Tuesday, August 19, 2014



Beyond the Art of Hocus Pocus

In the 1870s a Texas cowboy claimed to have learned a deep secret from the Hopi Indians. It was a revelation concerning the mysterious healing power of rattlesnake oil. The Texan was Clark Stanley, and in 1893 he rose to instant fame at the World’s Exposition in Chicago when he sliced open a live snake. He dunked the reptile in boiling water, and when the fat rose to the top he skimmed it off and bottled it to create what became known as “Stanley’s Snake Oil.”
The stuff was promoted as a tonic, a liniment, and a miracle elixir that promised to be good for man or beast. It supposedly cured chronic pain, headaches, female complaints, and kidney trouble. The gullible public bought countless bottles of it.
          In 1906 federal investigators found that Stanley’s product contained mineral oil, beef fat, red pepper, and turpentine. It was a mixture that lubricated the skin and warmed the area but had absolutely no healing power.
          It was then that the term snake oil became a symbol of fraud.
Not only is a sucker born every minute, but a con man is born every thirty seconds to scam the suckers.

          And now we come to the widespread use of the word “Zen.”
On the Internet and in the news media “Zen” is a jazzy catchphrase often used to peddle:

Sports feats
Manufactured aromas
Poker advice
True love
Body oils                              
Phone cases
Computer software
Key chains
Facial makeups
Hair styles
Fingernail polish
And other scams

 “Every time I turn around these days there’s a new blog with Zen in its title,” states writer Sandra Pawula. “Zen is being linked to everything from copywriting, web design, and business strategy to personal development, food, and far more. Zen has acquired a colloquial meaning in modern life.  Maybe it’s the zip and zing of the actual word Zen that is part of its allure.”
Sadly, a respectable word has become contaminated. It has become a hint of mysticism and the supernatural. And in that usage it is as phony as Jesus’ face on a toasted English muffin.
So how about the real word “Zen”?
The word Zen is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Chán, which in turn is derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which can be roughly translated as "absorption" or "meditative state.”
Zen emphasizes insight into the essential nature within all things. It is more commonly known as Buddha-nature. Humans have it, birds have it, trees have it, stones have it.
Computer software and T-shirts do not have Zen.
During the 6th and 4th centuries there was a man named Siddhartha Guatama. According to the story of his life, he experimented with different teachings until he realized the answer was not in the notions of other philosophies but within himself.
Through inner reflection, called meditation, he comprehended who he was, what he was, and his relationship to all of existence. After achieving such awareness, Siddhartha Guatama, the man, became known as Buddha, the awakened one.
So, what does Buddhism have to do with Zen?
In a few words, Zen is a part of Buddhism.
In several more words, Buddhism is a many-sided organization; Zen is a way of life. Buddhism is a middle path between abstinence and excess; Zen is being. Buddhism offers rituals; Zen is unadorned. Buddhism emphasizes guidelines; Zen emphasizes self-reliance. Buddhism may be comforting because it offers direction; Zen may be frightening because individuals have to think for themselves.
However, because the practice of Zen is so straightforward most people feel it needs to be puffed up with promises and guarantees. So they create a cure-all of it and generate labels such as “The Zen of Better Golf,” or “Zen and the Art of Body Oils.”
Pity the poor word “Zen.” And pity the individuals who think Zen is a state of mind, or a destination, or a form of self-hypnosis, or a better way to ride a bicycle.
Zen is a path to your true self. It is you, being totally aware, right now, at this instant.
Zen practice is not about a trendy way to play poker.
Zen is being completely awake.
Zen practice is calming the mind by clearing it in meditation.
With a clear mind you realize what everything truly is.
By everything I mean flowers, trees, rocks, all of existence. Including yourself.

Monday, August 04, 2014



 The other morning I checked world news on the Internet. What came up was disturbing. Not for any momentous events, but for the lack of anything of real importance. Within five minutes I encountered more than fifteen items under the bold heading of Zen or Buddhism. The pieces included such trifles as:
          ***Management training
          ***Introducing the apartment therapy
          ***The baseball Buddha
          ***Tourism discovers a hilltop
          ***The iron man

I looked into a few of the pieces, but only a few because the contents of most were absurdly inane and offered absolutely nothing related to their titles. But I was led to wonder why and how the words Buddhism and Zen became pop catchphrases.
I intended to put together a dharma talk on the subject, maybe with the title “Is it really Zen?” But someone had beat me to it. The following insightful post was given in March 2013 by a California software developer, and Zen person, named Sean Voisen.

      Zen and the Art Of, by Sean Voisen
      The term “Zen” has become something of a marketing buzzword. Everywhere we look we are treated to “Zen” this and the “Zen of” that. Where once we had only Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, we now have Zen MP3 players and Zen tea kettles and Zen vacuum cleaners and Zen hair treatments and the Zen of Fundraising and even the Zen of Social Media Marketing. That’s a lot of Zen!

The saying in Zen is that the “Zen that can be spoken is not the true Zen.” So what is all this Zen, then?

Zen is just a word. But what it means – what it points to – is a tradition, a practice and a heritage.

Popular culture has extracted only a small part of this heritage and rolled it into the prevailing Zeitgeist. What “pop culture Zen” implies – and by extension, what marketers mean when they say “Zen” – is a kind of boiled-down aesthetic: simple, pure, fresh and clean. This is the Zen of “being in the zone” or what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “the flow.”

Presumably – if you believe the marketing – a Zen vacuum cleaner will allow you to get in the “flow of vacuuming” so that housecleaning becomes simple, easy and effortless. Of course, this is laughable, and we all know that work is work and unless your vacuum is a robot, vacuuming your house will inevitably require some sweat and effort on your part. Nevertheless, this idea of “being in the zone” (even while vacuuming!) tugs at a deep-seated emotional desire, and subconsciously we may be swayed to buy a Zen vacuum cleaner anyway. After all, who wouldn't like something as mundane as cleaning the carpet to feel rewarding and fulfilling?

The truth is: any vacuum cleaner can allow you to get into the flow of vacuuming. You don’t need a special version emblazoned with the word “Zen” on it to do it. But this isn’t the point. The point is that all this Zen-branded paraphernalia is missing the point when it comes to what Zen is all about. Zen is about more than just “being in the zone.”

During a recent talk, my teacher – Jiyu Roshi – brought up the Lance Armstrong doping scandal to illustrate the kind of problems that simply “being in the zone” can bring. In his television interviews, Armstrong used the fact that he was “in the zone” as a kind of excuse for continuing to dope. In fact, during his interview with Oprah Winfrey, he said:

At the time, it was easy, it just flowed. I was in the zone like athletes get. It wasn’t exactly a perfect world, that wasn’t the happiest time of my life. I can tell you today that I am happier today than all those times. [Emphasis mine.]

Is this the “Zen of Cycling?” If so, it is not the true Zen. The true Zen has ethics.

Zen is a practice with a heritage. It is a form of Buddhism and cannot stand separate from Buddhism. The rich heritage of compassion and the strong ethical foundations of Buddhism are what delineate true Zen practice from mere “Zen marketing.” This is what makes Zen more than just about simplicity or “being in the zone.”

At the core of this heritage stands what are known as the Ten Grave Precepts. These Precepts serve as principles and guidelines to Zen practitioners on how to live an ethical life. In order, they are:

To not intentionally or maliciously kill
To not steal
To not misuse sex
To not intentionally deceive
To not “cloud the mind” through drugs or alcohol
To not speak of others’ faults
To not praise oneself while criticizing others
To not withhold spiritual or material aid
To not indulge in anger
To not speak ill of the Three Treasures (the core of Buddhist tradition)

In recent weeks it has become quite clear that Lance Armstrong failed to engage himself professionally in accordance with precept #4. The result has been catastrophic.

Zen practice doesn’t require anything special, but it does require more than simple, mindless, unquestioning “zoning out.” And it does require more than austere aesthetics or the raking of sand around some arbitrarily placed rocks. Real Zen asks for compassion, forgiveness and unending work in the building one’s character.

Perhaps “being in the zone“ is necessary at times, but it’s far from sufficient.

--Thanks Sean for your perceptive words.