Beat Zen, square Zen, and Zen
                                             by Watts Alan
                                            Chicago Review
                                        Vol. 42 No. 3-4  1996
                                     Copyright by Chicago Review
It is as difficult for Anglo-Saxons as for the Japanese to absorb anything
quite so Chinese as Zen. For though the word "Zen" is Japanese and though
Japan is now its home, Zen Buddhism is the creation of T'ang dynasty China.
I do not say this as a prelude to harping upon the incommunicable
subtleties of alien cultures. The point is simply that people who feel a
profound need to justify themselves have difficulty in understanding the
viewpoints of those who do not, and the Chinese who created Zen were the
same kind of people as Lao-tzu, who, centuries before, had said, "Those who
justify themselves do not convince." For the urge to make or prove oneself
right has always jiggled the Chinese sense of the ludicrous, since as both
Confucians and Taoists--however different these philosophies in other
ways--they have invariably appreciated the man who can "come off it." To
Confucius it seemed much better to be human-hearted than righteous, and to
the great Taoists, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, it was obvious that one could
not be right without also being wrong, because the two were as inseparable
as back and front. As Chuang-tzu said, "Those who would have good
government without its correlative misrule, and right without its
correlative wrong, do not understand the principles of the universe."
To Western ears such words may sound cynical, and the Confucian admiration
of "reasonableness" and compromise may appear to be a weak-kneed lack of
commitment to principle. Actually they reflect a marvelous understanding
and respect for what we call the balance of nature, human and otherwise--a
universal vision of life as the Tao or way of nature in which the good and
the evil, the creative and the destructive, the wise and the foolish are
the inseparable polarities of existence. "Tao," said the Chung-yung, "is
that from which one cannot depart. That from which one can depart is not
the Tao." Therefore wisdom did not consist in trying to wrest the good from
the evil but in learning to "ride" them as a cork adapts itself to the
crests and troughs of the waves. At the roots of Chinese life there is a
trust in the good-and-evil of one's own nature which is peculiarly foreign
to those brought up with the chronic uneasy conscience of the
Hebrew-Christian cultures. Yet it was always obvious to the Chinese that a
man who mistrusts himself cannot even trust his mistrust, and must
therefore be hopelessly confused.
For rather different reasons, Japanese people tend to be as uneasy in
themselves as Westerners, having a sense of social shame quite as acute as
our more metaphysical sense of sin. This was especially true of the class
most attracted to Zen, the samurai. Ruth Benedict, in that very uneven work
Chrysanthemum and Sword, was, I think, perfectly correct in saying that the
attraction of Zen to the samurai class was its power to get rid of an
extremely awkward self-consciousness induced in the young. Part-and-parcel
of this self-consciousness is the Japanese compulsion to compete with
oneself--a compulsion which turns every craft and skill into a marathon of
self-discipline. Although the attraction of Zen lay in the possibility of
liberation from self-consciousness, the Japanese version of Zen fought fire
with fire, overcoming the "self observing the self" by bringing it to an
intensity in which it exploded. How remote from the regimen of the Japanese
Zen monastery are the words of the great T'ang master Lin-chi:
In Buddhism there is no place for using effort. Just be ordinary and
nothing special. Eat your food, move your bowels, pass water, and when
you're tired go and lie down. The ignorant will laugh at me, but the wise
will understand.
Yet the spirit of these words is just as remote from a kind of Western Zen
which would employ this philosophy to justify a very self-defensive
There is no single reason for the extraordinary growth of Western interest
in Zen during the last twenty years. The appeal of Zen arts to the "modern"
spirit in the West, the work of Suzuki, the war with Japan, the itchy
fascination of "Zen-stories," and the attraction of a non-conceptual,
experiential philosophy in the climate of scientific relativism--all these
are involved. One might mention, too, the affinities between Zen and such
purely Western trends as the philosophy of Wittgenstein, Existentialism,
General Semantics, the metalinguistics of B. L. Whorf, and certain
movements in the philosophy of science and in psychotherapy. Always in the
background there is our vague disquiet with the artificiality or
"anti-naturalness" of both Christianity, with its politically-ordered
cosmology, and technology, with its imperialistic mechanization of a
natural world from which man himself feels strangely alien. For both
reflect a psychology in which man is identified with a conscious
intelligence and will standing apart from nature to control it, like the
architect-God in whose image this version of man is conceived. The disquiet
arises from the suspicion that our attempt to master the world from outside
is a vicious circle in which we shall be condemned to the perpetual
insomnia of controlling controls and supervising supervision ad infinitum.
To the Westerner in search of the reintegration of man and nature there is
an appeal far beyond the merely sentimental in the naturalism of Zen--in
the landscapes of Ma-yuan and Sesshu, in an art which is simultaneously
spiritual and secular, which conveys the mystical in terms of the natural,
and which, indeed, never even imagined a break between them. Here is a view
of the world imparting a profoundly refreshing sense of wholeness to a
culture in which the spiritual and the material, the conscious and the
unconscious, have been cataclysmically split. For this reason the Chinese
humanism and naturalism of Zen intrigue us much more strongly than Indian
Buddhism or Vedanra. These, too, have their students in the West, but their
followers seem for the most part to be displaced Christians--people in
search of a more plausible philosophy than Christian supernaturalism to
carry on the essentially Christian search for the miraculous. The ideal man
of Indian Buddhism is clearly a superman, a yogi with absolute mastery of
his own nature, according perfectly with the science-fiction ideal of "men
beyond mankind." But the Buddha or awakened man of Chinese Zen is "ordinary
and nothing special"; he is humorously human like the Zen tramps portrayed
by Mu-chi and Liang-k'ai. We like this because here, for the first time, is
a conception of the holy man and sage who is not impossibly remote, not
superhuman but fully human, and, above all, not a solemn and sexless
ascetic. Furthermore, in Zen the satori experience of awakening to our
"original inseparability" with the universe seems, however elusive, always
just round the corner. One has even met people to whom it has happened, and
they are no longer mysterious occultisrs in the Himalayas nor skinny yogis
in cloistered ashrams. They are just like us, and yet much more at home in
the world, floating much more easily upon the ocean of transience and
But the Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it
deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his
own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises
unconsciously. He must really have come to terms with the Lord God Jehovah
and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience so that he can take it or leave it
without fear or rebellion. He must be free of the itch to justify himself.
Lacking this, his Zen will be either "heat" or "square," either a revolt
from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and
respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from
conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from
rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adopting foreign
conventions, on the other.
Conventional thought is, in brief, the confusion of the concrete universe
of nature with the conceptual things, events, and values of linguistic and
cultural symbolism. For in Taoism and Zen the world is seen as an
inseparably interrelated field or continuum, no part of which can actually
be separated from the rest or valued above or below the rest. It was in
this sense that Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch, meant that "fudamentally not
one thing exists," for he realized that things are terms, not entities.
They exist in the abstract world of thought, but not in the concrete world
of nature. Thus one who actually perceives or feels this to be so no longer
feels that he is an ego, except by definition. He sees that his ego is his
persona or social role, a somewhat arbitrary selection of experiences with
which he has been taught to identify himself. (Why, for example, do we say
"I think" but not "I am beating my heart"?) Having seen this, he continues
to play his social role without being taken in by it. He does not
precipitately adopt a new role or play the role of having no role at all.
He plays it cool.
The "beat" mentality as I am thinking of it is something much more
extensive and vague than the hipster life of New York and San Francisco. It
is a younger generation's nonparticipation in "the American Way of Life," a
revolt which does not seek to change the existing order but simply turns
away from it to find the significance of life in subjective experience
rather than objective achievement. It contrasts with the "square" and
other-directed mentality of beguilement by social convention, unaware of
the relativity of right and wrong, of the mutual necessity of capitalism
and communism to each other's existence, of the inner identity of
puritanism and lechery, or of, say, the alliance of church lobbies and
organized crime to maintain the laws against gambling.
Beat Zen is a complex phenomenon. It ranges from a use of Zen for
justifying sheer caprice in art, literature, and life to a very forceful
social criticism and "digging of the universe" such as one may find in the
poetry of Ginsberg and Snyder, and, rather unevenly, in Kerouac. But, as I
know it, it is always a shade too self-conscious, too subjective, and too
strident to have the flavor of Zen. It is all very well for the
philosopher, but when the poet (Ginsberg) says--
in the physical world
moment to moment
I must write down
every recurring thought--
stop every beating second
this is too indirect and didactic for Zen, which would rather hand you the
thing itself without comment.
The sea darkens;
The voices of the wild ducks
Are faintly white.
Furthermore, when Kerouac gives his philosophical final statement, "I don't
know. I don't care. And it doesn't make any difference"--the cat is out of
the bag, for there is a hostility in these words which clangs with
self-defense. But just because Zen truly surpasses convention and its
values, it has no need to say "To hell with it," nor to underline with
violence the fact that anything goes.
Now the underlying Protestant lawlessness of beat Zen disturbs the square
Zennists very seriously. For square Zen is the Zen of established tradition
in Japan with its clearly defined hierarchy, rigid discipline, and its
specific tests of satori. More particularly, it is the kind of Zen adopted
by Westerners studying in Japan, who will before long be bringing it back
home. But there is an obvious difference between square Zen and the
common-or-garden squareness of the Rotary Club or the Presbyterian Church.
It is infinitely more imaginative, sensitive and interesting. But it is
still square because it is a quest for the right spiritual experience, for
a satori which will receive the stamp (inka) of approved and established
authority. There will even be certificates to hang on the wall.
I see no real quarrel with either extreme. There was never a spiritual
movement without its excesses and distortions. The experience of awakening
which truly constitutes Zen is too timeless and universal to be injured.
The extremes of beat Zen need alarm no one since, as Blake said, "the fool
who persists in his folly will become wise." As for square Zen,
"authoritative" spiritual experiences have always had a way of wearing
thin, and thus of generating the demand for something genuine and unique
which needs no stamp.
I have known followers of both extremes to come up with perfectly clear
satori experiences, for since there is no real "way" to satori the way you
are following makes very little difference.
But the quarrel between the extremes is of great philosophical interest,
being a contemporary form of the ancient dispute between salvation by works
and salvation by faith, or between what the Hindus called the ways of the
monkey and the cat. The cat--appropriately enough--follows the effortless
way, since the mother cat carries her kittens. The monkey follows the hard
way, since the baby monkey has to hang on to its mother's hair. Thus for
beat Zen there must be no effort, no discipline, no artificial striving to
attain satori or to be anything but what one is. But for square Zen there
can be no true satori without years of meditation-practice under the stern
supervision of a qualified master. In seventeenth-century Japan these two
attitudes were approximately typified by the great masters Bankci and
Hakuin, and it so happens that the followers of the latter "won out" and
determined the present-day character of Rinzai Zen.[*]
Satori can lie along both roads. It is the concomitant of a "non-grasping"
attitude of the senses to experience, and grasping can be exhausted by the
discipline of directing its utmost intensity to a single, ever-elusive
objective. But what makes the way of effort and will-power suspect to many
Westerners is not so much an inherent laziness as a thorough familiarity
with the wisdom of our own culture. The square Western Zennists are often
quite naive when it comes to an understanding of Christian theology or of
all that has been discovered in modern psychiatry, for both have long been
concerned with the fallibility and unconscious ambivalence of the will.
Both have posed problems as to the vicious circle of seeking self-surrender
or of "free-associating on purpose" or of accepting one's conflicts to
escape from them, and to anyone who knows anything about either
Christianity or psychotherapy these are very real problems. The interest of
Chinese Zen and of people like Bankei is that they deal with these problems
in a most direct and stimulating way, and begin to suggest some answers.
But when Herrigel's Japanese archery master was asked, "How can I give up
purpose on purpose?" he replied that no one had ever asked him that before.
He had no answer except to go on trying blindly, for five years.
Foreign religions can be immensely attractive and highly overrated by those
who know little of their own, and especially by those who have not worked
through and grown out of their own. This is why the displaced or
unconscious Christian can so easily use either beat or square Zen to
justify himself. The one wants a philosophy to justify him in doing what he
pleases. The other wants a more plausible authoritative salvation than the
Church or the psychiatrists seem to be able to provide. Futhermore the
atmosphere of Japanese Zen is free from all one's unpleasant childhood
associations with God the Father and Jesus Christ--though I know many young
Japanese who feel just the same way about their early training in Buddhism.
But the true character of Zen remains almost incomprehensible to those who
have not surpassed the immaturity of needing to be justified, whether
before the Lord God or before a paternalistic society.
The old Chinese Zen masters were steeped in Taoism. They saw nature in its
total interrelatedness, and saw that every creature and every experience is
in accord with the Tao of nature just as it is. This enabled them to accept
themselves as they were, moment by moment, without the least need to
justify anything. They didn't do it to defend themselves or to find an
excuse for getting away with murder. They didn't brag about it and set
themselves apart as rather special. On the contrary, their Zen was wu-shih,
which means approximately "nothing special" or "no fuss." But Zen is "fuss"
when it is mixed up with Bohemian affectations, and "fuss" when it is
imagined that the only proper way to find it is to run off to a monastery
in Japan or to do special exercises in the lotus posture for five hours a
day. And I will admit that the very hullabaloo about Zen, even in such an
article as this, is also fuss--but a little less so.
Having said that, I would like to say something for all Zen fussers, beat
or square. Fuss is all right, too. If you are hung on Zen, there's no need
to try to pretend that you are not. If you really want to spend some years
in a Japanese monastery, there is no earthly reason why you shouldn't. Or
if you want to spend your time hopping freight cars and digging Charlie
Parker, it's a free country.
In the landscape of Spring there is neither better
nor worse;
The flowering branches grow naturally, some long,
some short.
                                   * * *
Although Chicago Review had published several poems by Allen Ginsberg in
its feature on San Francisco writers (including one of his best-known
works, "Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo"), two letters from Ginsberg in the
Autumn 1958 issue attracted particular attention. The letters show
Ginsberg's enthusiasm for his cohort and introduce William S. Burroughs.
But this was the issue which the Chicago Daily News said was "filthy" and
which led to the suppression of the contents of what was to be the
subsequent issue (see the discussion of these events in the note
accompanying William S. Burroughs's work, above). University of Chicago
Chancellor Lawrence Kimpton complained about the editor's preoccupation
with the Beat writers: "Rosenthal was so infatuated ... that even the
business letters of these authors were sacred."[*] The issue also included
work by Burroughs, Philip Whalen, and John Logan, among others. As former
editor PETER MICHELSON recently told us, the suppression would have a
lingering effect on the magazine's efforts to conduct business:
At least as late as 1964 we were obliged to supply the local postmaster a
copy of each issue when we brought them to the dock for mailing. We would
wait trying to look casual while he riffled through the pages. Occasionally
he would ask about something, to impress upon us the weight of his office I
suppose. Meanwhile, the PO workers were already processing the mags, and I
doubt he would have stopped the mailing on his own hook anyway. So it was
always a slightly bizarre charade, a legacy of the CR/ Big Table fiasco. On
the other hand, we were always aware we were going to have to go through it
and at any given occasion it might not be a charade. And Naked Lunch wasn't
liberated until 1966, etc. So censorship was a hovering specter.
* Rinzai Zen is the form most widely known in the West. There is also Soto
Zen which differs somewhat in technique, but is still closer to Hakuin than
to Bankei. However, Bankei should not exactly be identified with beat Zen
as I have described it, for he was certainly no advocate of the life of
undisciplined whimsy despite all that he said about the importance of the
uncalculated life and the folly of seeking satori.