I know very little about Zen or Buddhism, so I can't comment on the accuracy, but I do feel I know significantly more than before, and I found the style very friendly and approachable. I thought it made a good introduction.
I wanted to read this book to see how a counter-culture guru such as Watts would explain Zen to a Westerner, and was glad I did so. Not all the chapters are equally readable: the dissertation on Tao is excellent, and he makes a good shot at explaining Zen concepts such as "no mind" and "no thought".
He keeps repeating that Westerners find Zen thought baffling, but his explanations for why this is are not altogether convincing. This is possibly because he believes that in the West we think serially, using language (in our heads), rather than adopting the more holistic thought processes of the East. This view of Western thought is now rather dated - we all think holistically - so in fact Zen is closer to Western thought than he claims.
Also he struggles to clarify Zen morality. There is a sense in which the "no thought" approach evades morality entirely, which he tells us, but he does not go on to address the issue of how Zen adherents can commit violent and savage acts (the Samurai etc) with equanimity: No thought can equal No responsibility.
Nevertheless, Watts does succeed in presenting a complex subject to Western readers, in a book peppered with insightful observations. Here are just three:
"the Mahayana is not so much a theoretical and speculative construction as an account of an inner experience." "It [Zen] does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes." "one does not practice Zen to become a Buddha; one practices it because one is a Buddha from the beginning–and this “original realization” is the starting point of the Zen life."
This is a very good introduction to Zen. I was familiar with some of Alan Watt's books from way back and had found him a bit "new agey", even flippant in his approach. Yet here the Way of Zen is presented without needless mystification, tracing its genesis and evolution through Indian metaphysics, early Buddhist thinking, Taoism and thus into China and Japan. "Enlightenment" is brought down to earth and related to "western" thinking.
In spite of its age this book has been hailed as one of the best at explaining Zen to western minds that find some of the tenets of eastern philosophy hard to grasp. It is true that they are still hard to take in, but this book provides the clearest guide I have come across. The writing style is accessible and the explanations clear (though that doesn't mean they are universally easy to get a grip on). This is the book for anyone interested in achieving a greater level of understanding of Buddhism and Zen in particular.
A peace inducing book written by Alan Watts, one of my favourite authors on the topic of Buddhism and Zen. I am an amateur when it comes to this way of life, but I do feel attracted to what it teaches, so this book was a very good way to start my journey towards a calmer mind and a more detached approach to life. The topics approached are clearly and simply presented and they help you understand that most of our troubles stem from our ego, our attachment to our thoughts and to our fears. But, as Alan watts says, we should get closer to our consciousness, to the stillness of the mind that can be found underneath all these layers of chaotic and loud thoughts and learn to separate the thoughts from the energy within.
Even though I am far from putting these teachings into practice, the fact that they ring true is a very important first step, because I understand them with my gut, not with my reason and so soon enough I hope that through meditation I will be able to reach at least a tenth of Alan Watt's wisdom and peace.
"Zen is like YOLO for pretentious people" is what I found myself thinking - as a joke - when reading this book. I'm being flippant here, but I think that thought captures the joyous celebration of spontaneity that Zen indulges in while at the same the negative connotations that "YOLO" has in Western culture also succinctly captures how spontaneity or "action without thought" is looked down upon in Western culture.
In that sense, Alan Watt's book is excellent, because what many other books on Buddhism from Eastern Buddhist masters forget is that a person brought up in the West (or with Western cultural values) has fundamentally different basic beliefs regardless of their religious orientation that someone who lives in the East. Much of the subtleties that other Buddhist books try to teach can thus either be lost in dense terminology or a lack of proper cultural background.
Watts excels in giving a proper cultural background in Indian and Chinese / Japanese values wherever needed, especially giving attention to explaining the subtle differences in the meaning of terms that don't quite translate exactly into the English language. The book traces the journey of Buddhism from its Indian roots, to a deeper study of how Zen evolved as we know it in China and Japan, with fascinating chapters on how Zen has influenced literature and art too. Throughout the book, he employs the use of analogies to clarify dense concepts.
This book delivers a lucid and detailed insight into the development of Zen Buddhism and the development of far-eastern philosophy as a whole, as well as describing its continued practice today and the influence it has had upon Japenese Culture. Although written in the 50s, this book is still valid and worth reading today, it is a great introduction into the subject but at the same time contains enough facts and figures about the great masters of Zen to still make it useful to the already serious student. Occasionally hard going to follow, especially when it details the philosophical conundrums which lie at the heart of Zen, it is nevertheless a very rewarding read and I recommend it to any one who is a fan of the author or has an interest in Eastern thought.