If I had to parse the essence of the six essays included in the short book to a subtitle, it would say “Essays on Nondualism and the Unity of Experience. The articles are accessible to the novice, although a basic understanding of Zen (though not Buddhism) is required. The essays range widely on topic; the collection starts with a personal exploration of ‘cosmic consciousness,’ turning to the conflict between “Instinct, Intelligence, and Anxiety.” It continues with “Spirituality and Sensuality,” a discussion of the sensual and spiritual as inseparable parts of each other. It ends with a heavy emphasis on Zen. ‘Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen’ highlights the two broad kinds of Zen as embodied in Japanese monasteries vs. the beat poets of the late 50s and 60s, while arguing that they are both equally valid forms of Zen. The book ends with a descriptive essay on Watts’ personal use of LSD to experience certain states of consciousness. He also reflects on the use of LSD in conjunction with meditation, and how non-addictive it is from a physiological sense. He admits that it could be dangerous if someone becomes psychically dependent on it, but finds that there is a value in using the substance.
As a work which focuses almost exclusively on the internal sense of life, Watts provides an unparalleled description of his own mental states, whether in studying Zen, practicing meditation, or taking LSD. It is a kind of writing that could only come from someone who has spent years in reflection, research, and study. What Alan Watts describes reminds me of Sam Harris's reflections on taking MDMA. I would say that Watts' experience goes much further than Harris's, but this is not surprising, as Watts was a theologian, who spent an entire lifetime studying various religions. Harris, while he is an accomplished intellectual and spent his own time meditating with gurus, comes from a different, more materialistic worldview.
An older version of myself would be outraged for feeling this way, but I am very interested in pursuing a similar experience, perhaps helped by LSD or MDMA. I of course would want to attempt such a thing only within a controlled environment, not under party lights and crappy dub-step music at a rave. I would prefer to have the experience in a quiet, natural settings, surrounded by trees and mountains, without human distractions. However, I certainly have not acquired the necessary wisdom to meaningfully interpret such an experience. Interpretation is not the best word, as there is nothing to which the experience would be interpreted. It is not as if I would be translating it from the language of MDMA to the language of normal life. I have tried to start meditating (I say try because it is hard to know whether one is actually meditating or just thinking in silence). Given the masterful way that Watts transmits his experience, I would feel ashamed if I couldn't write with his level of clarity and insight.
One of the more intriguing essays contrasts a straght-laced 'Square' Zen with an American 'Beat' Zen. Writing in the 60s, with the popularity of the Dharma Buns by Jack Kerouac in full swing, Watts explores some differences between a traditional and nontraditional approach to Zen. Watts describes the practices of Zen monasteries in Japan, the approach of the koan, and the relationship between student and master. Watts makes it clear that the master's role is only to show the student the inherent contradiction of trying to experience zazen (Zen). It is a task that requires effortless effort. Yet trying to be effortless is itself an effort, which leads the student in a never-ending circle of frustration. It is like looking for the floaters in one's eye. Should one try to see the floater in the eye, one will never find it. Only by relaxing and simply taking note of what one sees can one see the floater. Should you sense it, the moment you try to look directly at it is the moment you lose sight of it. Moreso, there is nothing that anyone can teach you that will make you see the floater in your eye. It must come from through the person's experience directly, and nowhere else. Similarly, there is nothing that the master can teach the student to help the student experience Zen. Eventually, the student realizes that there is no master of Zen.
From the informal Beat Zen, Watts shows an informal approach taken by many Westerners, including Kerouac and more. Watts explains that an awakening of experience can come just as clearly without a teacher and without a particular tradition. In fact, Watts would prefer that Zen is transmitted to the West in a non-formal setting, leaving behind the traditions of Japan and other cultures, so that it can be integrated in a unique way. There is no reason for traditional Buddhist institutions to permeate outside Asia.
This outlook is agreeable with my own beliefs, as an institutionalized Zen is likely to take the flavor of a Christian Church. A mindlessness toward religion and Zen is the very antithesis of how Zen would be practiced. In my own estimation, Zen appears to have a philosophy behind it which is so easily transferred across cultures that it can be entirely divorced from its history within China and Japan. This is perhaps a good thing, as it can make the study fresh to Westerners. I would be remiss to have not been able to visit several of the more famous Zen temples in Japan, such as Enryaku-ji, during my visit last summer. Seeing the natural beauty of such temples should be on everyone's bucket list.
Although this collection of essays was written nearly 50 years ago, it is timeless in its history and reflection on the inner self. If Zen interests you, even remotely, this is a must-read.