The West’s reception of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism is certainly a monumental event. The translation of the bulk of the Pali canon into English is to be praised. Translators of Zen Buddhism like D.T. Suzuki and others also deserve our praise. But translations eventually get put on the back burner. This is when the interpreters take over so that what we know of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism in the West is largely an interpretation. At this point, there are two ways of interpreting the actual texts. The first way, is to see that the interpretation fits with the Buddha’s discourses. The other way is to make the discourses fit the interpretation.
Surprisingly, the latter method of making the text fit with the interpretation is, arguably, the most prevalent methodology employed. Many books which address the Buddha’s discourses in the Pali canon try to make the discourses fit with the interpretation. A notable example is Walpola Rahula’s book, What the Buddha Taught. Certainly more academic is Peter Harvey’s book, The Selfless Mind which proves to be more sophisticated than Rahula’s book but nevertheless uses passages from the Nikayas to support the standard Theravada interpretation. The most egregious example of this methodology is to be found in Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs. The book is little more that Buddhism according to Stephen Batchelor. It has little or nothing to do with what the Buddha actually taught.
When it comes to Zen Buddhism, Alan Watts tries to make the words of the Zen masters fit with his interpretation. This seems to be the case with his early book, The Spirit of Zen. In 1935 writing in the Preface to the First Edition, Watts acknowledges that his chief source of information about Zen came from Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. The Spirit of Zen is a teenage Watts using Suzuki’s translations to make his own interpretation of Zen which he will later change many years down the road. Another Zen writer who tries to make Zen fit with her interpretation is Joko Beck with her book, Every day Zen, which uses Zen in the tile but scarcely anything else in her book is about Zen. There are many other Zen writers I could add to the list who try to make the words of the Zen masters fit with their own interpretation.
It is really important for beginners to stick as, much as they can, with the discourses of the Buddha, both the Nikayas and Mahayana Sutras including the sermons of the Zen masters like Huang-po, Bassui and many others. Failure to do so is not to advance a step further in realizing our own true nature.