I was tempted to call this post “The Zen of the Zen of Zen.” Several times now, I’ve poked some fun at how people will use the word “Zen” to market almost anything, from marketing itself to tea and online shopping carts, like some of the products on the right. Without a doubt, it trivializes a great spiritual tradition. But that’s capitalism for you. We can trivialize, and sell, anything. Religion especially. By the way, do have your Copper Magnetic Therapy Jesus Bracelet yet?
I’m certainly not the first to notice, or lament, this unfortunate phenomenon. Some years ago John McRae, a well-known Buddhist scholar, in his book Seeing Through Zen, had this to say about it:
It seems that virtually anyone can claim authoritative understanding of Zen, or at least be comfortable in using the word Zen in works totally unrelated to the tradition . . . we may recognize that, in contrast to the usage within East Asian Buddhism, the word Zen has a very different and much more limited range of meaning in contemporary world popular culture.
The popular usage implies that Zen is simply an attitude of undistracted concentration that can be applied to any human endeavor. If you get fully involved in the task at hand, become one with it, and allow yourself to flow according to its natural rhythms, then your performance of that task will improve accordingly . . . I have seen the word Zen used to described home electronics projects and lines of cosmetic products, in which the word is used in the sense of bare-bones simplicity and ease of use; of course, the latter may also include some “oriental” aesthetics sense for all I know.
Now we understand that “Zen” means “meditation.” Zen is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese word “Ch’an”, based on the Indian “dhyana” which comes from another Indian word “jhana” which in turn is from the verb “jhayati” meaning “to think closely (upon an object)” [from Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism, edited by Peter N. Gregory].
But the Zen of Zen lies mainly in the eye of the beholder, since it does mean different things to different people. In general, Zen refers to a sect of Buddhism and “zazen” refers to the approach to meditation they use. In addition to that, there are a whole range of other associations.
While the overuse of the word “Zen” in marketing is pretty dreadful, I suppose there is a positive angle. “Zen” has become such a commonplace word that, hopefully, the strangeness has been taken out of it. There are many people who think that anything to do with Buddhism is very strange indeed. Some of them are convinced that Buddhists are devil-worshipping heretics who are aiding in the destruction of the world. So, anything that helps to deflate that perception must be a good thing.
Zen quotes are real big, too. Almost anything paradoxical or abstruse qualifies as a “Zen quote.” Here are a few actual Zen quotes about Zen:
When other sects speak well of Zen, the first thing that they praise is its poverty.
Life, according to Zen, ought to be lived as a bird flies through the air, or as a fish swims in the water.
Zen is not something to get excited about. Some people start to practice Zen just out of curiosity, and they only make themselves busier. If your practice makes you worse, it is ridiculous. I think that if you try to do zazen once a week, that will make you busy enough. Do not be too interested in Zen. When young people get excited about Zen they often give up schooling and go to some mountain or forest in order to sit. That kind of interest is not true interest.
The essence of Zen is awakening. That is why one does not talk about Zen, one experiences it.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Q: How do you feel about the Westernization of Zen Buddhism?
A: It’ll take a few centuries. At the moment, there are many wonderful intentions all mixed in, but there are some needed corrections. The first needed correction is not to call it Zen Buddhism, but to call it Buddhism, and to say the Zen practice within Buddhism, because that’s what it really is. Zen is just a practice within the marvelous ocean of Buddhist philosophy and practices that is so rich and so sophisticated. From there, we have things which we can give to Buddhism. We already have begun to give much more power to women. We’ve begun to make it a lay practice, a family practice, rather than a purely monastic practice. And we’ve moved towards engagement and action in terms of social issues, in a way that historical Buddhism did not do so much, although to give them credit, there is social activism in contemporary Japanese Buddhism, too, particularly on nuclear power and nuclear war issues. Buddhists are the leaders in the peace movement in Japan, and have been ever since World War II. But the truly non-dualist, non-discriminating, openhearted, playful style of Buddhism will take a while.
Gary Snyder (in conversation with John Suiter)
The only Zen you can find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.
Robert M. Pirsig