An Irreverent Look at Zen in America
Rev. Lynn "Jnana" Sipe - Zen Dharma Teacher - IBMC


A Dharma Talk at the IBMC --- Zen has had a significant religious impact in America for at least half a century. For most of that time its influence has been limited to literature and the arts in addition to a small, but growing, sangha of ordained teachers and practitioners. In recent years, however, popularized notions of Zen have entered the cultural mainstream of American society so that Zen has become a trendy buzzword.

These fashionable impressions of Zen overlook, of course, such basic concepts as our inherent Buddha nature, the possibility of sudden enlightenment, or the importance of meditation, lineage, teachings and traditions of the main Zen schools. The popular notions, not altogether surprisingly, generally focus on Zen as a source of coolness, serenity and clear-minded focus and concentration. Such single-mindedness is thought to lead to self-improvement and success in business or personal affairs, contributing to Zen’s special cachet.

While there certainly are elements of truth in these notions, it unfortunately remains likely that popular culture’s embrace of Zen is a mile wide but only inches deep. And it is here that the seriously irreverent portion of my talk begins. The unorthodox approach I’ve adopted for this talk is to view the way Zen has permeated popular culture in America through the prism of some titles of selected articles in various popular, trade and professional publications, reflecting differing aspects of American culture and taken from publications of just the last four years. Please remember that all of the titles quoted here are real and from actual publications.

To bring us up to speed let’s first look at Zen titles in the context of automobiles and transportation. We can begin with the basics as in “Engine Zen”, an article in HOT ROD magazine, then move from an expected focus on specific car models in “The Zen of Nissan: the classic Z car is back….” to a WALL STREET JOURNAL feature on renting a car: “Cranky consumer: Zen and the art of car rental” to the experience of riding the bus in “The Zen of the bus” in the NEW YORK TIMES.

Wheels, of course, carry us to sports and outdoor activities, where Zen-related titles seem to proliferate. Zen in golf doesn’t surprise us, as in “Fairway Zen” but perhaps “Zen and horses: lessons from a year of riding” does. In contrast to the earlier article in HOT ROD there is also the opposite take in “The Zen of no engine”, which is an article on sailing. There is also Zen in the great outdoors as in “Wilderness Zen” or, closer to home, “Of moss and men: the Zen of green gardening”. If too much exertion has taken place with all of this outdoor activity there is always “Zen and the art of anti-inflammatories”, which appeared in CLIMBING magazine.

Many golfers come from business and industry and in this field we arrive at some of the more heartwarming titles in our survey. First up is “Zen and the art of propane safety” in the trade journal LP-GAS. Or how about “The Zen of contractor relations”? Zen is indeed everywhere as we can see from “Zen in the warehouse”, an article found in MODERN MATERIALS HANDLING, another trade journal. So, not surprisingly, another publication gives us “Zen and the art of security maintenance”. If we really want to zone out we can investigate “The Zen of corporate capital structure neutrality” in the MICHIGAN LAW REVIEW.

Zen plays very well in the bits and bytes world of computers and information technology as seen from these not dissimilar examples: “Zen and the art of operating system maintenance” and “The ZEN of NetWare server management”. Thinking more globally there is “Zen and the art of IT governance” or more personally there is “Zen computer: mindfulness and the machine”, this last one having appeared in THE LUTHERAN magazine.

Legal and law enforcement interests provide us with two contrasting approaches to justice as indicated, on the one hand, by “Zen and the art of jurisprudence”, again thanks to the MICHIGAN LAW REVIEW and, on the other hand, “Zen and the shoot house”, an article in professional publication LAW & ORDER.

The field of leadership and management has proven rather disappointing for its Zen-related titles, as one would expect more from these folks. They did, however, provide us with the provocative “Throwing the elephant: Zen and the art of managing up” in TIME magazine as well as the possibly oxymoronic “The Zen of meetings” in the trade publication SUCCESSFUL MEETINGS.

Non-Buddhist religious traditions offer us “Zen gifts to Christians” published in the ANGLICAN THEOLOLGICAL REVIEW or a book entitled “Zen Judaism: for you a little enlightenment”. More encompassing perhaps is another article, this one simply entitled “Zen ecumenicism”.

Art and architecture are sometimes closely related to religion and Zen, of course, figures in their publications as well. There is this Zen-like title in ART NEWS, “Zen No Zen” or perhaps more enlightening is “The ZEN of luminosity” in AMERICAN ARTIST. Architects vary in approaching the subject, as witness the challenging notion of “Zen tectonics” in one publication or the simple “A splash of Zen” in ARCHITECTURAL RECORD. The architects also confirm what we already know, that “Zen is in the details”.

Zenishness has penetrated perhaps as deeply in the areas of decorating and design as anywhere in American culture. We all could learn from “The Zen of kitchen storage” in BON APPETIT or perhaps “…The Zen of bathing” in the less accessible magazine PROFESSIONAL BUILDER. METROPOLITAN HOME reminds us some people have it all with “Island Zen”. However, I bet you didn’t know it was so easy as “Zen on a hanger”. Or perhaps it isn’t so easy, as suggested by ”Zen and the art of award placement”.

The world of music should not go unnoted, such as the article from DOWN BEAT entitled “Drumming with the Zen of trane”. Personally, I prefer “Zen and the art of opera” from the NEW YORK TIMES.

If music is in the background can food and drink be far behind; certainly not if it is “The Zen of frosting” in GOURMET or “Zen and tonic” from the LOS ANGELES TIMES. If we turn to the ‘art of’ approach to Zen we find “Zen and the art of fettuccini” or, even better, “Zen and the art of chocolate-making”. Less exciting but more serious is “Zen and the art of dishwashing”.

Parenting, we gather, can teach us something about Zen as well, as noted by “Zen and the art of motherhood”, with the offspring being “Zen baby”. The mother part I think I can conceptualize but I would like to meet such a baby.

America is obsessed with attention to self and the person so it is fitting that this is another area rich in Zen interest, as evidenced by the following disparate examples: “Zen and the art of pedicure”; “Lose weight the Zen way”; “Being Black: Zen and the art of living with fearlessness and grace”; Zen and the art of skin maintenance” and the curiously titled “The Zen of Alzheimer’s”. We can escape from all of this self-centeredness with “Zen and the art of fleeing to safety” from a weather-focused publication entitled WEATHERWISE.

Perk up your ears now for we’ll pay some fleeting attention to sex-related issues. The fun starts with “Zen and the art of lechery” in, where else but, VANITY FAIR. This can get out of hand, of course, as referenced by “The Zen of sexual harassment”, which sounds like a primer on how to do harassment really well. A happy ending is provided, however, by “Zen sex: the way of making love”.

Leaving all of this serious stuff behind us now, let’s note that writers love to make puns on the word ‘Zen’, as witnessed by “Zen pecked” and “Zen and now”. Groan along with me when confronted with at least six different articles, each of which is entitled “Now and Zen”. The perpetrating publications range from the SPORTING NEWS to the NEW YORKER to SPC: SOAP, PERFUMERY, AND COSMETICS.

No seriously irreverent survey of this subject can conclude without reference to one title which gave me particular pause, and this from a publication that normally provides few reasons for pausing, USA TODAY; this little gem is “Zen and the art of cooking up Italian mysteries”. And with that, the zentral thread of my discourse has unraveled.

Please forgive me and may you be peaceful, happy and well.

Also by - Rev. Lynn "Jnana" Sipe

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Mudras In Buddhism

Buddhism In the Numbers

The European Discovery of Indian Buddhism