March 18, 2011

Zen and the art of misusing the word Zen

In “Alan Arkin Explains the Zen of Martin Scorsese,” a recent post on Speakeasy (a Wall Street Journal blog) one commenter took umbrage with the post’s title, writing: “Would you please stop abusing the word Zen?”

You don’t have to look hard to find examples of what the commenter is complaining about. Consider the following: An article on the Huffpost called “The Zen of Beans,” a new book entitled The Zen of Farting, and an apartment in Williamsburg, NY described as a “sexy Zen sanctuary.” Consider also all of the different Zen and the Art of __________ books (for a very funny take on this phenomenon see blogger Alex Tzelnic’s “Zen and the Art of Zen and the Art of Books”). We could list a million examples of instances where people use the word Zen in ways that have nothing at all to do with Zen Buddhism. It occurs to me that it’s not unlike the word love. It means something different to everyone.

What then can we say about Zen? Clearly it’s capable of expression in a multitude of legitimate ways. Surely the practice of zazen on a zafu in a zendo constitutes such an expression. But what about the athlete who has the presence of mind to hit a game winning shot? The dedicated artist exploding with creativity? A child at play?  

If Zen encompasses everything, does it stand for anything? It seems to me that it does, and that there is some commonality in all of its manifestations. There may be more, but one element shared by all the things we call Zen is elegance. Zen is beautiful. Graceful. When we use the word Zen it often expresses the recognition that there is something spiritual about simplicity.

So, yes, I suppose we do collectively misuse the word Zen when we take it out of its Buddhist context. But is it abuse? Like love, the word Zen almost always has positive connotations. And for that reason, I must say I’m all for it. Let's stretch the word Zen infinitely, until it covers the whole world.

UPDATE: Clark Strand on the history of the word "Zen,":

All this is nothing new. The samurai warriors who came into contact with Zen when it first appeared in thirteenth-century Japan were unsure about the proper way to write the Chinese character for Zen. Often they confused it with a similar character meaning “loincloth,” a confusion that (according to the British scholar Trevor Leggett) made for some amusing, if ultimately illuminating verbal exchanges. One story concerns a minor political figure named Morikatsu, who visited Bukko, a respected Zen master of the time.

Morikatsu told one of Bukko’s attendant monks, “These Kamakura people are so stupid they write the name for your sect using the character for loincloth. What a joke!” The attendant was upset that people should degrade the Zen teachings in this way, but when he told Bukko, the master only laughed.

“That’s exactly right!” Bukko exclaimed. “That which gives life is the power of the front gate, and at death that power goes out through the back. Isn’t life and death the great matter of our sect? What wraps up the organs of life and death is none other than a loin-cloth. If you contemplate a loin-cloth deeply enough, you’ll get to the bottom of things. Now, use this loin-cloth to show our teaching to that little idiot Morikatsu.”

So the attendant went back to Morikatsu and waved a loincloth in his face. “All living beings are contained in “this!” he cried. “What do you say to that?” Morikatsu had no words.

Image: from the Flickr photostream of pittaya

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h_industries's picture

Nice post. As an older practitioner I've taken a more sarcastic turn to "zenification" and started a blog - The Zen of ____ , where the blank is whatever I'm doing, although it's usually very Zen - forgive:

positivepoetry's picture

I would have to agree with this I just bought and am doing research on the topic and am blown away with the amount of websites out there with Zen in the name yet they have nothing to do with Zen. I hope when I'm done others don't say the same about mine. :-) You never know...

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Sam. Here's an "On Translation" piece I wrote a long time back. Not sure if it's public access, but here's the link:

It offers a humorous take on the history of the word "Zen."

Sam Mowe's picture

Thanks for directing me to this, Clark. I especially enjoyed learning that samurai warriors were unsure about the proper way to write the Chinese character for Zen. We'll get your piece public shortly.

Member108's picture

So you're all saying, "if it's positive, it's good therefore it's Zen." What's next -- that ugly and awkward ain't Zen? Well excuse me for living!

When we allow language to get sloppy, among other things, there will be hell to pay in terms of misconceptions and actions to deal with.

Enkyo Roshi's picture

Yes, I tend to cringe when 'impact' and 'language' are used as verbs, but listen to Horace for the dharma of impermanence:

Men ever had, and ever will have leave,
To coin new words well suited to the age,
Words are like leaves, some wither every year,
And every year a younger race succeeds.
-Horace, poett (65-8 BCE)

Sam Mowe's picture

Generally, I agree with you about being precise with language. But it is also good to remember that language is a living thing, and is always changing. Like it or not, Zen has become part of the English language and often times is unrelated to Zen Buddhism. I think it's interesting to try to figure out where this secular understanding of the word "Zen" comes from. Does the "sexy Zen sanctuary" mentioned in this post have ANYTHING to do with Zen Buddhism?

Enkyo Roshi's picture

Best yet:

Sam Mowe's picture

Ha! So good. They might be on to something, I've fallen asleep during zazen before...

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Zen is elegance. Zen is beautiful. Graceful."
Iaido developed as yet another way to express it: an elegant, beautiful, and graceful style of drawing a katana (sword) and slicing through an opponent's body in a single stroke.

solitude1951's picture

Definitely. Zen used to be practiced alongside other skill sets such as formal tea service, archery, flower arrangement, and the martial arts etc. These skill sets were called forms, thus the use of forms or katas in todays martial arts. The achievement in skills was gauged by their zen practice. I know I'm preaching to the choir here so let me know when my ignorance overflows the bounds of compassion.

Sam Mowe's picture

Doesn't it seem like "Zen," in all of its various manifestations, always has elegant, beauty and grace at its core?

Maura High's picture

It's interesting how the idea "zen" has percolated down into the Western consciousness. I see zen bathrooms, zen clothing, zen decor . . . and, in the most surprising places, images of the Buddha as emblems of peacefulness, calm, thoughtfulness. Zen practitioners would, I believe, find this delightful. So what it's sometimes a bit muddled? That's life. And (though it's more the larger Buddhist view than strictly zen), one can feel compassion and understanding and give encouragement to those who are using the concept of zen in these ways. Your examples of "the athlete who has the presence of mind to hit a game winning shot? The dedicated artist exploding with creativity? A child at play?" are of course exactly about concentration, being in the moment, being present. The old-world examples would be archers and calligraphers and cooks.

Sam Mowe's picture

You and I are on the same page, Maura. I understand the potential dangers of being sloppy with language, but the way that people use Zen strikes me as pretty harmless. Additionally, I think that the broad definition of Zen, in all of its manifestations, IS often actually tied in some sense to the practice of Zen meditation as we define it as Buddhists.'s picture

Thank you! This is wonderful