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In my Zen news feed this past week there was an item about High School Musical star and teen heartthrob Zac Efron being spotted with bags from Z.E.N.: Zero Effort Nutrition. This L.A.-based company delivers healthy food to those who have money but lack time. Celebrities are a target, and Z.E.N.’s website boasts testimonials from such luminaries as Shannon Tweed, Mary Louise Parker, Jamie Kennedy, assorted Kardashians, and, of course, Zac Efron.

Z.E.N. makes no mention of Zen Buddhism on its website, but it still clearly capitalizes on the association of Zen with effortlessness, as well as Zen’s connotations of healthfulness, calm, and natural/organic foods. “Zero Effort” here refers to not planning one’s diet, not having to cook, and watching “excess” weight melt away. This effortlessness is only possible if one has money to spend, as the program runs around $50.00/day. Ultimately the effort is deferred onto the people who design the meal plans and prepare the food.

It’s easy to snark on this unbridled capitalist appropriation of Zen, but Zen Buddhists have historically been enmeshed in economic realities, with monks and nuns having to cultivate relationships with government officials and wealthy patrons. Z.E.N. Foods isn’t the same thing as monks seeking patronage, but the point is that not all Zen Buddhists are, as is sometimes imagined, above financial concerns or averse to making money.

With Z.E.N. Foods, what I’m more interested in anyway is the idea of Zen being associated with effortlessness. From the earliest centuries of Zen history, Zen monks have disagreed about the role of effort in Zen practice. Zen is based on the idea that everyone is already a buddha, and all you have to do to be enlightened is realize you’re already enlightened. To some Zen monks, such as the 12th-century Chinese monk Dahui Zonggao, it was still important to expend effort in attaining that realization. To other Zen monks, effort implied a distinction between enlightenment and delusion that they saw as contradicting Zen teachings. For these monks, who primarily belonged to the Caodong lineage (Soto in Japanese), refraining from effort was the key to realizing one’s innate buddhahood. I highly doubt that the purveyors of Z.E.N. Foods have any idea about the attitudes toward effort in different forms of Zen, but their association of Zen with effortlessness reflects (in some ways) the triumph of the Caodong/Soto view of effort in representations of Zen in American pop culture.

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