Back in 1958 Alan Watts wrote a classic essay, "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen." Beat and square, back in the 50's, were words roughly equivalent to our "cool" and "lame." Or "hip" and "traditional."
A beatnik bore some resemblance to today's hipster. I was just ten years old in 1958, so wasn't able to embrace the beat generation thing. Had to wait until the 60's to dive into the next counter-cultural evolution: hippies.
A few days ago I came across Watts' essay in a compilation of three of his writings, "The Wisdom of Insecurity" (one of my all-time favorite books; see here and here), "The Way of Zen," and "Tao: The Watercourse Way."
It was a pleasure to rediscover it after a cursory reading years ago. The version of the essay I read is considerably expanded and amended from the original.
I've never done any formal Zen training (Square Zen), but from my college days on I've enjoyed paddling around the edges of the Beat Zen pond. This essay helped me realize the difference between the two, and what plain Zen is all about.
Here's some passages from the essay on interesting subjects:
Chinese humanism vs. Indian supernaturalism.
Here is a view of the world imparting a profoundly refreshing sense of wholeness to a culture in which the spiritual and the material, the conscious and the unconscious, have been cataclysmically split. For this reason the Chinese humanism and naturalism of Zen intrigue us much more strongly than Indian Buddhism or Vedanta.
These, too, have their students in the West, but their followers seem for the most part to be displaced Christians -- people in search of a more plausible philosophy than Christian supernaturalism to carry on the essentially Christian search for the miraculous.
The ideal man of Christian Buddhism is clearly a superman, a yogi with absolute mastery of his own nature, according perfectly with the science-fiction ideal of "men beyond mankind." But the Buddha or awakened man of Chinese Zen is "ordinary and nothing special"; he is humorously human like the Zen tramps portrayed by Mu-ch'i and Liang-k'ai.
We like this because here, for the first time, is a conception of the holy man and sage who is not impossibly remote, not superhuman but fully human, and, above all, not a solemn and sexless ascetic... They are just like us, and yet much more at home in the world, floating much more easily upon the ocean of transience and insecurity.
Human life no different from great universe.
For there is a standpoint from which human affairs are as much beyond right and wrong as the stars, and from which our deeds, experiences, and feelings can no more be judged than the ups and downs of a range of mountains.
Though beyond moral and social valuation, this level of human life may also be seen to be just as marvelous and uncanny as the great universe itself. This feeling may become particularly acute when the individual ego tries to fathom its own nature, to plumb the inner sources of its own actions and consciousness.
For here it discovers a part of itself -- the inmost and greatest part -- which is strange to itself and beyond its understanding and control. Odd as it may sound, the ego finds that its own center and nature is beyond itself. The more deeply I go into myself, the more I am not myself, and yet this is the very heart of me.
Here I find my own inner workings functioning of themselves, spontaneously, like the rotation of the heavenly bodies and the drifting of the clouds. Strange and foreign as this aspect of myself at first seems to be, I soon realize that it is me, and much more me than my superficial ego.
Beat Zen and Square Zen.
But the Westerner who is attracted to Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously.
He must really have come to terms with the Lord God Jehovah and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience so that he can take it or leave it without fear or rebellion. He must be free of the itch to justify himself
Lacking this, his Zen will be either "beat" or "square," either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign conventions, on the other.
Living beyond anxiety.
At this level, human life is beyond anxiety, for it can never make a mistake. If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer.; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it.
A Zen master was once asked, "It is terribly hot, and how shall we escape the heat?" "Why not," he answered, "go to the place where it is neither hot nor cold?" "Where is that place?" "In summer we sweat; in winter we shiver."
In Zen one does not feel guilty about dying, or being afraid, or disliking the heat. At the same time, Zen does not insist upon this point of view as something which one ought to adopt; it does not preach it as an ideal.
For if you don't understand it, your very not-understanding is also IT. There would be no bright stars without dim stars, and, without the surrounding darkness, no stars at all.
Faults of Square Zen.
For square Zen is the Zen of established tradition in Japan with its clearly defined hierarchy, its rigid discipline, and its specific tests of satori... it is still square because it is a quest for the right spiritual experience, for a satori which will receive the stamp (inka) of approval and established authority.
...The faults of square Zen are the faults of any spiritual in-group with an esoteric discipline and degrees of initiation. Students in the lower ranks can get unpleasantly uppity about inside knowledge which they are not at liberty to divulge -- "and you wouldn't understand even if I could tell you" -- and are apt to dwell rather sickeningly on the immense difficulities and iron disciplines of their task.
...Thus for beat Zen there must be no effort, no discipline, no artificial striving to attain satori or to be anything but what one is. But for square Zen there can be no true satori without years of meditation-practice under the stern supervision of a qualified master.
...Foreign religions can be immensely attractive and highly overrated by those who know little of their own, and especially by those who have not worked through and grown out of their own. This is why the displaced or unconscious Christian can so easily use either beat or square Zen to justify himself.
The one wants a philosophy to justify him in doing what he pleases. The other wants a more plausible authoritative salvation than the Church or the psychiatrists seem to be able to provide.... But the true character of Zen remains almost incomprehensible to those who have not surpassed the immaturity of needing to be justified, whether before the Lord God or before a paternalistic society.
Zen without fuss.
The old Chinese Zen masters were steeped in Taoism. They saw nature in its total interrelatedness, and saw that every creature and every experience is in accord with the Tao of nature just as it is. This enabled them to accept themselves as they were, moment by moment, without the least need to justify anything.
They didn't do it to defend themselves or to find an excuse for getting away with murder. They didn't brag about it and set themselves apart as rather special. On the contrary, their Zen was wu-shih, which means approximately "nothing special" or "no fuss."
But Zen is "fuss" when it is mixed up with Bohemian affectations, and "fuss" when it is imagined that the only proper way to find it is to run off to a monastery in Japan or to do special exercises in the lotus posture for five hours a day. And I will admit that the very hullabaloo about Zen, even in such an essay as this, is also fuss -- but a little less so.
Having said that, I would like to say something for all Zen fussers, beat or square.
Fuss is all right, too. If you are hung on Zen, there's no need to pretend that you are not. If you really want to spend some years in a Japanese monastery, there is no earthly reason why you shouldn't. Or if you want to spend your time hopping freight cars and digging Charlie Parker, it's a free country.
In the landscape of Spring there is neither better nor worse;
The flowering branches grown naturally, some long, some short.
-- Alan Watts