“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.”

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.

For fledgling Buddhists in a predominantly secular American society, it is perhaps all too easy to feel righteous indignation at the misappropriation of Buddhist terms. No doubt it is far harder to work creatively with the situation at hand as Bukko did. Be that as it may, one man’s irritation is another man’s opportunity to teach.

For all that, I still haven’t learned to play the harmonica. Recently, however, I found an old one in a closet at my mother’s house. It’s rusty, and some of the notes won’t blow. Still, I don’t suppose it would hurt me if I learned to play.