used to say to me, when I did naughty things, she said “Alan, that’s not like you.” So I had, you know, some conception of what was like me in my better moments—that is to say, in the moments when I remembered what my mother would like me to do. And so that split is implanted in us all. And because of our being split-minded we are always dithering. “Is the choice that I’m about to make of the higher self or of the lower self? Is it of the spirit, or is it of the flesh? Is the word that I received of the Lord, or is it of the Devil?” And nobody can decide. Because if you knew how to choose, you wouldn’t have to.


In the so-called Moral Re-Armament movement—which is a very significant title—you test your messages that you get from God in your quiet time by comparing them with standards of absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute love, and so on. But, of course, if you knew what those things were, you wouldn’t have to test. You would know immediately. And do you know what those things are? The more one thinks about the question, “What would absolute love be?”—supposing I could set myself the ideal of being absolutely loving to everybody, what would that imply in terms of conduct? Well, you can think about that until all is blue, because you could never get to the answer.


The problems of life are so subtle that to try to solve them with vague principles, as if those vague principles were specific instructions, is completely impossible. So it is important to overcome split-mindedness. But what is the way? Where can you start from if you’re already split? A Taoist saying is that “when the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.” So what are you to do? How can you get off it and get moving? Fundamentally, of course, you have to be surprised into it.


Winthrop Sargeant not so long ago interviewed a great Zen priest in Kyōto, who posed to him, “Who are you?”

And he said, “Well, I’m Winthrop Sargeant.”

And the priest laughed. “No,” he said, “I don’t mean that. I mean who are you really?”

Well, then he went into all sorts of abstractions about his being a particular human being, and so on, who is a journalist, and so on, and the priest just laughed and said, “No.”

Then the priest just tossed off the conversation, and a little later made a joke, and Sargeant laughed. And he said, “There you are!”


There was an army officer who once came to a Zen master and said, “I have heard a story about a man who kept a goose in a bottle, and it was growing very rapidly, and he didn’t want to break the bottle and he didn’t want to hurt the goose. So how would he get it out?” The Zen master didn’t answer the question at all, but simply changed the subject. Finally, the officer got up to leave and he went over to the door, and suddenly the Zen master called out, “Oh, officer?” And he turned around and said, “Yes?” The master said, “There! It’s out!”


So, in the same way, if I say to you, “Good morning,” you say, “Good morning. Nice day isn’t it?” “Yes.” Or if I hit you—you know, boom!—you say, “Ouch!” And you don’t stop to hesitate to give these answers or responses. You don’t think about it when I say “Good morning,” unless you’re a psychiatrist. What could I be meaning? So you respond. So, in exactly the same way, that kind of response, which doesn’t have to be a deliberate response, a response of a no-deliberating mind, is a response of a Buddha-Mind or an Unattached-Mind. But you must not imagine that this is necessarily a quick response. Because if you get hung up on the idea of responding quickly, the idea of quickness will be, itself, a form of obstruction.


Very often, when Dr. Suzuki is asked a question—very complicated question by some philosophy major from Columbia, when he’s giving lectures there—he’s silent for a full minute, and then says, “Yes.” And this is exactly as spontaneous a response as it would be if he had answered immediately. Because during the period of silence, he’s not fishing around to think of something to say. He is not at all embarrassed of being silent, or at not knowing the answer. So if you don’t know the answer, you can be silent. If nobody asks a question, you can be silent. There’s no need to be embarrassed about it or to be stuck on it. But you cannot overcome being stuck if you think that, somehow, you would be guilty if you were stuck.


Disturbing Confusions of the Mind


When you are perfectly free to feel stuck or not stuck, then you’re unstuck. Because actually, nothing can stick on the real mind, and you will find this out if you watch the flow of your thoughts. There is an expression in Chinese which means ‘the flow of thoughts,’ or what we call in literary criticism ‘stream of consciousness.’ And they put the character for thought [念] three times: niàn, niàn, niàn. And so you will notice that thought follows thought follows thought when you are just ruminating.


And those thoughts arise and go like waves on the water; all the time, they come and go. And when they go, they are as if they had never been here. So, actually, this shows your mind doesn’t stick. Really. You can get the illusion of it sticking by, for example, cycling the same succession of thoughts over and over again. And that gives a sense of permanence in the same way as when you revolve a cigarette butt in the dark, you get the illusion of there being a solid circle although there is only the single point of fire. And it is from this connecting of thoughts that we get the sensation that behind our thoughts there is a thinker who controls them and experiences them. Although, the notion that there is a thinker is just one member in the stream of thoughts.


For example, if you get a certain kind of rhythm that goes ‘diggy diggy diggy diggy boop diggy diggy diggy diggy boop diggy diggy diggy diggy boop diggy diggy diggy diggy boop,’ the ‘boop’ is part of the rhythm. But it can be used as a cue. So you get—in relation to ‘diggy diggy diggy diggy boop’—you get ‘thought thought thought thought thinker thought thought thought thought thinker.’ And if this happens regularly enough and long enough, you get the illusion of there being someone who thinks apart from the stream of thoughts that come and go; the stream of experiences. And we use such absurd phrases not only as ‘thinking our thoughts,’ but ‘feeling our feelings,’ ‘seeing sights,’ and ‘hearing sounds.’ But you must understand: it is perfectly obvious that seeing a sight is seeing; hearing a sound is hearing; feeling a feeling is feeling. So, in the same way, thinking a thought is thinking.


But you get split-minded, you see, and so you get ‘I’ and ‘me,’ and the ‘I’ who ought to—or must—control ‘me’ as a sensation of some real entity that stands aside from thoughts and chooses among them, controls them, regulates them, and so on.


Actually, this is a way to have one’s thoughts not controlled. The more there is this duality of the separate ‘thinker’ standing aside from the thoughts—the separate ‘feeler’ watching or feeling the feelings—the more the stream of feelings is coaxed into self-protective activity; into getting more and more like a stuck record, the purposes of which are to protect and to aggrandize and enlarge the status of the supposed ‘thinker.’


When Jōshū, who was a Tang dynasty Zen master, was asked—he had made some reference to the enlightened mind being like the mind of a child—and they said, “Well, what is the mind of a child?”

And he said, “A ball in a mountain stream.”


“Thought follows thought instantaneously without interruption.”

So the saying: “Walk or sit as you will. But whatever you do, don’t wobble.”


Now, we can see this very clearly from confusions we can get into in activity. I have just said, “We can see this very clearly from confusions we get into in activity.” What kind of a statement is that? When I raised the question—what kind of a statement was it that I just made—I’m beginning to talk about talking. And one can do that, provided you don’t try to do it while you are making the original statement.


If I want to say something about what I’ve just said, then I must do it later, mustn’t I? But not at the same time. I cannot say “You are a fool,” and at the same time say “I’m giving you an insult” in so many words. I cannot say—or, in mathematics—I cannot write down a certain equation, and as I’m writing in down, simultaneously, state what kind of an equation this is. Unless, of course, I invent an exceedingly complex language which talks about itself as it goes along. But in the ordinary way, people get completely mixed up by that. In the middle of being about to say to somebody anything, you start to think about whether this is the right thing to say. And you start wobbling. You get, in other words, too much feedback. And too much feedback makes any mechanism go crazy.


So, in the same way, when you are very, very aware of the difference between the deeds and the doer, and the doer—while doing the deeds—is always sort of commenting on them; the doer really never gets with it! In other words, you are about to strike a nail and you wonder—as you are about to hit it—“Is this the right place to put it?” And so you’ve probably hit your thumbnail instead of the nail, because you don’t go right through with hitting that nail. This is not saying—let me mark this again—it is not saying that there should be no criticism of thought. But if you criticize thought while thinking, as if there were a critic thinker standing aside from the stream of thought, then you get all balled up. And that is exactly what happens in the process of attachment, or what are called in Buddhist kleśa, which mean ‘disturbing confusions of the mind.’


And, you see, this kind of confusion is something to which the human organism is peculiarly liable, because the human organism has language, has—you see, thinking is silent language, and I mean ‘language’ in the most inclusive sense of the word: not only words, but also images and numbers; notation. Just because, then, we can talk about anything. We can talk about talking, we can talk about thinking, we can talk about ourselves, as if we could stand aside and say, “‘Said I to myself’ said I.” All we are actually doing is making a second thought, or thought stream, which comments on the one that went before, and then pretending that the second stream is a different stream than the first. That’s because there are built into our minds all kinds of phony images about memory.


We think, for example, of memory by analogy with engraving. In order to remember something we write it down. And so we have a flat and stable piece of paper, and we make marks on it with a pencil, and they stay there. So we begin to think, “Isn’t mental memory something of the same kind?” Is there something stable, upon which the passage of thoughts makes an impression? We say, “He impressed me very much; this was a lasting impression on my mind,” as if we were tablets. Indeed, the philosopher Locke used the expression tabula rasa, or ‘clean slate,’ to describe the mind of a child. This is a mind which has not yet collected any memories, as if there were some sort of surface which accumulated these things and preserved them, and that’s me.


But, you see, this superstition is related to a much more ancient superstition that the world consists of two elements, one of which is ‘stuff,’ and the other of which is ‘form.’ This is a myth based on a model of the world which is fundamentally ceramic. God formed Adam out of the dust of the ground. And so there is a ‘stuff,’ and so there are ‘forms’ engraved in it, or imposed on it, or stamped on it like a seal is stamped on wax.


Who Is The Thinker Behind The Thoughts?


What is stuff like apart from form? What is form like apart from stuff? All those problems—which have bothered people for centuries—are based on asking the question in the wrong way; on having used the wrong image for the process. Actually, since nobody ever saw a piece of shapeless stuff, and nobody ever saw a piece of stuff-less shape, the whole thing really is saying that they are the same. And there isn’t any necessity even to think of a difference between them. Even the contrasting words, ‘form’ and ‘substance,’ or ‘form’ and ‘matter,’ are a nuisance.


There is process. There is the flow of thought. The flow of thought doesn’t have to happen to anyone. Experience does not have to beat upon an experiencer. There is, all the time, simply the one stream going on, and we are convinced that we stand aside from it and observe it, because we’ve been brought up that way. But, you know, in your stream of thought and experience, “I am an object,” and a very fleeting and passing one. And also, in my stream of experience you, also, are people who come and go. We are all, you see, living in the same world. We think there is me, and there is an external world around me, but I am in you external world and you are in my external world, and if you think about that you see that we are all in one world going along together. There isn’t really the ‘internal’ and the ‘external,’ there is simply the process.


It’s very important to get rid of that illusion of duality between the thinker and the thought, so find out: who is the thinker behind the thoughts? Who is the real, genuine you? And so, one of the methods that is used is shouting. The Zen master would say to a student, “Now, I want to hear you. I want to hear you say the word ‘moo,’ and really mean it! Because I want to hear not just the sound, but the person who says it. Now, produce—for me—that.”

He goes, “Moo!”

And the Zen teacher says, “No, no! Not yet.”


And he says, “It’s only coming from your throat. I want to hear your belly,” you know?


And always, you see, it’ll never come while the person is trying to make a differentiation between a ‘true’ moo and a ‘false’ moo. To act with confidence, you just do it. But since people are not used to that, it is necessary to set up protected situations in which it can be done.


If we just—in the ordinary way of social intercourse—acted without deliberation, we would get into amazing confusions, as when people say, “Always speak the truth. Never tell a white lie.” And they say exactly what is true and what they think about other people. Well, they can raise a great deal of trouble. But the experience of Zen has been that there should be a kind of enclosure in which this kind of behavior can be done until the people are expert in it and know how to apply it in all situations.

The World as Just So (Part 1)

Alan Watts

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