Zen & the Beat way [2]

Sorry for this long, messy post. I’m slamming it up on my tiny new subnotebook in the bus station on the last of the battery power, en route in 15minutes to the meditation retreat in Merritt. Peace!

More from Alan Watts’ Zen and the Beat Way. Big Al knows what he’s talking about, all right.

On our self-made problems

(p. 30) [L]aziness is the mother of invention, as well as of self-deception. For time and again we find that we have made a certain problem incredibly difficult for ourselves by failing to understand it clearly or by failing to find the right technique for handling it.

(31) It may be a symptom of my natural laziness…, yet it is one of my strongest intuitions that it is basically a very simple matter for people to shift from what I will call the egocentric to the universal mode of awareness.

On how i’m aiming to live (with apologies in advance to everybody):

(52) Wouldn’t it be great if we could live absolutely on the spur of the moment? To never make any particular plans unless we made them spontaneously; to never worry about whether we had made the right decision; to never wonder if we’d been selfish or unselfish; to never hesitate. One of the great applications of Zen was to the art of fencing. In fencing, we learn to be spontaneous, because here, of all places, it is true that he who hesitates is lost. If we are engaged in combat and stop to think about what sort of a defense or attack we ought to make, we’re finished.

On getting it, no worries:

(69) … [If] we know the method and we know it infallibly … it ceases to be interesting. There are no surprises left. And the moment the element of surprise is gone, the zest for life is gone.

That is why it is difficult to teach Zen to yourself — because you cannot easily surprise yourself.

One of the main streams of the Buddhist way of life is what might be called the religion of nonreligion: to find, to demonstrate, to convey the most highly spiritual through what is the most everyday and ordinary, and to make no division between the two. So you might say the more everyday it is, the more truly spiritual it is, and the more it appears to be spiritual … the more false that kind of spirituality will be.

On how you’ve already got it:

[17th-century Japanese democratizer of Zen] Banke would say, “Zen consists in faith in your innate quality of intelligence, in your organic pattern. Trust it. After all, your eyes are beautifully blue or brown, your hair is wonderfully brunette or blond. Your breathing is fantastic. Your heart is working beautifully. That is your Zen. Go ahead.” And all those farmers, and the other people who came around, understood Banke.

On my present path into the forest:

(94) … [In] ancient Indian society — and to some extent even still, in modern Indian society — when a man has done his work in society and is able to hand over his caste duties to his son, or sons, he abandons the world, as it were, and gives up caste, becoming what is ordinarily called a sunyasan. We think that word usually means “holy man”or “hermit” or”spiritual devotee.” But … the abandonment of caste is also thought of as entering into the state of vanaprastha, [which] mdans “forest dweller.” The man who gives up caste goes to the style of life that predates the agrarian culture. He goes back … to shamanism.

(97) [Civilized] man tends to be in a state of chronic worry and fear and anxiety, because he is always confronted not with the simple actuality of what is happening before him but with the innumerable possibilities of what might happen. And since, because of this, his emotional existence tends to be in a chronic state of anxiety and tension, he increasingly loses the ability to relate to the concrete world as it manifests itself to him in the actual present in which he lives. He becomes so tied up inside that, as it were, the channels of his sensibility become blocked. He gets a kind of … inability to give himself permission to be spontaneous, to be alive with full joyous abandonment.

Thus, the more civilized we become, the more stuffy we get. And therefore the need arises for various ways of liberating ourselves from society, for entering … vanaprastha, the life of a forest dweller.

Because when a person reaches a certain point in life when he says, Ï have had enough of all this. I am simply tired of making life not worth living, by constantly living through the horrors of what might happen, for the sake of efficiency and membership in the community. Let me just get away from it all for a while and find out what the score is for me, myself. I am tired of being told what I ought to believe. I am tired of being told how I ought to see, how I ought to behave, how I ought to feel. Let me find out for myself who I really am.

On what to watch out for:

(98) [When] we get swamis representing an orthodox interpretation of Indian moksha, or liberation, or even when we get Zen masters representing an orthodox Buddhist experience, we should be suspicious because these are the kind of experiences that cannot be transmitted and that, because of their very nature, are things that one must find out for oneself. And if they could be explained, if they could be transmitted, they would therefore fail to be the very things they are intended to be, because they are discoveries of something authentic, of something genuine and firsthand between oneself and one’s universe. and thus, it is in the nature of things that they cannot be codified; they cannot be made a factor in social communication.

And so … it is fortunate that we in the Western world do not have too many authoritative masters and teachers to whom we feel we can now go for enlightenment. More and more of us … tend to feel that we are all alone together, whistling in the dark, that we haven’t a savior. There is no statesman clever enough to understand the frightful tangle of international affairs. There is no psychologist of physician or philosopher who really impresses us as having the last word on everything. More and more, each one of us is thrown on our own resources. And this seems to me to be a perfectly excellent state of affairs. We have, in a symbolic sense, come back to the forest, like the hunter of old, who had nobody around him to tell him how he ought to use his senses, who was required, therefore, to make his own exploration of the world and to discover it for himself.

On the goal, or the non-goal:

(100) [As you] learn when you study the records of these self-discoveries, the fascinating thing about them is that there is so much agreement among all those who do discover the world for themselves.

And yet, you do not achieve this agreement by seeking it. It is not achieved by looking out of the corner of your eye to see if everybody else is getting the same results as you or by trying to find out what others have already discovered. It is achieved by going down into one’s own inner, secret place and asking there for a direct encounter with the world, independent of convention.

It is in this way that a person becomes, in the truest sense of the word, a self — an original, authoritative source of life — as distinct from being simply a person in the original sense of persona: a mask, a role to be played in society.

All those people, all those agendas

A week in the city has my head spinning. Too much free time, with too little focus, plus too much concentration on the spiritual, has made everything lose meaning, in the same way that repeating a word over and over turns it into noise. All that talk and action, incessant around me … i hadn’t till now realized the salubrious effect of living on the coast — the mere proximity of the endless ocean, or the view of mountains not laced with streets and houses. There’s so little mental space in the city.

The people in the cafes never stop talking. All that burning interest — in their jobs, their ideas, their hopes, their friends’ jobs, ideas and hopes. Usually i eavesdrop, shamelessly, compulsively. So much they seem to be filling their lives with. Me, today i seem to be interested in almost nothing. I make a list. It’s short:

  1. walking around and watching the world
  2. banging on a drum (these days, one of Robert’s pot lids)
  3. getting some kind of handle on my rootless, aimless existence

I feel stagnant, dysfunctional, inert, among these people burning up with passion all around me. I have nothing at all to say to them. The girls, every one of them, look beautiful, and i want them all. I want to hold them, envelop them, to have something substantial to hang onto.

I know that coming unmoored is part of the game, part of the process. You read about it in the Zen books (obliquely as always) — abandoning all fixed points of reference, becoming comfortable with rootlessness, embracing nothingness. I see now why the sages prefer natural surroundings. Being in the city, today, makes me feel like a failure.

Thoughts for tonight

From Zen and the Beat Way (Alan Watts):

Agriculture and industrialism … have created a glut of material goods and a great poverty of time. Most people have a way of life devoid of everything except maintaining and servicing their material existence 12 to 14 hours every day. In contrast, the Aborigines [spent] 12 to 14 hours a day in cultural pursuit. (quoting Robert Lawlor‘s 1990 book on Australian Aboriginal culture, Voices of the First Day).

Imagine what your life would be like if you spent 12-14 hours a day in “cultural pursuit,” i.e. meaningful activity — the stuff you do when you consider you’re having fun. Come to think of it, rich people do have that opportunity, and on the whole they don’t seem to make much of it. Without a wide cultural context, maybe it’s impossible. But i want to give it a try.

One more:

[In] essence, mystical experience and ecological awareness [are] simply two ways of talking about the same experience.

That is a profound statement — one i find suffused with hope, in that “ecological awareness” is starting to make deep sense to people in the West.


Interviewer: What is Zen?

Alan Watts: [Soft chuckling.]

Interviewer: Would you care to enlarge on that?

Alan Watts: [Loud laughing.]

—Front matter of Zen and the Beat Way (1997)

I borrowed the book from the Vancouver Public Library yesterday with my spankin’ new BC OneCard, good at every public library in B.C. That’s like gold for the homeless wanderer, folks.