Archive for July, 2015

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From Steve Jobs’s Zen connections, to Wisdom 2.0 conferences, to mindfulness classes on tech campuses, Buddhism has strong roots in Silicon Valley. Zen’s aura of modern minimalism, calm focus, and social consciousness makes it a popular brand for fledgling companies, as Patrick Clark observed in the 2013 piece “Zen and the Art of Startup Naming” for BloombergBusiness. Clark lists a total of ten startups with Zen in their name, including ZenPayroll, Zendesk, Zenefits, Zenfolio, etc. In considering why so many tech companies have gone with Zen names, Clark cites a 2008 article by the corporate copywriter Nancy Friedman on religious rhetoric in business in which she claims, “zen is often a synonym for ordinary nothingness.” While people do use Zen to signify nothingness or emptiness, I think the proliferation of Zen startups points to additional facets of Zen’s commodification.

ZenPayroll has been around since 2012, but made news in April 2015 for securing $60 million in Series B funding. Founded by three Stanford graduates (go Cardinal!), the company promises to turn payroll from an impersonal exchange to a positive, personal engagement between companies and their employees. Though very little on their website speaks directly to the Zen label, much of their aesthetic, branding, and language evokes Zen. They use sans-serif fonts and a subtle palette, their logo features the ubiquitous ensō, and they run a ZenBlog as well as a Weekly Zen newsletter. The banner ad that popped up shortly after I started looking at their website invited me to find my “payroll Zen” with “fast, simple and hassle-free payroll.” Another connection to Zen is in ZenPayroll’s relentless positivity:

ZenPayroll is on a long-term mission to modernize the payroll industry and connect companies with their employees in a more meaningful way. Today people think of payroll as a painful, tedious chore that forces businesses to deal with unnecessary complexity, manual tasks and numerous fees.

Compensation should not be an impersonal transaction. It’s about employers rewarding people for their hard work, and employees feeling appreciated for their contributions. Our team is striving to positively influence millions of businesses and hundreds of millions of employees around the world. That mission is a key reason customers love ZenPayroll.

This positivity extends to features such as ZenPayroll Giving, which allows employees to automatically deduct charitable contributions from their paychecks. The ZenPayroll Giving screen that users see features the slogan “Make the World a Better Place,” a sentiment that has become such a cliché in the tech industry that it has been repeatedly parodied on the HBO series “Silicon Valley.” There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make the world a better place, but it comes across as disingenuous (as well as generic and vague) in a neoliberal economic system that rewards self-interest over the common good and relegates social welfare to the private sector. Considering that much of Silicon Valley’s interest in Buddhism (specifically in the forms of meditation and mindfulness) stems from the desire to work more efficiently and succeed in the industry, calls to improve the world ring hollow. ZenPayroll’s positive, charitable attitude ties into Zen’s associations with calmness and peace: Zen masters aren’t supposed to get angry or exploit others, though history — that eternal buzzkill — offers plenty of counter-examples.

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Joshua Reeves, CEO of ZenPayroll, explained the company’s name in Kristen Brown’s 2014 article for the SF Gate, “Startups Fighting over the Word ‘Zen'”: “the company was looking for a name that communicated the company’s goals of making payroll a simple, ‘peaceful’ process for small businesses, rather than the headache it more often is.” Brown’s article included ZenPayroll as one of the dozens of Zen-branded companies that have become targets of Zendesk’s lawsuits. Zendesk, founded in 2007, has tried to aggressively protect its brand against upstart startups by alleging that people could easily confuse similarly named companies. (This doesn’t just happen in the tech industry: HBI International sued Rocky Patel Premium Cigars in 2011 over Zen branded tobacco and related products.) However, this has only worked against companies that lacked the resources to fight legal battles.

On one hand, it is easy to see Zen’s transformation into a trademark or brand as a separate phenomenon from its other roles as religious tradition or spiritual practice. Reading books about Zen, participating in Zen devotional practices, or engaging in Zen meditation can happen without awareness of Silicon Valley’s many Zen companies. Yet I do not believe Zen-as-brand exists in isolation from other understandings of Zen. Using Zen in company names changes its meanings in a way that fits into larger cultural shifts. The “spiritual marketplace” in which people compare and consume different religious options, including Zen, belongs to the same system that makes Zen an appealing name for tech startups. Zen companies are not just trading on whatever cachet the term “Zen” has left after all this inflation (Zenflation?), they are changing what Zen signifies. Will people be less interested in Zen Buddhism after Zen becomes known more as a company name, brand, or desktop kitsch than as a religious tradition?


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Time is the reason I haven’t been able to update more frequently, so it seemed appropriate to resurrect this site by looking at the $13.99 Zen Page-a-Day® Calendar from Workman Publishing, based in New York. The box promises “surprising sayings, koans, parables & haiku for 2015” as well as a mini meditation primer in the first part of January. Its packaging displays a close-up photo of a rock garden, a pile of three round stones on a bed of neatly raked sand. The quotation on the back of the box reveals much about how the calendar’s creators understand Zen:

“The only people who get anyplace interesting are the people who get lost.” — Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau was interested in Buddhism and translated the Lotus Sūtra into English for the first time, but even more than that his attitude toward Buddhism and Hinduism set the stage for popular understandings of these traditions in the U.S. (thanks to Jeff Wilson for the correction — it was Elizabeth Palmer Peabody who translated the Lotus Sūtra into English) He did not convert to Buddhism, but explored Buddhism alongside Christianity, Greek religion, and Hinduism, seeking the deeper truths of existence he saw as underlying each. This approach has spread in the centuries since, as evidenced by the Zen calendar’s broad definition of Zen. While Thoreau had a connection to Buddhism (if not Zen specifically), there are plenty of figures quoted in the calendar who didn’t. Take, for example, Mark Twain (Tuesday, July 28: “A thing long expected takes the form of the unexpected when at last it comes”), Pablo Neruda (Wednesday, May 20: “When did the honeysuckle first sense its own perfume? When did smoke learn how to fly?”), and the generic “Spanish proverb (Tuesday, January 6: “It is not the same thing to talk of bulls as to be in the bullring”).



The calendar quotes from many Buddhist figures, such as Ruth Denison, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and the Dalai Lama, and does include several Zen masters, as well, among them Mazu, Dōgen, and Hakuin. However, to be considered Zen a quotation just has to be pithy and vaguely mystical, evoking the literary genres of the kōan and haiku. This understanding of Zen goes back to the image developed by people like D.T. Suzuki: if everything is Zen, anything is Zen.



D.T. Suzuki’s influence is also apparent in the introduction and mini meditation primer that presents a basic form of meditation over the week of January 5-9. The introduction proclaims that Zen is about meditation and direct experience (hence the Proust quotation), which could come straight from Suzuki’s writings about the timeless essence of Zen. As with other aspects of modern Buddhism, these notions aren’t necessarily wrong or inauthentic from an academic perspective, but they are recent, which is to say that the idea of timelessness is not itself timeless.


The primer prescribes meditation focused on the breath, which isn’t unique to Zen (or Buddhism), but is part of Zen meditation practice. The author shows some familiarity with Japanese Zen in referring to zafu and zabuton cushions, and in alluding to the concept that seated meditation is enlightenment. On the last page, the author even encourages readers to seek out a sangha, or Buddhist community, for group practice. Considering the usual emphasis on solitary practice in the home or office in Zen products, I found this suggestion surprising. As a whole, however, this calendar falls into the category of made-in-China desktop Zen products meant to provide calm and contemplation during a hectic workday.

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