The word "zen" is a Japanese way of pronouncing "chan", which is the Chinese way of pronouncing the Indian Sanskrit "dhyana" or "sunya", meaning emptiness or void. This is the basis of zen itself – that all life and existence is based on a kind of dynamic emptiness (a view now supported by modern science, which sees phenomena at a sub-atomic level popping in and out of existence in a quantum froth).
In this view, there is no stuff, no difference between matter and energy. Look at anything closely enough – even a rock or a table – and you will see that it is an event, not a thing. Every thing is, in truth, happening. This too, accords with modern scientific knowledge. Furthermore, there is not a multiplicity of events. There is just one event, with multiple aspects, unfolding. We are not just separate egos locked in bags of skin. We come out of the world, not into it. We are each expressions of the world, not strangers in a strange land, flukes of consciousness in a blind, stupid universe, as evolutionary science teaches us.
The emphasis on the present moment is perhaps zen's most distinctive characteristic. In our western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.
It tries to have you understand, without arguing the point, that there is no purpose in getting anywhere if, when you get there, all you do is think about getting to some other future moment. Life exists in the present, or nowhere at all, and if you cannot grasp that you are simply living a fantasy.
For all zen writers, life is, as it was for Shakespeare, akin to a dream – transitory and insubstantial. There is no "rock of ages cleft for me". There is no security. Looking for security, Watts said, is like jumping off a cliff while holding on to a rock for safety – an absurd illusion. Everything passes and you must die. Don't waste your time thinking otherwise. Neither Buddha nor his zen followers had time for any notion of an afterlife. The doctrine of reincarnation can be more accurately thought about as a constant rebirth, of death throughout life, and the continual coming and going of universal energy, of which we are all part, before and after death.
• This is an extract from Aeon Magazine, a new digital magazine which publishes a free original essay every weekday on science, art, nature and culture. You can read Tim Lott's essay on Zen Buddhism and Alan Watts in full here.