Zen Talk: Watts’ Words are Twisted For Us to Unravel – Or Leave as They Are

“Nothing is exactly as it seems, nor is it otherwise.”
Alan Watts

A lot of people like to knock Alan Watts as being a westernized form of eastern Zen Buddhism and of fetishizing the hell out Zen. I can’t really disagree with that sentiment, but I can say that, despite this, I still enjoy a lot of what Watts has to say. It’s interesting and it makes you think, less often in a western way but by helping our western thinking minds move in a more Zen-like fashion.

This quote contributes to that kind of thinking. “Nothing is exactly as it seems,” seems, at face value, to be a very normal thing to say, and perhaps something that we’ve heard before. It’s like the warning Conan the Barbarian should get before entering the Palace of Mirrors.

However, the addition of “nor is it otherwise” gives pause. Does that mean that things are exactly as they seem or that we are actually discussing the notion of “nothing.”

Nothing, as a thing, is exactly as it seems. Nothing is nothing. Nor is nothing not as it seems because it is nothing. This could become a tautological mind f-ing, and rather than do that, I’m going to leave it open to the floor. What is going on in this quote, and what does it mean?

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Zen Talk: The Illusion of Purity

“Water which is too pure has no fish.”
– Ts’ai Ken T’an

How right you are Ts’ai Ken T’an. I recently started a very small aquarium in my home, and the first thing I learned from my very smart local aquarium store owner (Ocean Aquarium) is that the success of the aquarium and the happiness of the fish is all about the water. You can’t just put fish into the water that comes out of your faucet. It’s too pure!

You have to spend weeks treating your water to adjust the levels of nitrates, ammonia and acidity. And just as importantly, you have to consistently add bacteria to the water so that an eco system can begin to thrive and settle in.

So what does that mean for Zen Talk. Well, on the one hand I would say that purity is an extreme and a ‘final’ destination and that striving for purity is a false pursuit. What is purity anyway but an ever changing, relative and subjective falsity? Some people say that drugs can never enter our bodies for our bodies to be pure. Others contend that a spiritual cleansing and purity ritual involves psychotropic substances.

That’s not to say that one should shun a cleanliness of mind and body – quite the contrary. Just that an extreme, even in the case of purity, should not be sought after like some be-all end-all.

What are your thoughts on this quote and matter?

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Zen Talk: Focusing on the Amazing Journey

“When you get there, there isn’t any there there.”
Gertrude Stein

This quote seems akin to the whole, the journey is better than the destination idea. We struggle so hard to get where we’re going that we neglect the amazing process that it took to get there. Once you’re there, it just is, and the fleeting nature of that there, just as happiness, can’t be sustained through a maintenance of the status-quo. Thus, just as illusive as Stein makes it seem, there is ultimately no there at all.

Is this a shame? It seems like people work awfully hard to get where they’re going only to be sorely disappointed by the arrival, but I suppose this keeps us constantly striving for more. In some people, this turns into insatiable greed, but in others, it results in a never-ending drive for self-improvement and accomplishment. I hope that over the course of my life I always fall into the latter group…

I suppose this very notion (of no there there) is why movies that are about getting some place never focus on that place but only on the journey. Think, Lord of the Rings. The entire trilogy is about a journey, and not about the final there. In fact, once the mission has been accomplished and they’re there (they being everyone) the movie degrades into a totally boring 30 minutes of epilogues that are worthless to watch. Poor Tolkein – don’t know that he had that in mind.

What are your thoughts on this quote and matter?

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Zen Talk: The Importance of Self Acceptance

“The most important point is to accept yourself and stand on your two feet.”
– Shunryu Suzuki

Our culture so fundamentally lacks personal love and acceptance that self-loathing is practically a national pasttime. Quite frankly, I think that’s ridiculous and for the life of me I can’t imagine why we hold ourselves to such impossible standards of beauty.

Accepting yourself seems to me like the first step towards standing on your own two feet. How can one be independent if one hasn’t freed his or herself from the burden of self-loathing?

What do you think about this quote? What does it make you think about?

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Zen Talk: Striving for Truth is Fallacy

“You must neither strive for truth nor seek to lose your illusions.”
The Shodoka
So this is telling me to do the opposite of what I feel like I’m always trying to do. I’m always trying to find truth and strip myself of the illusions that plague my mind.

Don’t!?

But why not?

I don’t know if it’s the beautiful naivete of a child that the Shodoka wants me to retain (or retrieve) so much as to understand that what we think is truth and what we think we’re striving for (that truth) when we attempt to leave our illusions by the wayside is is not actually so. Perhaps by identifying an end as truth we detract from its ability to be so.

Alternatively, the truth may just not be the goal. Freeing our minds from absolutes like truth or the existence of truth is the goal. Though I don’t think that Buddhism or Zen is meant to be so relativistic, I do think that my simplistic analysis of this quote turns it into relativism.

What are your thoughts on this quote and matter?

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Zen Talk: Zen is a Struggle Against Schema

To set up what you like against what you don’t like — this is the disease of the mind.
Sheng-ts’an

Though defining certain things as those you don’t like is flush with problems, I think the real issue here is the division less than the “like.” The moment we start dividing things into different categories in our minds we only think of them within those categories. The “is” and the “is not” – the blue and the red – the good and the bad – the like and the dislike.

Zen Buddhism is a struggle against what psychology calls “schema,” the convenient categorizing element in our brains that develops in our youth and allows us to recognize the difference between four legged animals and calling some dogs and others cats – and eventually some poodles and others dachshunds.

By breaking down the divisions that we’ve created in our minds to define things – particularly likes and dislikes – Zen allows us to start conceptualizing the world differently …. or not at all, as the case may be.

What does this quote make you think about?

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Zen Talk: Two Ears and One Mouth

“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.”
Baba Ram Dass

This quote echoes a familiar adage with which many of us are familiar – perhaps you recall hearing it from a teacher in elementary school. “You’ve got two ears and one mouth which means that you should listen twice as much as you talk.”

What this indicates, if one continues with the quote of Baba Ram Dass, is that there is an inversely proportional relationship between not talking (or being quiet) and the amount we hear. Want to learn something? Then shut up and listen (I should heed my own advice and stop writing!).

Does this necessarily mean that someone will say something direct and wise to you when I shut my pie-hole? Of course not! It means that when I stop occupying my mind with what’s coming out of my mouth then I become more receptive to hearing what the world has to tell me.

What do you think about this quote?

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