This can be seen as a significant book in the transmission of the dharma to the Western world, even though, or perhaps especially because, it is written by a Westerner. Consistently admired since its first publication in 1957, and reprinted many times, The Way of Zen is that rarest of books, a popular and academic success. You will not read far before seeing why. Watts's style is reasoned and reasonable, clear and authoritative, but without a hint of affectation. Watts knows what he is talking about and to whom he is speaking. Because of his perspective between two worlds, he is, more than almost any other writer on Zen, able to match the ideas of the East to the mind of the West, and in doing so make the broader outlines of Zen as clear as the polished, dustless mirror.
The book is divided into two parts, "Background and History" and Principles and Practice," each with four chapters. There is a bibliography also divided into two parts, the first referring to original sources and second to general works on Zen in European languages. There are 16 pages of Chinese Notes in calligraphy keyed to the text, and an Index.
"The Way" in the title refers to the "watercourse way" from Taoism, a philosophy to which Zen owes much, as Watts makes clear in the first two chapters, "The Philosophy of the Tao" and "The Origins of Buddhism." The first chapter is one of the best on Taoism that I have ever read, replete with insight and wisdom. Throughout, Watts expresses himself in an infectious style, even in the very scholarly chapters on the history of Buddhism where he traces Zen from its origin in India, through the Buddha under the Po tree, to Ch'an in China, and finally into Japan. Parallels between the unforced, natural way of Taoism and the spontaneity of Zen Buddhism are explored in a most convincing and engaging manner. Along the way we learn a little about Hinduism and Confucianism.
The chapters on the principles and practices of Zen, comprising a goodly portion of the book are nothing short of marvelous, full of wit and sly observations, revealing Watts's thorough knowledge of Zen and his deep appreciation. Here are some examples of Watts at work:
Referring obliquely to the rise of communism (a word he never uses in the book) he writes, "When the throne of the Absolute is left vacant, the relative usurps it..." (p. 11) Perhaps Watts is also indicating why he believes that humanism is not a complete answer.
On the cosmology of the Tao: "...the natural universe works mainly according to the principles of growth...If the universe were made, there would of course be someone who knows <how> it is made..." He adds, "...the Tao does not <know> how it produces the universe..." (pp. 16-17)
"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." (pp. 29-30)
"Hindu philosophy has not made the mistake of imagining that one can make an informative, factual, and positive statement about the ultimate reality." (p, 34)
"Buddhism has frequently compared the course of time to the apparent motion of a wave, wherein the actual water only moves up and down, creating the illusion of a <piece> of water moving over the surface. It is a similar illusion that there is a constant <self> moving through successive experiences, constituting a link between them in such a way that the youth becomes the man who becomes the graybeard who becomes the corpse." (p. 123)
In his exploration of koans used by the Rinzai School of Zen, it becomes clear that one of the purposes of the koan is to put doubt into the mind of the young aspirant that he knows anything at all. From that redoubtable position, real learning can begin. I was reminded of a saying attributed to baseball's Earl Weaver, the very successful manager of the Baltimore Orioles in their glory years: "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts."
Here is a story from the Ch'uan Teng Lu, told by Watts about "a fascinating encounter between Tao-hsin and the sage Fa-yung, who lived in a lonely temple on Mount Niu-t'ou, and was so holy that the birds used to bring him offerings of flowers. As the two men were talking, a wild animal roared close by, and Tao-hsin jumped. Fa-yung commented, <I see it is still with you!>--referring, of course, to the instinctive <passion> (klesa) of fright. Shortly afterwards, while he was for a moment unobserved, Tao-hsin wrote the Chinese character for <Buddha> on the rock where Fa-yung was accustomed to sit. When Fa-yung returned to sit down again, he saw the sacred name and hesitated to sit. <I see,> said Tao-hsin, <it is still with you!> At this remark Fa-yung was fully awakened...and the birds never brought any more flowers." (pp. 89-90).
While this is an excellent introduction to Zen--and more--for the educated person, it is especially a delight for those of you who have already read a few books on Zen. There is no other book that I know of that goes as deeply into Zen as agreeably as does The Way of Zen.
Watts is a scholar, first and foremost, and a brilliant writer. In this book, you'll learn where Zen came from. It has its origins in India, where Buddhism was created, and then became as fresh as a gust of wind on its way through China and Chinese Taoism. Zen reached its full fruition after it arrived in Japan.
The book is separated into two sections. The first tells the history of Zen. The second describes the practice of Zen. But all the while, Watts opens your mind and you get the real FEEL of Zen. I'm the author of the book, Self-Help Stuff That Works, and I can tell you that Watts' way of writing works: It will change the way you look at the world. This book is very much worth reading.