In order to understand Zen Buddhism, we must first look at the practice that inspired it. Buddhism, a topic that Alan Watts often spoke on, is a non-theistic religion which consists of an array of beliefs based upon the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a man who lived around 2400 years ago in the area we now know as Nepal. Gautama was later named as the Buddha, or “the awakened one”, and his message was one of self empowerment. He believed that enlightenment could be found within each of us, and that anyone could achieve it through practice, without the need for a belief in an external god or gods.
The main principals of Buddhism are named the “Four Noble Truths”. The first of these truths is the truth of suffering, or Dukkha, which explains that all worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed and full of suffering. The second truth, Samudaya, is the truth about the cause of this suffering, which is said to be rooted in attachment and desire, caused by our own ignorance. The third noble truth, Nirodha, states that this suffering, Dukkha, can be ceased by eliminating attachment and desire. Only then can man achieve a state of nirvana. The fourth and final truth is Magga, the “middle path” that leads us out of this suffering and into the state of nirvana.
Put simply, the point of Buddhism is to realize that our suffering is created by our own minds and that, if we can overcome that suffering, we can reach the blissful state known as nirvana and escape the circle of rebirth.
Zen Buddhism is based on Buddhism, mixed with a some Taoist principles, and was founded by a man named Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who traveled to China in the fifth century. While in China, Bodhidharma was said to have taught at the Shaolin Temple where he began the Chan school of Buddhism, known in Japan and the west as Zen Buddhism. Zen’s main philosophy emphasizes the importance of existing in the here and now, which can be best achieved though meditation, or Zazen. The teachings state that the entire universe only exists in one’s own mind and that if you can realize this, you can achieve true enlightenment. The video below, a talk on Zen Buddhism by Alan Watts, offers a deeper understanding.