The Marketing of Zen

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.

D.T. Suzuki

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.

Shunryu Suzuki

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


Self-power and Other-power

T’an-luan, the Chinese monk acknowledged as the founder of Pure Land Buddhism, was not the first to use the terms t’o-li (J. tariki) and tzu-li (J. jiriki), but I believe he was the first to suggest that “other-power” was superior to “self-power.”

The origins of Pure Land (Sukhavati) are obscure. The Pure Land sutras were transmitted to China from India in the 2nd century, so it had existed in Indian Buddhism for some time prior to that. One theory that I have always leaned toward is that Pure Land has its roots in Persian Sun-God worship.

T’an-luan was active during the 5th to 6th centuries, a time when the notion of the “degenerate age” or Mappo, the Latter Day of the Law, was gaining prominence. Essentially the theory behind this is that people have become so defiled it is impossible for them to save themselves through their own efforts, hence, they must rely on faith in outside or “other-power.” The object of this faith is found in the imaginary Buddha, Amitabha. Believers entrust themselves to the saving power of Amitabha and are taught that if they meditate upon him or chant his name, after they die they can be reborn in the Western Paradise that lies beyond the setting sun.

Pure Land is also called the “Easy Path,” and Nagarjuna is cited as the source of this designation. In the Shastra on the Ten Bodhisattva Stages, he says

In the Easy Path . . . one calls the names of the Buddhas, practicing a denial of attachment to self through reliance upon the compassion of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and through desire for birth in a realm of purity, where all defiled karma of attachment is transformed into corresponding good through the operation of Emptiness. Included in this path are the Name and the Vow of Amida Buddha.

The authenticity of this work is questionable, although most scholars agree it is “Nagarjunian.” Regardless, it has traditionally provided a major endorsement for what Roger Corless in “The Enduring Significance of T’an-luan” describes as a practice based on the “power of pure mind, manifested in Amita Buddha, [that] is so great that we can trust it to work in us, we do not have to struggle and claw our way up the mountain of the Bodhisattva levels, as the Mahayana normally instructs.”

However, the historical Buddha did not offer teachings that even slightly resemble other-power. Indeed, he was rather critical of spiritual practices that depended upon faith in supernatural beings. He did not direct his followers attention to any higher, holier beings or forces, instead, he called upon them to look within themselves, to be “a lamp unto yourself” and in this respect, the Buddha’s teachings fall under the category of “self-power”. [I really prefer to use “inner-power”.]

Corless notes further: “T’an-luan offers a comprehensive program of practice, involving the whole person in body, speech, and mind. Later Pure Land Buddhism, especially in Japan, not only concentrated on a single practice, that of invoking the name of Amita Buddha (nembutsu), it restricted itself to it.”

Here then is one of the chief reasons for Pure Land’s enduring popularity. Worldwide, more people practice this form of Buddhism than any other. It’s simple, and easy, but perhaps not in the way that Nagarjuna meant. Anyone can chant “Namo Omito-Fo” (Chinese) or “Namu Amita-Butsu” (Japanese). Imagine how this must have appealed to peasants of the feudal era who worked from sun-up to sundown seven days a week and who did not have time to sit in meditation for long periods and lacked the literacy required to be able to read the sutras and commentaries. It is said that chanting the name of Amitabha even a single time with sincerity is enough to cause rebirth in the Pure Land.

While, in general, I am respectful of Pure Land, and I even admire the find tradition of scholarship found in the Japanese schools, at the same I must admit that I prejudiced against this approach. I’m sure it has something to do with my long involvement in the Nichiren tradition. In fact, one of the first things I read by Nichiren was a writing entitled “On Attaining Buddhahood,” in which he states,

Continue reading “Self-power and Other-power”


Profound and Subtle

That same retreat season, Ananda asked a question about dependent co-arising, and so the Buddha taught the Bhikkhus about the twelve links in the chain of existence.

He explained “The teaching of dependent co-arising is profound and subtle. Do not think it can be grasped through words or discourse . . .

Contemplate the nature of dependent co-arising during every moment.

When you look at a leaf or a raindrop, meditate on all the conditions,
near and distant, that have contributed to the presence of that leaf or raindrop.
Know that the world is woven of interconnected threads.
This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not.
This is born, because that is born. This dies, because that dies.”

from Old Path, White Clouds: walking in the footsteps of the Buddha

by Thich Nhat Hanh


The Dharma of Instruction

In Gakudo Yojin-sho (“Guidelines for Studying the Way”), Dogen wrote,

Practicing [Buddhism], studying the way, is the great matter of a lifetime. You should not belittle it or be hasty with it.

To do almost anything in life requires learning. From taking our first steps to driving a car, someone had to teach us, guide us, show us the way. In most cases, we understand this and do not resent receiving instruction. To cook a meal it is often necessary to follow a recipe. To arrive at a particular destination, you may need a map. When it comes to spiritual practice, however, some people act as if the reverse applied. They seem overly eager to disregard the recipe, throw away the map, and they disparage those who would guide them, unconcerned that teachers may have more experience and knowledge, which qualifies them to be teachers in the first place.

In Buddhism, particularly, as soon as some people have a modicum of exposure to the teachings, they become experts. Regarding this phenomenon, Dogen wrote,

Nowadays, there are foolish people who memorize the words of texts or accumulate sayings and try to match these words with the teacher’s explanation. In this case, they have only their own views and old words, and have not yet merged with the teacher’s words.

For some people their own views are primary; they open a sutra, memorize a word or two, and consider this to be buddha-dharma, later, when they visit with an awakened teacher or a skilled master and hear the teaching, if it agrees with their own view they consider the teaching right, and if it does not agree with their old fixed standards they consider his words wrong. They do not know how to abandon their mistaken tendencies, so how could they ascend and return to the true way? For ages numberless as particles of dust and sand, they will remain deluded. It is most pitiable. Is it not sad?

Why are so many resentful when it comes to receiving instruction? Most people understand that in learning meditation, for instance, they are steps to follow, do’s and don’ts. No problem. But as soon as a teacher says, “The Buddha taught this” or  “You should try to practice in this way” or anything similar that goes beyond the most basic, they become James Dean for a day, rebels without a cause.

Chih-i said,

Only when you become skilled at churning, can you obtain butter. Likewise, you cannot ascend to the stage of wondrous realization without practice.

Before you can practice, you must learn how. You must receive instruction. Practice in Buddhism is more than just learning how to sit properly in meditation. Buddhist practice is learning how to think anew, to change your mind. If we were thinking correctly to start with, there would be no need for practice at all. Meditation is calming the mind but it’s also training the mind. Training is the skill, knowledge and experience of one who is trained, and in order to be trained one must be taught. But how is that possible when one is unwilling or constantly looking for the loopholes in a teacher’s words?

I’m not suggesting that we should never question the teachings or teachers. What I am suggesting is that there is a way to go about it that is constructive and a way that is destructive. Criticism or rejection of a teachers words simply because they are framed in a way that does not conform to one’s personal tastes does not belong in the former category. Neither does fashioning convoluted rationalizations, or even going so far as to coin new terms to describe what is believed to be the dictations of those with more knowledge and experience. This, to borrow a Japanese literary term, is what I would call kyogen kigo or “foolish talk and dazzling rhetoric.”

No one would try to operate a car without first learning how to drive. No one with an ounce of sense, that is. Why do we think we can operate a spiritual vehicle without instruction or without learning which views conform to the core teachings and which do not?

Here are some instructions: Talk less, listen more. Think better, judge less.

Take it from me. I know what I am talking about. I have to learn this many times. I am still learning it.

While reading or listening, don’t work too hard. Be like the earth. When the rain comes, the earth only has to open herself up to the rain. Allow the rain of the Dharma to come in and penetrate the seeds that are buried deep in your consciousness. A teacher cannot give you the trruth. The truth is already in you. You only need to open yourself — body, mind, and heart — so that his or her teachings will penetrate your own seeds of understanding and enlightenment. If you let the words enter you, the soil and the seeds will do the rest of the work.

– Thich Nhat Hanh


The Escape, The Error and The Flash of Genius

No joy in Mudville tonight, for mighty Casey has struck out . . .

And now, a few words from William Carlos Williams:

The Crowd at the Ball Game

(Published in The Dial, 1923)

William Carlos Williams in 1954

The crowd at the ball game
is moved uniformly

by a spirit of uselessness
which delights them —

all the exciting detail
of the chase

and the escape, the error
the flash of genius —

all to no end save beauty
the eternal –

So in detail they, the crowd,
are beautiful

for this
to be warned against

saluted and defied —
It is alive, venomous

it smiles grimly
its words cut —

The flashy female with her
mother, gets it —

The Jew gets it straight – it
is deadly, terrifying —

It is the Inquisition, the

It is beauty itself
that lives

day by day in them
idly —

This is
the power of their faces

It is summer, it is the solstice
the crowd is

cheering, the crowd is laughing
in detail

permanently, seriously
without thought