The Zen Habits of Master Hsuan Hua

What is Zen?

Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western thought. It is not a religion or a philosophy; it is not a psychology or a type of science. It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,” and is similar in this respect to Taoism, Vedanta, and Yoga. A way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.
– Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

If Zen has no positive definition, then everything is Zen. And if everything is Zen, then naturally every blog is Zen too. Right?

Actually, this argument is a perfect illustration of New Age rhetorical misdirection. While one can say that everything is Zen in its transcendent sense, such a statement cannot serve as the premise for an immanent logical conclusion. In other words: Zen proves nothing, by definition.

Applying transcendent or non-dual definitions to conventional worldly contexts is a popular tactic amongst false gurus. The answer to any difficult question is, Everything is Zen. Yet, when such gurus request payment in return for their enlightened teachings, cash is a bit more Zen than anything else. Thusly, their disciples learn the joys of emptiness: empty realizations and empty pockets.

One would hope that a real Zen master is as circumspect when accepting donations and gifts, as when sharing their realization.

I am the Spiritual Zen Law of Attraction Monk–and so can you!
Considering all of the above, under what circumstances is it ethical for a writer to refer to themselves as an honorary “monk”, or to their writings as “Zen-inspired”? These descriptions are guaranteed, if not specifically tailored to draw a particular brand of ignorant consumer. (“Ignorant” is not an insult here, but a reflection of the fact that Zen experts do not seek lessons from a search engine.) According to Google, more than 50,000 such blogs exist today.

Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits is among the most popular, and he explains his naming decision thusly:

I chose Zen Habits as the title of my blog because it describes the philosophy of the blog in a concise way.

The Zen of the title of this blog is simply a way of reminding myself to be present, to live simply, to keep myself centered and at peace as I make my slow journey to creating good habits and achieving my goals. That’s all. I am not a Zen monk or a follower of Zen, although I do try to practice zazen when I can. I’ve never studied under a teacher, although I have read some books on Zen.

Zen Habits covers: achieving goals, productivity, being organized, GTD, motivation, eliminating debt, saving, getting a flat stomach, eating healthy, simplifying, living frugal, parenting, happiness, and successfully implementing good habits.

In the resulting discussion, comments fall into two categories:

  • Zen is not about achieving goals or getting things done, and I am curious where you got that idea. I think you are vastly misunderstanding it and using the word ‘Zen’ like a brand name to make yourself feel cooler.”
  • “Perhaps those people who are jumping on the ‘impreciseness’ of the name are not being very Zen themselves, which would not get overexcited about someone else’s choices. Zen is both doing and not-doing, but it’s about simplicity.”

Personally, when I want to remind myself of something, I use a yellow sticky note. I do not change the title on my website, which in turn directs the search engines to send me a different class of visitors, who I then match with advertisers in an attempt to turn a profit. Don’t get me wrong: Leo runs a good website, and I do not begrudge him the right to earn a living from his work. I am just a little disappointed that his explanation pretends innocence of the consequences. David Allen is good, and Zen is good, but GTD is not Zen.

As for the repeated assertions in the comments, that a genuine Zen master should not exercise discernment, or object to a misrepresentation of their discipline? It all reminds me of a poem by Venerable Master Hsuan Hua, one of the fathers of Chan Buddhism in America. Hsuan Hua was not shy in expressing his opinion of wanton, New Age “spiritually-inspired” individuality:

Your Moment of Zen

The dumb transmit to the dumb,
One is teaching but neither has any idea.
The sifu goes to hell.
Where will the student end up?

Is that Zen enough for you? 😉


  1. Yeah, a lot of zen teaching emphasizes that, while everything is enlightened as it is, people generally aren’t aware of this and just being told it doesn’t really do much, so actual practice is necessary.
    “Everything is zen and nothing is zen” could easily be a paraphrase of some of Boddhidarma’s more important koans.
    Interestingly, Leo had a recent post about the title of the blog. I can’t help but think that, given that he specifically states the the blog is not about zen practice as such but relates to some of its concepts, it’s a fairly apt title, and isn’t really a misuse. It isn’t so much about right or wrong as it is appropriate or inappropriate, and for those who take the time to look, his use really doesn’t seem inappropriate.
    I remember another koan about a master of a monastery who is beheaded by raiders, and his scream was heard for miles around. So yes, it isn’t just about being calm and accepting and placid, it’s about experiencing things as they are, including pain and your own death. Zen doesn’t denigrate differentiation, it accepts differentiation as being just as necessary as unity.

  2. These are good points, thank you. I went back and edited the post, as I had not expressed myself clearly.

  3. Oh, I just reread what I wrote and I realized “those who take the time to look” might’ve sounded like a jab at you, but it wasn’t meant that way.

  4. Hi, I just found your site through Zen habits and I must say that I agree whole-heartedly with your insightful comments concerning the misunderstanding of Zen. Earlier today I posted a comment on Leo’s site, but somehow it hasn’t been posted yet. Here’s what I posted:

    “Hi Leo,

    I’ve been reading some of your blog articles and I’ve picked out a few gem ideas that I’ve been trying to apply to my own life, so thank you so much for that. However, as someone with both an academic and personal interest in Zen, I do feel the urge to put in my “two cents worth” and offer my perspective on the whole “Zen” name debate.

    First of all, as a scholar I do find it very frustrating to enter the term “Zen” into a search engine (both academic and non-academic) only to be rewarded with a surplus of articles and websites have very little to do with actual Zen (some not at all) and have to waste my time sorting through them to find what I’m looking for. I must admit that I felt somewhat the same way about your site. While your articles offer some very good advice and tips on leading a healthy, organized and productive lifestyle (something I myself need much improvement on!), this really has little to do with the spiritual aims of Zen Buddhist practice. As one of the previous posters pointed out, associating Zen with simplicity somewhat obfuscates the underlying complexity and richness of the tradition. This is in part due to the sources of our understanding of Zen in the West. People like D.T. Suzuki, while making a very important contribution to the dissemination of Zen to the West, simplified and repackaged Zen in a manner to make it more appealing to Westerners. Modern Zen scholars have been challenging the received popular viewed of Zen that we have in West and have been forming a more nuanced and complete picture of the tradition as a whole, including its historical development, which was largely ignored by writers like Suzuki. This means of course going back to the development of Chan/Zen in China, the real birthplace of Zen.

    Some posters here might be surprised to find that the Chan masters throughout history were lively debaters and often rigorous scholars who did not scorn the use of words or shy away from expressing their often strong opinions. Being enlightened does not mean not having an opinion or to disengage oneself from the linguistically contrived world of conflict and contradiction. To suggest such is simply to shut down the possibility of argument and debate and rob the other of their right to a voice. Zen is not some hippy-dippy tradition about feeling groovy and being disengaged from the world. As my teacher puts it, it is the experience of the nonduality of duality and nonduality. Both the enlightened and us nonenlightened folks live in this world of duality and to live only in the world of nonduality would make enlightened activity and even existence an impossibility.

    Sorry for the long post, but I just wanted to offer my own opinion to the fray (long live debate!) and some points to consider in our collective understanding of Zen as a culture and perhaps a better understanding why some of us get so peeved at the casual use and misuse of term “Zen” (which no doubt has contributed to the Western fetishization of Zen and Asian culture). But sometimes all we can do is laugh and continue to deepen our own understanding. Here is a website that offers some comic relief to that effect:

    And here is a wonderful website offering many thought-provoking articles dealing with some of the issues I touched on above:


  5. Um, I’m not sure that GTD and ZTD are not Zen.

    The commentator Willow says that “Zen is not some hippy-dippy tradition about feeling groovy and being disengaged from the world. ” Fine, but have David Allen and Leo Babauta ever said anything like that?

    David Allen claims that his methodology is about making your mind like water, i.e. having you concentrate on a given problem in a way that is balanced to the magnitude of that problem, not less, not more. That’s not being disengaged from the world. That’s more “experiencing things as they are, including pain and your own death,” which is exactly what the commentator elf_man says Zen is.

    Also, Leo Babauta doesn’t rally against natural desires such as that of being loved, or that of having a circle of friends. What he bashes are consumerism-manufactured desires, the unhealthy faux-needs that keep us from accomplishing the things that are really important.

    Now, I have no idea if GTD or ZTD are actually Zen-like, after all I don’t have a clear idea of what Zen is, but if the thing is what the guys in this blog are claiming, well, why then shouldn’t GTD and ZTD be Zen-like? They pretty much sound Zen-like if what you guys are saying about what Zen is and what Zen isn’t is true.


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