Archive for the ‘Zen People’ Category

Robert Pirsig’s recent passing has led a lot of people to reflect on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which he published in 1974. He acknowledges in his author’s note that the book has nothing to do with “orthodox Zen Buddhism,” but the rest of the book makes it clear that he’s not interested in orthodox Zen Buddhism in the first place. Instead, Pirsig understands Zen as direct, unmediated experience that cannot be expressed in language. In this sense, his book is about Zen, but it’s the kind of Zen that isn’t tied to a particular culture, history, or religion.

For Pirsig, Zen is the romantic counterpart to the rational, logic-driven mindset that he initially favors. Eventually, he concludes that one must embrace and balance the rational and the romantic to achieve Quality, a philosophical ideal in which one finds fulfillment. Zen isn’t the only religion or philosophy Pirsig draws from in developing his idea of Quality, though; Greek philosophy, Hinduism, and the thought of people like Henry David Thoreau also play important roles, even to the point of overshadowing Pirsig’s use of Zen. Yet the connection between Zen and this book remains outsized due to its title and its influence on popular conceptions of Zen in the U.S.

Pirsig didn’t invent the idea that Zen is fundamentally about direct experience, or “being in the moment.” As the UC Berkeley Buddhist Studies scholar Robert Sharf points out in two articles (one on Zen and Japanese nationalism, the other on the idea of experience in Buddhism), D.T. Suzuki popularized this notion, drawing on Romanticism as well as the Kyoto School philosophy of Nishida Kitarō. Suzuki’s version of Zen inspired Eugen Herrigel, the Nazi who wrote Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschiessens, or Zen in the Art of Archery in 1948. Herrigel presented Zen as a kind of practiced effortlessness that underlay archery as well as various other Japanese arts. These ideas, as well as Herrigel’s title, clearly inspired Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (though there were several other Zen in the Art of titles that came out just before Pirsig’s title, such as Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing in 1973).

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance marked a shift to “Zen and the Art of…” titles, replacing the previous “Zen in the Art of…” titles. Ironically, Pirsig’s philosophy suggests that his title should have been “Zen in the Art of…” which would have underscored the importance of direct experience in motorcycle maintenance, a skill that to Pirsig symbolized of the rational approach to life. Regardless, Pirsig’s title paved the way for a slew of Zen and the Art of… books, from Zen and the Art of Making a Living to my personal favorite, Zen and the Art of Cooking Beer-Can Chicken. These titles may seem superficial and incidental, but they have significantly shaped perceptions of Zen in American popular culture. Not only is Zen inextricably tied to art (however one may define it), it can also be associated with absolutely anything. These titles remove any historical or cultural specificity from Zen Buddhism to make Zen a transcultural, ephemeral experience. This ties in very closely to how Pirsig presents Zen in the body of the book as well.

At the same time, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has sparked its many readers’ interest in Zen, Buddhism in general, and comparative religions. The book’s creative structure, which combined road trip memoir, autobiography, and philosophical treatise, echoes its eclectic contents. While it may not cohere as much as a traditional narrative, it provokes deeper reflection and challenges readers to make their own meaning from Pirsig’s journeys. I think this is why the book has left a mark on so many people, and even steered some into the academic study of religion.

I was honored to discuss Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance earlier this week on PRI’s The World. I hope it’s of interest!



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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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Dude and the Zen Master

The Dude and the Zen Master has a good title. People who would be interested in the book are likely to know who the Dude is: Jeff Bridges’s character in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. Though the Zen master of the title is less well known to the general public, it makes perfect sense for the Dude to dialogue with such a figure, in this case, Bernie Glassman. The Dude and the Zen Master also represents the nature of this book as an extended conversation between Bridges and Glassman on existential issues, with an emphasis on Buddhism.

Unlike some of the other pop culture ephemera I’ve discussed on this site, there is a strong connection to Zen Buddhist history and practice in this book. This comes from Bernie Glassman, who trained at the Zen Center of Los Angeles with Taizan Maezumi Roshi, and went on to found Zen Peacemakers. Glassman places himself within the movement of socially engaged Buddhism, a modern form of Buddhism that advocates active participation in social issues (and other public issues) from a Buddhist perspective. Throughout the conversation he refers to several texts and figures from Zen, or Buddhism in general, such as the Chan/Zen masters Huineng and Dogen, the legendary figure Hotei (the fat buddha), and the Heart and Diamond sutras. Glassman’s Zen is modern American Zen, that is, a form of Zen that privileges individual practice outside the context of celibate monasticism, and generally understands Zen as universal experience. American Zen tends to be pluralistic, and Glassman several times proclaims that all religions have the same goal.

For his part, Bridges recounts several of his own experiences in which he applied, or should have applied, Zen ideas (broadly defined). Of course, for him these experiences mainly come from his job as an actor, and the frequent references to well known movies and entertainers can be alienating. Who among us can’t relate to the frustration Bridges feels when the on-set makeup artist wants to cut his hair, when Bridges wants to maintain control over his appearance?

Glassman’s socially engaged perspective lends some balance to the book, which otherwise would present Zen as another kind of individual self-help regimen, totally cut off from political, social, and economic structures. Both Glassman and Bridges discuss their activism, especially attempts to end child hunger, in terms of Zen. The problem is that they offer few new insights into these issues, which is the main problem of the book as a whole.

The Dude and the Zen Master reads like a conversation between two good friends about existential problems. I understand the desire to present their ideas in this format – it seems like something the Dude would do, and conforms to the notion of Zen spontaneity – but, as Bridges and Glassman discuss, masterful improvisation requires a lot of training. Another format, or tighter editing of the conversations, might have conveyed their insights more effectively.



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South Park is known for its irreverent attitude toward religion, especially Mormonism (and other forms of Christianity), Scientology, and Islam. Episodes 200 and 201 feature the “Super Best Friends,” a group of major religious figures including Muhammad, Buddha, Moses, Joseph Smith, Krishna, Laozi, and Sea Man who band together to fight evil. Though most of the controversy surrounding these episodes centered on depictions of Muhammad, the Buddha’s cocaine use attracted the ire of some Sri Lankan Buddhists.

Given South Park’s treatment of religious themes in these examples, I was a little surprised to learn that around 2007 Matt Stone and Trey Parker had animated the lectures of Alan Watts, one of the foremost proponents of Zen Buddhism in the West during the mid-20th century. Why would Alan Watts receive such different treatment than other religious figures?

One of the answers is in the introduction to one of Alan Watts’s lectures, where he identifies himself as not a Zen Buddhist and claims that he has nothing to sell. Alan Watts did study Zen Buddhism in his youth, and published Spirit of Zen: A Way of Life, Work, and Art in the Far East in 1936. This book was based largely on the writings of D.T. Suzuki, who championed the idea that Zen permeated Japanese culture and everyday life. Watts never took Zen ordination, but he did become an Episcopal priest in the 1940s, only to defrock in 1950. His influential Way of Zen came out in 1957, right around the big Zen boom in the U.S., when major stories about Zen appeared in Time magazine, Mademoiselle, and the Chicago Review.

Alan Watts’s Zen was the product of its time. Like Suzuki, he presents Zen as a universal truth or experience that found full expression in East Asia, but which is fundamentally connected to other religious and philosophical truths. Though he presents his Way of Zen as an historical corrective to his earlier Spirit of Zen, he still proclaims in the preface that “Zen is above all an experience, nonverbal in character, which is simply inaccessible to the purely literary and scholarly approach.” He, like many other modern Zen Buddhists, did not see in Zen the ritual, miracles, and dogma that he saw in other religions, and therefore did not depict it as a “religion.”

The videos of Watts’s lectures that Stone and Parker animated have some Zen trappings in the enso circles in the title frames and “Oriental” music. Watts’s ruminations have little to do with anything specifically and historically identifiable as Zen, aside from a general call to transcend dualism. He talks about the need to balance prickly rationality with gooey mysticism; the need to see intelligence as inhering in the natural environment; and the ultimate breakdown of mind-body dualism.

To return to the question of why the creators of South Park would go to the trouble of creating these videos, we can look at an interview Matt Stone and Trey Parker did with the libertarian blog reason.com. The following exchange centers on the question of their religious upbringing.

Stone: I was raised agnostic. There was no religion in my house.
Parker: I was pretty much the same. My father tried to raise me Buddhist, as in Alan Watts Buddhism, which is Buddhism in a way.

This might partially explain why Stone and Parker honored Watts’s legacy with their animation, while they lampoon other religious figures. The other reason might be that they don’t consider Watts, or his teachings, to be “religious.”

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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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