Archive for the ‘Product Reviews’ Category

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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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).



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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. 


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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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YooDara Zen Doll

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.

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Zen Dog Care

Koans are an important genre of Zen literature that relate (usually legendary) encounters between Zen masters and their students. They often feature statements or actions that defy logical explanations, and are used as meditation tools to drive students’ minds beyond reliance on language and reason to a realization of their innate buddhahood. One of the most famous Zen koans is the exchange, “Does a dog have buddha nature?” “No!” This “No!” is attributed to the Chinese Zen (Chan) master Zhaozhou, and became the core of koan meditation for Dahui Zonggao, who advocated focusing on a single word or phrase in the koan. This particular exchange about a dog’s buddha nature works as a koan because the “No!” is unexpected: according to Zen doctrine, all sentient beings — dogs included — possessed buddha nature, meaning that all beings are already buddhas, most of us just don’t know it. This subversion of Zen doctrine is what makes the exchange an effective koan, as the meditator cannot rely on textual study or reason to explain the answer.

Dogs may not have buddha nature, but they do have plenty of Zen products to keep them calm and clean.

Both Cranimals’s Zendog calming biscuits and Zenpuppy dog treats promise to calm “wild, crazy, unruly dogs.” Not only do these products rely on the association of Zen and calmness, they also tie into the image of Zen as in touch with nature: the Zendog biscuits are certified organic, while the Zenpuppy treats boast 14 herbs and botanicals. Each package shows a dog in seated meditation, or zazen, with the Zendog even sitting on a culinary approximation of a lotus throne.

After Fido enjoys a calming biscuit, he can luxuriate in a Zen bath:

Carma Critta’s Zen Shampoo for Dogs and ZenSoaps’s Cedarwood Anise Dog Shampoo are also all-natural products, but aside from the image of the dog in a robe doing zazen on the ZenSoaps bottle, there are no references to the shampoos having a calming effect on dogs. Zen here is shorthand for “natural” or “organic.”

Nature was a prominent theme in premodern Chinese and Japanese art, including works by Zen monks, but the concepts of “natural” and “organic” that these dog products use are modern ones. The packaging nods to Zen practice, but the use of the term “Zen” is based on the decontextualized Zen that we often see in consumer products.

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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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Toysmith makes this “deluxe” version of an office-friendly Zen garden (though in true  kōan-like fashion, the box proclaims “This is not a toy”). It comes with a 9 x 9 inch tray that you can fill with sand and decorate with rocks and two ceramic cranes. A wooden rake, bamboo rake, and brush allow you to rake the sand into patterns that you can then contemplate with the enclosed book of meditations. The box is decorated with the kanji (Sino-Japanese character) for “meditation,” meisō 瞑想, and the book of meditations reproduces the kanji for several Buddhist terms (Buddha 佛, Chan/Zen 禪, charity 布施, contemplation 觀想, enlightenment 覺悟, four great elements 四大, karma 業, nirvana 涅槃, and wisdom 智慧) with only two errors, but apparently without any reason for including these particular terms. The use of kanji is decorative, and probably meant to enhance this product’s exotic aura.

More interesting is how the idea of the “Zen garden” developed. The “Book of Meditations” claims:

Zen-inspired gardens took root in Japan, where Zen Buddhism has heavily influenced Japanese culture for centuries. In Japan, the physical makeup of the country — mountains and sea – is reflected in garden design. Through the use of rocks and plants, the gardens are symbolic, scaled-down representations of Nature. In a garden, a meditative mental plane is reached by viewing this physical plane. A Zen garden is for contemplations, for finding truth and personal enlightenment. It transcends space and time.

The purpose of cultivating a Zen rock garden is to learn to open your mind and see more than what is before you. This kit includes a base, sand, rocks, and a wooden rake. These elements when combined allow the Zen gardener to experience what Zen masters have practiced for centuries. You can experience Zen gardening on a personal level wherever you choose.

It is certainly true that for centuries, Zen monasteries have had gardens, but Shoji Yamada shows in the second half of Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West that the idea of a “Zen garden” as a place intentionally designed in accordance with Zen principles for the purpose of meditation only appears after World War II. This doesn’t make the Zen garden “fake,” but it does remove the patina of historical authority it might otherwise have.

The idea of having a Zen garden in your backyard or on your desk also ties into the emphasis on the “personal” that comes up in the “Book of Meditations.” This vision of Zen is detached from institutional, social, historical, political, and economic contexts, and can thus be anything anyone wants it to be. Of course, this vision of Zen is part of its own historical context, and owes a debt to modern Protestant definitions of religion as a matter of personal, interior faith rather than socio-historical practice.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have my own Deluxe Zen Garden (a tounge-in-cheek gift from a kind colleague) on my office desk, but it mostly languishes there behind huge stacks of papers. Maybe I would benefit from following the “Book of Meditations” more closely and busting out the rakes every once in a while.

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