"The Stink of Zen"

The title of this post is a reference to something Alan Watts wrote in his 1957 book, The Way of Zen. That is: "In studying or practicing Zen it is of no help to think about Zen. To remain caught up in ideas and words about Zen is, as the old masters say, to 'stink of Zen.'"

First, another Alan Watts quote, which I would say myself at this point, but he has already said it so well that I must quote him instead: "I suppose most of you have heard of Zen. But before going on to explain any details about it, I want to make one thing absolutely clear: I am not a Zen Buddhist, I am not advocating Zen Buddhism, I am not trying to convert anyone to it. I have nothing to sell." That's the part I wanted to say at the offset here, but to continue his quote, he said: "I'm an entertainer. That is to say, in the same sense, that when you go to a concert and you listen to someone play Mozart, he has nothing to sell except the sound of the music. He doesn’t want to convert you to anything. He doesn’t want you to join an organization in favor of Mozart's music as opposed to, say, Beethoven's. And I approach you in the same spirit as a musician with his piano or a violinist with his violin. I just want you to enjoy a point of view that I enjoy." As an amusing side-note, Trey Parker and Matt Stone did an animation-tribute to Alan and his teachings, which includes this bit, and can be seen: here.

ANYhow, I'm writing this post for the sake of perhaps one or two people who might see this post and benefit from it. In 1957, Alan Watts wrote this book:

...which, if you click that image there, you can purchase and enjoy. It is generally considered to be the West's first real introduction to Zen.

Also, inside that book, Alan makes the following statement: "Dogen, in particular, made an incalculable contribution to his native land. His immense work, the Shobogenzo ("Treasury of the Eye of the True Doctrine"), was written in the vernacular and covered every aspect of Buddhism from its formal discipline to its profoundest insights. His doctrine of time, change, and relativity is explained with the aid of the most provoking poetic images, and it is only regrettable that no one has yet had the time and talent to translate this work into English." - Alan Watts, 1957

Which brings me to my point... great news! It's been a few decades since 1957, and Dogen's Shobogenzo has been translated into English:

That's the first volume, and I recommend picking up a copy - just click the image of the book. Then, if you don't stink of Zen enough, I recommend hunting down a rock in a stream with just the right amount of moss and wabi-sabi, then picking up some of the real genuine expensive tiger green tea powder, and building a tea house in your back yard beside the coy pond, and inviting your Samurai friends over for a nice Zen time. Only joking, of course. Personally, I've been reading Shobogenzo every day on busses and trains to and from work, while listening to a Tibetan Chants Pandora station, effectively mixing up East and West (the west side of the east anyway), ancient and modern, and etc.

All for now,
Much love,


Post-Script: If you want to, you can download both of these by clicking: here for Way of Zen and here for Shobogenzo, but the translation of the Shobogenzo linked to with the image above is supposed to be a better translation.


  1. The best translation, I have been told, Kaz Tanahashi's (it was recommended to me by my supervisor). I don't speak Japanese so I don't know if the translation is more accurate. I'd say, from having looked through some others (the Shasta Abbey one online was the other one I looked at in detail, though I've stumbled across exerts from other translations in the course of my research) that it's more paradoxical, more 'difficult'. Maybe it requires more thought. I came across your site (with deep gratitude, thanks, though it's not what I'm looking for, but your reference to Watts was welcome) in looking up the phrase, 'the stink of Zen'. Leonard Cohen referred to it in an interview. I understood it to mean the smug self satisfaction of practitioners convinced they've found the way (and you haven't). I like the context you give, too, the idea that you get more into the books and rites than into the letting yourself disentangle from any set-up. But I don't think it captures the 'smug' (there was a great episode of SouthPark showing Californians getting high on their own lentil-flavoured farts, implying that they were so self-satisfied they found nothing at all offensive about themselves, they thought they were just the best. That, to me, pretty well epitomises the stink of Zen!). Many thanks indeed. And kindest thoughts. Lucy

    1. certainly a few typos in there... sorry. You ought to be able to get the gist. Imperfection, eh!

    2. Thank you for posting! Sorry it took me so long to reply. :) I remember that South Park, lol. Yeah, I like the more strict definition of Stink of Zen - that anything but actually sitting still and gazing misses the point and ceases to be Zen (Dhyana/Meditation).

      Much love,


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