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Book Summary: The Way of Zen – The history and core principles of the Eastern philosophy of Zen

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.


Mindfulness, Happiness, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Philosophy Movements, Spiritual Self-Help, Christian Self Help

Introduction: Unearth the history and principles behind an ancient practice.

At some point or another, pretty much every Westerner has used the word Zen in conversation. Perhaps a room a person is sitting in feels very Zen, or she’s going to spend a relaxing weekend trying to regain her Zen.

In the West, there’s a vague notion that Zen has something to do with calmness, tranquility, and peace. But how accurate is this understanding?

Westerners often have trouble wrapping their minds around the abstract ideas that make up the core of Zen thought, some of which seem paradoxical. But fortunately, writer and thinker Alan Watts is here to demystify the subject and unpack its paradoxes.

In the following summaries, you’ll get Watts’s take on the history of Zen, starting with its roots in Chinese Taoism. Then, you’ll look at some of the core principles of Zen. By the end, you might find yourself seeing the world just a little differently.

[Book Summary] The Way of Zen: The history and core principles of the Eastern philosophy of Zen

Along the way, you’ll discover

  • what it means to know something;
  • whether you are already the Buddha; and
  • how you cause your own reality.

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.

Buddhism was the overarching philosophy from which Zen grew.

According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha sat under a tree one evening after seven years of meditation and ascetic living. He had been following all the correct practices to train his body, yet he still couldn’t find his true Self. So, eventually, he simply gave up and decided to eat some nourishing food beneath a towering tree.

While sitting under the tree, Buddha found a sudden clarity. He realized that as long as man continues to try to grasp what his own life is, he will fail. This aspect of Buddhism – the sudden awakening – eventually became a central aspect of Zen.

The key message here is: Buddhism was the overarching philosophy from which Zen grew.

While the Buddha lived in India sometime between the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the first Buddhist text, the Pali canon, wasn’t written until some 400 years later. Previously, Buddhism had existed only as an oral tradition. This makes it difficult to understand the views of Buddha himself, but we can still tease out the most important ideas.

Throughout all of Indian thought is the idea of God’s self-sacrifice, or atma-yajna. In giving birth to the world, God is destroyed, and fractured into many pieces. Each being contains an aspect of God, and our life’s purpose is eventually to reintegrate with the One.

So, in Buddhism, knowing yourself means knowing your original identity – God. To do that, you need to disentangle your self from all forms of identification. You’re not your body, your thoughts, or your feelings. And you’re not your role, like mother or doctor.

Notice that Buddhism places a heavy emphasis on negative knowledge – that is, knowing what you aren’t as opposed to what you are. This can be baffling to Westerners, who tend to expect concrete definitions.

But the world isn’t always as concrete as we’d like it to be. For instance, you can state that the First World War began on August 4, 1914. But did it really? A historian can reveal causes for the war from long before its official start date.

So, we can see that divisions of events, things, and facts are created by arbitrary human description – not by reality itself. An Indian Buddhist would call these artificial divisions maya, or illusion. And the goal of our lives should be to liberate ourselves from these illusions.

Mahayana Buddhism offered a resolution to the psychological conundrums in traditional Buddhism.

When curious people asked the Buddha questions about the nature of the self and the origin of the universe, he told them such questions were irrelevant. Asking them wouldn’t lead to liberation.

But some Buddhists – those who would become the Mahayana – were unwilling to take no for an answer. Mahayana Buddhists still sought liberation and weren’t aiming to construct a completely new philosophical system. But they were highly interested in their own psychology. This difference between Mahayana Buddhism and traditional Buddhism was key to the later Zen tradition.

The key message here is: Mahayana Buddhism offered a resolution to the psychological conundrums in traditional Buddhism.

Mahayana Buddhism broke away from traditional Buddhism somewhere between 100 and 300 BC. In some ways, Mahayana was a response to those looking for an easier path to enlightenment – one that they could attain in this life rather than after many lives. Mahayana wanted enlightenment to be accessible to everyone.

While accessible, the path to enlightenment in Mahayana is still anything but easy. To understand Mahayana beliefs, you’ll need to follow some tough logic, so buckle up.

First, you must realize that attempting to grasp reality is impossible.

If grasping reality itself is impossible, how then can you possibly hope to grasp enlightenment? It would be absurd to view enlightenment as some thing to be obtained.

And in the same way, since reality is illusory, your ego must also be an illusion. This ultimately means that you cannot attain enlightenment because the idea of you is not real.

So, now we’ve gotten to the crux of the argument. If enlightenment is not an object that can be attained, and if no individual entities exist, then we must already be in a state of enlightenment! To seek enlightenment would be to seek something we’d never lost.

You might be thinking – okay, simple, so I should stop trying to reach enlightenment. But you’ve caught yourself in a double-bind. By trying not to try, you’re still trying. You’re still motivated by your desire to reach enlightenment, whether it’s through grasping or not grasping.

To truly follow the Mahayana, you have to free yourself from the motivation to attain enlightenment. You can’t possibly desire the real enlightenment, because it’s impossible to know what that enlightenment is. And by seeking to become Buddha, you’re denying that you’re already Buddha. This belief is central to Zen.

Zen originated in China with the work of a few insightful monks.

The story goes that the Indian monk Bodhidharma brought Zen to China in 520 AD. When he arrived, Bodhidharma entered the court of Buddhist emperor Wu of Liang. But, it’s said, Emperor Wu didn’t like Bodhidharma’s attitude or doctrine. So Bodhidharma withdrew to a monastery. There, he met monk Hui-k’o, who would eventually become the Second Patriarch of Zen in China.

While this origin story is generally told in the Zen School, its historical accuracy is highly suspect. Instead, we might find the true origins of Zen in the teachings of a young monk named Seng-chao, who lived in China around 400 AD.

The key message here is: Zen originated in China with the work of a few insightful monks.

A few of Seng-chao’s doctrines played a central role in the later development of Zen.

One of particular significance was his view on time and change. Westerners are used to seeing life as a kind of progression – they feel that day becomes night and winter becomes spring, for instance. But for Seng-chao, every moment stands on its own, with no relation to anything either before or after. Similarly, in Zen, there is no reality other than that of the present moment.

A few hundred years after Seng-chao there came another monk, Hui-neng. Hui-neng was said to be responsible for introducing the concept of chih-chih. This term signifies the demonstration of Zen through nonsymbolic actions or words.

To a person unfamiliar with Zen, chih-chih can sometimes seem a bit nutty. For instance, a Zen master might be asked a spiritual question about Buddhism. In response, the master makes a casual remark about the weather. These answers can’t be explained further – either you immediately understand the point being made, or you don’t.

For example, take the monk Chao-chao’s response to a question about the spirit: “This morning it’s windy again.”

So what exactly is the purpose of this unusual question-and-answer format? Well, remember that whatever the Zen master says or does is thought to be an expression of his Buddha nature. Like everything else on earth, his words and actions appear spontaneously from nothing, without forethought.

Upon his death, Hui-neng passed his philosophy on to five disciples. The teachings of two of these disciples still live on today as the two principal schools of Zen in Japan.

Zen helps us to disintegrate the illusions our minds have created.

For many people, the ultimate goal in life is simple: to be happy. But what actually happens after you attain that happiness?

In Zen philosophy, the pursuit of happiness is considered absurd. It’s actually the product of a false premise: that it’s possible to experience only the good, with none of the bad.

The key message here is: Zen helps us to disintegrate the illusions our minds have created.

You might compare the pursuit of happiness to turning from left to right on a hard bed. You’re uncomfortable on the right side, so you turn to the left. That feels good at first, but then, the left starts to feel exactly like the right. In fact, the only reason you can understand the feeling of comfort is because you first understood discomfort.

So, discomfort is not only inevitable, but simply another aspect of comfort. This might lead you to the belief that we have no free choice, that we’re resigned to whatever fate awaits us. But that idea is based on another false premise.

In Zen, it’s impossible to be a helpless victim of your circumstances. In fact, you and your circumstances are actually inseparable.

Picture a sweltering day in midsummer. You’re dripping with sweat. Zen would instruct you that you aren’t sweating because it’s hot outside. Rather, the sweating is the heat.

You can think about your mind and body through this same framework. Your mind-body can’t be given a set of circumstances. Instead, the circumstances exist because you possess a mind and body that can perceive them.

You might be inclined to call this perceiving entity – this mind and body of yours – your self. But the self is yet another illusion that Zen can help us shatter.

When asked to describe yourself, you might list several adjectives. Or maybe a few past experiences that seem to define who you are. But are any of these descriptors real in the truest sense of the word? In short, no.

Our minds are powerful, and they allow us to construct a symbolic version of our self that doesn’t actually exist. But this idea of our self is not tangibly connected to what our minds and bodies are experiencing right now.

Therefore, in Zen, the real you is simply the sum of all the things of which you are aware at this very moment.

In Zen, spontaneity and naturalness are key.

A major focus of Zen is naturalness, or not striving to “be” anything in particular. In a sense, Zen is about allowing yourself to be aimless – essentially, to do nothing.

To a Westerner, doing nothing might sound like a huge waste of time. But, in fact, it’s the natural state of most everything in the world. A cat doesn’t try to be anything other than a cat, and your ears don’t try to do anything other than hear. Zen tells us we should allow our minds to operate the same way: as spontaneously and naturally as possible.

The key message here is: In Zen, spontaneity and naturalness are key.

In Zen, whatever emotion you naturally express in response to a circumstance is valuable – and it’s valuable because of its naturalness.

Take the story of a Zen monk who burst into tears after hearing that a close relative of his had died. A student commented that it was unseemly for a monk to react this way. But the monk replied, “Don’t be stupid! I’m weeping because I want to weep.”

Our actions, of course, can still be right or wrong in the conventional moral sense. But in Zen, whatever we do, and whatever happens, is right in the sense that it’s natural.

It’s not just our actions that should be natural and spontaneous. It’s our words, too.

For example, when Zen master Yün-men was asked to name the ultimate secret of Buddhism, his response was, “Dumpling.”

Here, Yün-men’s mind acted completely on its own. And in the process, it revealed an underlying truth – one that an ordinary person might not understand, but that can only be expressed by the single word “dumpling.” This would never have happened if Yün-men’s mind had been muddled by affectation.

Spontaneity also extends naturally to the Zen concept of satori, or sudden awakening.

Satori is less like total enlightenment and more like a burst of insight. It can take the form of a great realization – perhaps something you suddenly understand about the deepest principles of Buddhism. But you can also experience less-monumental instances of satori, like the sudden remembrance of a long-forgotten name.

With all of the emphasis on spontaneity, you might conclude that Zen encourages giving in to impulse. But this is far from the case. Instead, Zen is about eliminating mental blocks, allowing your mind to operate in its freest, most natural state.

Meditation should be about sitting and observing the world, exactly as it is.

If you currently practice meditation, what is your goal when you sit in silence? Perhaps to purify or clear your mind, or to achieve some sort of understanding that remains elusive.

For Zen, all goals associated with meditation are misguided. In Buddhism and Taoism, for instance, the goal of sitting meditation is to empty the consciousness and purify the mind. But in Zen, our nature is already pure – it’s already Buddha. And if you strive to purify it, you’re actually contaminating it with your desire.

The key message here is: Meditation should be about sitting and observing the world, exactly as it is.

Sitting meditation, or za-zen in Japanese, may not have had much significance for the original Zen thinkers. But in today’s Zen communities, it’s massively important.

In Zen, it’s essential to sit and observe the world in order to experience it truly. After all, does the world exist only when you think and do things within it? Of course not.

You can think of your mind as a muddy river. As you go about your life, your mind becomes muddied. But what happens to muddy water when it’s left alone? Eventually, the dirt and sediment sink to the bottom, and the waters are left clear. In the same way, when you meditate, your mind is left alone to become clear.

But practicing za-zen doesn’t mean sitting and purposely trying to think about nothing. That would be counterproductive. It’s also not about concentrating on any one thing in particular, like your breathing. Instead, it’s simply a quiet awareness of whatever happens in the here and now. You and your external world are one, and you have no purpose in mind as you sit and observe.

For students in Zen schools, if there’s any goal to the practice of za-zen, it’s to be better able to answer the koan. These are difficult philosophical questions for which there are no formally published answers. As a student progresses, he is asked more and more difficult koan for which he must provide more and more creative answers.

For instance, a Zen student might be asked, “Take the four divisions of Tokyo out of your sleeve.” This koan may be solved by taking out a paper handkerchief and dividing it into four.

To answer the koan, a student’s mind must be clear and sharp – a state that za-zen helps it achieve.

Zen art uses emptiness to make a powerful impact.

There is a Zen expression that states that “one showing is worth a hundred sayings.” And there is perhaps no better way to show an idea than through art.

The major theme of all Zen art, whether in painting or poetry, is the aimless life. What Westerners might call an empty or meaningless existence is actually, in Zen, one of boundless freedom. Zen art evokes that sense of joy in freedom by using the evocative power of empty space.

The key message here is: Zen art uses emptiness to make a powerful impact.

Sumi-e is a calligraphic style of painting that strongly expresses the feeling of Zen. Sumi paintings are done in black ink only, and the ink’s tone is varied by the amount of water with which it’s mixed. Usually, only one small part of the canvas is painted, while the rest may only be treated with a gentle ink wash. This technique allows the empty space in the canvas to come alive, appearing to be shrouded in gentle mist.

The emptiness in sumi paintings mirrors the Zen principle of spontaneity. The small, painted part of the picture appears to arise from nothing.

In a similar way, Zen poetry shows a great deal while saying little.

At some point, you’ve probably encountered a haiku, a short, three-line poem usually with nature as its subject. But you may not have known that haiku are products of Zen thought.

A bad haiku is clunky and tries too hard to say something meaningful. But a good haiku throws a stone into the still waters of a listener’s mind. It says just enough to be evocative, while letting the listener’s mind do most of the interpretive heavy lifting.

Aside from painting and poetry, Zen thought permeates architecture, especially in the garden. In a Zen garden, you should feel the atmosphere of nature without being overwhelmed by ornamentation. Even in a garden without any water features, your mind should be able to conjure the soft lull of a mountain stream.

Whether in painting, poetry, or architecture, the way of Zen is at work. By observing the momentariness and spontaneity of a haiku or sumi painting, we’re brought face to face with the present moment. Through it, we learn to liberate ourselves from time, and to comprehend the extraordinary fact that the only reality is in the present moment.

Final Summary

The key message in these summaries:

Zen Buddhism was shaped by the philosophies of Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism. Eventually, Zen grew into a way of life in its own right, with a primary focus on naturalness, spontaneity, and aimlessness. With an understanding of Zen, you can free yourself from the delusions and false premises that keep you from experiencing true reality – that is, the present moment.

Actionable advice: Breathe freely.

Zen is primarily a philosophy of mind. But if there’s a physical aspect, it’s definitely in the breath. To breathe like a Zen monk, imagine your body being emptied of air by a giant lead ball sinking from your chest into your abdomen. Then, allow your next breath to flow in as a reflex action. But be careful – as in other aspects of Zen, you shouldn’t strive too hard to “master” this technique! Instead, try to watch your breath come and go, and let it happen naturally.

About the author

Alan W. Watts, who held both a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate of divinity, is best remembered as an interpreter of Zen Buddhism in particular, and of Indian and Chinese philosophy in general. Standing apart, however, from sectarian membership, he has earned the reputation of being one of the most original and “unrutted” philosophers of the twentieth century. Watts was the author of some twenty books on the philosophy and psychology of religion that have been published in many languages throughout the world, including the bestselling The Way of Zen. An avid lecturer, Watts appeared regularly on the radio and hosted the popular television series, Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life, in the 1960s. He died in 1973.

Table of Contents

Other Books by This Author
Title Page
List of Illustrations
The Pronunciation of Chinese Words
1 The Philosophy of the Tao
2 The Origins of Buddhism
3 Mahayana Buddhism
4 The Rise and Development of Zen
1 “Empty and Marvelous”
2 “Sitting Quietly, Doing Nothing”
3 Za-zen and the Koan
4 Zen in the Arts
Chinese Notes
Bodhidharma. By Hakuin Zenji (1683–1768).
Two views of the rock and sand garden at Ryoanji, Kyoto.
Bodhidharma and Hui-k’e. By Sesshu (1420–1506).
Haboku Landscape. By Sesshu (1420–1506).


In his definitive introduction to Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts (“the perfect guide for a course correction in life” —Deepak Chopra), explains the principles and practices of this ancient religion.

With a rare combination of freshness and lucidity, he delves into the origins and history of Zen to explain what it means for the world today with incredible clarity. Watts saw Zen as “one of the most precious gifts of Asia to the world,” and in The Way of Zen he gives this gift to readers everywhere.


After D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts stands as the godfather of Zen in America. Often taken to task for inspiring the flimsy spontaneity of Beat Zen, Watts had an undeniably keen understanding of his subject. Nowhere is this more evident than in his 1957 classic The Way of Zen, which has been reissued. Watts takes the reader back to the philosophical foundations of Zen in the conceptual world of Hinduism, follows Buddhism’s course through the development of the early Mahayana school, the birth of Zen from Buddhism’s marriage with Chinese Taoism, and on to Zen’s unique expression in Japanese art and life. As a Westerner, Watts anticipates the stumbling blocks encountered with such concepts as emptiness and no-mind, then illustrates with flawlessly apt examples. Many popular books have been written on Zen since Watts’ time, but few have been able to muster the rare combination of erudition and clarity that have kept The Way of Zen in readers’ hands decade after decade. – Brian Bruya

“Perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, Watts had the rare gift of ‘writing beautifully the unwritable.’” – Los Angeles Times

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview


During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary gr; owth of interest in Zen Buddhism. Since the Second World War this interest has increased so much that it seems to be becoming a considerable force in the intellectual and artistic world of the West. It is connected, no doubt, with the prevalent enthusiasm for Japanese culture which is one of the constructive results of the late war, but which may amount to no more than a passing fashion. The deeper reason for this interest is that the viewpoint of Zen lies so close to the “growing edge” of Western thought.

The more alarming and destructive aspects of Western civilization should not blind us to the fact that at this very time it is also in one of its most creative periods. Ideas and insights of the greatest fascination are appearing in some of the newer fields of Western science–in psychology and psychotherapy, in logic and the philosophy of science, in semantics and communications theory. Some of these developments might be due to suggestive influences from Asian philosophy, but on the whole I am inclined to feel that there is more of a parallelism than a direct influence. We are, however, becoming aware of the parallelism, and it promises an exchange of views which should be extremely stimulating.

Western thought has changed so rapidly in this century that we are in a state of considerable confusion. Not only are there serious difficulties of communication between the intellectual and the general public, but the course of our thinking and of our very history has seriously undermined the common-sense assumptions which lie at the roots of our social conventions and institutions. Familiar concepts of space, time, and motion, of nature and natural law, of history and social change, and of human personality itself have dissolved, and we find ourselves adrift without landmarks in a universe which more and more resembles the Buddhist principle of the “Great Void.” The various wisdoms of the West, religious, philosophical, and scientific, do not offer much guidance to the art of living in such a universe, and we find the prospects of making our way in so trackless an ocean of relativity rather frightening. For we are used to absolutes, to firm principles and laws to which we can cling for spiritual and psychological security.

This is why, I think, there is so much interest in a culturally productive way of life which, for some fifteen hundred years, has felt thoroughly at home in “the Void,” and which not only feels no terror for it but rather a positive delight. To use its own words, the situation of Zen has always been–

Above, not a tile to cover the head;

Below, not an inch of ground for the foot.

Such language should not actually be so unfamiliar to us, were we truly prepared to accept the meaning of “the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.”

I am not in favor of “importing” Zen from the Far East, for it has become deeply involved with cultural institutions which are quite foreign to us. But there is no doubt that there are things which we can learn, or unlearn, from it and apply in our own way. It has the special merit of a mode of expressing itself which is as intelligible–or perhaps as baffling–to the intellectual as to the illiterate, offering possibilities of communication which we have not explored. It has a directness, verve, and humor, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like “Why is a mouse when it spins?” At its heart there is a strong but completely unsentimental compassion for human beings suffering and perishing from their very attempts to save themselves.

There are many excellent books about Zen, though some of the best are out of print or otherwise difficult to obtain. But as yet no one–not even Professor Suzuki—has given us a comprehensive account of the subject which includes its historical background and its relation to Chinese and Indian ways of thought. The three volumes of Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism are an unsystematic collection of scholarly papers on various aspects of the subject, enormously useful for the advanced student but quite baffling to the general reader without an understanding of the general principles. His delightful Introduction to Zen Buddhism is rather narrow and specialized. It omits the essential information about the relation of Zen to Chinese Taoism and Indian Buddhism, and is in some respects rather more mystifying than it need be. His other works are studies of special aspects of Zen, all of which require general background and historical perspective.

R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics is one of the best introductions available, but it is published only in Japan and, again, lacks the background information. As a series of rambling and marvelously perceptive observations, it makes no attempt to give an orderly presentation of the subject. My own Spirit of Zen is a popularization of Suzuki’s earlier works, and besides being very unscholarly it is in many respects out of date and misleading, whatever merits it may have in the way of lucidity and simplicity. Christmas Humphreys’ Zen Buddhism, published only in England, is likewise a popularization of Suzuki and, once more, does not really begin to put Zen in its cultural context. It is written in a clear and sprightly fashion, but the author finds identities between Buddhism and Theosophy which I feel to be highly questionable. Other studies of Zen by both Western and Asian authors are of a more specialized character, or are discussions of Zen à propos of something else–psychology, art, or cultural history.

In default, then, of a fundamental, orderly, and comprehensive account of the subject, it is no wonder that Western impressions of Zen are somewhat confused, despite all the enthusiasm and interest which it has aroused. The problem, then, is to write such a book–and this I have tried to do since no one who understands the subject better than I seems willing or able to do so. Ideally, I suppose, such a work should be written by an accomplished and recognized Zen master. But at present no such person has sufficient command of English. Furthermore, when one speaks from within a tradition, and especially from within its institutional hierarchy, there is always apt to be a certain lack of perspective and grasp of the outsider’s viewpoint. Again, one of the biggest obstacles to communication between Japanese Zen masters and Westerners is the absence of clarity as to difference of basic cultural premises. Both sides are so “set in their ways” that they are unaware of the limitations of their means of communication.

Perhaps, then, the most appropriate author of such a work would be a Westerner who had spent some years under a Japanese master, going through the whole course of Zen training. Now from the standpoint of Western “scientific scholarship” this would not do at all, for such a person would have become an “enthusiast” and “partisan” incapable of an objective and disinterested view. But, fortunately or unfortunately, Zen is above all an experience, nonverbal in character, which is simply inaccessible to the purely literary and scholarly approach. To know what Zen is, and especially what it is not, there is no alternative but to practice it, to experiment with it in the concrete so as to discover the meaning which underlies the words. Yet such Westerners as have undergone some of the special type of training followed in Rinzai Zen tend to become “cagey” and uncommunicative on the principle that

Those who know do not speak;

Those who speak do not know.

Although, however, they do not “put up,” they do not completely “shut up.” On the one hand, they would love to share their understanding with others. But on the other hand, they are convinced that words are ultimately futile, and are, furthermore, under an agreement not to discuss certain aspects of their training. They begin, therefore, to take the characteristically Asian attitude of “Come and find out for yourself.” But the scientifically trained Westerner is, not without reason, a cautious and skeptical fellow who likes to know what he is “getting into.” He is acutely conscious of the capacity of the mind for self-deception, for going into places where entrance is impossible without leaving one’s critical perspective at the door. Asians tend so much to despise this attitude, and their Western devotees even more so, that they neglect to tell the scientific inquirer many things that are still well within the possibilities of human speech and intellectual understanding.

To write about Zen is, therefore, as problematic for the outside, “objective” observer as for the inside, “subjective” disciple. In varying situations I have found myself on both sides of the dilemma. I have associated and studied with the “objective observers” and am convinced that, for all their virtues, they invariably miss the point and eat the menu instead of the dinner. I have also been on the inside of a traditional hierarchy–not Zen–and am equally convinced that from this position one does not know what dinner is being eaten. In such a position one becomes technically “idiotic,” which is to say, out of communication with those who do not belong to the same fold.

It is both dangerous and absurd for our world to be a group of communions mutually excommunicate. This is especially true of the great cultures of the East and the West, where the potentialities of communication are the richest, and the dangers of failure to communicate the worst. As one who has spent somewhat more than twenty years trying to interpret the East to the West, I have become increasingly certain that to interpret such a phenomenon as Zen there is a clear principle to be followed. On the one hand, it is necessary to be sympathetic and to experiment personally with the way of life to the limit of one’s possibilities. On the other hand, one must resist every temptation to “join the organization,” to become involved with its institutional commitments. In this friendly neutral position one is apt to be disowned by both sides. But, at the worst, one’s misrepresentations provoke them to express themselves more clearly. For the relationship between two positions becomes far more clear when there is a third with which to compare them. Thus even if this study of Zen does no more than express a standpoint which is neither Zen nor anything Western, it will at least provide that third point of reference.

However, there can be no doubt that the essential standpoint of Zen refuses to be organized, or to be made the exclusive possession of any institution. If there is anything in this world which transcends the relativities of cultural conditioning, it is Zen–by whatever name it may be called. This is an excellent reason for Zen’s not being institutionalized, and for the fact that many of its ancient exponents were “universal individualists” who were never members of any Zen organization, and never sought the acknowledgment of any formal authority.

This, then, is my position with respect to Zen–and I feel I should be frank with the reader in a day when there is so much anxiety about people’s credentials or “quantifications.” I cannot represent myself as a Zenist, or even as a Buddhist, for this seems to me to be like trying to wrap up and label the sky. I cannot represent myself as a scientifically objective academician, for–with respect to Zen–this seems to me to be like studying bird–song in a collection of stuffed nightingales. I claim no rights to speak of Zen. I claim only the pleasure of having studied its literature and observed its art forms since I was hardly more than a boy, and of having had the delight of informal association with a number of Japanese and Chinese travelers of the same trackless way.

This book is intended both for the general reader and for the more serious student, and I trust that the former will be tolerant of the use of some technical terminology, a Chinese character appendix, and other critical apparatus most useful for those who wish to explore the subject more deeply. The book is divided into two parts, the first dealing with the background and history of Zen, and the second with its principles and practice. The sources of information are of three types. I have, firstly, used almost all the studies of Zen in European languages. Naturally, I have made considerable use of the works of Professor D. T. Suzuki, but at the same time I have tried not to rely upon them too heavily–not because of any defect in them, but because I think readers are entitled to something more, by way of a fresh viewpoint, than a mere summarization of his views.

Secondly, I have based the essential view of Zen here presented upon a careful study of the more important of its early Chinese records, with special reference to the Hsin-hsin Ming, the T’an Ching or Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, the Lin-chi Lu, and the Ku-tsun-hsü Yü-lu. My own knowledge of T’ang dynasty Chinese is certainly not enough to deal with some of the finer points of this literature, but sufficient, I think, to get what I wanted, which was a clear view of the essential doctrine. In all this, my efforts have been greatly aided by colleagues and research associates at the American Academy of Asian Studies, and I wish in particular to express my thanks to Professors Sabro Hasegawa and Gi-ming Shien, to Dr. Paul and Dr. George Fung, Dr. Frederick Hong, Mr. Charles Yick, and to Mr. Kazumitsu Kato, priest of the Soto-Zen School.

Thirdly, my information is derived from a large number of personal encounters with teachers and students of Zen, spread over more than twenty years.

In the following pages the translations from the original texts are my own, unless otherwise indicated. For the convenience of those who read Chinese, I have supplied, following the Bibliography, an appendix of the original Chinese forms of the more important quotations and technical terms. I have found these almost essential for the more serious student, for even among the most highly qualified scholars there is still much uncertainty as to the proper translation of T’ang dynasty Zen texts. References to this appendix are by superscribed index letters in alphabetical order.

References to other works are by surname of the author and number, directing the reader to the Bibliography for full details. Scholarly readers will have to excuse me for not using the absurd diacritical marks in romanized Sanskrit words, since these are merely confusing to the general reader and unnecessary to the Sanskritist who will at once call to mind the Devanagiri script. As to the proper names of Zen masters and titles of Zen texts, these are given in the romanized forms of Mandarin or Japanese according to the country of origin, and technical terms are given in Mandarin unless used in the discussion of specifically Japanese Zen. For Mandarin one is almost compelled by general usage to adopt the Wade-Giles romanization, for which I have appended a table of pronunciation following this Preface, since it has so little relation to the actual sounds.

I am most grateful to Mr. R. H. Blyth for his kind permission to quote a number of his translations of haiku poems from his magnificent four-volume anthology, Haiku, published by the Hokuseido Press in Tokyo; to Professor Sabro Hasegawa for his generous help in preparing the jacket and providing illustrations; and to my daughter Joan for the photographs of Ryoanji.

In conclusion, I am most happy to express my thanks to the Bollingen Foundation for a three-year fellowship, during which much of the preliminary study was done for the writing of this book.


Mill Valley, California

July 1956



Aspirated: Read p’, t’, k’, ch’, and ts’ as in pin, tip, kilt, chin, and bits.

Unaspirated: Read p, t, k, ch, and ts (or tz) as in bin, dip, gilt, gin, and bids.

hs or sh, as in shoe.

j is nearly like an “unrolled” r, so that jen is nearly the English wren.


Usually Italian values,

a as in father

e as in eight

eh as in brother

i as in machine and pin

ih as in shirt

o as in soap

u as in goose

ü as in German über


ai as in light

ao as in loud

ei as in weight

ia as in William

ieh as in Korea

ou as in group

ua as in swan

ueh as in doer

ui as in sway

uo as in whoah!


an and ang as in bun and bung

en and eng as in wooden and among

in and ing as in sin and sing

un and ung with the u as in look.





Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,” and is similar in this respect to Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga. As will soon be obvious, a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.

Historically, Zen may be regarded as the fulfillment of long traditions of Indian and Chinese culture, though it is actually much more Chinese than Indian, and, since the twelfth century, it has rooted itself deeply and most creatively in the culture of Japan. As the fruition of these great cultures, and as a unique and peculiarly instructive example of a way of liberation, Zen is one of the most precious gifts of Asia to the world.

The origins of Zen are as much Taoist as Buddhist, and, because its flavor is so peculiarly Chinese, it may be best to begin by inquiring into its Chinese ancestry–illustrating, at the same time, what is meant by a way of liberation by the example of Taoism.

Much of the difficulty and mystification which Zen presents to the Western student is the result of his unfamiliarity with Chinese ways of thinking–ways which differ startlingly from our own and which are, for that very reason, of special value to us in attaining a critical perspective upon our own ideas. The problem here is not simply one of mastering different ideas, differing from our own as, say, the theories of Kant differ from those of Descartes, or those of Calvinists from those of Catholics. The problem is to appreciate differences in the basic premises of thought and in the very methods of thinking, and these are so often overlooked that our interpretations of Chinese philosophy are apt to be a projection of characteristically Western ideas into Chinese terminology. This is the inevitable disadvantage of studying Asian philosophy by the purely literary methods of Western scholarship, for words can be communicative only between those who share similar experiences.

This is not to go so far as to say that so rich and subtle a language as English is simply incapable of expressing Chinese ideas. On the contrary, it can say much more than has been believed possible by some Chinese and Japanese students of Zen and Taoism whose familiarity with English leaves something to be desired. The difficulty is not so much in the language as in the thought-patterns which have hitherto seemed inseparable from the academic and scientific way of approaching a subject. The unsuitability of these patterns for such subjects as Taoism and Zen is largely responsible for the impression that the “Oriental mind” is mysterious, irrational, and inscrutable. Furthermore, it need not be supposed that these matters are so peculiarly Chinese or Japanese that they have no point of contact with anything in our own culture. While it is true that none of the formal divisions of Western science and thought corresponds to a way of liberation, R. H. Blyth’s marvelous study of Zen in English Literature has shown most clearly that the essential insights of Zen are universal.

The reason why Taoism and Zen present, at first sight, such a puzzle to the Western mind is that we have taken a restricted view of human knowledge. For us, almost all knowledge is what a Taoist would call conventional knowledge, because we do not feel that we really know anything unless we can represent it to ourselves in words, or in some other system of conventional signs such as the notations of mathematics or music. Such knowledge is called conventional because it is a matter of social agreement as to the codes of communication. Just as people speaking the same language have tacit agreements as to what words shall stand for what things, so the members of every society and every culture are united by bonds of communication resting upon all kinds of agreement as to the classification and valuation of actions and things.

Thus the task of education is to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes–the rules and conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself together. There is first the spoken language. The child is taught to accept “tree” and not “boojum” as the agreed sign for that (pointing to the object). We have no difficulty in understanding that the word “tree” is a matter of convention. What is much less obvious is that convention also governs the delineation of the thing to which the word is assigned. For the child has to be taught not only what words are to stand for what things, but also the way in which his culture has tacitly agreed to divide things from each other, to mark out the boundaries within our daily experience. Thus scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake, and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions. How arbitrary such conventions may be can be seen from the question, “What happens to my fist [noun-object] when I open my hand?” The object miraculously vanishes because an action was disguised by a part of speech usually assigned to a thing! In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs–so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.

Besides language, the child has to accept many other forms of code. For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles–father, teacher, worker, artist, “regular guy,” gentleman, sportsman, and so forth. To the extent that we identify ourselves with these stereotypes and the rules of behavior associated with them, we ourselves feel that we are someone because our fellows have less difficulty in accepting us-that is, in identifying us and feeling that we are “under control.” A meeting of two strangers at a party is always somewhat embarrassing when the host has not identified their roles in introducing them, for neither knows what rules of conversation and action should be observed.

Once again, it is easy to see the conventional character of roles. For a man who is a father may also be a doctor and an artist, as well as an employee and a brother. And it is obvious that even the sum total of these role labels will be far from supplying an adequate description of the man himself, even though it may place him in certain general classifications. But the conventions which govern human identity are more subtle and much less obvious than these. We learn, very thoroughly though far less explicitly, to identify ourselves with an equally conventional view of “myself.” For the conventional “self” or “person” is composed mainly of a history consisting of selected memories, and beginning from the moment of parturition. According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real “me” than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is the firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!

It is important to recognize that the memories and past events which make up a man’s historical identity are no more than a selection. From the actual infinitude of events and experiences some have been picked out–abstracted–as significant, and this significance has of course been determined by conventional standards. For the very nature of conventional knowledge is that it is a system of abstractions. It consists of signs and symbols in which things and events are reduced to their general outlines, as the Chinese character jen a stands for “man” by being the utmost simplification and generalization of the human form.

The same is true of words other than ideographs. The English words “man,” “fish,” “star,” “flower,” “run,” “grow,” all denote classes of objects or events which may be recognized as members of their class by very simple attributes, abstracted from the total complexity of the things themselves.

Abstraction is thus almost a necessity for communication, since it enables us to represent our experiences with simple and rapidly made “grasps” of the mind. When we say that we can think only of one thing at a time, this is like saying that the Pacific Ocean cannot be swallowed at a gulp. It has to be taken in a cup, and downed bit by bit. Abstractions and conventional signs are like the cup; they reduce experience to units simple enough to be comprehended one at a time. In a similar way, curves are measured by reducing them to a sequence of tiny straight lines, or by thinking of them in terms of the squares which they cross when plotted on graph paper.

Other examples of the same process are the newspaper photograph and the transmission of television. In the former, a natural scene is reproduced in terms of light and heavy dots arranged in a screen or gridlike pattern so as to give the general impression of a black-and-white photograph when seen without a magnifying glass. Much as it may look like the original scene, it is only a reconstruction of the scene in terms of dots, somewhat as our conventional words and thoughts are reconstructions of experience in terms of abstract signs. Even more like the thought process, the television camera transmits a natural scene in terms of a linear series of impulses which may be passed along a wire.

Thus communication by conventional signs of this type gives us an abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once–a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms. The perfect description of a small particle of dust by these means would take everlasting time, since one would have to account for every point in its volume.

The linear, one-at-a-time character of speech and thought is particularly noticeable in all languages using alphabets, representing experience in long strings of letters. It is not easy to say why we must communicate with others (speak) and with ourselves (think) by this one-at-a-time method. Life itself does not proceed in this cumbersome, linear fashion, and our own organisms could hardly live for a moment if they had to control themselves by taking thought of every breath, every beat of the heart, and every neural impulse. But if we are to find some explanation for this characteristic of thought, the sense of sight offers a suggestive analogy. For we have two types of vision–central and peripheral, not unlike the spotlight and the floodlight. Central vision is used for accurate work like reading, in which our eyes are focused on one small area after another like spotlights. Peripheral vision is less conscious, less bright than the intense ray of the spotlight. We use it for seeing at night, and for taking “subconscious” notice of objects and movements not in the direct line of central vision. Unlike the spotlight, it can take in very many things at a time.

There is, then, an analogy–and perhaps more than mere analogy–between central vision and conscious, one-at-a-time thinking, and between peripheral vision and the rather mysterious process which enables us to regulate the incredible complexity of our bodies without thinking at all. It should be noted, further, that we call our bodies complex as a result of trying to understand them in terms of linear thought, of words and concepts. But the complexity is not so much in our bodies as in the task of trying to understand them by this means of thinking. It is like trying to make out the features of a large room with no other light than a single bright ray. It is as complicated as trying to drink water with a fork instead of a cup.

In this respect, the Chinese written language has a slight advantage over our own, and is perhaps symptomatic of a different way of thinking. It is still linear, still a series of abstractions taken in one at a time. But its written signs are a little closer to life than spelled words because they are essentially pictures, and, as a Chinese proverb puts it, “One showing is worth a hundred sayings.” Compare, for example, the ease of showing someone how to tie a complex knot with the difficulty of telling him how to do it in words alone.

Now the general tendency of the Western mind is to feel that we do not really understand what we cannot represent, what we cannot communicate, by linear signs–by thinking. We are like the “wallflower” who cannot learn a dance unless someone draws him a diagram of the steps, who cannot “get it by the feel.” For some reason we do not trust and do not fully use the “peripheral vision” of our minds. We learn music, for example, by restricting the whole range of tone and rhythm to a notation of fixed tonal and rhythmic intervals–a notation which is incapable of representing Oriental music. But the Oriental musician has a rough notation which he uses only as a reminder of a melody. He learns music, not by reading notes, but by listening to the performance of a teacher, getting the “feel” of it, and copying him, and this enables him to acquire rhythmic and tonal sophistications matched only by those Western jazz artists who use the same approach.

We are not suggesting that Westerners simply do not use the “peripheral mind.” Being human, we use it all the time, and every artist, every workman, every athlete calls into play some special development of its powers. But it is not academically and philosophically respectable. We have hardly begun to realize its possibilities, and it seldom, if ever, occurs to us that one of its most important uses is for that “knowledge of reality” which we try to attain by the cumbersome calculations of theology, metaphysics, and logical inference.

When we turn to ancient Chinese society, we find two “philosophical” traditions playing complementary parts–Confucianism and Taoism. Generally speaking, the former concerns itself with the linguistic, ethical, legal, and ritual conventions which provide the society with its system of communication. Confucianism, in other words, preoccupies itself with conventional knowledge, and under its auspices children are brought up so that their originally wayward and whimsical natures are made to fit the Procrustean bed of the social order. The individual defines himself and his place in society in terms of the Confucian formulae.

Taoism, on the other hand, is generally a pursuit of older men, and especially of men who are retiring from active life in the community. Their retirement from society is a kind of outward symbol of an inward liberation from the bounds of conventional patterns of thought and conduct. For Taoism concerns itself with unconventional knowledge, with the understanding of life directly, instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.

Confucianism presides, then, over the socially necessary task of forcing the original spontaneity of life into the rigid rules of convention–a task which involves not only conflict and pain, but also the loss of that peculiar naturalness and un-self-consciousness for which little children are so much loved, and which is sometimes regained by saints and sages. The function of Taoism is to undo the inevitable damage of this discipline, and not only to restore but also to develop the original spontaneity, which is termed tzu-jan b or “self-so-ness.” For the spontaneity of a child is still childish, like everything else about him. His education fosters his rigidity but not his spontaneity. In certain natures, the conflict between social convention and repressed spontaneity is so violent that it manifests itself in crime, insanity, and neurosis, which are the prices we pay for the otherwise undoubted benefits of order.

But Taoism must on no account be understood as a revolution against convention, although it has sometimes been used as a pretext for revolution. Taoism is a way of liberation, which never comes by means of revolution, since it is notorious that most revolutions establish worse tyrannies than they destroy. To be free from convention is not to spurn it but not to be deceived by it. It is to be able to use it as an instrument instead of being used by it.

The West has no recognized institution corresponding to Taoism because our Hebrew-Christian spiritual tradition identifies the Absolute–God–with the moral and logical order of convention. This might almost be called a major cultural catastrophe, because it weights the social order with excessive authority, inviting just those revolutions against religion and tradition which have been so characteristic of Western history. It is one thing to feel oneself in conflict with socially sanctioned conventions, but quite another to feel at odds with the very root and ground of life, with the Absolute itself. The latter feeling nurtures a sense of guilt so preposterous that it must issue either in denying one’s own nature or in rejecting God. Because the first of these alternatives is ultimately impossible–like chewing off one’s own teeth–the second becomes inevitable, where such palliatives as the confessional are no longer effective. As is the nature of revolutions, the revolution against God gives place to the worse tyranny of the absolutist state–worse because it cannot even forgive, and because it recognizes nothing outside the powers of its jurisdiction. For while the latter was theoretically true of God, his earthly representative the Church was always prepared to admit that though the laws of God were immutable, no one could presume to name the limits of his mercy. When the throne of the Absolute is left vacant, the relative usurps it and commits the real idolatry, the real indignity against God–the absolutizing of a concept, a conventional abstraction. But it is unlikely that the throne would have become vacant if, in a sense, it had not been so already–if the Western tradition had had some way of apprehending the Absolute directly, outside the terms of the conventional order.

Of course the very word “Absolute” suggests to us something abstract and conceptual, such as “Pure Being.” Our very idea of “spirit” as opposed to “matter” seems to have more kinship with the abstract than the concrete. But with Taoism, as with other ways of liberation, the Absolute must never be confused with the abstract. On the other hand, if we say that the Tao,c as the ultimate Reality is called, is the concrete rather than the abstract, this may lead to still other confusions. For we are accustomed to associate the concrete with the material, the physiological, the biological, and the natural, as distinct from the supernatural. But from the Taoist and Buddhist standpoints these are still terms for conventional and abstract spheres of knowledge.

Biology and physiology, for example, are types of knowledge which represent the real world in terms of their own special abstract categories. They measure and classify that world in ways appropriate to the particular uses they want to make of it, somewhat as a surveyor deals with earth in terms of acres, a contractor in truckloads or tons, and a soil analyst in types of chemical structures. To say that the concrete reality of the human organism is physiological is like saying that the earth is so many tons or acres. And to say that this reality is natural is accurate enough if we mean spontaneous (tzu-jan) or natura naturans (“nature naturing”). But it is quite inaccurate if we mean natura naturata (“nature natured”), that is to say, nature classified, sorted into “natures” as when we ask, “What is the nature of this thing?” It is in this sense of the word that we must think of “scientific naturalism,” a doctrine which has nothing in common with the naturalism of Taoism.

Thus to begin to understand what Taoism is about, we must at least be prepared to admit the possibility of some view of the world other than the conventional, some knowledge other than the contents of our surface consciousness, which can apprehend reality only in the form of one abstraction (or thought, the Chinese nien d) at a time. There is no real difficulty in this, for we will already admit that we “know” how to move our hands, how to make a decision, or how to breathe, even though we can hardly begin to explain how we do it in words. We know how to do it because we just do it! Taoism is an extension of this kind of knowledge, an extension which gives us a very different view of ourselves from that to which we are conventionally accustomed, and a view which liberates the human mind from its constricting identification with the abstract ego.

According to tradition, the originator of Taoism, Lao-tzu, was an older contemporary of Kung Fu-tzu, or Confucius, who died in 479 B.C.1 Lao-tzu is said to have been the author of the Tao Te Ching, a short book of aphorisms, setting forth the principles of the Tao and its power or virtue (Te e). But traditional Chinese philosophy ascribes both Taoism and Confucianism to a still earlier source, to a work which lies at the very foundation of Chinese thought and culture, dating anywhere from 3000 to 1200 B.C. This is the I Ching, or Book of Changes.

The I Ching is ostensibly a book of divination. It consists of oracles based on sixty-four abstract figures, each of which is composed of six lines. The lines are of two kinds—divided (negative) and undivided (positive)— and the six-line figures, or hexagrams, are believed to have been based on the various ways in which a tortoise shell will crack when heated.2 This refers to an ancient method of divination in which the soothsayer bored a hole in the back of a tortoise shell, heated it, and then foretold the future from the cracks in the shell so formed, much as palmists use the lines on the hand. Naturally, these cracks were most complicated, and the sixty-four hexagrams are supposed to be a simplified classification of the various patterns of cracks. For many centuries now the tortoise shell has fallen into disuse, and instead the hexagram appropriate to the moment in which a question is asked of the oracle is determined by the random division of a set of fifty yarrow stalks.

But an expert in the I Ching need not necessarily use tortoise shells or yarrow stalks. He can “see” a hexagram in anything–in the chance arrangement of a bowl of flowers, in objects scattered upon a table, in the natural markings on a pebble. A modern psychologist will recognize in this something not unlike a Rorschach test, in which the psychological condition of a patient is diagnosed from the spontaneous images which he “sees” in a complex ink-blot. Could the patient interpret his own projections upon the ink-blot, he would have some useful information about himself for the guidance of his future conduct. In view of this, we cannot dismiss the divinatory art of the I Ching as mere superstition.

Indeed, an exponent of the I Ching might give us quite a tough argument about the relative merits of our ways for making important decisions. We feel that we decide rationally because we base our decisions on collecting relevant data about the matter in hand. We do not depend upon such irrelevant trifles as the chance tossing of a coin, or the patterns of tea leaves or cracks in a shell. Yet he might ask whether we really know what information is relevant, since our plans are constantly upset by utterly unforeseen incidents. He might ask how we know when we have collected enough information upon which to decide. If we were rigorously “scientific” in collecting information for our decisions, it would take us so long to collect the data that the time for action would have passed long before the work had been completed. So how do we know when we have enough? Does the information itself tell us that it is enough? On the contrary, we go through the motions of gathering the necessary information in a rational way, and then, just because of a hunch, or because we are tired of thinking, or because the time has come to decide, we act. He would ask whether this is not depending just as much upon “irrelevant trifles” as if we had been casting the yarrow stalks.

In other words, the “rigorously scientific” method of predicting the future can be applied only in special cases–where prompt action is not urgent, where the factors involved are largely mechanical, or in circumstances so restricted as to be trivial. By far the greater part of our important decisions depend upon “hunch”–in other words, upon the “peripheral vision” of the mind. Thus the reliability of our decisions rests ultimately upon our ability to “feel” the situation, upon the degree to which this “peripheral vision” has been developed.

Every exponent of the I Ching knows this. He knows that the book itself does not contain an exact science, but rather a useful tool which will work for him if he has a good “intuition,” or if, as he would say, he is “in the Tao.” Thus one does not consult the oracle without proper preparation, without going quietly and meticulously through the prescribed rituals in order to bring the mind into that calm state where the “intuition” is felt to act more effectively. It would seem, then, that if the origins of Taoism are to be found in the I Ching, they are not so much in the text of the book itself as in the way in which it was used and in the assumptions underlying it. For experience in making decisions by intuition might well show that this “peripheral” aspect of the mind works best when we do not try to interfere with it, when we trust it to work by itself–tzu-jan, spontaneously, “self-so.”

Thus the basic principles of Taoism begin to unfold themselves. There is, first of all, the Tao–the indefinable, concrete “process” of the world, the Way of life. The Chinese word means originally a way or road, and sometimes “to speak,” so that the first line of the Tao Te Ching contains a pun on the two meanings:

The Tao which can be spoken is not eternal Tao.3 f

But in trying at least to suggest what he means, Lao-tzu says:

There was something vague before heaven and earth arose. How calm! How void! It stands alone, unchanging; it acts everywhere, untiring. It may be considered the mother of everything under heaven. I do not know its name, but call it by the word Tao. (25)

And again:

The Tao is something blurred and indistinct.

How indistinct! How blurred!

Yet within it are images.

How blurred! How indistinct!

Yet within it are things.

How dim! How confused!

Yet within it is mental power.

Because this power is most true,

Within it there is confidence. (21)

“Mental! power” is ching, g a word which combines the ideas of essential, subtle, psychic or spiritual, and skillful. For the point seems to be that as one’s own head looks like nothing to the eyes yet is the source of intelligence, so the vague, void-seeming, and indefinable Tao is the intelligence which shapes the world with a skill beyond our understanding.

The important difference between the Tao and the usual idea of God is that whereas God produces the world by making (wei h), the Tao produces it by “not-making” (wu-wei i)–which is approximately what we mean by “growing.” For things made are separate parts put together, like machines, or things fashioned from without inwards, like sculptures. Whereas things grown divide themselves into parts, from within outwards. Because the natural universe works mainly according to the principles of growth, it would seem quite odd to the Chinese mind to ask how it was made. If the universe were made, there would of course be someone who knows how it is made–who could explain how it was put together bit by bit as a technician can explain in one-at-a-time words how to assemble a machine. But a universe which grows utterly excludes the possibility of knowing how it grows in the clumsy terms of thought and language, so that no Taoist would dream of asking whether the Tao knows how it produces the universe. For it operates according to spontaneity, not according to plan. Lao-tzu says:

The Tao’s principle is spontaneity. (25) j

But spontaneity is not by any means a blind, disorderly urge, a mere power of caprice. A philosophy restricted to the alternatives of conventional language has no way of conceiving an intelligence which does not work according to plan, according to a (one-at-a-time) order of thought. Yet the concrete evidence of such an intelligence is right to hand in our own thoughtlessly organized bodies.3a For the Tao does not “know” how it produces the universe just as we do not “know” how we construct our brains. In the words of Lao-tzu’s great successor, Chuang-tzu:

Things are produced around us, but no one knows the whence. They issue forth, but no one sees the portal. Men one and all value that part of knowledge which is known. They do not know how to avail themselves of the Unknown in order to reach knowledge. Is not this misguided?4

The conventional relationship of the knower to the known is often that of the controller to the controlled, and thus of lord to servant. Thus whereas God is the master of the universe, since “he knows about it all! He knows! He knows!,” the relationship of the Tao to what it produces is quite otherwise.

The great Tao flows everywhere,

to the left and to the right.

All things depend upon it to exist,

and it does not abandon them.

To its accomplishments it lays no claim.

It loves and nourishes all things,

but does not lord it over them. (34)

In the usual Western conception God is also self-knowing–transparent through and through to his own understanding, the image of what man would like to be: the conscious ruler and controller, the absolute dictator of his own mind and body. But in contrast with this, the Tao is through and through mysterious and dark (hsüan k). As a Zen Buddhist said of it in later times:

There is one thing: above, it supports Heaven; below, it upholds Earth. It is black like lacquer, always actively functioning.5 l

Hsüan is, of course, a metaphorical darkness–not the darkness of night, of black as opposed to white, but the sheer inconceivability which confronts the mind when it tries to remember the time before birth, or to penetrate its own depths.

Western critics often poke fun at such nebulous views of the Absolute, deriding them as “misty and mystical” in contrast with their own robustly definite opinions. But as Lao-tzu said:

When the superior man hears of the Tao,

he does his best to practice it.

When the middling man hears of the Tao,

he sometimes keeps it, and sometimes loses it.

When the inferior man hears of the Tao,

he will laugh aloud at it.

If he did not laugh, it would not be the Tao. (41)

For it is really impossible to appreciate what is meant by the Tao without becoming, in a rather special sense, stupid. So long as the conscious intellect is frantically trying to clutch the world in its net of abstractions, and to insist that life be bound and fitted to its rigid categories, the mood of Taoism will remain incomprehensible; and the intellect will wear itself out. The Tao is accessible only to the mind which can practice the simple and subtle art of wu-wei, which, after the Tao, is the second important principle of Taoism.

We saw that the I Ching had given the Chinese mind some experience in arriving at decisions spontaneously, decisions which are effective to the degree that one knows how to let one’s mind alone, trusting it to work by itself. This is wu-wei, since wu means “not” or “non-” and wei means “action,” “making,” “doing,” “striving,” “straining,” or “busyness.” To return to the illustration of eyesight, the peripheral vision works most effectively–as in the dark–when we see out of the corners of the eyes, and do not look at things directly. Similarly, when we need to see the details of a distant object, such as a clock, the eyes must be relaxed, not staring, not trying to see. So, too, no amount of working with the muscles of the mouth and tongue will enable us to taste our food more acutely. The eyes and the tongue must be trusted to do the work by themselves.

But when we have learned to put excessive reliance upon central vision, upon the sharp spotlight of the eyes and mind, we cannot regain the powers of peripheral vision unless the sharp and staring kind of sight is first relaxed. The mental or psychological equivalent of this is the special kind of stupidity to which Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu so often refer. It is not simply calmness of mind, but “non-graspingness” of mind. In Chuangtzu’s words, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives, but does not keep.” One might almost say that it “fuzzes” itself a little to compensate for too harsh a clarity. Thus Lao-tzu says of himself:

Cut out cleverness and there are no anxieties! …

People in general are so happy, as if enjoying a feast,

Or as going up a tower in spring.

I alone am tranquil, and have made no signs,

Like a baby who is yet unable to smile;

Forlorn as if I had no home to go to.

Others all have more than enough,

And I alone seem to be in want.

Possibly mine is the mind of a fool,

Which is so ignorant!

The vulgar are bright,

And I alone seem to be dull.

The vulgar are discriminative,

And I alone seem to be blunt.

I am negligent as if being obscure;

Drifting, as if being attached to nothing.

The people in general all have something to do,

And I alone seem to be impractical and awkward.

I alone am different from others,

But I value seeking sustenance from the Mother (Tao). (20)6

In most Taoist writings there is a slight degree of exaggeration or overstatement of the point which is actually a kind of humor, a self-caricature. Thus Chuang-tzu writes on the same theme:

The man of character (te) lives at home without exercising his mind and performs actions without worry. The notions of right and wrong and the praise and blame of others do not disturb him. When within the four seas all people can enjoy themselves, that is happiness for him.… Sorrowful in countenance, he looks like a baby who has lost his mother; appearing stupid, he goes about like one who has lost his way. He has plenty of money to spend, but does not know where it comes from. He drinks and eats just enough and does not know where the food comes from. (3:13)7

Lao-tzu is still more forceful in his apparent condemnation of conventional cleverness:

Cut out sagacity; discard knowingness,

and the people will benefit an hundredfold.

Cut out “humanity”; discard righteousness,

and the people will regain love of their fellows.

Cut out cleverness; discard the utilitarian,

and there will be no thieves and robbers.…

Become unaffected;8

Cherish sincerity;

Belittle the personal;

Reduce desires. (19)

The idea is not to reduce the human mind to a moronic vacuity, but to bring into play its innate and spontaneous intelligence by using it without forcing it. It is fundamental to both Taoist and Confucian thought that the natural man is to be trusted, and from their standpoint it appears that the Western mistrust of human nature–whether theological or technological–is a kind of schizophrenia. It would be impossible, in their view, to believe oneself innately evil without discrediting the very belief, since all the notions of a perverted mind would be perverted notions. However religiously “emancipated,” the technological mind shows that it has inherited the same division against itself when it tries to subject the whole human order to the control of conscious reason. It forgets that reason cannot be trusted if the brain cannot be trusted, since the power of reason depends upon organs that were grown by “unconscious intelligence.”

The art of letting the mind alone is vividly described by another Taoist writer, Lieh-tzu (c. 398 B.C.), celebrated for his mysterious power of being able to ride upon the wind. This, no doubt, refers to the peculiar sensation of “walking on air” which arises when the mind is first liberated. It is said that when Professor D. T. Suzuki was once asked how it feels to have attained satori,o the Zen experience of “awakening,” he answered, “Just like ordinary everyday experience, except about two inches off the ground!” Thus when asked to explain the art of riding on the wind, Lieh-tzu gave the following account of his training under his master Lao Shang:

After I had served him … for the space of three years, my mind did not venture to reflect on right and wrong, my lips did not venture to speak of profit and loss. Then, for the first time, my master bestowed one glance upon me- and that was all.

At the end of five years a change had taken place; my mind was reflecting on right and wrong, and my lips were speaking of profit and loss. Then, for the first time, my master relaxed his countenance and smiled.

At the end of seven years, there was another change. I let my mind reflect on what it would, but it no longer occupied itself with right and wrong. I let my lips utter whatsoever they pleased, but they no longer spoke of profit and loss. Then, at last, my master led me in to sit on the mat beside him.

At the end of nine years, my mind gave free rein to its reflections,p my mouth free passage to its speech. Of right and wrong, profit and loss, I had no knowledge, either as touching myself or others.… Internal and external were blended into unity. After that, there was no distinction between eye and ear, ear and nose, nose and mouth: all were the same. My mind was frozen, my body in dissolution, my flesh and bones all melted together. I was wholly unconscious of what my body was resting on, or what was under my feet. I was borne this way and that on the wind, like dry chaff or leaves falling from a tree. In fact, I knew not whether the wind was riding on me or I on the wind.9

The state of consciousness described sounds not unlike being pleasantly drunk–though without the “morning after” effects of alcohol! Chuang-tzu noticed the similarity, for he wrote:

A drunken man who falls out of a cart, though he may suffer, does not die. His bones are the same as other people’s; but he meets the accident in a different way. His spirit is in a condition of security. He is not conscious of riding in the cart; neither is he conscious of falling out of it. Ideas of life, death, fear, etc., cannot penetrate his breast; and so he does not suffer from contact with objective existences. And if such security is to be got from wine, how much more is it to be got from Spontaneity. (19)10

Since Lao-tzu, Chuang-tzu, and Lieh-tzu were all conscious enough to write very intelligible books, it may be assumed that some of this language is, again, exaggerated or metaphorical. Their “unconsciousness” is not coma, but what the exponents of Zen later signified by wu-hsin,q literally “no-mind,” which is to say un-self-consciousness. It is a state of wholeness in which the mind functions freely and easily, without the sensation of a second mind or ego standing over it with a club. 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.

Various passages in the Taoist writings suggest that “no-mindedness” is employing the whole mind as we use the eyes when we rest them upon various objects but make no special effort to take anything in. According to Chuang-tzu:

The baby looks at things all day without winking; that is because his eyes are not focussed on any particular object. He goes without knowing where he is going, and stops without knowing what he is doing. He merges himself with the surroundings and moves along with it. These are the principles of mental hygiene. (23)11

And again:

If you regulate your body and unify your attention, the harmony of heaven will come upon you. If you integrate your awareness, and unify your thoughts, spirit will make its abode with you. Te (virtue) will clothe you, and the Tao will shelter you. Your eyes will be like those of a new-born calf, which seeks not the wherefore. (22)

Each of the other senses might similarly be used to illustrate the “non-active” functioning of the mind–listening without straining to hear, smelling without strong inhalation, tasting without screwing up the tongue, and touching without pressing the object. Each is a special instance of the mental function which works through all, and which Chinese designates with the peculiar word hsin.r

This term is so important for the understanding of Zen that some attempt must be made to say what Taoism and Chinese thought in general take it to mean.12 We usually translate it as “mind” or “heart,” but neither of these words is satisfactory. The original form of the ideograph8 seems to be a picture of the heart, or perhaps of the lungs or the liver, and when a Chinese speaks of the hsin he will often point to the center of his chest, slightly lower than the heart.

The difficulty with our translations is that “mind” is too intellectual, too cortical, and that “heart” in its current English usage is too emotional–even sentimental. Furthermore, hsin is not always used with quite the same sense. Sometimes it is used for an obstruction to be removed, as in wu-hsin, “no-mind.” But sometimes it is used in a way that is almost synonymous with the Tao. This is especially found in Zen literature, which abounds with such phrases as “original mind” (pen hsin t), “Buddha mind” (fu hsin u), or “faith in mind” (hsin hsin v). This apparent contradiction is resolved in the principle that “the true mind is no mind,” which is to say that the hsin is true, is working properly, when it works as if it were not present. In the same way, the eyes are seeing properly when they do not see themselves, in terms of spots or blotches in the air.

All in all, it would seem that hsin means the totality of our psychic functioning, and, more specifically, the center of that functioning, which is associated with the central point of the upper body. The Japanese form of the word, kokoro, is used with even more subtleties of meaning, but for the present it is enough to realize that in translating it “mind” (a sufficiently vague word) we do not mean exclusively the intellectual or thinking mind, nor even the surface consciousness. The important point is that, according to both Taoism and Zen, the center of the mind’s activity is not in the conscious thinking process, not in the ego.

When a man has learned to let his mind alone so that it functions in the integrated and spontaneous way that is natural to it, he begins to show the special kind of “virtue” or “power” called te. This is not virtue in the current sense of moral rectitude but in the older sense of effectiveness, as when one speaks of the healing virtues of a plant. Te is, furthermore, unaffected or spontaneous virtue which cannot be cultivated or imitated by any deliberate method. Lao-tzu says:

Superior te is not te,

and thus has te.

Inferior te does not let go of te,

and thus is not te.

Superior te is non-active [wu-wei] and aimless.

Inferior te is active and has an aim. (38)

The literal translation has a strength and depth which is lost in such paraphrases as “Superior virtue is not conscious of itself as virtue, and thus really is virtue. Inferior virtue cannot dispense with virtuosity, and thus is not virtue.”

When the Confucians prescribed a virtue which depended upon the artificial observance of rules and precepts, the Taoists pointed out that such virtue was conventional and not genuine. Chuang-tzu made up the following imaginary dialogue between Confucius and Lao-tzu:

“Tell me,” said Lao-tzu, “in what consist charity and duty to one’s neighbour?”

“They consist,” answered Confucius, “in a capacity for rejoicing in all things; in universal love, without the element of self. These are the characteristics of charity and duty to one’s neighbour.”

“What stuff!” cried Lao-tzu. “Does not universal love contradict itself? Is not your elimination of self a positive manifestation of self? Sir, if you would cause the empire not to lose its source of nourishment,–there is the universe, its regularity is unceasing; there are the sun and moon, their brightness is unceasing; there are the stars, their groupings never change; there are the birds and beasts, they flock together without varying; there are trees and shrubs, they grow upwards without exception. Be like these: follow Tao, and you will be perfect. Why then these vain struggles after charity and duty to one’s neighbour, as though beating a drum in search of a fugitive. Alas! Sir, you have brought much confusion into the mind of man.” (13)13

The Taoist critique of conventional virtue applied not only in the moral sphere but also in the arts, crafts, and trades. According to Chuang-tzu:

Ch’ui the artisan could draw circles with his hand better than with compasses. His fingers seemed to accommodate themselves so naturally to the thing he was working at, that it was unnecessary to fix his attention. His mental faculties thus remained One (i.e., integrated), and suffered no hindrance. To be unconscious of one’s feet implies that the shoes are easy. To be unconscious of a waist implies that the girdle is easy. The intelligence being unconscious of positive and negative implies that the heart (hsin) is at ease.… And he who, beginning with ease, is never not at ease, is unconscious of the ease of ease. (19)14

Just as the artisan who had mastered te could do without the artificiality of the compass, so the painter, the musician, and the cook would have no need for the conventional classifications of their respective arts. Thus Lao-tzu said:

The five colours will blind a man’s sight.

The five sounds will deaden a mans hearing.

The five tastes will spoil a man’s palate.

Chasing and hunting will drive a man wild.

Things hard to get will do harm to a man’s conduct.

Therefore the sage makes provision for the stomach and not for the eye. (12)15

This must by no means be taken as an ascetic’s hatred of sense experience, for the point is precisely that the eye’s sensitivity to color is impaired by the fixed idea that there are just five true colors. There is an infinite continuity of shading, and breaking it down into divisions with names distracts the attention from its subtlety. This is why “the sage makes provision for the stomach and not for the eye,” which is to say that he judges by the concrete content of the experience, and not by its conformity with purely theoretical standards.

In sum, then, te is the unthinkable ingenuity and creative power of man’s spontaneous and natural functioning–a power which is blocked when one tries to master it in terms of formal methods and techniques. It is like the centipede’s skill in using a hundred legs at once.

The centipede was happy, quite,

Until a toad in fun

Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”

This worked his mind to such a pitch,

He lay distracted in a ditch,

Considering how to run.

A profound regard for te underlies the entire higher culture of the Far East, so much so that it has been made the basic principle of every kind of art and craft. While it is true that these arts employ what are, to us, highly difficult technical disciplines, it is always recognized that they are instrumental and secondary, and that superior work has the quality of an accident. This is not merely a masterful mimicry of the accidental, an assumed spontaneity in which the careful planning does not show. It lies at a much deeper and more genuine level, for what the culture of Taoism and Zen proposes is that one might become the kind of person who, without intending it, is a source of marvelous accidents.

Taoism is, then, the original Chinese way of liberation which combined with Indian Mahayana Buddhism to produce Zen. It is a liberation from convention and of the creative power of te. Every attempt to describe and formulate it in words and one-at-a-time thought symbols must, of necessity, distort it. The foregoing chapter has perforce made it seem one of the “vitalist” or “naturalistic” philosophical alternatives. For Western philosophers are constantly bedeviled by the discovery that they cannot think outside certain well-worn ruts–that, however hard they may try, their “new” philosophies turn out to be restatements of ancient positions, monist or pluralist, realist or nominalist, vitalist or mechanist. This is because these are the only alternatives which the conventions of thought can present, and they cannot discuss anything else without presenting it in their own terms. When we try to represent a third dimension upon a two-dimensional surface, it will of necessity seem to belong more or less to the two alternatives of length and breadth. In the words of Chuang-tzu:

Were language adequate, it would take but a day fully to set forth Tao. Not being adequate, it takes that time to explain material existences. Tao is something beyond material existences. It cannot be conveyed either by words or by silence. (25)16

1 Modern scholarship has questioned both the date and the historicity of Lao-tzu, but it is hard to say whether this is really more than a manifestation of fashion, since there are periodic tendencies to cast doubts on the existence of great sages or to question the hoariness of their antiquity. One recalls similar doubts in connection with Jesus and the Buddha. There are some serious arguments for a later date, but it seems best to keep the traditional date until evidence to the contrary becomes more conclusive. See Fung Yu-lan (1), vol. 1, pp. 170–76.

2 Fung Yu-lan (1), vol. 1, pp. 379–80.

3 Duyvendak (1) suggests that tao did not have the meaning of “to speak” at this date, and so translates the passage, “The Way that may truly be regarded as the Way is other than a permanent way.” It really comes to the same thing, for what Duyvendak means by a “permanent way” is a fixed concept of the Tao–i.e., a definition. Almost every other translator, and most of the Chinese commentators, take the second tao to mean “spoken.”

3a The above was written before I had seen the second volume of Joseph Needham’s masterly Science and Civilization in China, where he discusses the organismic nature of the Chinese, and especially the Taoist, conception of the universe. See especially Section 13f, pp. 279 ff. Needham also draws attention to the essential differences between Hebrew-Christian and Chinese views of natural law, the former deriving from the “word” of a lawgiver, God, and the latter from a relationship of spontaneous processes working in an organismic pattern. See Section 18, f and h, esp. pp. 557–64 and 572–83

4 H. A. Giles (1), p. 345.

5 T’ung-shan Liang-chieh. Dumoulin and Sasaki (1), p. 74.

6 Save for the first line, I have followed Ch’u Ta-kao (1), p. 30.

7 Lin Yutang (1), p. 129.

8 “Unaffected” is an attempt to render su,m a character which refers originally to unbleached silk, or to the unpainted silk background of a picture. “Humanity” refers to the central Confucian principle of jen,n which would ordinarily mean “human-heartedness,” though it is obvious that Lao-tzu refers to its self-conscious and affected form.

9 L. Giles (1), pp. 40–42. From Lieh-tzu, ii.

10H. A. Giles (1), p. 232.

11 Lin Yutang (1), p. 86.

12 The central Zen principle of “no-mind” or wu-hsin is already found in Chuang-tzu. Cf. Chuang-tzu (22):

Body like dry bone,

Mind like dead ashes;

This is true knowledge,

Not to strive after knowing the whence.

In darkness, in obscurity,

The mindless (wu-hsin) cannot plan;–

What manner of man is that?

H. A. Giles (1), p. 281.

13 H. A. Giles (1), p. 167.

14 H. A. Giles (1), p. 242.

15 Ch’u Ta-kao (1), p. 22.

16 H. A. Giles (1), p. 351.



Chinese civilization was at least two thousand years old when it first encountered Buddhism. Thus the new philosophy entered into a solidly established culture in which it could hardly become acceptable without major adaptations to the Chinese mentality, even though there were some resemblances between Taoism and Buddhism so strong that they have aroused speculation as to whether contacts between the two were much earlier than has been supposed. China absorbed Buddhism as it has absorbed so many other external influences–not only philosophies and ideas, but also alien populations and invaders. Undoubtedly this is due in some measure to the extraordinary stability and maturity which the Chinese have derived from Confucianism. Reasonable, unfanatical, humanistic, Confucianism is one of the most workable patterns of social convention that the world has known. Coupled with the “let well enough alone” attitude of Taoism, it nurtured a mellow and rather easygoing type of mentality which, when it absorbed Buddhism, did much to make it more “practical.” That is to say, it made Buddhism a possible way of life for human beings, for people with families, with everyday work to do, and with normal instincts and passions.

It was a basic Confucian principle that “it is man who makes truth great, not truth which makes man great.” For this reason, “humanness” or “human-heartedness” (jen a) was always felt to be superior to “righteousness” (i b), since man himself is greater than any idea which he may invent. There are times when men’s passions are much more trustworthy than their principles. Since opposed principles, or ideologies, are irreconcilable, wars fought over principle will be wars of mutual annihilation. But wars fought for simple greed will be far less destructive, because the aggressor will be careful not to destroy what he is fighting to capture. Reasonable–that is, human–men will always be capable of compromise, but men who have dehumanized themselves by becoming the blind worshipers of an idea or an ideal are fanatics whose devotion to abstractions makes them the enemies of life.

Modified by such attitudes, Far Eastern Buddhism is much more palatable and “according to nature” than its Indian and Tibetan counterparts, with ideals of life which seem at times to be superhuman, more suited to angels than to men. Even so, all forms of Buddhism subscribe to the Middle Way between the extremes of angel (deva) and demon (preta), ascetic and sensualist, and claim that supreme “awakening” or Buddhahood can be attained only from the human state.

There are some serious difficulties in the way of giving an historically accurate account of Indian Buddhism, as of the whole philosophical tradition from which it arose. No student of Asian thought should be unaware of these difficulties, because they make it necessary to take almost every important pronouncement about ancient Indian thought with caution. Thus before attempting to describe Indian Buddhism, some of these difficulties should be mentioned.

The first, and most serious, is the problem of interpreting the Sanskrit and Pali texts in which ancient Indian literature is preserved. This is especially true of Sanskrit, the sacred language of India, and more particularly the form of Sanskrit used in the Vedic period. Both Western and Indian scholars are uncertain as to its exact interpretation, and all modern dictionaries rely heavily on a single source–the lexicon compiled by Böthlingk and Roth in the latter part of the last century, and now admitted to contain a great deal of guesswork. This seriously affects our understanding of the primary sources of Hinduism–the Vedas and Upanishads. The discovery of proper European equivalents for philosophical terms has been hindered by the fact that early lexicographers were all too ready to find correspondences with Western theological terms, since one of the primary objects of their studies was to assist the missionaries.1

The second is that it is extremely hard to know what was the original form of Buddhism. There are two sets of Buddhist scriptures: the Pali Canon of the Theravada or Southern School of Buddhism, which flourishes in Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand, and the Sanskrit-Tibetan-Chinese Canon of the Mahayana, or Northern School. There is a general consensus of scholars that the Pali Canon is, on the whole, the earlier of the two, and that the principal sutras (as the sacred texts are called) of the Mahayana Canon were all compiled after 100 B.C. However, the literary form of the Pali Canon does not suggest that it represents the actual words of Gautama the Buddha. If the Upanishads are characteristic of the style of discourse of an Indian teacher between 800 and 300 B.C., they bear little resemblance to the tediously repetitious and scholastic style of most Buddhist scriptures. There can be little doubt that the greater part of both Buddhist Canons is the work of the pandits of the Sangha, the Buddhist monastic order, for it shows every sign of being the reverential elaboration of an original doctrine. As with Russian icons, the original painting has been almost lost to sight in the overlay of jewels and gold.

The third is that the Hindu-Buddhist tradition has never had the historical sense of the Hebrew-Christian tradition, so that there are few, if any, marks to indicate the date of a given text. Scriptures were handed down by oral tradition for an indeterminable period of time before being committed to writing, and it is quite possible that historical references could have been changed to suit the times as the oral form was handed down. Furthermore, a Buddhist monk writing in A.D. 200 would have no compunction in attributing his own words to the Buddha if he felt sincerely that they were an expression, not of personal opinion, but of the supra-personal state of awakening to which he had attained. He would attribute the words to the Buddha as speaking in a spiritual rather than material body.

The danger of scholarship is always that, in extreme specialization, it may be unable to see the forest for the trees. But the problem of gaining some idea of the thought of India at the time of the Buddha, six centuries before Christ, is not to be solved by careful piece-work alone–necessary as this may be. There is, however, enough reliable information to suggest the grand and beautifully ordered form of Upanishadic Hinduism if we do not read it with our noses against the page.

Fundamental to the life and thought of India from the very earliest times is the great mythological theme of atma-yajna–the act of “self-sacrifice” whereby God gives birth to the world, and whereby men, following the divine pattern, reintegrate themselves with God. The act by which the world is created is the same act by which it is consummated–the giving up of one’s life–as if the whole process of the universe were the type of game in which it is necessary to pass on the ball as soon as it is received. Thus the basic myth of Hinduism is that the world is God playing hide-and-seek with himself. As Prajapati, Vishnu, or Brahma, the Lord under many names creates the world by an act of self-dismemberment or self-forgetting, whereby the One becomes Many, and the single Actor plays innumerable parts. In the end, he comes again to himself only to begin the play once more–the One dying into the Many, and the Many dying into the One.

A thousand heads hath Purusha, a thousand eyes, a thousand feet.

On every side pervading earth he fills a space ten fingers wide.

This Purusha is all that yet hath been and all that is to be;

The lord of immortality that waxes greater still by food.

So mighty is his greatness; yea, greater than this is Purusha.

All creatures are one fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.…

When the gods prepared the sacrifice with Purusha as their offering,

Its oil was spring, the holy gift was autumn; summer was the wood.

From that great general sacrifice the dripping fat was gathered up.

He formed the creatures -of the air, and animals both wild and tame.…

When they divided Purusha, how many portions did they make?

What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

The Brahman (caste) was his mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya (Kshatriya caste) made.

His thighs became Vaishya, from his feet the Shudra was produced.

The moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the sun had birth;

Indra and Agni from his mouth were born, and Vayu from his breath.

Forth from his navel came mid-air; the sky was fashioned from his head;

Earth from his feet, and from his ear the regions. Thus they formed the worlds.2

The thousand heads, eyes, and feet of the Purusha are the members of men and other beings, for the point is that That which knows in and through every individual is God himself, the atman or Self of the world. Every life is a part or role in which the mind of God is absorbed, somewhat as an actor absorbs himself in being Hamlet and forgets that in real life he is Mr. Smith. By the act of self-abandonment God becomes all beings, yet at the same time does not cease to be God. “All creatures are one fourth of him, three-fourths eternal life in heaven.” For God is divided in play, in make-believe, but remains undivided in reality. So that when the play comes to an end, the individualized consciousness awakes to find itself divine.

In the beginning this world was Atman (the Self), alone in the form of Purusha. Looking about he saw nothing other than himself.

He said first, “I am.” Thence came the word “I.” Thus even now, when one is spoken to, he first answers simply, “It is I,” and then tells whatever name he has.3

On all sides That has hands and feet;

On all sides eyes, heads, and faces;

On all sides in the world it hears;

All things it embraces.4

It is important to remember that this picture of the world as the play (lila) of God is mythological in form. If, at this stage, we were to translate it directly into philosophical statement it would be a crude type of pantheism, with which Hindu philosophy is generally and erroneously confused. Thus the idea of each man, each thing, as a part which the Purusha plays in the state of self-forgetting must not be confused with a logical or scientific statement of fact. The form of statement is poetic, not logical. In the words of the Mundaka Upanishad,

Truly this atman (Self)–the poets say–travels on this earth from body to body. (ii. 7)

Hindu philosophy has not made the mistake of imagining that one can make an informative, factual, and positive statement about the ultimate reality. As the same Upanishad says,

Where knowledge is without duality, without action, cause, or effect, unspeakable, incomparable, beyond description, what is that? It is impossible to say! (vi. 7)

Every positive statement about ultimate things must be made in the suggestive form of myth, of poetry. For in this realm the direct and indicative form of speech can say only “Neti, neti” (“No, no”), since what can be described and categorized must always belong to the conventional realm.

Hindu mythology elaborates the theme of the divine play on a fabulous scale, embracing not only colossal concepts of time and space, but also the widest extremes of pleasure and pain, virtue and depravity. The inmost Self of saint and sage is no less the veiled Godhead than the inmost Self of the debauchee, the coward, the lunatic, and the very demons. The opposites (dvandva) of light and darkness, good and evil, pleasure and pain, are the essential elements of the game, for although the Godhead is identified with Truth (sat), Consciousness (chit), and Bliss (ananda), the dark side of life has its integral part in the game just as every drama must have its villain, to disrupt the status quo, and as the cards must be shuffled, thrown into chaos, in order that there may be a significant development of the play. For Hindu thought there is no Problem of Evil. The conventional, relative world is necessarily a world of opposites. Light is inconceivable apart from darkness; order is meaningless without disorder; and, likewise, up without down, sound without silence, pleasure without pain. In the words of Ananda Coomaraswamy:

For anyone who holds that “God made the world,” the question, Why did He permit the existence in it of any evil, or of that Evil One in whom all evil is personified, is altogether meaningless; one might as well enquire why He did not make a world without dimensions or one without temporal succession.5

According to the myth, the divine play goes on through endless cycles of time, through periods of manifestation and withdrawal of the worlds measured in units of kalpas, the kalpa being a span of 4,320,000,000 years. From the human standpoint such a conception presents a terrifying monotony, since it goes on aimlessly for ever and ever. But from the divine standpoint it has all the fascination of the repetitious games of children, which go on and on because time has been forgotten and has reduced itself to a single wondrous instant.

The foregoing myth is not the expression of a formal philosophy, but of an experience or state of consciousness which is called moksha or “liberation.” On the whole it is safer to say that Indian philosophy is primarily this experience; it is only quite secondarily a system of ideas which attempt to translate the experience into conventional language. At root, then, the philosophy becomes intelligible only by sharing the experience which consists of the same type of nonconventional knowledge found in Taoism. It is also termed atma-jnana (Self-knowledge) or atma-bodha (Self-awakening), since it may be considered as the discovery of who or what I am, when I am no longer identified with any role or conventional definition of the person. Indian philosophy does not describe the content of this discovery except in mythological terms, using the phrase “I am Brahman” (aham brahman) or “That art thou” (tat tvam asi) to suggest that Self-knowledge is a realization of one’s original identity with God.

But this does not imply what “claiming to be God” means in a Hebrew-Christian context, where mythical language is ordinarily confused with factual language so that there is no clear distinction between God as described in the terms of conventional thought and God as he is in reality. A Hindu does not say “I am Brahman” with the implication that he is personally in charge of the whole universe and informed as to every detail of its operation. On the one hand, he is not speaking of identity with God at the level of his superficial personality. On the other, his “God”–Brahman–is not in charge of the universe in a “personal” way; he does not know and act in the manner of a person since he does not know the universe in terms of conventional facts nor act upon it by means of deliberation, effort, and will. It may be of significance that the word “Brahman” is from the root brih-, “to grow,” since his creative activity, like that of the Tao, is with the spontaneity proper to growth as distinct from the deliberation proper to making. Furthermore, though Brahman is said to “know” himself, this knowing is not a matter of information, a knowledge such as one has of objects distinct from a subject. In the words of Shankara,

For He is the Knower, and the Knower can know other things, but cannot make Himself the object of His own knowledge, in the same way that fire can burn other things, but cannot burn itself.6

To the Western mind the puzzle of Indian philosophy is that it has so much to say about what the moksha experience is not, and little, or nothing, to say about what it is. This is naturally bewildering, for if the experience is really without content, or if it is so lacking in relation to the things which we consider important, how is one to explain the immense esteem which it holds in the Indian scheme of life?

Even at the conventional level it is surely easy to see that knowing what is not so is often quite as important as knowing what is. Even when medicine can suggest no effective remedy for the common cold, there is some advantage in knowing the uselessness of certain popular nostrums. Furthermore, the function of negative knowledge is not unlike the uses of space–the empty page upon which words can be written, the empty jar into which liquid can be poured, the empty window through which light can be admitted, and the empty pipe through which water can flow. Obviously the value of emptiness lies in the movements it permits or in the substance which it mediates and contains. But the emptiness must come first. This is why Indian philosophy concentrates on negation, on liberating the mind from concepts of Truth. It proposes no idea, no description, of what is to fill the mind’s void because the idea would exclude the fact–somewhat as a picture of the sun on the windowpane would shut out the true sun’s light. Whereas the Hebrews would not permit an image of God in wood or stone, the Hindus will not permit an image of thought–unless it be so obviously mythological as not to be mistaken for the reality.

Therefore the practical discipline (sadhana) of the way of liberation is a progressive disentanglement of one’s Self (atman) from every identification. It is to realize that I am not this body, these sensations, these feelings, these thoughts, this consciousness. The basic reality of my life is not any conceivable object. Ultimately it is not even to be identified with any idea, as of God or atman. In the words of the Mandukya Upanishad:

(It is) That which is conscious neither of the subjective nor of the objective, nor of both; which is neither simple consciousness, nor undifferentiated sentience, nor mere darkness. It is unseen, without relations, incomprehensible, uninferable, and indescribable–the essence of Self-consciousness, the ending of maya. (vii)

The atman is to our total consciousness what the head is to the sense of sight–neither light nor darkness, neither full nor empty, only an inconceivable beyond. In the moment when every last identification of the Self with some object or concept has ceased, in the state called nirvikalpa or “without conception,” there flashes forth from its unknown depths the state of consciousness which is called divine, the knowledge of Brahman.

Translated into conventional and—let it be repeated—mythopoetic language, the knowledge of Brahman is represented as the discovery that this world which seemed to be Many is in truth One, that “all is Brahman” and that “all duality is falsely imagined.” Taken as statements of fact, such utterances are logically meaningless and convey no information. Yet they seem to be the best possible expression in words of the experience itself, though it is as if in the moment of saying the “last word” the tongue were paralyzed by its own revelation, and compelled to babble nonsense or be silent.

Moksha is also understood as liberation from maya–one of the most important words in Indian philosophy, both Hindu and Buddhist. For the manifold world of facts and events is said to be maya, ordinarily understood as an illusion which veils the one underlying reality of Brahman. This gives the impression that moksha is a state of consciousness in which the whole varied world of nature vanishes from sight, merged in a boundless ocean of vaguely luminous space. Such an impression should be dismissed at once, for it implies a duality, an incompatibility, between Brahman and maya which is against the whole principle of Upanishadic philosophy. For Brahman is not One as opposed to Many, not simple as opposed to complex. Brahman is without duality (advaita), which is to say without any opposite since Brahman is not in any class or, for that matter, outside any class.

Now classification is precisely maya. The word is derived from the Sanskrit root matr-, “to measure, form, build, or lay out a plan,” the root from which we obtain such Greco-Latin words as meter, matrix, material, and matter. The fundamental process of measurement is division, whether by drawing a line with the finger, by marking off or by enclosing circles with the span of the hand or dividers, or by sorting grain or liquids into measures (cups). Thus the Sanskrit root dva- from which we get the word “divide” is also the root of the Latin duo (two) and the English “dual.”

To say, then, that the world of facts and events is maya is to say that facts and events are terms of measurement rather than realities of nature. We must, however, expand the concept of measurement to include setting bounds of all kinds, whether by descriptive classification or selective screening. It will thus be easy to see that facts and events are as abstract as lines of latitude or as feet and inches. Consider for a moment that it is impossible to isolate a single fact, all by itself. Facts come in pairs at the very least, for a single body is inconceivable apart from a space in which it hangs. Definition, setting bounds, delineation–these are always acts of division and thus of duality, for as soon as a boundary is defined it has two sides.

This point of view is somewhat startling, and even quite hard to understand, for those long accustomed to think that things, facts, and events are the very building-blocks of the world, the most solid of solid realities. Yet a proper understanding of the maya doctrine is one of the most essential prerequisites for the study of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in trying to grasp its meaning one must try to put aside the various “idealist” philosophies of the West with which it is so often confused–even by modern Indian Vedantists. For the world is not an illusion of the mind in the sense that–to the eyes of the liberated man (jivanmukta)–there is nothing to be seen but a trackless void. He sees the world that we see; but he does not mark it off, measure it, divide it in the same way. He does not look upon it as really or concretely broken down into separate things and events. He sees that the skin may just as well be regarded as what joins us to our environment as what separates us from it. He sees, furthermore, that the skin will be considered as joining only if it has first been considered as separating, or vice versa.

Thus his point of view is not monistic. He does not think that all things are in reality One because, concretely speaking, there never were any “things” to be considered One. To join is as much maya as to separate. For this reason both Hindus and Buddhists prefer to speak of reality as “nondual” rather than “one,” since the concept of one must always be in relation to that of many. The doctrine of maya is therefore a doctrine of relativity. It is saying that things, facts, and events are delineated, not by nature, but by human description, and that the way in which we describe (or divide) them is relative to our varying points of view.

It is easy to see, for example, that an event called the First World War can only rather arbitrarily be said to have begun on August 4, 1914, and to have ended on November 11, 1918. Historians can discover “actual” beginnings of the war long before and “resumptions” of the same strife long after these formal boundaries of the event. For events can divide and merge like blobs of mercury according to the changing fashions of historical description. The boundaries of events are conventional rather than natural, in the sense that a man’s life is said to have begun at the moment of parturition, rather than at conception on the one hand or weaning on the other.

Similarly, it is easy to see the conventional character of things. Ordinarily a human organism is counted as one thing, though from the physiological standpoint it is as many things as it has parts or organs, and from the sociological standpoint it is merely part of a larger thing called a group.

Certainly the world of nature abounds with surfaces and lines, with areas of density and vacuity, which we employ in marking out the boundaries of events and things. But here again, the maya doctrine asserts that these forms (rupa) have no “own-being” or “self-nature” (svabhava): they do not exist in their own right, but only in relation to one another, as a solid cannot be distinguished save in relation to a space. In this sense, the solid and the space, the sound and the silence, the existent and the nonexistent, the figure and the ground are inseparable, interdependent, or “mutually arising,” and it is only by maya or conventional division that they may be considered apart from one another.

Indian philosophy also thinks of rupa or form as maya because it is impermanent. Indeed, when Hindu and Buddhist texts speak of the “empty” or “illusory” character of the visible world of nature–as distinct from the conventional world of things–they refer precisely to the impermanence of its forms. Form is flux, and thus maya in the slightly extended sense that it cannot be firmly marked down or grasped. Form is maya when the mind attempts to comprehend and control it in the fixed categories of thought, that is, by means of names (nama) and words. For these are precisely the nouns and verbs by means of which the abstract and conceptual categories of things and events are designated.

To serve their purpose, names and terms must of necessity be fixed and definite like all other units of measurement. But their use is–up to a point–so satisfactory that man is always in danger of confusing his measures with the world so measured, of identifying money with wealth, fixed convention with fluid reality. But to the degree that he identifies himself and his life with these rigid and hollow frames of definition, he condemns himself to the perpetual frustration of one trying to catch water in a sieve. Thus Indian philosophy speaks constantly of the unwisdom of pursuing things, of striving for the permanence of particular entities and events, because it sees in all this nothing more than an infatuation with ghosts, with the abstract measures of the mind (manas).7

Maya is, then, usually equated with nama-rupa or “name-and-form,” with the mind’s attempt to grasp the fluid forms of nature in its mesh of fixed classes. But when it is understood that form is ultimately void-in the special sense of ungraspable and immeasurable-the world of form is immediately seen as Brahman rather than maya. The formal world becomes the real world in the moment when it is no longer clutched, in the moment when its changeful fluidity is no longer resisted. Hence it is the very transitoriness of the world which is the sign of its divinity, of its actual identity with the indivisible and immeasurable infinity of Brahman.

This is why the Hindu-Buddhist insistence on the impermanence of the world is not the pessimistic and nihilistic doctrine which Western critics normally suppose it to be. Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy. This is perhaps why, in both East and West, impermanence is so often the theme of the most profound and moving poetry-so much so that the splendor of change shines through even when the poet seems to resent it the most.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Stated thus—as R. H. Blyth observes—it seems not so bad after all.

In sum, then, the maya doctrine points out, firstly, the impossibility of grasping the actual world in the mind’s net of words and concepts, and, secondly, the fluid character of those very forms which thought attempts to define. The world of facts and events is altogether nama, abstract names, and rupa, fluid form. It escapes both the comprehension of the philosopher and the grasp of the pleasure-seeker like water from a clutching fist. There is even something deceptive in the idea of Brahman as the eternal reality underlying the flux, and of the atman as the divine ground of human consciousness, for in so far as these are concepts they are as incapable of grasping the real as any other.

It is precisely this realization of the total elusiveness of the world which lies at the root of Buddhism. This is the special shift of emphasis which, more than anything else, distinguishes the doctrine of the Buddha from the teaching of the Upanishads, which is the raison d’être for the growth of Buddhism as a distinct movement in Indian life and thought.

For Gautama the “Awakened One” or Buddha (died c. 545 B.C.) lived at a time when the major Upanishads were already in existence, and their philosophy must be seen as the point of departure for his own teaching. It would be a serious mistake, however, to look upon the Buddha as the “founder” or “reformer” of a religion which came into being as some kind of organized revolt against Hinduism. For we are speaking of a time when there was no consciousness of “religions,” when such terms as “Hindu-ism” or “Brahman-ism” would have meant nothing. There was simply a tradition, embodied in the orally transmitted doctrine! of the Vedas and Upanishads, a tradition that was not specifically “religious” in that it involved a whole way of life and concerned everything from the methods of agriculture to the knowledge of the ultimate reality. The Buddha was acting in full accord with this tradition when he became a rishi or “forest sage,” who had abandoned the life of the householder and divested himself of caste in order to follow a way of liberation. As with every other rishi, the method of his way of liberation had certain characteristic features, and his doctrine contained criticisms of men’s failure to practice the tradition which they professed.

Furthermore, he was being entirely traditional in his abandonment of caste and in accepting a following of casteless and homeless students. For the Indian tradition, even more than the Chinese, specifically encourages the abandonment of the conventional life at a certain age, after the duties of family and citizenship have been fulfilled. Relinquishment of caste is the outward and visible sign of the realization that one’s true state is “unclassified,” that one’s role o…