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. 


Zen Fashion

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

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.



I gave a public lecture at the University of Tennessee’s McClung Museum last September in conjunction with the exhibit I curated, “Zen Buddhism and the Arts of Japan.” The exhibit recently won an award of excellence at the annual conference of the Tennessee Association of Museums, so on that occasion I’m posting the video of the talk, titled “From Zen Art to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” It looks at the connection between the kind of art done by Japanese monks in the exhibit and the proliferation of “Zen and/in the Art of…” titles in the late 20th century.



Van Halen originally included a Knoxville date in their 2012 American tour, but it was one of the concerts they cancelled due to “exhaustion,” which seemed to be a euphemism for “wanting to go to Europe instead.” I was even supposed to go to that show, but now I’ll probably never get to see the original line-up, including Diamond Dave himself. John Scanlan’s 2012 book about the band makes me even more sorry that I didn’t get to see David Lee Roth in person, as Scanlan presents him as a Zen master — or is it a Taoist sage?


Reaktion Books published Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’roll in its Reverb series, which “looks at the connections between music, artists, and performers, musical cultures, and places. It explores how our cultural and historical understandings of times and places may help us to appreciate a wide variety of music, and vice versa.” Scanlan, a sociologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, claims that Van Halen represented 1970s California culture, and that the band — or at least the David Lee Roth part of it — embodied a kind of Zen spontaneity and playfulness.

As with many other uses of “Zen” in the modern West, Scanlan wields the term casually, and draws on Kevin Starr’s idea of “Zen California,” though Starr primarily uses this term for the many spiritual and physical self-improvement regimens popular in California by the 1990s. Scanlan’s understanding of Zen relies heavily on the work of Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki, who present Zen as a universal quality rather than an historical tradition. “Zen” (and “Taoist”) here refer to ideas of spontaneity, harmony with nature, going with the flow, accepting impermanence, unstudied artistry, etc. Scanlan’s conflation of Zen and Taoism also seems indebted to Watts, as the following quotation from Watts’s The Way of Zen serves as the epigram for chapter six: “It is really impossible to appreciate what is meant by the Tao without becoming, in a rather special sense, stupid.”

Though Zen pops up throughout the entire book, it is only the central focus in chapter six, “The Tao of Dave: Surf Life.” It is here that we find David Lee Roth described as a paragon of California Zen:

What Roth exemplified, however, was ambiguity, which was one quality that seemed to lie beyond the grasp of some critics. His comfort with ambiguity, with self-negation — and as Alan Watts notes, Zen takes “positive delight” in the void — represented not only the denial of that 1970s idea of rock’s cultural significance, but its emerging institutional structure, which in turn presumed to add credence to its cultural significance. (p. 114)

What I found frustrating in this chapter was the ambiguity of whether Roth himself identified with Zen, or whether it was Scanlan who made this identification. The latter seems more likely, but Scanlan reports that Roth used a Zen parable about drawing a leaf to explain Van Halen’s work in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

I was initially intrigued by this book’s title, and I was curious to see how Scanlan would locate Van Halen in the context of California Zen. It’s pretty easy to make the case for a distinctive form of “California Zen” in the writings of Beat authors living in California for significant periods (Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg), institutions such as the San Francisco Zen Center, or the perceived connections between California culture and Zen values. It takes a lot more work to connect these ideas to Van Halen. I don’t think Scanlan makes a strong enough connection between California Zen and David Lee Roth or Van Halen as a whole to justify framing the book in these terms. A more compelling comparison Scanlan might have made to illustrate DLR’s Zen character is to the Japanese Zen monk Ikkyu (1394-1481), known for his fondness of alcohol and female companionship. Ikkyu even celebrated his transgressions in verse. However, an important distinction is that Ikkyu was an ordained Zen monk and went on to become abbot of one of the biggest Zen temples in Japan. This kind of specificity would help Scanlan’s case, but the images of Zen (and California) that Scanlan uses in this book are too impressionistic and vague to prompt interesting insights into Van Halen’s connections to musical cultures and places.

Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock’n’roll is a good history of the band, though it doesn’t appear to use new material. What it tries to offer are new lenses through which to understand how Van Halen emerged from a particular place at a particular time. The problem is that both of these lenses — California and Zen — are too blurry to show clearly why Van Halen embodies exuberant California, Zen rock’n’roll.

Zen Meditation Balls


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.”



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.