Archive for May, 2012


Zen and the Art of Air Travel,” a short article about airline delays in the Dallas Morning News, doesn’t have much to do with Zen, but that’s sort of the point. Going all the way back to Eugen Herrigel’s 1948  Zen in the Art of Archery (Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschießens) and Robert Pirsig’s 1974 Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the first books to use the “Zen in/and the art of…” titles, there was little connection to Zen Buddhism. The ubiquity of “Zen in/and the art of…” speaks to the increasing dissociation of Zen from any historical and cultural context, as well as the perception that Zen is embedded in the arts. Anything can be a Zen art, to the benefit of lazy headline and title writers.

The author here at least makes an attempt to draw on something Asian, but chooses the legendary Daoist sage Lao Tzu (Laozi) rather than a Zen, or even a Buddhist, figure. Zen Buddhists adopted many ideas from the writings attributed to Lao Tzu and the later Daoist philosopher Chuang Tzu (Zhuangzi), but I suspect that the use of a Lao Tzu quotation in this short article bespeaks the conflation of Asian religions rather than an acknowledgement of Zen Buddhism’s debt to earlier Chinese traditions. Incidentally, Lao Tzu described the ideal country as one in which people felt no need to leave home, so he probably wouldn’t have made the best airline customer.


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Phil Jackson made a name for himself as head coach of the Bulls and Lakers, but another frequent title of his is “Zen master.” In this screenshot, Sports Illustrated dispenses with his name completely in asking how much the Zen master would cost New York if he came out of retirement to coach the Knicks. Just last year, Audi referenced his Zen master persona in this commercial:

The ad presents Jackson as a Zen sage, advising the irate head chef, “You know, I’ve found that anger is the enemy of instruction.” Jackson also thanks the valet by name after the valet says, “Nice wheels, Zen master!” Jackson’s image is one of calmness and humility: he may be a championship-winning coach, but he cares about service staff.

There’s no question that Jackson is a Zen Buddhist — in his autobiography Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior he describes his zazen (seated meditation) practice and his reading of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind — but what does it mean to call him a Zen master?

One of the key elements of Zen Buddhism is lineage. Masters are those who have received confirmation of their awakening from their teachers, and who then have the authority to confirm their students’ awakening. Traditionally (i.e. in premodern Asian Buddhism), these masters were monks who renounced family life for religious training.

Jackson does not recount having studied with a Zen master, nor does he identify as a Zen monk or priest. His understanding of Zen comes from the modern conception of Zen as more of a philosophy than a religion, which allows him to combine Zen with Christianity and Native American spirituality. If Phil Jackson is a Zen master, he is a Zen master in the broadest sense of the term.

There are ways in which Jackson’s experiences in the NBA might overlap with a Zen master’s (as his chapter, “If You Meet the Buddha in the Lane, Feed Him the Ball” implies): both are in charge of all-male communities that champion macho ideals, and both encourage their students to reach a level where they can act spontaneously and achieve their desired goals.

Some might see his role in the Audi ad as anti-Zen. Would a Zen master shill for a luxury car company, and even use his own image as a “Zen master” to do so? Anyone familiar with Zen economic history would say, “well, yeah.” Contrary to the view that Zen Buddhists are free from greed, or financial concerns in general, Zen history is full of monks who relied on lay patrons, and even used those patrons to accumulate considerable wealth. In this sense, Phil Jackson is indeed a “Zen master.”

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Tazo Zen™ Tea


Tazo’s partnership with Starbucks means that a lot of people are familiar with their Zen™ tea, which combines green tea with lemongrass and spearmint. According to the packaging, the resulting flavor is “nearly impossible to express in words,” so people should “simply experience its sweet, lingering taste.” This idea of ineffability recalls the Zen maxim about not relying on language, and reflects the idea that Zen is about pure experience rather than words. Of course, this attitude can be found among Zen Buddhists, but that hasn’t stopped them from writing copious records.

We also learn from the packaging that the green tea in Zen comes from China (maybe it should be called Chan, the Chinese pronunciation of Zen). A text box on the side of the package states:

Did you know?

In the Kunlun Mountains of China, monks spend days meditating in hopes of reaching enlightenment. Periodically they stop for a cup of tea quite like this.

The Kunlun Mountains stretch along the far western part of China in primarily Tibetan areas, making it unlikely that those meditating monks belong to a Zen (Chan) lineage. However, it is certainly true that tea has been an important part of East Asian Buddhism since the 8th century. John Kieschnick’s book, The Impact of Buddhism on Chinese Material Culture, includes the translation of this passage on the growing popularity of tea:

[Originally] southerners were fond of drinking tea, but at first few northerners drank it. During the Kaiyuan era [713-41] there was one Master Xiangmo of the Lingyan Monastery at Mount Tai who propagated the teachings of Chan with great success. When practicing meditation he emphasized the importance of staving off sleep. Also, he did not eat in the evening. For this reason, the Master allowed all [of his followers] to drink tea. Everyone then adopted [the habit], and tea was boiled everywhere. (p. 267)

In other words, monks like caffeine.

Tazo’s Zen™ tea packaging might reinforce some stereotypes about Zen being about pure experience beyond words, or mystical mountain monks, but the product isn’t too far from what Zen monks actually drank. Plus, Tazo notes that they’ve teamed up with Mercy Corps (another Portland, OR, institution!) to help tea-growing villages with water sanitation and economic development, so their claim to good karma might be legit, too.

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