NOTES ON CHAPTER 4 of Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen (1957)

Everything that happens in life is accidental… Even the things we imagine to be deliberately planned out are the result of accidentally stimulated decision-making. I do not remember what it was prompted me to acquire (accidentally) Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen somewhere around 1963 when I was accidentally mired deeply in wage slavery – more deeply than I ever was after the following year when I started being ‘trained’ as a teacher when I learned to manage wage slavery in a much more positive kind of way – but reading the book again recently I am amazed at how deeply it has affected my state of being; in particular, my attitude to writing (especially haiku), painting and musical composition – you just have to DO it… It prepared the way for my embracing the Sartrean form of Existentialism, and a little more than ten years after, The Fourth Way.


My version of sumi-e painting done in the Malverns August 2018


Here are some notes & thoughts while focusing on Chapter 4 called Zen in the Arts. It speaks to me now.

• There’s this Western idea that the artist has to conquer something in the same way that ‘…explorers and scientists speak of conquering mountains or conquering space. To Chinese and Japanese ears these are grotesque expressions. For when you climb it is the mountain as much as your own legs which lifts you upwards, and when you paint it is the brush, ink, and paper which determine the result as much as your own hand…’

• Zen represents ‘…a mentality which feels completely at home in this universe, and which sees human-beings as an integral part of the environment. Human intelligence is not an imprisoned spirit from afar but an aspect of the whole intricately balanced organism of the natural world… the yang and the yin – the male and female… in dynamic balance, maintain the order of the world. The insight which lies at the root of Far Eastern culture is that opposites are relational and so fundamentally harmonious… our stark divisions of spirit and nature, subject and object, good and evil, artist and medium are quite foreign to this culture…’

• Sitting quietly doing nothing – the spirit of Zen. ‘…Paradoxical as it may seem, the purposeful life has no content, no point. It hurries on and on, and misses everything. Not hurrying, the purposeless life misses nothing, for it is only when there is no goal and no rush that the human senses are fully open to receive the world. Absence of hurry also involves a certain lack of interference with the natural course of events, especially when it is felt that the natural course follows principles which are not foreign to human intelligence…’

• The whole Zen attitude in the arts is a DOING, a Way of action, nothing to do with the meaningless abstraction ‘inspiration’, not a sitting around waiting for the Muse to descend.

• In sumi-e painting the relative emptiness of the picture appears to be part of the painting and not just unpainted background. It’s ‘…painting by not painting’ or what Zen sometimes calls ‘playing the string-less lute’. ‘…The secret lies in knowing how to balance form with emptiness and… in knowing when one has ‘said’ enough…’ For Zen avoids explanation, second thoughts, and intellectual commentary…’ Emptiness gives the feeling of the ‘marvelous Void’ from which the event suddenly appears.

• ‘Equally impressive is the mastery of the brush, of strokes ranging from delicate elegance to rough vitality, from minutely detailed trees to bold outlines and masses given texture by the ‘controlled accidents’ of stray brush hairs and uneven inking of the paper…’

• The painting becomes the thing not what’s being ‘copied’; the ‘suchness’ of things is arrived at by spontaneous accident which is why the Western mind is dismayed when there seems to be a ‘principle of uncertainty’.

wild geese do not intend to cast their reflection;
water has no mind to receive their image

• ‘…Thus the aimless life is the constant theme of Zen art of every kind, expressing the artist’s own inner state of going nowhere in a timeless moment. We all have these moments occasionally, and it is just then that they catch those vivid glimpses of the world which cast such a glow over the intervening wastes of memory – the smell of burning leaves on a morning of autumn haze, a flight of sunlit pigeons against a thundercloud, the sound of an unseen waterfall at dusk, or the single cry of some unidentified bird in the depths of a forest. In the art of Zen every landscape, every sketch of bamboo in the wind or of lonely rocks, is an echo of such moments…’

• ‘Where the mood of the moment is solitary and quiet it is called sabi.’

• ‘When the artist is feeling depressed or sad, and in this peculiar emptiness of feeling catches a glimpse of something rather ordinary and unpretentious in its incredible ‘suchness’, the mood is called wabi.’

• ‘When the moment evokes a more intense, nostalgic sadness, connected with autumn and the vanishing away of the world, it is called aware.’

• ‘When the vision is the sudden perception of something mysterious and strange, hinting at an unknown, never to be discovered, the mood is called yugen.’

• ‘From the earliest times Zen masters had shown a partiality for short, gnomic poems – at once laconic and direct like their answers to questions about Buddhism…’ An attempt to capture a live moment in its pure ‘suchness’.

• In poetry, as in sumi-e painting, the empty space is the surrounding silence which a short poem requires – ‘…a silence of the mind in which one does not ‘think about’ the poem but actually feels the sensation which it evokes, all the more strongly for having said so little… drops the subject almost as soon as it takes it up…’

• ‘…a good haiku is a pebble thrown into the pool of the listener’s mind, evoking associations out of the richness of memory. It invites the listener to participate in ‘nothing special’ instead of leaving him dumb with admiration while the poet shows off…’

• Bashō (1643–1694): ‘To write haiku get a three-foot child…’

you light the fire;
I’ll show you something nice
– a great ball of snow!

• There’s an avoidance of literary and ‘highbrow’ language,

weeds in the rice-field
cut and left lying just so
– fertilizer!

• In Zen you have no mind apart from what you know and see…


the long night;
the sound of the water
says what I think

stars on the pond;
again the winter shower
ruffles the water


on a withered branch
a crow perched
in the autumn evening

with the evening breeze
the water laps against
the heron’s legs

in the dark forest
a berry drops:
the sound of the water

Sabi is loneliness in the sense of Buddhist detachment, of seeing all things as happening ‘by themselves’ in miraculous spontaneity the unexpected recognition of the ‘suchness’ of very ordinary things, especially when the gloom of the future has momentarily checked our ambitiousness, is perhaps the mood of

brushwood gate
and for a lock
– this snail

the woodpecker
keeps on in the same place:
day is closing

winter desolation;
in the rain-water tub
sparrows walk

Aware is not quite grief, and not quite nostalgia in the usual sense of longing for the return of a beloved past.

evening haze;
thinking of past things –
how far-off they are!

the stream hides itself
in the grasses
of departing autumn

leaves falling
on one another;
rain beats on rain

Yugen signifies a kind of mystery, it is the most baffling of all modes to describe…

sea darkens;
voices of wild ducks
faintly white

what is being shouted
between hill and boat?
a trout leaps;

• ‘…Soto Zen monk and hermit Ryokan (1758–1831) was a saint whom everyone loved – perhaps because he was natural, again as a child, rather than good. It is easy to form the impression that the Japanese love of nature is predominantly sentimental, dwelling on those aspects of nature which are ‘nice’ and ‘pretty’ – butterflies, cherry blossoms, the autumn moon, chrysanthemums, and old pine trees. But Ryokan is also the poet of lice, fleas, and being utterly soaked with cold rain…’

on rainy days
the monk Ryokan
feels sorry for himself

the sound of the scouring
of the saucepan blends
with the tree-frogs’ voices

• ‘…In some ways Ryokan is a Japanese St Francis, though much less obviously religious. He is a wandering fool, un-selfconsciously playing games with children, living in a lonely hut in the forest where the roof leaks and the wall is hung with poems in his marvelously illegible, spidery handwriting, so prized by Japanese calligraphers. He thinks of the lice on his chest as insects in the grass, and expresses the most natural human feelings–sadness, loneliness, bewilderment, or pity – without a trace of shame or pride. Even when robbed he is still rich, for…’

the thief
left it behind –
the moon at the window

the wind brings
fallen leaves enough
to make a fire

• ‘…When life is empty, with respect to the past, and aimless, with respect to the future, the vacuum is filled by the present, reduced to a hairline, a split second in which there is no time for anything to happen with a sense of an infinitely expanded present…’

• To get some special apprehension of exactly the way things are ‘…one must be sitting ‘just to sit’ and there must not be any intention to experience what’s called satori, a sudden inexplicable moment of ‘enlightenment’…’

• ‘…Sudden visions of nature which form the substance of haiku arise in the same way, for they are never there when one looks for them. The artificial haiku always feels like a piece of life which has been deliberately broken off or wrenched away from the universe, whereas the genuine haiku has dropped off all by itself, and has the whole universe inside it…’

• ‘…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. One can get anywhere and everywhere, and yet the more this is possible, the less is anywhere and everywhere worth getting to… The point of art is the doing of it rather than accomplishment. But, more than this, the real joy of it lies in what turns up unintentionally in the course of practice, just as 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. Planned surprises are as much of a contradiction as intentional satori – whoever aims at satori is like a person who sends himself Christmas presents for fear that others will forget him…’

• There is no dualism in Zen – no sense of controller and controlled, mind and body, spiritual and material, thinker & thought, observer & thing observed. Everything just is…

• ‘…Zen is a liberation from time… When 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. Until this has become clear, it seems that our life is all past and future, and that the present is nothing more than the infinitesimal hairline which divides them. From this comes the sensation of ‘not having time to…’, of a world which hurries by so rapidly that it is gone before we can enjoy it. Through ‘awakening to the instant’ one sees that this is the reverse of the truth: it is rather the past and future which are the fleeting illusions, and the present which is eternally real. We discover that the linear succession of time is a convention of our single-track verbal thinking, of a consciousness which interprets the world by grasping little pieces of it, calling them things and events. But every such grasp of the mind excludes the rest of the world, so that this type of consciousness can get an approximate vision of the whole only through a series of grasps, one after another. Yet the superficiality of this consciousness is seen in the fact that it cannot and does not regulate even the human organism. For if it had to control the heartbeat, the breath, the operation of the nerves, glands, muscles, and sense organs, it would be rushing wildly around the body taking care of one thing after another, with no time to do anything else. Happily, it is not in charge, and the organism is regulated by the timeless ‘original mind’, which deals with life in its totality and so can do ever so many ‘things’ at once…’

• ‘…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. And when we turn round to find the self which knows this moment, we find that it has vanished like the past…’


3 thoughts on “NOTES ON CHAPTER 4 of Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen (1957)

  1. Mmmm…. So much food for thought. To me (initially and briefly) this beautiful evocation sums up the concept of non-attachment. In this case non-attachment to the projections and introjections, identifications, masks and costumes we inhabit, living out labels and other people’s rules that have stuck, or living in trance (that is unless we dive down, wake up and be). Perhaps the power of some particular forms of artistic expression comes from first coming to the acceptance that we are powerless; and the more we interfere the less that can find expression, what finds expression instead is illusion? Like the reflections in a pond.

    Maps, territories and icebergs come to mind…

    Something else that pops in is that the above must encapsulate the why of the jazz musician.

    Then I asked myself what happens when we look at art – in the painting at the bottom, I clearly see a group of dancers in the trees – having once seen them, it seems that I can’t then not see them, but the feeling/response that comes from absorbing and noticing, is one of joy and then peace. I think(?) it has nothing to do with my head… I feel it in my heart…

    Thank you Colin

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As often occurs when I’m reading one of your posts, Colin, this one reminded me of all the books I’ve yet to read! “The Way of Zen” has been on my to-read list for a long time, and now it’s moved up higher in the rankings. So many books, so little time …

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Truth is stranger than fiction. Truth IS fiction. Fiction is Truth. I guess that is all you can know,
    and all you need to know.


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