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: