Zen Board

Among the many Zen products in my office, the Zen Board is one of the most unassuming, tucked away in its corrugated cardboard envelope on top of a filing cabinet. This minimalist simplicity is part of the marketing appeal of the Zen Board (also called the Buddha Board). People can use water to paint whatever they want onto the plain white backdrop, then watch it fade away. It’s especially well suited to the kind of ink painting and calligraphy that has become associated with Zen, which is the key connection to the “Zen” label.

Zen BoardZen Board Cover

The Zen Board draws on the aestheticization of Zen that we can also see in rock gardens and the ubiquitous “Zen and/in the Art of…” genre. This understanding of Zen aesthetics does not incorporate the gilded opulence of many Chan/Zen/Sŏn monasteries, but is limited to  black and white ink paintings and calligraphy, as well as the stark minimalism of rock gardens at places like Ryōanji. In the contemporary U.S., Zen minimalism still signifies aesthetic sophistication for many, though the rampant commodification of Zen might be diluting the brand.

Zen/Buddha Boards are marketed to bourgeois consumers as a way to de-stress. The “Original Buddha Board” has the tagline “master the art of letting go”; its Amazon.com page describes the $35.00 product in “Zen” terms:

Calm your mind while creating beautiful images. A Zen-like Etch-a-Sketch. Use the included brush to paint designs onto the board with water. As the water evaporates your image will fade, but will reveal a new perspective on your creative endeavors, encouraging the Zen idea of living in the moment. Stand, board and brush included.

Mini versions of the board are available in different colors, and many other companies sell competing boards with similar names. There’s even a Zen Board App that allows users to make temporary paintings on their phone or tablet screens:

ZenBoard app3

These products, like most other Zen marketing, are presented as a respite from the daily grind. They promise at least a brief window of living in the moment, a breath of simplicity amidst the chaos of the workday. As such, they depend on this kind of hectic lifestyle (and capitalism in general) to justify their existence. Many product reviews on Amazon described the product as therapeutic, which also relates to the common associations between Zen and self-help. Products like the Zen Board reinforce the idea that Zen is an experience that anyone can have — at least, anyone with $35.00 to spend (or 99 cents for the app).



Zen Football?

As a native Eugenian and graduate of the University of Oregon, I find myself conflicted this weekend, as the Ducks are taking on the University of Tennessee Volunteers. I teach at UT, so I’ve been feeling ambivalent about the outcome of the game. I’ve decided to work through this by comparing the Zen dimensions of UT and UO football. Zen and football may seem like an unlikely pair, but each school has its own version of this apparent paradox.

A few weeks ago Eugene’s Register-Guard published the story “A New Aut-Zen” about recent renovations made at Autzen Stadium, home of the Ducks.  These renovations, which cost about $5 million, created a new area at the stadium called “Zen North,” which boasts (among other things) two waterfalls that are the tallest and fastest manmade waterfalls in North America. Zen North also features hundreds of trees, thousands of other plants, and various structures made of salvaged wood. The project aims to ease the flow of fans entering and leaving the stadium, and enhance the fans’ experience at Autzen.



The “Zen” of Zen North plays off the idea of a minimalist, sophisticated Zen aesthetic, and also seems to refer to the new natural features and their intended calming effect. But do football teams really want their fans to be calm?

I’m not aware of any plans to add Zen features to Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, but a former UT player has received the “Zen” label in recent months. Website theGrio.com describes Arian Foster as “keeping it ‘zen’” in the NFL, and Foster has received other media attention for his veganism and practice of bowing in the end zone.

Arian Foster ZenFoster majored in philosophy at UT (before my time) and the ESPN story on his bowing quotes him as saying, “I studied Buddhism for a while. […] I’m really into different types of cultures and religions. I really like their belief system, and I just believe we’re kind of all in this together as people, energies and life forces.” He explains the bowing as the Hindu namaste gesture, in which the divine in oneself recognizes the divine in others. Though I don’t know if he would identify himself as “Zen,” he clearly has some familiarity with Buddhism and Hinduism, and his veganism puts him in line with the diet of Zen monks.

Oregon might have the edge going into the football matchup, but Arian Foster gives Tennessee the win in the Zen contest: multi-million dollar renovations (Zen-ovations?) don’t compare to Foster’s actual knowledge of Buddhism. Judging these two teams in a Zen contest might not seem very Zen, but then again neither does football. Perhaps the paradox of “Zen football” can be its own koan: may the most Zen team win.



2013-07-15 OrgaZEN

On a recent vacation I found myself at a gas station convenience store in rural Alabama, one of the last places I would expect to encounter Zen products. This is also one of the last places I would expect to encounter explicitly sexual products, yet right at the register were the boxes of OrgaZen. The OrgaZen package shows a man and woman in a passionate embrace, the woman’s face signaling ecstasy, no doubt due to her partner’s consumption of the male sexual stimulant inside the box. OrgaZen promises to maximize sex drive, stamina, and pleasure, and claims to be both fast acting and long lasting. I’m less interested in the product’s offerings than its name: what is “Zen” doing in OrgaZen? 

OrgaZen seems to be appropriating Zen’s associations with the “exotica” of Eastern medicine, and with everything natural, organic, and environmentally friendly: the packaging describes OrgaZen as 100% natural. Overall, the packaging implies that OrgaZen is an all-natural creation of Eastern medicine, and therefore safer and healthier than the chemical remedies of Western modernity. 

When I started thinking about possible connections between OrgaZen and Zen Buddhist history, the first thing that sprang to mind was the gedoku (poison-dispelling) pill mentioned in the excellent The Other Side of Zen: A Social History of Soto Zen Buddhism in Tokugawa Japan. According to a legend from the Tokugawa period (ca. 1600-1868), the daughter of a dragon king gave this herbal medicine to Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Japanese Soto school of Zen, when he visited China, and Dogen brought it back to Japan. During the Tokugawa period, Soto Zen temples were involved in selling gedoku medicine, which was purported to cure myriad ailments, from malaria to acne. Though gedoku pills were said to cure syphilis and gonorrhea, as well, I have seen no references to its use as a sexual stimulant. Still, the gedoku example shows that Zen monks were involved in selling herbal products that claimed to cure sexual ailments, among others.

What does gedoku have to do with OrgaZen? It shows that the idea of a sexual stimulant being tied to Zen isn’t totally bizarre and disconnected from Zen Buddhist history. Buddhists (and Daoists) were very involved in medicine and healing, including issues of sexual vitality that for men were seen as linked to their fundamental life force. OrgaZen has no direct Zen connection (that I know of!), but there is a thread, however thin, that links it to Zen Buddhism. 


Zen Fashion

Viktor and Rolf

The Daily Beast published a story last week about the return of the Dutch designer duo Viktor & Rolf to couture fashion after a 13-year hiatus. The story, “Viktor & Rolf’s Return to Couture for Fall 2013: Going Zen,” focuses on their couture show in Paris on July 3, 2013, which had the models walk through raked sand beds and strike rock-like poses on the ground. In an interview the designers themselves named Kyoto’s Ryoanji as their inspiration, unsurprising considering that its rock garden is the best known of the so-called “Zen gardens.”

While a Google search for Zen fashion yields thousands of results that use “Zen” without any reference to its historical meaning, the Viktor & Rolf show interprets Zen fairly literally. This is most apparent in the “Zen garden” aesthetic, but the designers continued the theme of minimalism in the clothes themselves, which were all black, asymmetrical, and played with volume and proportions. Their equation of Zen, Japan, nature, and minimalism undergirds the aestheticization of Zen that we see in all the “Zen and the Art of…” books, and other products that promise the aura of sophistication and exoticism.

As a couture collection, this show is not for sale in the same way the designers’ ready-to-wear collection would be. Designers present couture as their high art, sewn by hand, with no two pieces the same. Women’s Wear Daily reports that an unnamed art collector already bought several pieces from Viktor & Rolf’s 2013 collection. However, designers translate themes and elements from couture shows in their ready-to-wear collections, which are mass produced and sold in retail establishments. This means that couture lines are not separate from the business of fashion, and Viktor & Rolf’s Zen couture can serve as an aspirational example that trickles down into more wearable and affordable pieces.

Especially given its connection to commerce, “Zen fashion” might strike some as frivolous, a cheapening of authentic spiritual experience. Such a view rests on the idea that Zen is essentially an interior space of mindfulness and contemplation and does not concern materiality or even ritual. One of the questions Viktor & Rolf’s collection can raise is whether Zen fashion finds historical precedent in Zen practices: after all, monks and nuns wear robes that reflect status distinctions. Robert Buswell, in his account of Korean Sŏn (Zen) monastic life, writes of monks sewing patches on their robes to make them look older, and thus enhance their ascetic reputation, which is another form of aspiration.

Monk Meditating at a Rock Garden

Dude and the Zen Master

The Dude and the Zen Master has a good title. People who would be interested in the book are likely to know who the Dude is: Jeff Bridges’s character in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Though the Zen master of the title is less well known to the general public, it makes perfect sense for the Dude to dialogue with such a figure, in this case, Bernie Glassman. The Dude and the Zen Master also represents the nature of this book as an extended conversation between Bridges and Glassman on existential issues, with an emphasis on Buddhism.

Unlike some of the other pop culture ephemera I’ve discussed on this site, there is a strong connection to Zen Buddhist history and practice in this book. This comes from Bernie Glassman, who trained at the Zen Center of Los Angeles with Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and went on to found Zen Peacemakers. Glassman places himself within the movement of socially engaged Buddhism, a modern form of Buddhism that advocates active participation in social issues (and other public issues) from a Buddhist perspective. Throughout the conversation he refers to several texts and figures from Zen, or Buddhism in general, such as the Chan/Zen masters Huineng and Dogen, the legendary figure Hotei (the fat buddha), and the Heart and Diamond sutras. Glassman’s Zen is modern American Zen, that is, a form of Zen that privileges individual practice outside the context of celibate monasticism, and generally understands Zen as universal experience. American Zen tends to be pluralistic, and Glassman several times proclaims that all religions have the same goal.

For his part, Bridges recounts several of his own experiences in which he applied, or should have applied, Zen ideas (broadly defined). Of course, for him these experiences mainly come from his job as an actor, and the frequent references to well known movies and entertainers can be alienating. Who among us can’t relate to the frustration Bridges feels when the on-set makeup artist wants to cut his hair, when Bridges wants to maintain control over his appearance?

Glassman’s socially engaged perspective lends some balance to the book, which otherwise would present Zen as another kind of individual self-help regimen, totally cut off from political, social, and economic structures. Both Glassman and Bridges discuss their activism, especially attempts to end child hunger, in terms of Zen. The problem is that they offer few new insights into these issues, which is the main problem of the book as a whole.

The Dude and the Zen Master reads like a conversation between two good friends about existential problems. I understand the desire to present their ideas in this format – it seems like something the Dude would do, and conforms to the notion of Zen spontaneity – but, as Bridges and Glassman discuss, masterful improvisation requires a lot of training. Another format, or tighter editing of the conversations, might have conveyed their insights more effectively.



I gave a public lecture at the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum last September in conjunction with the exhibit I curated, “Zen Buddhism and the Arts of Japan.” The exhibit recently won an award of excellence at the annual conference of the Tennessee Association of Museums, so on that occasion I’m posting the video of the talk, titled “From Zen Art to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” It looks at the connection between the kind of art done by Japanese monks in the exhibit and the proliferation of “Zen and/in the Art of…” titles in the late 20th century.



Van Halen originally included a Knoxville date in their 2012 American tour, but it was one of the concerts they cancelled due to “exhaustion,” which seemed to be a euphemism for “wanting to go to Europe instead.” I was even supposed to go to that show, but now I’ll probably never get to see the original line-up, including Diamond Dave himself. John Scanlan’s 2012 book about the band makes me even more sorry that I didn’t get to see David Lee Roth in person, as Scanlan presents him as a Zen master — or is it a Taoist sage?


Reaktion Books published Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’roll in its Reverb series, which “looks at the connections between music, artists, and performers, musical cultures, and places. It explores how our cultural and historical understandings of times and places may help us to appreciate a wide variety of music, and vice versa.” Scanlan, a sociologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, claims that Van Halen represented 1970s California culture, and that the band — or at least the David Lee Roth part of it — embodied a kind of Zen spontaneity and playfulness.

As with many other uses of “Zen” in the modern West, Scanlan wields the term casually, and draws on Kevin Starr’s idea of “Zen California,” though Starr primarily uses this term for the many spiritual and physical self-improvement regimens popular in California by the 1990s. Scanlan’s understanding of Zen relies heavily on the work of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, who present Zen as a universal quality rather than an historical tradition. “Zen” (and “Taoist”) here refer to ideas of spontaneity, harmony with nature, going with the flow, accepting impermanence, unstudied artistry, etc. Scanlan’s conflation of Zen and Taoism also seems indebted to Watts, as the following quotation from Watts’s The Way of Zen serves as the epigram for chapter six: “It is really impossible to appreciate what is meant by the Tao without becoming, in a rather special sense, stupid.”

Though Zen pops up throughout the entire book, it is only the central focus in chapter six, “The Tao of Dave: Surf Life.” It is here that we find David Lee Roth described as a paragon of California Zen:

What Roth exemplified, however, was ambiguity, which was one quality that seemed to lie beyond the grasp of some critics. His comfort with ambiguity, with self-negation — and as Alan Watts notes, Zen takes “positive delight” in the void — represented not only the denial of that 1970s idea of rock’s cultural significance, but its emerging institutional structure, which in turn presumed to add credence to its cultural significance. (p. 114)

What I found frustrating in this chapter was the ambiguity of whether Roth himself identified with Zen, or whether it was Scanlan who made this identification. The latter seems more likely, but Scanlan reports that Roth used a Zen parable about drawing a leaf to explain Van Halen’s work in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

I was initially intrigued by this book’s title, and I was curious to see how Scanlan would locate Van Halen in the context of California Zen. It’s pretty easy to make the case for a distinctive form of “California Zen” in the writings of Beat authors living in California for significant periods (Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg), institutions such as the San Francisco Zen Center, or the perceived connections between California culture and Zen values. It takes a lot more work to connect these ideas to Van Halen. I don’t think Scanlan makes a strong enough connection between California Zen and David Lee Roth or Van Halen as a whole to justify framing the book in these terms. A more compelling comparison Scanlan might have made to illustrate DLR’s Zen character is to the Japanese Zen monk Ikkyu (1394-1481), known for his fondness of alcohol and female companionship. Ikkyu even celebrated his transgressions in verse. However, an important distinction is that Ikkyu was an ordained Zen monk and went on to become abbot of one of the biggest Zen temples in Japan. This kind of specificity would help Scanlan’s case, but the images of Zen (and California) that Scanlan uses in this book are too impressionistic and vague to prompt interesting insights into Van Halen’s connections to musical cultures and places.

Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’roll is a good history of the band, though it doesn’t appear to use new material. What it tries to offer are new lenses through which to understand how Van Halen emerged from a particular place at a particular time. The problem is that both of these lenses — California and Zen — are too blurry to show clearly why Van Halen embodies exuberant California, Zen rock’n’roll.


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