Quintessential Watts

Zen – A short introduction with illustrations by the author by Alan Watts (New World Library) is unbelievable at many levels. Small – actually tiny – yet huge in what it promises. Can Zen be compressed into a short telling? Most important, can it be introduced?

Or perhaps Zen only has this formidable mythology of something one drowns in, surrenders to, arises within. The brilliance of Watts writings is so clear and precise, unstintingly sharp and demanding. Still, it’s hard to imagine Zen captured in a slim volume one quarter a thumb’s length.

Prefaced by Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat, Zen (originally published in 1947 in England was published in 1948 and in the US at the same time as the second edition The Spirit of Zen. Watts intended Zen to be a “corrective to the first edition” and, as Chayat notes, it was also an expression of his growing disenchantment with Christianity. What we are left with then is a journey through the evolution of Zen through the eyes of a teacher, at once at ease and discomfited by the profound awareness Zen can evoke.

There is nothing that men desire more than life – the fullness of life, Reality itself.

And, this desire easily slides into a craving that kills the life as “(l)ife drawn from the stream is no longer living water, for it ceases to flow.” Watts recognizes that all religions are a way of trying to grasp this mystery and the paradox is to release the hold on that desire.

Watts outlines the influences out of which Zen emerges. A short line drawn from Brahminism to Mahayana prompts a quick dismantling of our thin understanding of non-dual reality. Through Taoism, Watts highlights the flowing power of wu-wei. Contrasting Indian Buddhism with Chinese, there’s an implication of shift from a desire to transcend life to freeing the life to be what is it. Out of this “Momentous Harmony, Zen emerges as the “finger pointing to the moon”. Not a set of beliefs on how to be but a way of being fully alive.

There is only one place where we are truly alive, where we come into immediate contact with Reality and that is now
the present moment.

While Watts is precise in his description and explanations of the complexity of Zen, he is also cautious – frequently reminding us that these words too as prone to mislead us, quickly and easily.

The book closes with a commentary on the cultural impact of Zen in poetry and art. Haiku, brush painting, tea, and gardening are only a few domains of its influence. In all, Zen allows for an experience of harmony in asymmetry and a creative, wordless pointing to life as it is.

Zen is a welcomed re-addition to our shelves. It reminds us through its simple presentation that our striving is an unnecessary waste of the power of life. It tucks itself into the shoulder bag and heart easily – as easy as taking a breath; as easy as putting down the weight of desire.

Final thoughts: Because of the excellent work by scholars like Ann Gleig (American Dharma) and Ira Helderman (Prescribing the Dharma), I’ve become more aware of the origins of Western approaches to Buddhism and how we have filtered it through our cultural and psychological needs. While Watts’ Zen opens a window into the origins and practices of one aspect of Buddhism, it is a product of its time and culture. And, briefly, his need to fit Buddhism/Zen into a Christian template surfaces. Still, I think he does better than most in allowing Zen to be Zen. Without apologizing for his perspective (as it arises from his own zeitgeist), I am sympathetic of it and remain attentive to how mine evolves.

Book Review: In the Garden of our Minds by Michelle Johnson-Weider

Teaching children is a high-level skill at the best of times: A fine balance between gentle guidance and determination to soften the resistances without breaking the spirit. Teaching the Dharma, while challenging even with adults, seems tricky. At least for me, but I “grew up” with the mythology of Buddhism that was troublingly close to the fire and brimstone of Catholicism. Somehow the stories of parents eating their children as a metaphor for the consequences of destroying our future or Angulimala or Gutei chopping off fingers as a dire warning of how we can be misled by the teachings don’t encourage me to convey the beauty of the Buddha’s mind. So, when an author is able to convey these complicated concepts as their true nature – simple, thoughtful, relational – I’m all ears… and eyes.

In the Garden of our Minds by Michelle L. Johnson-Weider (Blue Moon Aurora) offers a skillful and gentle way to bring the Dharma into the lives of children. Illustrated beautifully by Brian Chen, the book comes alive with vibrant colour in images and language. The stories are rooted in Siddhartha’s journey into his spiritual future and expand into the primary teachings (many are my absolute favourite). Qualities of determination (fighting Mara) and persistence (Mahaprajapait) are showcased through the experiences of Briana and Alex, the narrator’s children.

Alex is a firebrand of emotions; he is, in turns, cynical yet tantalized by new ideas; Briana shines in her curiousity and love for adventure. Mom does seem unendingly patient but perhaps I’m just jealous that she’s gained the fruits of her practice! Dad is easy-going and joins in the story-telling effortlessly. The family’s interaction around everyday chores and relationships are the stage for the Buddhist stories to prompt reperceiving their experiences.

I’ve always wondered how the concepts of death and chopping off fingers as a ritual are conveyed so children are not traumatized. Johnson-Weider does an admirable job of folding these stories into the reality of everyday life. Pets, people, everything in our world dies. Not only do we see people doing things that are harmful, but we are also asked to do things that are harmful. Lessons in Stopping: the story of Angulimala is woven into Alex’s schoolday experience of seeing other children wanting to harm a grasshopper. Briana learns how to stop being disruptive in class even if it’s so hard to do. The Doorway of Death: the story of Kisagotami lovingly speaks to ends and beginnings realistically complete with expected “Ewwws” that Kisagotami would walk around with her dead child.

The book has a useful section Conversations with Children which explains the illustrations of the Eight Auspicious Symbols that head each chapter. It also explains the meditation practice explored in the chapter, In the Gardens of our Mind. In all, highly recommended for parents who want to explore the stories that guide Buddhist practice. Also highly recommended for the child in all of us who want to have a gentle rendition of this challenging inter-relational process we call living with compassion and love.