Monday, January 30, 2023

Zen: The Way of Tao

Zen Buddhism is a way and view of life that does not belong to any formal categories of modern western thought. It is not a religion or philosophy; it is not a psychology or science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a 'way of liberation.'  

The Way of Zen by Alan Watts (pdf here)


The teaching of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) was a way of liberation. It had no other object than experiencing the end of suffering. There are no Buddhist creation stories. Buddhists don't have doctrines they 'believe.' They have instructions for a practice that alleviates our pains. The Buddha taught that dissatisfaction comes from 'attaching' ourselves to things. These can be objects, people, or ideas.

Buddhist texts are not inspired nor inerrant scripture. They teach that everything is always in a state of flux. We aren't disappointed if we don't grasp or try to control the natural order. Realize that people, circumstances, and ideas change. "Let go" of past situations and confront the new reality.

The Buddha was Hindu. He believed in reincarnation and gods. But the gods were in the same predicament as humans. They, too, needed to learn how to transcend suffering. They didn't advance anyone on their path to freedom.

The Buddha refused to speculate on purely philosophical questions. He remained silent when asked about the nature of the gods and the universe because the subject wasn't about freedom from suffering. He compared a man who asked these questions to one who, when shot with an arrow, refused help until he knew who made it, what materials, and where they came from.

He would die awaiting his answer.


Buddhism absorbed Taoism and became Chan when it traveled from India to China. From there, the 'dharma' (teaching) moved to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, becoming Zen. Taoism proper has never become an organized religion. In their present state, Zen and Taoism are the same practice.

Taoist terms can translate Zen Buddhist ideas. I've never read any of Buddha's original teachings. They are tedious and repetitive. Instead, I read the Tao Te Ching, a book of eighty-one chapters. It was written by Lao Tse Tung (rendered Lao-Tze).


The principle of Tao (pronounced d-o-w) is the idea of 'the way things are.' It's the dynamic force behind everything. When we 'abide in the Tao,' we move with natural changes, like water or clouds. They follow the Tao; go with the flow. This means not forcing our will or trying to control outcomes. We may offer a path yielding better results, but we can't force anyone to take it. We react, moment by moment, to whatever situation presents itself. The following Zen story sums it up:

A student asked the old Zen master what he should do.

The teacher replied, "have you eaten your rice?"

"Yes," the younger man answered.

"Then wash your bowl."

This is the Zen attitude.

Wu Wei

The Taoist life philosophy is Wu Wei. It means 'doing without doing.' This isn't a contradiction. In practice, it's 'not forcing'; taking action that isn't contrived, expecting nothing in return. It's 'not standing in your light.' You act, but not in an artificial manner that blocks your own goals. Gently nudge in the direction you want to steer things and stay unattached to the outcome.


The quality of Te is 'skill at living' or 'virtue.' This isn't a self-conscience plan to act. It's the opposite of Church Lady stuff. But it also involves not going out of your way to ensure you don't get credit for a good deed. In that case, too, you are planning on how to stay anonymous to 'create' virtue.

Te defines the actions of the person who picks up trash from the road because he's there, and it's there. It's someone who sees a twenty-dollar bill fall out of a busy woman's purse. They pick it up, drop it in her bag, and walk away unnoticed.


The word 'tsu-zan' carries the idea of 'by itself so.' It's natural. We can't explain it, like the quality of energy in physics. We cannot define it, but we can work with it. It's allowing natural reactions to work in your favor. The best example of using this in a real-life situation came from my job at the pet store.

When I started, the manager was the top salesman. He told me puppies do not sell from cages. You have to get them into people's hands. I protested that customers wouldn't take the dog from me. He gave me this advice. "David, don't ask. Bring out the puppy, hold it in front of the customer and let go. The dog will never hit the ground." I became a puppy salesman, and no puppy was ever dropped.

I acted purposefully, but the customers reacted to the quality of tzu-zan.

Tao Te Ching Chapter 1 

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