Alan Watts Didn't Get It
by Scott Bradley
by Scott Bradley
Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen is a classic interpretation of Zen for the West. When we read the testimonies of people whose interest in Zen began more than a couple of decades ago, it becomes clear that Watts had a significant influence upon many of them. Though my active interest does not go back more than about five years, because I somehow stumbled onto a copy, he has also greatly influenced me.
I was somewhat taken aback, therefore, when a friend who has put serious time and effort into the study and practice of Zen, told me “Watts didn’t get it”. Aitken likewise mentions how D.T. Suzuki, referring to a Wattsian interpretation of a passage, in his humble way, said, “He didn’t understand that statement.”
But I don’t think I ever truly believed that Watt’s did get it. And this, I think, is what makes his interpretation of Zen so appealing. He was not, strictly speaking, a believer. He was not a partisan. He spoke with deep appreciation and insight of a way of being into which he had not himself been immersed and was thus able to present the matter without a religious reek.
About thirty some years ago a friend gave me a book on Zen, explaining that he was unable to get past the first page. Neither was I. I am not sure, but I think it was by Suzuki.
On this first page, the author essentially said that Zen was the superior way. My nostrils stung and I could go no further. My aversion to the religious-mind is longstanding.
I was actually quite interested to know about Zen at that time. And had that book been by the non-partisan, non-religious Alan Watts, perhaps I would have begun my return to things spiritual way back then. But then, if that had been the case, perhaps I would myself now be writing that Zen is the superior way.
Perhaps there is a sense in which Watts, in not getting it, understood Zen better than those who do get it. If this seems counter-intuitive to the extreme, perhaps that is because it also Zennish. The Zen masters are not alone in having the right to smack people upside the head. We, the people, have the right to smack them right back — that is, to smack them back to where they belong, back into the realm of non-partisan, non-religious, undiscriminating Reality.
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