Archive for December, 2012


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.”




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