There’s something going around the Internets lately about the (mis)use of the word “Zen.” It’s something that I’m deeply interested in, especially as part of a larger project on Buddhism and pop-culutre. I haven’t worked all this out in my head yet, but I found something today that made a light bulb go off over my head.
I stumbled across this blog piece about an economics professor who uses what he calls “contemplative exercises” to help his students reflect on the subtle distinction between happiness and satisfaction (presumably to get them to let go of their “pursuit” of happiness through consumer culture). He has them do those two stereotypical bits of seated mediation: watching the breath and being mindful. I think this is all very interesting from both an economics and a social science point of view, and I would love to know more about it.
The author of the blog piece, however, makes the Buddhist connection explicit by titling her piece “Economics 101 Meets Buddhism.” (It’s unclear if the professor himself makes this connection.)
Hate to break it to you, but that’s not Buddhism. And it sure as hell ain’t Zen.
The devil, as they say, is in the details. The point of the professor’s exercise is to get the students to think about their own subjective reactions to two separate though often conflated emotional states. This isn’t the point of Buddhist mediation at all that is, if you’re the kind of Buddhist who thinks there’s a point to begin with!
For the sake of argument, let’s take a look at Dogen’s notion of shikan-taza which is his famous “just sit” doctrine: that is, the only thing you do in Zen is sit, that is, do seated meditation or zazen. Now, we can debate what Dogen meant by this, we can debate whether or not you’re supposed to “do” anything in meditation or whether you’re supposed to “think” about anything in the usual sense of the word. But it’s pretty clear that this Zen notion of jut sitting comes from a conflation of a pair of ubiquitous Buddhist meditation practices, shamantha and vipassana calming and insight, respectively.
Shamatha requires one to calm the mind in order to perform vipassana which is critical or questioning observation and insight into the mind. Why does one do this? You do this to directly observe the fundamental reality of the human condition.
You do this to come face to face with the fact that there is no self, there is no ever-lasting, permanent thing to which we can point and say “This is me.” You do this so that you can come to better understand how your attachment to “me” is at the heart of all your suffering. You do this produce a profound, deep, lasting, and life-changing effect within yourself and your relationship to the world around you.
Anyone who’s taken this stuff seriously knows that.
Which is why I worry about the (mis)use of Buddhist words in pop-cultre. I worry because it creates expectations. Sure, maybe more people will come to know that there is this thing out there in the world called “Buddhism” and will seek it out. But if they come with all these expectations that Buddhism is all about being very “Zen” and dispassionate, well, then we’ve got our work cut out for us, don’t we? We’ve got one more level of psyche to deconstruct before we get down to the nitty gritty of deconstructing the psyche.