Alan Watts, who was born on this day in 1915, once described himself as a “genuine fake.” Whatever he was, he introduced countless numbers of people to Eastern philosophy.
The Way of Zen was the first book I read on Buddhism, and even though Zen was the central theme, there was a good bit of Taoism he threw in. I should say the it was first book I tried to read, because I didn’t get much of it. Unfortunately for me, Buddhism for Dummies hadn’t been published yet.
After a few other books and a number of experiences, I was able to go back to Watts’ book and make some sense of it.
Like the philosophies it details, and like the author, The Way of Zen is full of paradoxes, contradictions. For instance, the first sentence in the section on “Mahayana Buddhism” reads:
Because the teaching of the Buddha was a way of liberation, it had no other object than the experience of nirvana.”
But just a few pages earlier, Watts had written,
It is impossible to desire nirvana, or to intend to reach it, for anything desirable or conceivable as an object of action is, by definition, not nirvana. Nirvana can only arise unintentionally, spontaneously, when the impossibility of self-grasping has been thoroughly perceived.”
Upon my first reading, as a young high school student, it was difficult for me to wrap my mind around how, on one hand, nirvana could be a object or goal, and on the other, be impossible to define, to reach, or even conceive as any kind of object.
It took some learning about non-duality, and even then, it was not until I started to study the teachings of Nagarjuna in earnest that I came to understand how sufferings are nirvana, which is the ultimate answer to the riddle of nirvana.
And about which Watts wrote:
[If] there is no nirvana that can be attained, and if, there are no individual entities, it will follow that our bondage in the [world of suffering] is merely apparent, and that in fact we are already in nirvana – so that to seek nirvana is the folly of looking for what one has never lost.”
I sometimes wonder if Bob Dylan, who in the Sixties studied Eastern Philosophy, had been reading Watts when he wrote this line in “I’ll Keep It with Mine”:
You will search, babe
At any cost
But how long, babe
Can you search for what’s not lost?
In my humble opinion, the version below by Fairport Convention is the definitive version of that song. The lead vocalist is the late Sandy Denny, who was also born on January 6 in 1947: