hate to break it to you

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.

The end result may be a “cool” or “dispassionate” or “untroubled” way of interacting with the world. But in process it is nothing like Econ 101. In process, in practice, it’s work.

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.

Not that there’s anything to be done about it. Except what I always do. Point and cry out to the Internet, “that’s not Buddhism! You’re doing it wrong!”

5 thoughts on “hate to break it to you

  1. Hello again Scott,

    You might be interested also in this article on Rev. Danny Fisher’s blog “Yale Psychiatrist Using Buddhist Concept to Help Smokers Quit.” chaplaindanny.blogspot.com. In your opinion, do you think this is part of a new(er) trend in “pop”-Buddhism, as in Buddhism as/is Therapy? Is there such a thing ? I am wondering this after reading Jeff Wilson’s book on the practice of mizuko kuyo, which has seemed, in the US especially, to have morphed from a pacifying-ghosts ritual to a type of therapeutic ritual for aborted or miscarried fetuses. Aside from the question as to whether mizuko kuyo is truly Buddhist ritual at all, I do think there is a growing trend on adopting (or appropriating, depending on your viewpoint) Buddhist practices and rituals for varieda and explicitly non-religious purposes, such as studying economics or quitting smoking. I think this is also part of an older and historical trend of secularizing Buddhism, i.e. making a foreign (therefore threatening) religion “safe” for outsiders. As a positive, it does help to make Buddhism less “foreign” and more appealing and even useful – who’s going to argue that quitting smoking is bad? On the con side, it does seem to detract from what the actual purpose and meaning of Buddha-dharma, or Zen for that matter, is.

  2. @ Yuinen:
    Short answer: yes.

    I saw Chaplain Danny’s post, and yes, I think there is a trend in the West (and elsewhere?) of Buddhism as therapy. And it worries me. But it’s tricky, right, as you point out. Who’s going to argue that quitting smoking is a bad thing and if Buddhism helps you quit smoking, more power to you.

    But I guess what I really worry about is twofold: first, there’s the issue of a “dumbing down” of Buddhism. All this Buddhism-as-therapy is good, but a lot of it is just the surface of Buddhist practice. And if you take the Buddha dharma seriously, if you get beneath that surface, it cuts much deeper to creating a fundamental change in your being.

    And secondly, because of that and because this “dumbing down” of Buddhism creates expectations in people’s minds, I worry that it may be more difficult for us to talk about or teach Buddhism. We have to get people to get go of this idea that Buddhism is nothing more than a quick fix solution to some temporal problem. And once they find out that it’s more than that or actual work, will they still want to stick around?

    Thanks for the comment, Yuinen. Good stuff!

  3. Instead of getting insulted or irritated, I get sad. The way ‘Zen’ or ‘Buddhism’ is being (mis)understood is not that different from anything else that’s not entrenched in the population/culture of the time/place – people just don’t know any better. At least the terms are usually used to refer to states of peace and nonviolence – not such a bad thing.

    It’s funny when I mention to people about going to, say, a weekend retreat. They ask, “Oh, you mean, like a spa?” LOL! Or when I mention meditation, they say “Oh, I tried that a couple of times, but I can’t do that. My mind is too wild.” As if they’re the only ones that have this very ‘unique’ problem (well, they don’t know that of course, so I cut them some slack). 🙂

    So that’s what makes me sad – that people have, as you say, ‘expectations.’ Expectations to be ‘Zenned out,’ to be free from troubles, to feel bliss – to be ‘somewhere else’ except ‘right here.’ Some of my friends who dabble in meditation sit for one 30-minutes session in three months and then say, “Oh, that felt so good. That was a good mediation.” A few weeks later, they say “The effects of that (one) meditation is wearing off…l’d like to meditation again soon.” It’s some ‘thing’ that you do to get some other ‘thing.’ As Trungpa Rinpoche taught, that’s “spiritual materialism.”

    I think the other confusion lies in the public’s inability to distinguish between other types of meditation/practices (Hindu, TM, New Age, what have you) and Buddhist meditation. There is no hocus pocus going on in Buddhist meditation – it’s so raw and direct, and most times, challenging, uncomfortable, and downright shitty when we sit with all our ‘stuff.’ This practice is not about some end goal of feeling good once you do it. It’s very hard work, and the results usually come about very slowly, or at least it sneaks up on you when you weren’t expecting it. That’s when you know the practice is seeping into every molecule of your being, and as you say, producing a “lasting…life-changing effect.”

    For this lasting life-changing effect to take place, there needs to be loads of practice and effort. I think that’s what makes me sad the most – that people these days can’t bear to not be instantly-gratified – and when they find out that Buddhism isn’t about some instant life change after one weekend mountain retreat, people will just move on to the next thing that promises a quick fix, insta-enlightenment.

    Thanks for the post!

  4. We can do more that only being irritated and sad – we can educate. I do this all the time with my Christian chaplain friends – they’re not meaning to be insulting, they just don’t know, and I understand that, just like I have to ask them for reasons for the differences between using communion wine and grape juice. It doesn’t take a whole lot of time to explain the difference between the Hindu and Buddhist views of karma, or different forms of meditation, or the diversity of Buddhist traditions, or that the historical Buddha isn’t the fat dude. And there is a kick of seeing someone’s face light up and say, “Wow, I didn’t know that!”

  5. It works both ways. Buddhism uses words like ego in a way that is incorrect. Go to Buddhist Geeks and listen to what Judith Simmer-Brown has to say about terminology and the way in which it is translated into English. Contemporary society missuses Buddhist terms and Buddhists misuse many English terms.

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