About the book

The Way of Zen begins as a succinct guide through the histories of Buddhism and Taoism leading up to the development of Zen Buddhism, which drew deeply from both traditions. It then goes on to paint a broad but insightful picture of Zen as it was and is practiced, both as a religion and as an element of diverse East Asian arts and disciplines. Watts’s narrative clears away the mystery while enhancing the mystique of Zen. Discover how the understanding and practice of Zen can bring peace and enlightenment into your daily life in this classic work. Goodreads

Year published: 1957

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Quotes from the book


The Way of Zen (Alan Watts)

Zen Buddhism is not a religion or a philosophy but a way of life

  • Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a way of liberation, and is similar in this respect to Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga. 
  • This is the inevitable disadvantage of studying Asian philosophy by the purely literary methods of Western scholarship, for words can be communicative only between those who share similar experiences. 

We must live in the present

  • When life is empty, with respect to the past, and aimless, with respect to the future, the vacuum is filled by the present – normally reduced to a hairline, a split second in which there is no time for anything to happen. 
  • For if we open our eyes and see clearly, it becomes obvious that there is no other time than this instant, and that the past and the future are abstractions without any concrete reality. 
  • For there is never anything but the present, and if one cannot live there, one cannot live anywhere. 
  • There is only this now. It does not come from anywhere; it is not going anywhere. It is not permanent, but it is not impermanent. Though moving, it is always still. When we try to catch it, it seems to run away, and yet it is always here and there is no escape from it. 
  • Clear sight has nothing to do with trying to see; it is just the realization that that the eyes will take in every detail all by themselves, for so long as they open they can hardly prevent the light from reaching them. In the same way, there is no difficulty in being fully aware of the eternal present as soon as it is seen that one cannot possibly be aware of anything else – that in concrete fact there is no past or future. 

Find freedom in following this way of life

  • As will soon be obvious, a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block. 
  • To the Taoist mentality, the aimless, empty life does not suggest anything depressing. On the contrary, it suggests the freedom of clouds and mountain streams, wandering nowhere, of flowers in impenetrable canyons, beautiful for no one to see, and of the ocean surf forever washing the sand, to no end. 

Sometimes, the beauty is in the journey, not the destination

  • The joy of travel is not nearly so much in getting where one wants to go as in the unsought surprises which occur on the journey. 
  • This is not a philosophy of not looking where one is going; it is a philosophy of not making where one is going so much more important than where one is that there will be no point in going. 
  • A world which increasingly consists of destinations without journeys between them, a world which values only getting somewhere as fast as possible, becomes a world without substance.