zen habits : breathe

What’s in a Name? A Take on “Zen Habits” From a Zen Monk

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Laurel Vogel (Dharma name: Dai-I Kan Ji), a Zen monk (at large), a published author and blogger at Seattlecounseling.com.

My inbox this morning was acrimoniously stirred with posts on a thread from Zen Habits that again opened the controversy of Leo Babauta’s use of the word Zen in his blog title. I know why these posts happen. People are tired of seeing great pieces of art, deep and meaningful religious experiences, and unquantifiable relationships exploited for “commercial” use. Words like “Zen” and “yoga” are held up like crystals gazed into, stripped of context and meaning, and adjusted to perfectly fit the projections of as many consumers as possible. I don’t think this is how Leo is using it though, and if you can bear with me, I’ll tell you why.

For some reason I’m interested in this thread, and the fact that Leo allows it to go on, allows the opinions to fly, arguments to flame up and burn out, over and over again. It’s a long thread. And it gets me to think about what the word “Zen” really means. Most definitions trace the word back to Sanskrit, where it is said to mean: “To contemplate deeply.” But this isn’t quite what it means, either.

The commercial appropriation of the word Zen seems to have little to do with deep contemplation. Perhaps this is why so many are stirred up at seeing it used erroneously–if anything, the word seems to stop thought, and a blanket projection of peaceful and thoughtless bliss is conjured in the consumptive mind. “I’m going to buy me some of that peace of mind stuff!” Well, that’s not it either.

Zazen is a practice, mindfulness training, and discipline. It is simple. One sits on a cushion and focuses on the breath. Everything, every word, every ritual, every Dharma talk and writing, and every monastery is a projection that distracts from the essence of what Zen is. While Zen contains all of these things, nothing can define it. All of these things may point toward it, may lead to it, may set up the conditions in which it may arise, but they don’t describe it. These things are all contained in Zen, and they are all essentially Zen, but they are also separate, definable things–in the same way that one might use the word Zen to sell shampoo. So, does it matter? Does a word describing something in which I am deeply involved, being used for a purpose not fitting my projection of it, alter its essential meaning? Does it cheapen it? Does it take away from it somehow? For me, the answer is no, because there’s nothing to defend here.

I think this is what we are afraid of, at base: that commercial culture is going to cheapen what we hold dear — like the thousands of replicas of the Mona Lisa we can now view without trekking to the Louvre’, or how I can listen to Bach cello suites on my CD player whenever I want, a little something is lost in the mass-production and overuse of anything…

But this also makes it available to more people — takes it from the special, inaccessible and unattainable category, and puts it in the hands of those who may otherwise have never thought about such things. And really, using the word Zen to illustrate how a blogger has changed his habits for the better — and wants to help others change their habits for the better — seems not only innocuous, but beneficial — in fact, this Leo is acting like a Boddhisattva in his quest to help others. When we get right down to it, there really is no separation between anything in reality and Zen. If Buddhism confers any wisdom, it is that we are not separate from the world, but intimately connected to everything within it.

The real problem with Zen as it currently exists in the modern mind, is the perception that it is something separate from us — something special. In my practice, I see it as something that is everyday, ordinary. It is also extraordinary! Thrilling! Unusual. It’s all of that. And, it needs to be accessible, like the breath. Something we can turn to at any time, in any way that we need it. We can fight about how the word is used‹but really, there’s nothing to fight for.

Laurel is Precepted into the Soto Zen lineage of Shunryu Suzuki, and her teacher is Zoketsu Norman Fischer. His organization is called Everyday Zen (see Everydayzen.org), and his “slogan” is “Changing and Being Changed by the World”. Read more from Laurel at her blog, or check out her book, In a Cradle of Words: Intimate Encounters in Relational Therapy.

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