What is Zen?

Synopsis of

‘What is Zen’

by Alan Watts

What is Zen

The mundane too is sacred

Zen has always believed that the mundane and the sacred are one and the same.

Ask not and you will get

The transformation of consciousness is not a question of how much time you put into it as if it were all added up on some sort of quantitative scale and you got rewarded according to the amount of effort you put into it. Nor is it that simply by avoiding the effort and wanting it instantly would you get it. The only thing that your effort or ‘no effort’ can teach you is that this approach doesn’t work. You can only get it when you discover that you do not need it. You can only get it when you don’t want it. That is the secret.

Leave the future unto itself

Sufficient unto the day is the trouble thereof. Do not be worried of the future. Trust that you will react appropriately when the catastrophe happens. We have a great deal of brain, muscle, sensitivity, intelligence – trust it to react to circumstances as they arise. This way you stand a much better chance of being able to deal with the unforeseen than if you keep worrying about it and considering past lessons and future possibilities. This is simply living in the present. In such case you will not deal with future circumstances just by your conscious attention or conscious intelligence which is to say your will. You will in fact deal with it from your center. But this can happen only if you’re HERE then. And only if you’re HERE now, you will be HERE then. So learning to be HERE now is more important.

The ‘unconscious’ is the ‘supra-conscious’

We have what we call the ‘unborn mind’ in us, the level of mind that doesn’t arise, that isn’t born into individuality. When somebody says ‘good morning’, we say ‘good morning’, and we don’t think to do this – that’s the unborn mind. Our unconscious mind is not unconscious at all, in the sense that it lacks consciousness; instead, it is the root of consciousness, the source from which consciousness comes.

A Zen monk is a concentration of energy which is available immediately for anything. This is likened to water in a vessel. If you make a hole in the vessel, the water immediately comes out. It doesn’t stop to think about it.

Your brain is an organ like your heart and it can deal with situations without having to think about them! The brain is not simply an organ of thought – only one of its functions is thinking. The brain does a lot of things other than thinking, and enables your body and mind to perceive and act in new, unique and wonderful ways. By practising Zen, you find you can let your nervous system answer questions and pass through problems without any interference from your conscious thinking process.

Mutual interdependence

Space does not come into being as the matrix of the world unless there is something in it to nurture. Hence space and form arise mutually.

Consciousness is also a part of the ‘experiencing’

Zen was born when Buddhism met Taoism. Both these mystical cultures share a view of life as a flowing process in which the mind and consciousness of man is inextricably involved.

It is not as if there is a fixed screen of consciousness over which our experience flows and leaves a record. It is that the field of consciousness itself is a part of the flowing process and therefore the mind of man is not a separate entity observing the process from outside but is integrally involved with it.

You are not an observer who is witnessing the present moment as something happening to you. The present you are experiencing is all of you. Its not ‘you’ here looking at the ‘floor’ there.The floor is just as much you as the organism looking at it. You’re doing the floor just as you are doing your feet. It is all one world – and you’re responsible for it.

Not just inside the bag of the skin

We have been taught by social convention to restrict the concept of ‘myself’ to what I do voluntarily and consciously’. This is a very narrow view of the self. But YOU is much deeper than that; it includes far more than your conscious mind. It is the total YOU that not only is responsible for the infinitely complex structure of your physical organism but also for the environment in which you find yourself. YOU runs that deep. It is the root and ground of everything.

In the ordinary way, we are conditioned to think that I, me, myself is only inside of the skin, not outside. The world outside the skin is as much you as the world inside it. Your soul isn’t in your body; your body is in your soul.

You can’t know the primordial energy, but you can feel it

Our eyes have no apparent color of their own as we look at things. If our eyes had a colour of their own it would affect everything we see and still we would never become aware of it. That color would be basic to all sight. And so in exactly the same way you would never become aware of the structure and the nature of the basic energy of the world because YOU ARE IT and in fact, everything is it.

If you know that you are basically only that undifferentiated energy, it gives you a certain ‘bounce’. You can enter into life with abandon, with a freedom from your basic fears that you would not ordinarily have. There is just one energy and that consciousness and unconsciousness, being and not-being, life and death are its polarities. It is always undulating in this way. This is because unless it was vibrating as ‘on’ and ‘off’, we wouldn’t know it at all. The practice of Zen is to understand that one energy so as to ‘feel it in your bones’.

You can’t know consciousness

Space isn’t just nothing, it is the other pole of something. One pole is solidity and the other one is space. Space gives the background to solids, similarly all there is in life receives the background from consciousness. The way space itself is invisible, consciousness is unknown because it is not an object of our knowledge.

Feel the background

To have ‘Nirvikalpa Samadhi’ – the highest state of consciousness is not to have consciousness in which there are no forms, it is simply to reawaken to the reality of space. To see that forms come and go in space as leaves come and go on trees, as the stars come and go in the sky.

You create your universe

If there were no eye, there would be no sight; if there were no sight, there would be no universe at all and this tells us something important about our role in the world. Neurologists know that the so-called ‘external world’ that you see is experienced by you only as a state of your own nervous system. What you see out in front of you is an experience in the nerve ganglia in the back of your head, and you have no awareness of an external world except in terms of your own body.

Reality is a Rorschach blot

Reality is a Rorschach blot, full of movement and wiggles. See that all ideas are projections we make upon the Rorschach blot. Once we realize that we have created the world from our own projections, the difference between the ‘observer’ and the ‘observed’ collapses. After your projection-ridden mind falls away through meditation, you’re open to the world through your naked senses. That is the foundation experience. Once you see that and on the basis of seeing that, you can, of course, go back to concepts and construct this idea of the world, that idea and the other idea.

Time flows backwards

What is always the source of the world is the PRESENT MOMENT. NOW is the only creative point in the universe. Actually, time flows backwards. The past trails behind the present like the wake of a ship and eventually disappears. The ship is the cause of the wake and not the other way round. Don’t make the tail wag the dog.

Continuity and causality is an illusion

It is simply our minds that construct the continuity of thoughts we call time. The spring does not ‘become’ the summer. There is the state of spring; there is the state of summer. When wood burns, the wood does not ‘become’ the ashes. There is the state of wood, and there is the state of ashes. The continuity and causality happens only in our minds when we link our thoughts together. Events in time are eternal, each event ‘stays’ in its own place. Curious as it may sound, the sun in its rotation does not move, and the river doesn’t flood.

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