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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”).

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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.

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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.

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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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OrgaZen

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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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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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Tazo Zen™ Tea

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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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