Posts Tagged ‘Soto Zen’


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. 



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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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I’ve seen Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality (Wisdom Publications, 2003) at several bookstores alongside his other titles on Zen, and was curious about what made his version of Zen hardcore. The title alludes to Warner’s background in punk bands, but he also uses it to describe his approach to Zen that emphasizes the boredom and ordinariness of most Zen practice. Hardcore Zen is Zen stripped to its core, at least as Warner defines it.

Hardcore Zen recounts Warner’s punk rock youth, his encounter with Zen at Kent State University, and his move to Japan, where he gets a job working on the TV show Ultraman. As the book goes on, the focus shifts more to the teachings and practice of Zen, including chapters on disturbing meditation experiences, reincarnation, morality, drugs, and dharma transmission from teacher to student. The punk rock and monster movies of the title are part of Warner’s life experiences, but aside from setting the book’s tone to “irreverent,” there isn’t much analysis of how they relate to Zen.

In Japan, Warner studied with a Soto Zen master named Gudo Nishijima and eventually received dharma transmission from him. Soto Zen is one of the two main branches of Zen in Japan (the other is Rinzai). I found Warner’s descriptions of his Soto Zen practice to be the most compelling parts of the book. He writes of the boredom, frustration, depression, and euphoria that go along with seated meditation (zazen) and challenges the view that Zen is all about the enlightenment experience of satori. In doing so, he offers an alternative to the satori-centric description of Zen that comes from modern Rinzai writers such as D.T. Suzuki and Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen.

Some of the provocateur trappings of Hardcore Zen are kind of obnoxious, from the photo of the toilet on the cover to the punk rock patois Warner adopts. We get it, this isn’t your grandmother’s Zen memoir. There are some interesting parallels between punk and Zen, though, in that both claimed authenticity in the face of mainstream artificiality, but ultimately became part of the mainstream (or were never separate from it in the first place).

Warner’s take on Zen, and Buddhism in general, is pretty standard as far as modern Western interpretations go. He sees the Buddha as a modern philosopher whose empirical, rational ideas were corrupted by centuries of superstition and ritual: “Gautama Buddha was able to see through the façade of religious organizations and must certainly have realized that his simple method of meditation ran a serious risk of being turned into something cheap and shoddy by association with such nonsense” (p. 159).

Like most religious practitioners, Warner is interested in authenticity: what is real Zen, real Buddhism, reality as a whole? He also claims to have some answers to these questions, which justifies the book project. As someone who studies Buddhism in a university, I was particularly interested in an accusation Warner makes on page 8: “it’s hard to find a group of people who misunderstand Buddhism more thoroughly than Buddhist scholars.” I have no problem with the criticism that I don’t have the same understanding of Buddhism that a practitioner does, because these are different kinds of knowledge. Even so, the question of authenticity arises: who says what Zen is, the scholar or the practitioner? Warner claims that Zen is “resolutely anti-sexist” (p. 35) and that “Buddha was emphatic that women were just as capable as men of reaching enlightenment” (p. 36). Though Warner is free to understand “true Zen” as anti-sexist, I cannot ignore the many examples from Zen history that show it has not always been that way. My job is to examine what Buddhism has been in different cultural and historical contexts, which can conflict with believers/practitioners’ views of their own tradition.

Hardcore Zen is not a good place to look for Zen history, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s a modern Western interpretation of Soto Zen doctrine and practice that might appeal to people who are suspicious of religion in general and suspicious of the New Age aura surrounding a lot of Western Buddhism in particular.

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