“The Zen of what?”
“Harmonica,” she said.
“That’s what I thought you said.”


I was standing outside the door of a classroom at a New Age center in New York. The woman in question had just emerged from a room where twenty or thirty people were jumping up and down, all playing the harmonica at once. I was taking a break from the writing workshop I was giving next door.

“What kind of Zen do you teach?” she asked.

In the months since that encounter, I have tried to become more sensitive to the popular understanding of Buddhist terms—words such as karma, nirvana, and Zen. The word Zen, in particular, offers many meanings in contemporary usage. In one week alone I saw it used to mean a refined sensibility associated with physical objects, expensive but not showy, full of verve and spontaneity, elegant, spiritual, practical, marketable, and chic. When asked to define the word, one person said it referred to “something incomprehensible, but probably profound.” Add to that the mysterious but apparently meaningful expression “That’s very Zen,” and the array of possible meanings, if not particularly coherent, at least suggests the versatility and innate appeal of the word in modern parlance. Of course, almost nowhere outside of Buddhist circles is the word Zenused to mean simply “meditation,” or “the meditative school.”

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