Archive for the ‘Zen Aesthetics’ Category

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At an exercise class a couple of weeks ago I saw a woman wearing a shirt with this slogan, which inspired me to look it up online. This design comes from the apparel company Chin Up, but there are many more versions. Some posters with this slogan clarify it by adding a list of things to be dropped: regrets, resentments, doubts, worries, stress, fears. Some versions include an image of someone doing yoga (which is not actually the same thing as Zen):

Then there are the versions that insert some kind of Buddhist imagery, such as a silhouette of the meditating Buddha, a lotus flower, or the ensō (circle):

These “drop and give me Zen” products coalesce around wellness, the recent buzzword that encompasses physical, mental, and spiritual health. Most shirts with this slogan are marketed as workout gear, and of course the slogan itself plays off the familiar phrase “drop and give me ten,” which is usually associated with drill sergeants, coaches, and sadistic gym teachers. By changing “ten” to “Zen,” the slogan replaces push-ups or sit-ups with something vaguely spiritual and detached, but still focused. The common conflation of Zen and yoga reflects this vagueness about where these practices come from and what they involve. They’re both seen as Eastern in a nonspecific way that encompasses calmness, intentional breathing, and spirituality. The view that athletes adopt Zen-like concentration while competing also informs the slogan’s connection of Zen with athleticism.

While the array of products with this slogan includes mugs, posters, and magnets, by far the most common kind of consumer good is apparel. A shirt emblazoned with “drop and give me Zen” presents the wearer as someone who cares about wellness in all its forms, using Zen to confer an aura of spirituality on what would otherwise be standard workout gear. To use Chin Up’s line of slogan-sporting workout tops, “drop and give me Zen” is a different message than “shopping is my favorite cardio” or “run like zombies are chasing you.”

As with other Zen products, this shirt constitutes the ever-increasing inflation of Zen in American pop culture. Whereas Zen once had stronger ties to minimalist aesthetics and cosmopolitan sophistication (though still as a commodity), it is becoming a brand accessible to more and more Americans.




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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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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.

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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:

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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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As a native Eugenian and graduate of the University of Oregon, I find myself conflicted this weekend, as the Ducks are taking on the University of Tennessee Volunteers. I teach at UT, so I’ve been feeling ambivalent about the outcome of the game. I’ve decided to work through this by comparing the Zen dimensions of UT and UO football. Zen and football may seem like an unlikely pair, but each school has its own version of this apparent paradox.

A few weeks ago Eugene’s Register-Guard published the story “A New Aut-Zen” about recent renovations made at Autzen Stadium, home of the Ducks.  These renovations, which cost about $5 million, created a new area at the stadium called “Zen North,” which boasts (among other things) two waterfalls that are the tallest and fastest manmade waterfalls in North America. Zen North also features hundreds of trees, thousands of other plants, and various structures made of salvaged wood. The project aims to ease the flow of fans entering and leaving the stadium, and enhance the fans’ experience at Autzen.



The “Zen” of Zen North plays off the idea of a minimalist, sophisticated Zen aesthetic, and also seems to refer to the new natural features and their intended calming effect. But do football teams really want their fans to be calm?

I’m not aware of any plans to add Zen features to Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium, but a former UT player has received the “Zen” label in recent months. Website theGrio.com describes Arian Foster as “keeping it ‘zen’” in the NFL, and Foster has received other media attention for his veganism and practice of bowing in the end zone.

Arian Foster ZenFoster majored in philosophy at UT (before my time) and the ESPN story on his bowing quotes him as saying, “I studied Buddhism for a while. […] I’m really into different types of cultures and religions. I really like their belief system, and I just believe we’re kind of all in this together as people, energies and life forces.” He explains the bowing as the Hindu namaste gesture, in which the divine in oneself recognizes the divine in others. Though I don’t know if he would identify himself as “Zen,” he clearly has some familiarity with Buddhism and Hinduism, and his veganism puts him in line with the diet of Zen monks.

Oregon might have the edge going into the football matchup, but Arian Foster gives Tennessee the win in the Zen contest: multi-million dollar renovations (Zen-ovations?) don’t compare to Foster’s actual knowledge of Buddhism. Judging these two teams in a Zen contest might not seem very Zen, but then again neither does football. Perhaps the paradox of “Zen football” can be its own koan: may the most Zen team win.


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Viktor and Rolf

The Daily Beast published a story last week about the return of the Dutch designer duo Viktor & Rolf to couture fashion after a 13-year hiatus. The story, “Viktor & Rolf’s Return to Couture for Fall 2013: Going Zen,” focuses on their couture show in Paris on July 3, 2013, which had the models walk through raked sand beds and strike rock-like poses on the ground. In an interview the designers themselves named Kyoto’s Ryoanji as their inspiration, unsurprising considering that its rock garden is the best known of the so-called “Zen gardens.”

While a Google search for Zen fashion yields thousands of results that use “Zen” without any reference to its historical meaning, the Viktor & Rolf show interprets Zen fairly literally. This is most apparent in the “Zen garden” aesthetic, but the designers continued the theme of minimalism in the clothes themselves, which were all black, asymmetrical, and played with volume and proportions. Their equation of Zen, Japan, nature, and minimalism undergirds the aestheticization of Zen that we see in all the “Zen and the Art of…” books, and other products that promise the aura of sophistication and exoticism.

As a couture collection, this show is not for sale in the same way the designers’ ready-to-wear collection would be. Designers present couture as their high art, sewn by hand, with no two pieces the same. Women’s Wear Daily reports that an unnamed art collector already bought several pieces from Viktor & Rolf’s 2013 collection. However, designers translate themes and elements from couture shows in their ready-to-wear collections, which are mass produced and sold in retail establishments. This means that couture lines are not separate from the business of fashion, and Viktor & Rolf’s Zen couture can serve as an aspirational example that trickles down into more wearable and affordable pieces.

Especially given its connection to commerce, “Zen fashion” might strike some as frivolous, a cheapening of authentic spiritual experience. Such a view rests on the idea that Zen is essentially an interior space of mindfulness and contemplation and does not concern materiality or even ritual. One of the questions Viktor & Rolf’s collection can raise is whether Zen fashion finds historical precedent in Zen practices: after all, monks and nuns wear robes that reflect status distinctions. Robert Buswell, in his account of Korean Sŏn (Zen) monastic life, writes of monks sewing patches on their robes to make them look older, and thus enhance their ascetic reputation, which is another form of aspiration.

Monk Meditating at a Rock Garden

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