Everything Zen (I Don't Think So)

The Nikkawa River near Miyagikyo distillery in JapanI've been reading a lot about Zen Buddhism and Japan lately. Not so much because I'm looking to become a Buddhist, but mainly because as I get older I appreciate the philosophy of action over words. I care less about what people say these days than how they behave (watch Search Party on TBS for an absolutely blistering criticism of modern youth culture on this topic). People are always trying to convince us of something—who they are, what they're about, what they value—but often their actions tell a different story. Reading about Zen is an enjoyable respite from modernity. The irony of reading about Zen is that you can't really understand Zen by reading about it (I said the same thing about wine ten years ago, which is why I applied for the job at K&L). You have to live it. In his book Zen and Japanese Culture, D.T. Suzuki recounts a number of ancient stories when monk disciples questioned their masters about the tenets of Zen, only to get slapped across the face, bonked on the head, or have their noses twisted into uncomfortable positions. The misconception here is that the monks were being punished for their foolish inquiries, but that's not the case. The masters were simply giving them the clearest and most direct answer, one that brought them back into the moment, which is what Zen is about: right here and now. "Zen is not necessarily against words," Suzuki writes, "but it is well aware of the fact that they are always liable to detach themselves from realities and turn into conceptions. And this conceptualization is what Zen is against."

The more I listen to people talk about wine and whisky, the more I'm wondering if a Zen-like approach is what's necessary to get away from all the pageantry and get back down to basics. I honestly feel like there's too much talking about booze these days and not enough drinking it. Not that I don't want to talk about booze, it's just that I don't want to do more talking than drinking. I was watching an episode of "Petitrenaud" on French TV 5 Monde last night and Jean-Luc, the escapading vivant, was in Burgundy drinking pinot noir with some local farmers. Everyone was talking about wine and food the entire time, but they were always sipping or eating in between sentences. There was no ridiculousness whatsoever; no one was talking about how good the cheese was or how the wine tasted. They talked about production and specifics. The simple discussion wasn't meant to distract from the task at hand, but rather to enhance it, which is exactly why we should talk about alcohol. Contrast that with the American shows I watch about wine and food where it's all fluffy romance, self-centered focus, and no real action. I think that's the real difference between the French and the Americans when it comes to eating: the French actually want to eat their baguettes, while the Americans want to go to the bakery, take a picture of themselves buying the baguette, and then tell everyone how good it was. In both cases there are words, but the Americans are the ones detaching themselves from reality and conceptualizing the experience. They've lost track of the thing itself.

"Zen insists on handling the thing itself and not an empty abstraction," Suzuki adds to this topic; "It is for this reason that Zen neglects reading or reciting the sutras, or discourse on abstract subjects. And this is a cause for Zen's appeal to men of action." But, of course, we've known this since we were kids. Hollywood has been pumping out Karate Kid-like sensei movies for decades, where a wise-cracking, unfocused American gets paired up with a wise Japanese Zen master and gets an education in discipline. Heck, Daniel-san even got his nose twisted at one point just like the apprentice monk when he questioned Mr. Miyagi's motives. While we've come to understand some of the basic elements of Zen as it pertains to martial arts, it's also clearly engrained in the Japanese approach to drinking. Watch a Japanese bartender in action and you'll get the gist. There's no talking, no discourse, and no abstraction. Making a cocktail is a lesson in satori: the part of Zen that finds hidden meaning in our daily experiences like eating and drinking. The goal in discovering satori is emancipation. When you can purge the "intellectual sediments" from your mind, you're free to see the real meaning of any action normally hidden from sight. That's basically how I feel about drinking right now. I want to cut out all the BS—the scores, the reviews, the novelties, and the abstractions that further remove me from its origins—and focus on the act and the beverage itself. I'm becoming a man of action. I drink to drink.

If you want to learn more about wine or whiskey, you can't read about it. You have to drink it and drink as much of it as possible, slowly, over time, until you eventually develop your palate. You can't rush it. You can't buy every whisky available all at once and become a master. That doesn't stop people from trying, however. I see it every single day. They want the answers, they want the full experience, and they're in a hurry, so they buy more booze than they can ever drink and try to fast track the process. They read every book, every blog, and every article they can, but they're not really drinking, nor are they really getting the point. "While technical training is of great importance," Suzuki writes, "it is after all something artificially, consciously, calculatingly added and acquired. Unless the mind that avails itself of the technical skill somehow attunes itself to a state of the utmost fluidity or mobility, anything acquired or superimposed neglects spontaneity of natural growth. This realization cannot be taught by any system designed for this purpose, it must simply grow from within." 

Do people want realization when it comes to wine and whiskey, however? Or is this new age of connoisseurship really about having an opinion? I think what I like most about Zen is its focus on self-reliance and personal experience, two things you absolutely must master if you're going to form your own opinions in life. Zen stresses going through practical situations oneself, without aid or assistance from others (which is why I needed to beat Castlevania this past weekend without any cheats or online guides). There's a Zen lesson that states: "Do not rely on others, nor on the readings of the sutras or sastras. Be your own lamp." You can't be a whisky master by mimicking the habits of others, or by downloading a list of 101 whiskies you must try before you die. You need to get away from words. You need to become a man (or woman) of action. Drink! Go out and drink! If you want to talk about drinking, get off your computer, and go to bar! That's where you learn about drinking. 

Of course, what you learn on your long journey to becoming a whisky master is that being a whisky master isn't something attainable. Nor is it desirable. People who parade around as whisky masters or experts are people I want to avoid like the plague. If I see a guy in the store wearing a kilt, I will literally run the other way. Someone asked me a few years back if I was interested in becoming a Keeper of something or other—some Scotch master society, I think. "No, thanks," I said. If you want to simply talk about wine or whisky appreciation, leave me out. It's for the same reason I'll no longer judge at spirits competitions, or participate in any sort of critical review. I'd rather be at the bar getting a drink. There's nothing abstract about that.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll