Interview: Zen and the Art of Influencing Culture

A conversation with the author of Zen in Japanese Culture, Gavin Blair.

Book Cover: Zen In Japanese Culture


Abbeville Press

In Western popular culture Zen is almost synonymous with Japan, and while students of Zen would immediately stress its universality and independence from nation or race, it is hard to imagine Japan’s architecture, visual arts, cuisine and more without Zen. During the seven centuries since Zen first reached Japan it has been woven so deep into the rich brocade of Japanese culture that distinguishing the weft of Zen Buddhism from the weave of Japan’s other cultural imports is a daunting task. A new book Zen in Japanese Culture by Gavin Blair, however, attempts to do just that. It is described as a “visual exploration of the influence on Zen on Japanese life”. This lavishly illustrated and painstakingly researched book teases out the Zen threads running through everything from the Japanese tea ceremony to temple architecture… the aesthetics of wabi-sabi to the Japan-influenced design of Apple’s magic mouse.

Gavin Blair



Gavin Blair has lived in Japan for over two decades years, where he works as a journalist and author. He spoke to Tony McNicol.

Q: What first prompted you to write about Zen and Japan?

It actually didn’t start off as a Zen book. I was introduced to a company who were looking to do a coffee-table type book about Japan. The original title was Japan and Its Secret Charms or something. It was little bit vague. Eventually we changed [the topic] to looking at Japan through the prism of Zen.

Q: Are you a Zen Buddhist yourself?

I wouldn’t describe myself as a Zen Buddhist. Martial arts were my way into Japan and first encounter with anything Zen-like. I did karate from when I was about 14. I think it is probably fair to say that there is no direct link between Zen and Karate. But you do the mokuso [meditation]… and I think that was the first time that I had ever knelt with my eyes closed… as a teenage in South London! There are people who call karate “moving zen”. That certainly sparked my interest in Japan and I ended up coming here to do karate.

There’s that idea of no gap between thought and action… when you are at your best you have the kind of no mind thing where it feels like you are not thinking about anything. I guess a lot of sportspeople aim for that state of mind. Yes, I think there is feeling of that… clearing everything else out and trying to be in that moment, focusing… which is something that I have always struggled with anyway, so it’s good for me.

Q: How aware do you think Japanese people are of Zen’s influence on their culture?

I think probably “not” to a large extent, although that’s not uniquely Japanese in the sense that large parts of Western culture are shaped by Judeo-Christian values… even though most people are not so conscious of that. It is just the culture you grow up in. Traditionally in the UK, people are not that passionate about religion and I’ve found it kind of similar in Japan. There’s a joke that Japanese people will take their baby to a Shinto shrine, have a Christian wedding, and have a Buddhist funeral… and think nothing of that!

Q: Some topics covered by the book were quite surprising. I didn’t know about the connection between origami and Zen.

That was one the publisher came up with. At first, I was like, ‘Really?” It’s clearly not traditionally seen as a Zen thing, but when I read around it, it does make some sense. But that publisher also produces a lot of stuff about origami (laughs).

Q: Were there any clichés about Zen or about Japan that you were keen to avoid?

In general, I was keen to avoid the orientalist, “Isn’t it all weird?” approach as much as possible—for what I hope are obvious reasons. Obviously, having reported about Japan for many years, that “wacky Japan” attitude is still very strong. It is also easy to overstate [the links between] Zen and the martial arts, or how much the samurai were influenced by Zen.

Q: In the book you mention the controversial link between Zen and Japan’s WWII militarism.

That was interesting, and something that I didn’t know that much about. I didn’t realize that Zen had been co-opted. Supposedly D. T. Suzuki was quite a proponent of that at one point, whereas in the West he has got this image of being a great person who opened up Zen to the rest of the world. But I don’t suppose it was so easy at that time to be going against the military regime either. Perhaps it is unfair to judge him too harshly.

Actually, the book I am writing at the moment is on the samurai. Reading about that… I now probably think there’s less [Zen influence on the samurai] than I thought there was when I wrote the Zen book.

Q: Having lived in Japan for many years, was it hard to explain Zen’s influence to readers who perhaps know Japan less well?

I suppose the glib answer is that that’s kind of the point of it. I tried to explain without resorting to lazy caricatures and tropes, and to try to make sense of it to people who haven’t experienced Japan.

There are certainly [Zen] adherents all over the world, most of who, presumably, have never been to Japan or experienced it that closely. I don’t think that the goals and aims are peculiarly Japanese. It is a derivation of Chan Chinese Buddhism anyway. Japan does quite well at absorbing things and putting its own spin on them.

Q: Do you think this book would be useful to students of Zen?

The “Zen” answer would be that you have to experience these things [directly]. They are difficult to verbalize and explain. What I can talk about is martial arts. It is hard to even explain some of those effects and how it feels at the time. In some ways that’s an infuriatingly vague Zen answer… and possibly true at the same time (laughs).

But I can imagine why these things would have an even greater attraction for people at the moment when the whole culture, technology, everything is prone to leading us towards a sort of ADHD… a constant multi-tasking and switching. Whether it is meditation, or going to a tea ceremony, or learning calligraphy, or any of these things, or just sitting and appreciating a garden… that is the complete opposite of instant gratification, the constant dopamine. Of course, those things aren’t the only ways. But [they are] certainly something that a lot of us need in our lives at the moment.

(Zen in Japanese Culture by Gavin Blair, pub. Abbeville Press 2020)

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