The Way of Zen Book Summary - The Way of Zen Book explained in key points
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The Way of Zen summary

Alan W. Watts

The history and core principles of the Eastern philosophy of Zen

4.5 (622 ratings)
23 mins
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    The Way of Zen
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    Chinese Taoist philosophy laid the original foundation for Zen Buddhism.

    Do you know how to breathe? Sure, you feel as if you know how to breathe – after all, you’re doing it constantly. But if you had to explain the exact physiological processes that allow you to breathe, you might be quite lost.

    What Westerners think of as knowledge is concrete and fact-based. Yet few people anywhere in the world would say that they don’t know how to breathe, see, or move their legs. So, in fact, what you know constitutes a multitude of things about whose precise workings you have no idea. As soon as you realize this, you'll understand the concept of knowledge in Taoism, one of the major forebears of Zen Buddhism.

    The key message here is: Chinese Taoist philosophy laid the original foundation for Zen Buddhism.

    The earliest source of Taoist thought is an important book called the I Ching, or Book of Changes, written in China sometime between 3000 and 1200 BC. The book outlines a method of divination by which an oracle first “sees” a hexagram pattern somewhere in his environment. He then matches the hexagram’s characteristics to those in the I Ching to predict his subject’s future.

    Now, you may not believe in making decisions based on an oracle’s prediction of your future. But is your method of decision-making any more rational? You may want to say yes. But how do you identify the exact point at which you've collected enough information to make a decision? Isn’t there always more information you could gather in order to make an even more “rational” decision?

    To make a truly fact-based decision would take a very long time – so long that the time for action would have passed by the time you’d gathered all the data.

    Our decisions ultimately come down to a feeling about which choice is right. Good decisions depend on good intuition – or, as a Taoist would say, being in the Tao. If you’re in the Tao, your mind is clear and your intuition is at its most effective.

    Think about it this way: There’s no amount of work you can do to force the muscles in your tongue to taste more accurately. You just have to trust them to do their job. Similarly, you must be able to trust your mind.

    Clear-mindedness, and trust in the mind’s natural abilities, would later become central to Zen. But before we get there, let’s look at the origins of Buddhism.

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    What is The Way of Zen about?

    The Way of Zen (1957) is a classic work that lays out the historical origins and core principles of Zen Buddhism. Our world is changing at breakneck speed, and it often seems that the old rules cease to apply as soon as we’ve gotten used to them. The Eastern philosophy of Zen can help us find the mental stillness and the joy in uncertainty we desperately need.

    Best quote from The Way of Zen

    If the ordinary man is one who has to walk by lifting his legs with his hands, the Taoist is one who has learned to let the legs walk by themselves.

    —Alan W. Watts
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    Who should read The Way of Zen?

    • Newcomers to Eastern philosophy and history
    • Those who want to challenge their minds to see the world differently
    • Fans of Alan Watts

    About the Author

    Alan Watts was a writer, speaker, and Zen philosopher who played a major role in popularizing Eastern religion in the West. He wrote several highly influential books, including Psychotherapy East and West and The New Alchemy.

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