Here’s something I read yesterday at the San Francisco Chronicle:
ZenPayroll, which gives small businesses a simple system for processing payrolls, is now processing more than $100 million a year, the company said last week. Also recently: Startup Zendrive, which plans to use smartphone sensors to “take back the joy of driving,” raised $1.5 million from high-profile investors, including Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and PayPal co-founder Max Levchin.
Elsewhere in startup-land, there’s Zendesk (customer support), Zenefits (payroll, benefits and human resources), and Zenfolio (video hosting). Also Zendorse, Zendeals, Zencoder, ZenCash and, perhaps the crassest appropriation of a religion that eschews written texts, Zen SEO.
Those are just tech companies. There are 657 live trademarks containing the word “Zen,” according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.”
There are a number of reasons that Zen is an attractive business name. Zen is very popular, probably the most “fashionable” form of Buddhism in the West. The word Zen is short, pithy, and starts with a Z. Both Z and Q are letters that intrigue consumers the way the color red does. Zen comes with a set of images: simplicity, nothingness, style. And, Zen teachers and writers have, inadvertently I think, made Zen into something that is perceived to be outside or separate from Buddhism itself. Zen is Buddhism, but then it’s not, it’s Zen. Zen has instant name recognition and I doubt you’ll find anyone naming their payroll system BuddhistPayroll.
The merging of Zen/Buddhism with business seems to be a growing trend. I recently saw mention of a Buddhist podcast titled, “Meditation to Get Ahead.” Not sure what is meant by “get ahead,” but I think I have a clue. A recent Buddhist conference offered sessions called “Eat Me If You Wish: The Dharma of Uncertainty in Business” and “The Transmission of Mind and the Passing of Lineage via the Web.” To be fair, there were some more traditional topics covered at the conference, but those two in particular stood out to me.
There’s also a growing market for Buddhist apps. One, “Equanimity”, a meditation timer, might be useful. But I have doubts about an android app called “Buddhist Meditation Trainer” (“your personal trainer for relaxing and enlightening meditation”) and “buddhify”, a mobile mindfulness meditation app that “increases wellbeing by teaching you mindfulness & meditation on the go.” I also have reservations about concepts such as “Contemplative Technologies” and “ReWiring Meditation for the Digital Age,” and “online sanghas.”
Guess I’m just not geek enough for the brave new world, but then geekhood is nothing I thought any regular person would want to aspire to.
As I’ve noted previously, using Eastern philosophy as key to business strategy is not new. But as I see more of this focus on Buddhism and business, I feel increasingly uneasy about it. Technology, too. Now there is nothing wrong with mixing dharma with technology, however, it seems that some folks, and they are usually newer folks to Buddhism, seem to feel that Buddhism can be technology, or maybe it’s that technology can be Buddhism. But I don’t think dharma can be reduced to an app. Or that you can have a deep, meaningful Buddhist experience via the Web. I’m afraid it’s rather delusional.
And there is something absolutely wrong-headed about turning any sort of religion or spirituality into a purely business opportunity. Spiritual hucksterism is one of the oldest professions, and people of this ilk are a dime a dozen.
Here’s an example that has been bugging me since I first saw it in June. A Buddhist meditation teacher promoting a “one-day coaching intensive workshop for anyone interested in creating an online teaching business” to be held next week in Seattle and November in NYC. At this workshop, you can “learn to teach online from four experienced teachers.” This is a truly wonderful opportunity because “Most people are waiting for someone to model the best way to claim online territory as a teacher.”
And what will you learn?
In 12 hours, you will learn: How to package and brand your offering, How to construct your offering (Webinars? Newsletter? Classes? 5-Week course? Year-long immersion?), How to market your offering, How to choose the right platform to deliver your content, How to process online payments smoothly and securely, How to build community methodically and consistently, How to deliver your offering in an authentic and powerful way, How to create additional sources of passive income, How to manage the entire process from inception to launch, Where to find additional resources like designers, developers and virtual assistants. You will leave with: An action plan, A realistic and dynamic budget, A network of new connections to rely on as you build your business”
What missing here? What about how to help others? That is really the only reason why someone should want to teach dharma or meditation, or anything else for that matter. People certainly need to earn a living, but to embark upon the path of teaching only to make money is a blueprint for disaster, not for the teacher so much, but for the students defrauded by these predators.
Here’s some other things missing from this workshop: How to inspire. How to say committed. How to uphold values and maintain an ethical standard. How to nurture and encourage diversity. How to create a climate of trust, encourage students to learn from their mistakes, how to stimulate critical thinking . . . I feel these are just a few of the things a teacher would need to know whether he or she plans to teach Buddhism, secular meditation, or any other spiritual path.
Of course, few of these positive, substantive qualities can be transmitted in any meaningful way in a 12-hour course. Or via the Web. And when we start talking about the Passing of Lineage over the Web – yikes!
Is this the future? Are we going to nurture a generation of spiritual hucksters? Is the emerging face of Buddhism one that thinks dharma and lineage can be transmitted with an app, a podcast?
I don’t think it’s that bad. I hope not. But it could be.
If the future of Buddhism is hucksterism and dharma as impersonal technology, then I say gimme that ole time religion, it was good enough for Buddha, it’s good enough for me.
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Photos: Electric Buddha from the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India, photographer unknown; young monk, copyright AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh