Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen

By Watts, Alan | Chicago Review, Summer-Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen


Watts, Alan, Chicago Review


The Summer 1958 issue of Chicago Review was mostly given to a special section, "On Zen," comprised of contributions by Daisetz T. Suzuki, Shinichi Hisamatsu (Hoseki), Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and Akihisa Kondo, among others. The issue included Jack Kerouac's "Meditation in the Woods," excerpted from his forthcoming novel, The Dharma Bums. PAUL CARROLL remembers how this particular editorial agenda was established:

In the summer of 1957 Irving Rosenthal offered me the job of Guest Poetry Editor on the Review. The title had been cooked up, he explained, because technically I was ineligible, having left the midway a few years before. I remember him saying he wanted "only the best poems" and to hell with literary politics or equal representation of all schools of contemporary poetry. I was delighted.

Going to talk things over with Irving in his office high in the Reynolds Club was often a revelation. One day I waltzed in to see him and discovered that the office had been swept clean of manuscripts, books, posters; in their place was a solitary peacock feather protruding straight out next to a small printed sign: "Think Zen." I'd heard of Zen but knew nothing about it; most of the other editors were in the same boat. Before we had a chance to ask questions, Irving, all 5[feet]1[inch] with a beard almost as tall as he was, announced that Alan Watts was coming to the university at his invitation to give a series of lectures, "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen." They were terrific; and were published in the Review's Zen issue.

HYUNG WOONG PAK, who translated the essay by Shinichi Hisamatsu (Hoseki) and later became editor of the Review, remembered the issue's lingering effect: "With the publication of the Zen issue, Gary Snyder's poems, and the sponsorship of a series of lectures by Alan Watts, people thought that Chicago Review was a guidepost for Zen Buddhism. We had many letters of inquiry and phone calls about Zen Buddhism and Zen temples." Watts was one of the chief popularizers of Zen during the era; we've included his essay, "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," here.

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. …

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