When I read this at the age of twenty, it excited me beyond measure.
I really (really) needed to put the strictures and heaviness of traditional Christianity behind me, together with its insufferable stuffiness, and suddenly encountered an iconoclastic vision of reality called Zen that was not a religion at all. I yearned for “cosmic consciousness” with all my being, fully aware all the while that my desiring precluded its happening. Just as “trying to be good” can never succeed because it is by definition “not being good” but “trying”.
Be spontaneous. Be authentic. Calm the surface of the pond with your hand. Good luck with that. Ego-plagued human duality was a conundrum of consciousness that I could not for the life of me solve. If it was straightforward, I supposed, then just about everyone in the world would already be enlightened in Buddha nature (wouldn’t that be nice?).
I just hoped to luck out (not much of a plan, but hey ho). I did my damndest to drown the brain habitat of my ego in beer, yet despite my efforts, I remained me. On the plus side, the book did mark a philosophical shift towards an atheism where I felt liberated from the dismal, minatory teachings of the Church, and the beginning of a lifelong interest in Buddhism and especially Zen, since it represented sudden enlightenment without all the hard work of years of training (mine was laziness by conviction). It went beyond the intellect and, boy, did I need a break from that. Its instruction was typically playful, never solemn, and completely serious. Its goal was nothing less than utter freedom in the living light of truth (and you can’t get that at Tesco’s).
So anyway, I read the book. (Hell, I would have bought the T-shirt if it would have done any good). It absorbed me like nothing else and I got what it was saying, without it disturbing the fundaments of my ignorance an iota. (“Da steh’ich nun, ich armer Tor! / Und bin so klug als wie zuvor”)
What I didn’t know at the time was that much later in life, when I came across Alan Watts’ recorded talks, this humorous Englishman who also drank rather too much would teach me in a way I have never been taught before, and then the meaning would sink in. His are the teachings to which I always now return.