In “Alan Arkin Explains the Zen of Martin Scorsese,” a recent post on Speakeasy (a Wall Street Journal blog) one commenter took umbrage with the post’s title, writing: “Would you please stop abusing the word Zen?”

You don’t have to look hard to find examples of what the commenter is complaining about. Consider the following: An article on the Huffpost called “The Zen of Beans,” a new book entitled The Zen of Farting, and an apartment in Williamsburg, NY described as a “sexy Zen sanctuary.” Consider also all of the different Zen and the Art of __________ books (for a very funny take on this phenomenon see blogger Alex Tzelnic’s “Zen and the Art of Zen and the Art of Books”). We could list a million examples of instances where people use the word Zen in ways that have nothing at all to do with Zen Buddhism. It occurs to me that it’s not unlike the word love. It means something different to everyone.

What then can we say about Zen? Clearly it’s capable of expression in a multitude of legitimate ways. Surely the practice of zazen on a zafu in a zendo constitutes such an expression. But what about the athlete who has the presence of mind to hit a game winning shot? The dedicated artist exploding with creativity? A child at play?  

If Zen encompasses everything, does it stand for anything? It seems to me that it does, and that there is some commonality in all of its manifestations. There may be more, but one element shared by all the things we call Zen is elegance. Zen is beautiful. Graceful. When we use the word Zen it often expresses the recognition that there is something spiritual about simplicity.

So, yes, I suppose we do collectively misuse the word Zen when we take it out of its Buddhist context. But is it abuse? Like love, the word Zen almost always has positive connotations. And for that reason, I must say I’m all for it. Let’s stretch the word Zen infinitely, until it covers the whole world.

UPDATE: Clark Strand on the history of the word “Zen,”:

All this is nothing new. The samurai warriors who came into contact with Zen when it first appeared in thirteenth-century Japan were unsure about the proper way to write the Chinese character for Zen. Often they confused it with a similar character meaning “loincloth,” a confusion that (according to the British scholar Trevor Leggett) made for some amusing, if ultimately illuminating verbal exchanges. One story concerns a minor political figure named Morikatsu, who visited Bukko, a respected Zen master of the time.

Morikatsu told one of Bukko’s attendant monks, “These Kamakura people are so stupid they write the name for your sect using the character for loincloth. What a joke!” The attendant was upset that people should degrade the Zen teachings in this way, but when he told Bukko, the master only laughed.

“That’s exactly right!” Bukko exclaimed. “That which gives life is the power of the front gate, and at death that power goes out through the back. Isn’t life and death the great matter of our sect? What wraps up the organs of life and death is none other than a loin-cloth. If you contemplate a loin-cloth deeply enough, you’ll get to the bottom of things. Now, use this loin-cloth to show our teaching to that little idiot Morikatsu.”

So the attendant went back to Morikatsu and waved a loincloth in his face. “All living beings are contained in “this!” he cried. “What do you say to that?” Morikatsu had no words.

Image: from the Flickr photostream of pittaya

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Log in.