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.
It turns out that Barnes & Noble is a goldmine for Zen products. One of my recent purchases there was this set of Zen meditation balls that includes two balls, a pouch, and a Zen Meditation Book written by Alison Trulock. The set is a “mega mini kit” sold by Running Press, a publishing house headquartered in Philadelphia. Other mega mini kits include “Mini Meditation Kit” and “Mini Chakra Kit” (in Wisdom and Self Help), “Art of the Bonsai Potato” (in Nature and Gardening), and “Cat Butts” (in Animals). The thread connecting all of these is marketability: they are all relatively inexpensive (about $7) and meant to be given as gifts.
Alison Trulock, author of the Zen Meditation Book, has written several other mini books for Running Press, such as Wee Little Garden Gnome, The Mini Zen Calligraphy Board (which I hope to find soon), Build Your Own Snow Globe, and Pink Panther Yoga: Purr-fect Mind, Purr-fect Body. I suspect that Trulock does not have extensive training in each of these areas, though she may be a master snow globe builder or garden gnome connoisseur for all I know. What the booklet in the Zen meditation balls kit shows is that she is not an expert on East Asian religions, but she does a decent job of explaining Zen in the section “Zen and the Art of Meditation”:
Zen is a Buddhist school that developed in China and later in Japan. At the heart of its philosophy is the goal of learning to see the world “just as it is” with a mind that is clear of any thoughts or feelings. According to Zen beliefs, this freedom of mind comes from direct enlightenment, and one can prepare for this kind of insight by quietly meditating and observing the world. Practicing with the meditation balls can aid in reaching a contemplative state of mind that is open to revelations (pp. 59-60).
The Zen Meditation Book, like many other depictions of Zen in American pop culture, plays fast and loose with the “Zen” label. These meditation balls, usually called Baoding health balls (Baoding jianshen qiu 保定健身球), come from the town of Baoding in China’s Hebei Province. The booklet is correct in tracing their history to Ming China, and noting their connections to traditional Chinese medicine and cosmology. It is true that the two balls correlate to the twin forces of yin and yang, and their use is associated with the proper flow of vital force (qi) within the body. However, they have no historical association with Zen (Chan in China). Trulock casually combines Chinese cosmology, Zen meditation, Tibetan Buddhism, and Daoism without considering historical context. The balls themselves are dark blue with red designs — a dragon on one, and a very, very rough approximation of the Chinese character for good fortune (fu 福) on the other — in imitation of some of the cloisonné Baoding balls traditionally made in China (these ones were made in China, too, but probably not in an artisan’s shop).
According to the Zen Meditation Book, these meditation balls can be used anywhere and any time to reduce the stress of daily life:
Some people would tell you that you can’t have it both ways — you either live your life at a frenetic pace or you give up the fast lane for a life of getting to bed early and no stress (and not much fun either). Now you can prove all the naysayers wrong. This kit allows you to literally hold that “quick fix” in the palm of your hand. If you follow the instructions while using the provided meditation balls, you’ll soon discover how to uncover relaxation and serenity (pp. 6-7).
In other words, you don’t have to make any big changes to your life to attain serenity, just incorporate meditation (on these balls) into your daily routine.
What do these non-Zen “Zen Meditation Balls” show about depictions of Zen in American pop culture? First, they illustrate Zen’s transformation into a brand. Zen is the biggest word on the box, and the Sino-Japanese character for Zen appears prominently on the booklet’s cover. People would be drawn to purchase this product because of Zen’s pull. Second, they highlight the conflation of Zen with other “Eastern philosophies” in a way that shows extreme disregard for the historical and cultural contexts in which Zen developed. Lastly, the marketing of Zen in mass-produced objects such as this effectively places it on the same level as “Cat Butts,” “Wee Little Garden Gnome,” and “Pink Panther Yoga.”
A friend recently found a YooDara Zen doll at an airport kiosk and, knowing my interest in such things, gave it to me. I hadn’t seen these little string dolls before, but they seem to have become ubiquitous features in most airports and malls. Though the YooDara name and the appearance of the dolls suggests a voodoo connection, nothing on the YooDara website makes that explicit. Instead, we learn that:
Within the realm of the 9th dimension lives a vast empire of magical beings known as the YooDara. These harmonious people have watched over humankind since time began. Their concern over the human suffering they witnessed, and our lack of magical powers to combat it forced them into action. They discovered how to move between their dimension and ours, and soon began casting their spells upon us.
According to this lore, the YooDara only exist in our world as string dolls, but can still work their magic on us (for a fee, of course). The 36 dolls are divided into four “tribes” of Power, Protection, Good Luck, and Wisdom. It may not come as a surprise that the Zen YooDara falls into the last category, where he is joined by such luminaries as Albert (Einstein) and (Isaac) Newton, as well as an elephant, lion, bride, punk-rock dad, and Rico the “lover.” The handy chart of characters identifies Zen as a white male Buddhist with the power of patience. He also “gives you the wisdom to balance your life with harmony and peace.”
Like many white male Buddhists, the Zen doll embodies a careless orientalism. Rather than the drab monastic robes that a Zen monk or priest would wear, he’s decked out in red and gold stereotypical “Chinese” garb. He even sports a queue, the legally mandated hairstyle for men (though not monks) under Manchu rule in China during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Nothing ties him to the religion of Zen besides a vague notion of “the East” and the popular association of Zen with patience, harmony, and peace. In these respects, the YooDara Zen doll fits into the many other examples of Zen we find in American pop culture, but there’s something a little different about the marketing of these dolls.
While many of the Zen products I’ve reviewed on this site are aimed at middle- and upper-middle-class consumers who see in Zen the sophisticated, minimalist aesthetic or organic, natural qualities that mark refinement and higher class status, YooDara is pitched at a much broader audience. As Zen continues to proliferate as a brand, it loses its elite cachet and becomes kitsch.
South Park is known for its irreverent attitude toward religion, especially Mormonism (and other forms of Christianity), Scientology, and Islam. Episodes 200 and 201 feature the “Super Best Friends,” a group of major religious figures including Muhammad, Buddha, Moses, Joseph Smith, Krishna, Laozi, and Sea Man who band together to fight evil. Though most of the controversy surrounding these episodes centered on depictions of Muhammad, the Buddha’s cocaine use attracted the ire of some Sri Lankan Buddhists.
Given South Park’s treatment of religious themes in these examples, I was a little surprised to learn that around 2007 Matt Stone and Trey Parker had animated the lectures of Alan Watts, one of the foremost proponents of Zen Buddhism in the West during the mid-20th century. Why would Alan Watts receive such different treatment than other religious figures?
One of the answers is in the introduction to one of Alan Watts’s lectures, where he identifies himself as not a Zen Buddhist and claims that he has nothing to sell. Alan Watts did study Zen Buddhism in his youth, and published Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East in 1936. This book was based largely on the writings of D.T. Suzuki, who championed the idea that Zen permeated Japanese culture and everyday life. Watts never took Zen ordination, but he did become an Episcopal priest in the 1940s, only to defrock in 1950. His influential Way of Zen came out in 1957, right around the big Zen boom in the U.S., when major stories about Zen appeared in Time magazine, Mademoiselle, and the Chicago Review.
Alan Watts’s Zen was the product of its time. Like Suzuki, he presents Zen as a universal truth or experience that found full expression in East Asia, but which is fundamentally connected to other religious and philosophical truths. Though he presents his Way of Zen as an historical corrective to his earlier Spirit of Zen, he still proclaims in the preface that “Zen is above all an experience, nonverbal in character, which is simply inaccessible to the purely literary and scholarly approach.” He, like many other modern Zen Buddhists, did not see in Zen the ritual, miracles, and dogma that he saw in other religions, and therefore did not depict it as a “religion.”
The videos of Watts’s lectures that Stone and Parker animated have some Zen trappings in the enso circles in the title frames and “Oriental” music. Watts’s ruminations have little to do with anything specifically and historically identifiable as Zen, aside from a general call to transcend dualism. He talks about the need to balance prickly rationality with gooey mysticism; the need to see intelligence as inhering in the natural environment; and the ultimate breakdown of mind-body dualism.
To return to the question of why the creators of South Park would go to the trouble of creating these videos, we can look at an interview Matt Stone and Trey Parker did with the libertarian blog reason.com. The following exchange centers on the question of their religious upbringing.
Stone: I was raised agnostic. There was no religion in my house.
Parker: I was pretty much the same. My father tried to raise me Buddhist, as in Alan Watts Buddhism, which is Buddhism in a way.
This might partially explain why Stone and Parker honored Watts’s legacy with their animation, while they lampoon other religious figures. The other reason might be that they don’t consider Watts, or his teachings, to be “religious.”
Killing the Buddha, an anthology of creative nonfiction edited by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet (and a website of the same title), is a work that defies easy categorization. Its subtitle, “A Heretic’s Bible,” hints at the unifying theme: this is a book about heresies, a word that derives from the Greek haíresis, the “act of choosing.” Chapters with titles (and topics) taken from biblical books are interspersed with Manseau and Sharlet’s accounts of their travels throughout the U.S. The result is an evocative account of all the American religious landscape and the dazzling array of choices it offers.
I’m writing about Killing the Buddha here because of its title. As the editors explain in their introduction, the phrase “killing the buddha” comes from a story about the Chinese Zen monk Linji (Lin-chi; d. 866) in which he explains to his disciples that they should kill the buddha if they happen to encounter him. Manseau and Sharlet read this as a statement of heresy, and extrapolate that Linji’s “buddha” includes all the dominant ideologies of his day. “Killing the buddha” for them means rejecting a single explanation of anything.
Linji’s instructions to kill the buddha come from his recorded sayings, a collection of teachings attributed to him after his death. The full passage reads as follows:
Monks, if you want to attain understanding of the dharma, just do not be misled by people. Kill everything you encounter, within and without. If you encounter a buddha, kill him. If you encounter a patriarch, kill him. If you encounter an arhat, kill him. If you encounter your parents, kill them. If you encounter your relatives, kill them. Only then can you attain liberation, such that you are not restrained by anything and can be completely free and at ease.
Manseau and Sharlet are correct in their basic interpretation of Linji’s meaning: “The Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed, he will only stand in your way” (p. 1). Zen teachings hold that attachment to external buddhas prevents people from seeing that they themselves are already buddhas. We find in Zen writings many other statements or actions that are meant to shock: calling the Buddha a dried shit-stick, tearing up Buddhist scriptures, burning Buddhist images, etc. Zen rhetoric lends itself well to a book about heresy.
Zen’s heretical side is just one of its facets, and historically it has been a pretty small one. Linji’s buddhacide occurred in a world where Zen temples enshrined statues of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and gods; reserved halls for portraits of abbots; and Zen monks performed funeral rites for lay people for a fee. In some cases monks took steps to preserve their deceased teachers’ bodies through mummification, which is pretty much the opposite of killing the buddha.
Killing the Buddha uses an idea of Zen that is common in the American religious landscape: a godless, heretical Zen provides an alternative to the pious theism of Christianity. American Buddhists are also less likely to get mad about a book called Killing the Buddha (though I wonder how Buddhists in Asia would react). Had Manseau and Sharlet titled the book Killing Christ or Killing God, which would better fit the mainly Judeo-Christian content, it might have incited outrage.
One of the goals of this blog is to show how casually Americans throw around “Zen” without consideration for Zen’s historical or cultural context. Perhaps it is only fitting that a book about religious experience in America would reproduce the dominant view of Zen in America, but in such a reflective book I would hope for more serious reflection on this kind of appropriation.
Web radio, with its global reach and accessibility to anyone with a computer and decent internet connection, is yet another area where Zen references abound. Like depictions of Zen in other areas of pop culture, web radio stations mean very different things by the “Zen” label.
At one end of the Zen web radio spectrum we find WZEN, the radio station of the Mountains and Rivers Order of Zen Buddhism (a Soto Zen order) based at Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York. Its programs include talks on Zen Buddhism by the monastery’s three masters, instructions in seated meditation (zazen), and something called “Buddhist Geeks” in which scholar-practitioners discuss issues related to doctrine and practice. In addition to these programs about the religious practice of Zen Buddhism, the station broadcasts programs on the environment, health issues, storytelling, and music, especially jazz.
At the other end of the spectrum are various web radio stations based in France and Belgium that use Zen in a much looser way: Radio Magico bills itself as “Zen Spiritual Web Radio!” Its programming includes some guided meditations, but they aren’t distinctively Zen meditations, and some come from other Buddhist traditions (Vipassana and Tantra, as well as something called “gibberish meditation”). From 2:00-6:00 listeners can “Stay Zen!” with a mix of soft music to help stay peaceful and centered. “Zen and Heart Music,” which plays in the wee hours, is described as “A big Mix of soft and light rhythm music and international songs.”
The French Chérie FM has several web radio channels, including love songs, party, and Zen, which it describes as “la webradio soft & jazzy.” When I tuned in, I heard a cover of No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” The Chérie FM logo for the Zen station shows a young woman sitting in meditation, its only nod to Zen practice.
Zenfm, a Belgian station, boasts “chill lounge & trendy grooves.” Its program list includes zenrise, zen room, café zen, zen soirée, and something on Saturdays called “mr zen dinner party lounge.” The site features cartoon graphics of club-ready men and women in 2005′s latest styles. Needless to say, the Zen connection is tenuous.
Though I mainly focus on depictions of Zen in American pop culture, I’m including these web radio stations because of their global accessibility and the similarities in their depictions of Zen to what I see in the U.S. Zen’s association with calm, peacefulness, cool, and jazz – and dissociation from religious practice – is apparent in Zen web radio. Yet even the web radio stations that include some meditation programming assume an individualistic approach to meditation practice rather than a community of practitioners centered around a master. This Zen meditation is something that people can do without a face-to-face (mind-to-mind?) relationship with a teacher or other practitioners. As such, it belongs to another trend we see in modern American religiosity: the idea of religion or spirituality as a personal, individual matter that needn’t take part in a communal environment.