Zen and Japanese Culture

Japanese meal in a traditional inn
Oryoki meal in a Japanese Zen monastery

Zen and Japanese Culture is a book I have not read, written by D.T Suzuki. D.T Suzuki isn't really my jam, but my Buddhist philosophy teacher at Nisodo (yes, we had a philosophy teacher! Who stood in front of a blackboard!) often brought up this book in class. In the book, D.T Suzuki puts forth the argument that Zen Buddhism helped "shape an aesthetic found throughout Japanese culture." I think he's probably right, though Suzuki's emphasis on the poetical and paradoxical aspects of Zen is a little too romantic for this form-loving Soto Zen gal. The intersection and overlap between Zen and Japanese culture is fascinating to me though, because I think that while they're obviously not the same thing, Zen and Japanese culture have influenced each other in undeniable ways. It's interesting to try to tease out what is "Zen," what is "Japanese culture," and what is a chicken and the egg type situation.

I've heard teachers in Japan say something to the extent of "Zen and Japanese culture are one." When they say "Japanese culture," I think they are referring to a particular kind of traditional Japanese culture, because I'm pretty sure Zen has had very little influence on the aesthetics of manga, anime, maid cafes, soap lands, mojis, tiny, sparkly key chains, iphone covers in the shapes of cakes and pokemon characters, and the rest of contemporary Japanese youth culture which is a kind of hyperactive mix of color, ink, noise, kink, and oblivious, gleeful materialism.

Food is a good window into culture. The other day I was eating at a restaurant with my friend Damien, a twenty-five year old American guy who I took with me for a few days to practice in the monastery. In the restaurant I was eating rice, soup, and dumplings. There was also a side dish of yellow pickles, which I ate pretty early on in the meal. Pickles are a ubiquitous part of Japanese meals because they add a salty taste to balance out what is usually plain, unseasoned rice.

When Damien saw me eat the pickles, he exclaimed in mock horror, "Gesshin! You ate the bowl-cleaning pickles!"

He was referring to the monastery custom of cleaning your bowl with a slice of pickles. You save your pickles to eat until the very end. Tea gets poured into your bowls and you use your chopsticks and a slice of (usually daikon) pickle to get the leftover rice that's stuck to the sides of the bowls. Then you drink the tea and whatever food is left over, mixed together.

I spent years thinking that the obligation to clean my bowl with a slice of pickle was a bizarre, archaic Zen custom. And it is. But a few years into my stay at Nisodo, an older nun informed me that cleaning your bowl with pickles is also just a custom of poor Japanese people who don't have a lot of food to eat and therefore don't want to waste what they have. Using a pickle to make sure you eat every single grain of rice in your bowl has become a practice in Zen monasteries-- Dogen said something to the extent of "not wasting a single grain of rice is called the mind of the way"--, but throughout history it wasn't just monks who did this. It was also most poor people in Japan who were hungry.

As Zen spreads throughout the West, practitioners continue to practice oryoki-- the ceremonial eating practice in monasteries-- but adapt it to their specific needs. My nun friend in France cleans her bowls with bread, not pickles. This makes pretty good sense. There's no need to use Japanese pickles to clean our bowls outside of Japan. The point is not to eat specifically Japanese food, but to eat with others in a ritualized way, express gratitude, and to not waste any food.

The more I do this practice, the more I am starting to wonder how it is possible to practice genuinely and thoroughly if I have lots of money or am living in material comfort. In my experience, the practice of not wasting food can certainly be a practice of concentration and mindfulness, but it naturally arises in me when I don't have a lot of food and am grateful for what I have. To give an example, in the monastery we were instructed to not peel carrots, not throw away the tops of vegetables, and to use rice-washing water on the plants. Now that I'm out of the monastery I am still using the tops of carrots and eggplants and the hard stalks of broccoli (you can peel broccoli stalks, chop them up into small pieces and fry them with fried rice) not because it's required of me or because it's the "Zen thing to do" but because you better believe I am going to use all of this broccoli! It cost me three hundred yen! Vegetables are way more expensive here than meat or eggs.

Oryoki-- the ritual eating practice in Zen monasteries-- is a very Japanese practice. There's rice, soup, two or three side dishes, and pickle (of course!). Separating rice, vegetables, and soup into different bowls is a Japanese custom; in places like China or India, rice and vegetables are more likely to be served on the same plate, or mixed with impunity. But not in Japan, and not in a Zen monastery. Now, as oryoki moves to the West, people are keeping the five (or three) bowl system but using Western food; I had a delightful bowl of apple juice in my oryoki bowl at the San Francisco Zen Center!

What I am getting at is that while gratitude and economical living are pretty universal values, cleaning five bowls with a slice of pickle is not. It would be tempting, then to just get rid of the five bowl eating system as "Japanese culture" except that this particular aspect of Japanese practice-- if we turn it into ceremony-- does a great job at conveying and making explicit the universal values of gratitude and not wasting. Ritual makes explicit and conscious what is implicit and subconscious, and I'm pretty sure that's what ceremonial Zen practice does.

I often wonder what "Zen" would be like without Japanese culture. Sometimes I think they cannot exist without each other. Zazen would still exist, because that's what the Buddha did under the Bodhi Tree in India (except let's get real; we don't actually know what specific meditation posture he used). But in terms of the things we are doing off the cushion, I do often think "Zen" is just another word for "traditional Japanese culture" that has been codified and ritualized in a specific way. This is why I usually tell people I'm not interested in "Zen" (which confuses the hell out of everyone).

I don't think the overlap between Zen and Japanese culture is a bad thing. We'll eat oatmeal and drink apple juice out of five Japanese bowls until we figure out a better way to express gratitude and not wasting in a ceremonial way. But when we get rid of Japanese bowls and go straight to gratitude and not-wasting without the chanting and ceremonial forms, I'm pretty sure that's not Zen; that's just being grateful, and not wasting.

Which is lovely, and good! Let's all be grateful for our food, and not waste it. Zen practice or not.


  1. Seems 'Zen' is 'Ch'an' is 'dyann' sound alike. Same difference?^^ Gassho

  2. A "form-loving Soto Zen gal", into '"traditional Japanese culture" that has been codified and ritualized in a specific way', but 'not interested in "Zen"'. Can you exercise the pickle a bit on that last, for those of us who are challenged with the 'sticks?

  3. Thanks for your insights and photos, by the way- I really enjoy your posts.

  4. Does bread have the same cleaning properties as the acid in pickles?

  5. look at this!


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