May 31, 2012

Dude, We Were So Zen!

I have noticed lately how the word “Zen” has become much more than the proper noun denoting a particular school of Japanese Buddhist practice.

As in: “dude we were so zen,” or even better “zen-ed out.”

Or, “this living room is nice, man—very zen.”

Seems the word has come to be used as a descriptor of minimalist design, or as a multipurpose adjective to describe a person, place or even a mental state.

Now, I don’t mean in any way to be pedantic here—language evolves and slang loves a remix, a mash-up, a re-appropriation. So do I.

In our postmodern spiritual zeitgeist it makes zense that one of my old friends would have popularized a free form dance practice she calls “Zen Dancing,” and that the word would be used to brand tea, fountains, alarm clocks and practically anything that you might find in a glossy catalog aimed at our “cultural creative” or LOHAS demographic.

A little etymology reveals that the word is itself a kind of postmodern Darwinian phenomenon. Turns out that it is a Japanese pronunciation (some would say mispronunciation) of the Chinese word chan, which in turn is is derived from the sanskrit word dhyana, which can be loosely translated as “absorption.”

When not describing a dude of easy going temperament, perhaps like the character Jeff Bridges immortalized in the Coen Brother’s “The Big Lebowski,” use of the word is now synonymous with serenity, relaxed clarity, an uncluttered room, chamomile tea, Native American flute music, just you and your cat chillin’ on the couch, realizing that there is nowhere to go and nothing to do. Simply being.


Seriously, I love this scenario.

But here’s the thing I find ironic and even a bit amusing: actual Zen Buddhism, and especially Zen meditation is nothing like this whatsoever!

Traditional Zen teachers are fierce; they might whack you on the shoulder with a stick if you looked sleepy and slouchy while sitting in the meditation hall. Getting “Zen” is not really about mellowing out—it is about a powerfully disciplined and difficult approach to working with one’s mind.

Though Zen is indeed a practice and philosophy of recognizing the inherent such-ness of reality, the interpenetrating Buddha-nature of all things, if you will, (and what could sound more dude-like?) it is a path to this realization that requires arduous practice and that emphasizes shedding pretensions and disinvesting from “spiritual” accoutrement that it says are merely another crutch for egoic posturing.

In other words, part of this sometimes cryptic-seeming teaching is that whatever you think enlightenment is—it probably isn’t, so (instructs the Zen master) shut up and sit down on your meditation cushion. This leads us to one of the most famous Zen sayings, an utterance sure to shock the chamomile tea out of our cups, start that peaceful Carlos Nakai CD skipping, and wake up that sleepy kitty on the couch:

“If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Now hold on. Isn’t the Buddha divine? Or as my ex-girlfriend’s sister once asked me with a scowl, “If you don’t even believe in God, how can you have a Buddha statue by your door?”

Well in Zen the insight is that your very notion of a divine magical Buddha that you are seeking to meet in some moment of supernatural grace may be the very thing that is preventing you from waking up now.

And Zen in essence is nothing if not a radical invitation to wake up now.

To reality. To what is, as it is.

Funny thing is, I am not a Zen Buddhist. So this is not a pious attempt to reclaim some precious usage of a word I revere. Its just an observation about the irony of our spiritual zeitgeist.

Hell, I even like most of the things that have been designated as “zen” in Santa Monica, Boulder, Santa Fe, Sedona and the 415, as long as they are not the thin edge of the wedge, the gateway drug that leads to the more dangerous stuff—astrology, alien channeling or that other dreaded catchphrase, Feng Shui, which apparently denotes the magical correlation between  furniture arranging and career, money and love…

Seriously though, I like getting “zen” as much as the next yoga teacher, even if Zen requires a little less chamomile and perhaps a little more potent green tea.

{This article originally featured on yoganonymous.com}

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