In a recent book review, Joi Ito commented on the inexplicable nature of Zen and how it could relate to similar inexplicabilities of the Japanese culture.

In The Way of Zen by Alan Watts, Watts describes that it is impossible to explain in English, all that is Zen. In fact, the Zen masters explain that Zen is beyond words. He describes how most Japanese Zen masters do not even try to “explain” Zen. He admits that although his Western background and his attempt to explain Zen in words by definition fails to capture the true core essence of Zen. However, he argues that because he lives between both worlds, he is able to describe Zen in words much more clearly than the masters might imagine.

That’s what I think about the good books about Japan written by non-Japanese. Japanese often don’t explain context or pretend that everyone knows what is going on. I think this leads to a lot of misunderstanding and the development of unspoken rules and culture shared only be small groups of people hidden in most part from the public. Publishers in Japan are also very sensitive about publishing books about taboo subjects in Japanese.

It reminds me of a conversation Shunryu Suzuki wrote about between Chokei and Hofuku as they discussed the Bodhisattva’s way.

Chokei said, “Even if the arhat (an enlightened one) were to have evil desires, still the Tathagata (Buddha) does not have two kinds of words. I say that the Tathagata has words, but no dualistic words.” Hofuku said, “Even though your say so, your comment is not perfect.” Chokei asked, “What is your understanding of the Tathagat’s words?” Hofuku said, “We have had enough discussion, so let’s have a cup of tea!” Hofuku did not give his friend an answer, because it is impossible to give a verbal interpretation of our way. Nevertheless, as a part of their practice these two good friends discussed the Bodhisattva’s way, even though they did not expect to find a new interpretation. (Suzuki, 1982 p.54 – 55)


Ito, J. (2010, February 24). Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein [Review of the book Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan by Jake Adelstein]. Joi Ito’s Web. Retrieved from

Suzuki, S. (1982) Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Tokyo: John Weatherhill, Inc.

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