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What Is Zen?

Written by: Alan Watts
Published: October 5, 2000


Alan Watts introduces "What Is Zen?" by defining Zen through what it is not. Rather than a system of dogma or scripture, Zen is an experience, a way of living that is spontaneous and free from the constraints of rational thought. Watts points out that Zen does not rely on the written word, instead focusing on direct, personal experience as the path to enlightenment.

The book examines the history of Zen, tracing its roots from India through China to Japan, and how it has been expressed in art, poetry, and the martial arts. Watts explains that at the heart of Zen is the practice of zazen, or seated meditation, which is less about achieving a certain state of mind and more about being fully present in the moment.

Watts discusses koans, the puzzling questions or statements used in Zen practice to transcend ordinary thinking. He describes how these koans cannot be understood through logic but must be grasped through a sudden flash of insight, which is central to Zen realization.

Another key aspect of Zen explored by Watts is the concept of suchness or tathata, which refers to seeing things just as they are, without the filter of judgment or comparison. This perception is said to bring about a sense of unity with all things and a deep understanding of the nature of existence.

Watts also addresses common misconceptions about Zen, such as the idea that it is purely passive or that it rejects intellectual understanding. Instead, he portrays Zen as a dynamic way of life that embraces all aspects of human experience, including intellect and action, but always from a place of inner freedom and spontaneity.

The book concludes with a discussion on how Zen can be practiced in everyday life, suggesting that the Zen attitude can be applied to any activity. Watts encourages readers to find Zen in the mundane, to approach life with playfulness, and to realize that the ordinary is the extraordinary.

Final Thoughts

"What Is Zen?" offers a clear and engaging introduction to Zen Buddhism, inviting readers to look beyond conventional definitions and to explore the rich, paradoxical, and enlightening world of Zen experience. Alan Watts presents Zen as not only a path to personal enlightenment but as a transformative lens through which we can view the entire world.

10 Big Ideas

1. Zen Beyond Definitions

Zen resists conventional definitions and invites practitioners to experience reality directly, beyond the limitations of words and concepts.

2. The Value of Direct Experience

The core of Zen practice is the direct, personal apprehension of life’s immediacy, which cannot be mediated through intellectual understanding alone.

3. Zazen as a Practice of Presence

Zazen, or seated meditation, is less about achieving a specific state and more about cultivating presence and awareness in every moment.

4. Koans as Pathways to Insight

Koans are not riddles to be solved logically but tools to provoke a deeper, intuitive insight and understanding of one’s true nature.

5. Embracing Suchness

Recognizing and embracing the 'suchness' of life, Zen teaches us to see things as they are, free from the filters of judgment and comparison.

6. Integration of Opposites

Zen embodies the harmonious integration of opposites, finding balance and unity between action and stillness, seriousness and playfulness.

7. The Zen Aesthetic

The simplicity and spontaneity of the Zen aesthetic in art and poetry reflect the clear and direct perception that Zen practice fosters.

8. Misconceptions of Zen

Zen is often misunderstood as passive or anti-intellectual; Watts clarifies that Zen fully engages with life and does not reject intellectual or emotional aspects of being.

9. Everyday Zen

Zen is not confined to meditation cushions or temples; it can infuse all aspects of daily life, turning the mundane into a practice of mindfulness and joy.

10. Playfulness in Zen

Watts highlights the importance of playfulness in Zen, encouraging a lighthearted approach to life's paradoxes and challenges.

5 Exercises

1. Mindful Breathing

Objective: To practice mindfulness and presence through the simple act of breathing.

  • Find a comfortable seated position and close your eyes.
  • Focus on the natural rhythm of your breath without trying to change it.
  • When your mind wanders, gently return your focus to your breath.
  • Continue this practice for 5-10 minutes, gradually increasing the duration over time.
  • End each session by slowly opening your eyes and taking a moment to notice how you feel.
2. Koan Contemplation

Objective: To use a koan as a means to transcend conventional thinking and gain a deeper insight.

  • Choose a classic Zen koan or a paradoxical statement that resonates with you.
  • Sit quietly and ponder the koan, allowing your mind to explore it without seeking a logical answer.
  • If you find yourself trying to solve it, let go of the need to find a solution and just sit with the question.
  • Practice this for a few minutes each day, observing any shifts in your perception or awareness.
  • Journal about your experiences without judging them as right or wrong.
3. Suchness Observation

Objective: To cultivate the perception of 'suchness,' seeing things as they are without judgment.

  • Choose an everyday object and observe it for a few minutes.
  • Notice its color, texture, and form without comparing it to other objects or evaluating it.
  • Extend this practice to experiences throughout your day, observing moments as they occur.
  • When judgments arise, acknowledge them and return to observation.
  • Keep a journal to reflect on your experiences of suchness in daily life.
4. Zen Walking

Objective: To bring the mindfulness of Zen into movement and daily activity.

  • Go for a walk, preferably in nature, and concentrate on the experience of walking.
  • Pay attention to the sensation of each step as your feet touch the ground.
  • Notice the rhythm of your walking, your breathing, and the environment around you.
  • Whenever you find your mind drifting to other thoughts, gently bring it back to the act of walking.
  • After your walk, take a few moments to reflect on the experience and any insights that may have arisen.
5. Playful Engagement

Objective: To embrace playfulness in daily activities, reflecting the Zen attitude toward life’s paradoxes.

  • Engage in a daily activity that you typically find routine or mundane.
  • Approach this activity with a sense of play and curiosity, as if you are doing it for the first time.
  • Be creative in how you perform the activity, even if it means doing it less efficiently than usual.
  • Observe any changes in your experience when approaching the task with this mindset.
  • Write down your observations and consider how this approach might affect other areas of your life.

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