The trashing of zen: a rant

George Orwell wrote about what happens when we misuse words. A core theme in the novel 1984 is how abuse of language enables other evils. Well the time has come: I’m stepping up to defend the word Zen.

Zen is in a sorry state of abuse. Much like the word innovation, the word Zen is now a placeholder for thought, used for its connotation of something positive rather than any specific meaning. People often use the word in complete ignorance. Here’s what the word means:

To practice Zen is to use meditation and other techniques to develop an understanding of oneself, and seek spiritual enlightenment

That’s heavy, no? Can you think of a concept more worthy of respect than someone dedicating time to seeking spiritual enlightenment? To understand their true selves? If more people spent time figuring out how to be cool with themselves spiritually (in whatever flavor they choose), instead of accumulating more stuff they don’t need, or taking things that aren’t theirs, we’d be happier all around on this planet. The word Zen, and it’s meaning, gets a top shelf spot on the list of words worthy of reverence and respect.

So how then, can we explain the following?

  1., a fine site about personal productivity and more, but it’s a lifehacker competitor, not spiritual or even philosophical in focus. Zenhabits also has an e-book called Zen to done, the ultimate productivity system. Why must we suffer these incomprehensible contradictions of Zen and productivity in the same sentence? Simply because the alternatives weren’t cool enough for the author.
  2. Worse perhaps is CSS Zen Garden, which uses not only the word Zen, but the Japanese rock garden, which are used by some in meditation practices. To their credit, at least they’re giving stuff away, but still. That’s charity garden, not zen. (Why wouldn’t simply CSS Garden have been good enough?)
  3. Presentation Zen, which is a blog, and book, on professional presentation design. It gives very good advice, but what does this have to do with Zen? Not much. The spirit of the advice is minimalism, an element of many eastern philosophies, but minimalism is not spiritual by itself. I know Garr Reynolds and I like him and his presentation advice, but the question remains. Most presentations are capitalistic and not spiritual acts.
  4. Of course we also have ZenCart, a shopping cart service, the Zen drupal theme, an MP3 player, a communal blog, and an Internet provider.

Some of these things are good and people like them, but they have nothing to do with Zen. The word is decoration. It’s a marketing hook, used to suggest but not provide. Many use visual imagery that vaguely suggests eastern philosophy, but it’s purely visual. The superficial without the substance.

I’m no saint of titles. I took criticism from friends for titling my first book The art of project management, as “The art of…” is perhaps the most cliche title in the world (Perhaps I’m redeemed by the name change, perhaps not). But unlike the sites above, a cliche title can accurately describe what is being offered, without the material itself being cliche.

These sites use this amazing word, Zen, fun to say, beautifully compact, high in noble purpose, and use it for decoration. Orwell would claim these folks are both benefiting from the dilution of language, and promoting the further gutting of an enlightenment-path into a for profit choice of branding style. Ok. Forget Orwell, he’s dead and can’t speak for himself: So I make that claim. This is bad for everyone. How bad? I have no idea as we’ve been doing this to words and ideas for a long time.

From my skimmings of these sites, these folks are smart. I’m sure they all knew synonyms for good, great, cool, or whatever it was they were looking for could be found in any thesaurus. They could have been industrious enough to make up their own name or hire someone to do it for them. They could even have stooped, like I did, to reuse a naming cliche (Secrets of, Art of, etc.). But instead they chose to drag a word like Zen into the laziest kind of intellectual mud.

Certainly, these folks have company. Many point the finger at Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance for starting the trend. It’s an excellent book on one man’s explorations into philosophy and life, but Zen is a sideline. Of course Pirsig was probably riffing off of Herrigel’s Zen in the art of archery. That book actually is about Zen, and the attempt by a Westerner to practice it. It should be required reading (despite its flaws) for anyone who even thinks about taking command of the Z-word for their own profit.

If you’re curious about Zen, I’m no expert. Here’s a good experience to start with. I bet you’ll be surprised. (flash site, but worth the ride).

The single best book introducing meditation (and by-proxy Zen & Buddhism), is Turning the Mind into an ally. Highly recommended (it’s the best of many I’ve read).

22 Responses to “The trashing of zen: a rant”

  1. Chris Furniss

    I think you’re a bit off about the CSS Zen Garden. While the rest of your rant is fairly accurate about the semantics of the word “Zen” (which is a moot argument anyway because semantics in the English language are constantly changing), the CSS Zen Garden DOES address contemplation and personal enlightenment. It’s about how you can use something as simple as non-presentational code and apply different CSS style sheets to it to make vastly different designs. If you clicked through and actually read the website instead of knee-jerking and saying it was bad because they misused the Japanese rock garden motif, you’d have figured that out. But hey, at least you got one reader to comment.

  2. Scott

    Hi Chris:

    Aaaah! That’s funny. Do you mean moot, as in a) pointless, or b) open to debate? :)

    You’re making my point for me – Sure words have multiple meanings and they change. True. But every writer has a choice about which word they use and how they’re use it. If the meaning is unclear, deceptive, or manipulative, the writer is responsible, not the semantics of language.

    Let me ask it another way: are there any words you hold high enough that they should not be used as I described? If Zen isn’t one of them, that’s fine, but at least we can agree words can be misappropriated.

    Specific to CSS Zen garden – Unless CSS helps a person study meditation or attain enlightenment, which you have to admit is a quite a stretch despite the talents of the site’s contributors, then my rant still applies. Their own description says it all:

    A demonstration of what can be accomplished visually through CSS-based design. Select any style sheet from the list to load it into this page.

  3. Will Sargent

    The interesting thing about Zen is that if you’re practicing Zen properly, you’re doing one thing at a time. If you’re sweeping the floor? You think about sweeping the floor. You don’t think about your prom dance in high school, or what you’re going to have for dinner.

    So Zen is about focus. And anything that mentions Zen as a sidebar (Zen and Spam) is not Zen. You’re either doing Zazen or you’re not.

    I think Zen is actually doing quite well out of the marketing. Certainly there are more people who are at least aware of Zen. You can argue that the word is devalued, but so what? It’s not as if the practice itself is devalued by usage.

    Personally I think Zen and the Art of Archery does more harm to Zen than any of the other books, because what he wrote in the book doesn’t really hold water — it’s at least half fiction, and it mythologizes teachers to a ridiculous extent. But that’s just me.

  4. Scott

    Thanks for the comment Will.

    > You can argue that the word is devalued,
    > but so what? It’s not as if the practice
    > itself is devalued by usage.

    I referenced Orwell since I do think the practice of something is devalued by misuse of it’s name. He makes the argument better than I can.

  5. Leo

    Very interesting post. I generally agree with you on the meaning and abuse of words. And I hear you loud and clear about the use of the word Zen.

    It’s actually an internal debate I had when I began Zen Habits almost a year ago. Although I’m not a Zen practicioner, I do subscribe to much of its philosophy, and in the end, I made the decision because the words “Zen Habits” most succinctly summarized the philosophy of my site. It’s hard to understand that unless you’ve been reading my site for awhile, but I’ll try to briefly explain.

    Although you characterized Zen Habits as a competitor of Lifehacker, I don’t see myself that way. While there is much overlap (specifically in terms of productivity topics) and I was partly inspired by Lifehacker, I cover many other topics that fall under your definition of Zen: using “use meditation and other techniques to develop an understanding of oneself, and seek spiritual enlightenment”.

    See my articles on reflection, meditation, practicing compassion, the Golden Rule, finding inner peace, faith in humanity, to name a few.

    But even looking just the topics of the posts doesn’t really explain how “Zen Habits” succinctly explains the philosophy of the site, and I can’t do it well enough here. I’d love to have a conversation about it sometime if you like. :)

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, and keep up the good work!

  6. Leo

    Oh, I forgot to mention another point, regarding Will Sargent’s comment on zazen, doing one thing at a time, and focus: that’s really at the core of Zen Habits, and if you read enough of my articles, you can get a feel for that. Do one thing at a time, focus on the present, be in the moment, and take the spirit of zazen and use it in everyday practices.

    See my posts on eating slowly, driving slowly, being present, single-tasking, and being in the moment for just a few examples.

    Thanks for allowing me to clarify!

  7. Leo

    Ah, I apologize for multiple comments, but I just saw your comment about using zen and productivity in the same sentence, and thought I should clarify:

    What I wrote about the title “habits to done” not being cool enough was just a little humor. It doesn’t always come across well.

    But the next sentence in the post should clarify why I called the book “Zen To Done”: It “captures the essential spirit of the new system: that of simplicity, of a focus on doing, in the here and now, instead of on planning and on the system.”

  8. @Stephen | Productivity in Context

    I agree with you. And with Leo. Words can be misused, or they can be used with creativity to convey a larger meaning or impression. I believe that was what you were doing when you used the title “Art of Project Management” for your own book. Using “The Art of…” may be cliche, but a cliche carries a meaning that can transcend the words themselves. That is often why writers “misuse” words, grabbing words from other languages or using them in unusual places – to create metaphors that communicate a new mode of thinking.

  9. Jon

    The selling of Zen has been going on for a while — many recent instances and your gathering of them in one place for emphasis is appreciated. I will link your post to my site and thank you for writing it.

  10. Keith

    Returning to the CSS Zen Garden: what is the point of a Japanese garden? Is it simply a pretty arrangement or rocks and stone? Is it meant to cause you to think about the relationship of its elements? Or does it have no purpose but to exist?

    If you think the second, then you might want to rethink the CSS Zen Garden.

  11. Dave Evans

    Zen – just a word, relax.

  12. Steve

    I kind of like the aggressive removal of preconceptions part of zen that is seems to get ignored a lot. It sometimes seems very different from any idea of inner peace.

    It seems like it’s very important to get a good source though, I first read The gateless gate (might have a referrer, I don’t know how you remove it) but when I see the same koans in other sources, they really lack something.

  13. Scott

    Leo: cool of you to respond here. I’ll definitely take another look.

  14. JKash

    I think Shunryu Suzuki would say it’s not the word that’s being overused, it’s your mind. (lol)

    Scott, Leo and other have it right. In particular: “See my posts on eating slowly, driving slowly, being present, single-tasking, and being in the moment for just a few examples.”

    Mindfulness is everything. I struggle with it everyday.

  15. Jodie

    I realize that this an old post, but if anyone is still paying attention, I would be grateful for some advice. I am starting a blog about approaching grad school and research with a wholistic, take things as they come mindset. The placeholder name has been ZenPhD, but I am dissatisfied with this name because (1) of the reasons you outline here and (2) I am concerned about cultural appropriation. Any ideas about an alternative name?

  16. Jennifer

    Thank you for this post! Like Jodie above I am considering starting a blog with the word “zen” in the title. I would be curious to see your reply to her as I am concerned with using this word for all of the reasons you discuss.

    My blog is going to be about my wellness journey. I had a health crisis and found that western medicine had no answers for me. I began a search to heal myself with all kinds of alternative therapies that eventually led me to acupuncture and a way of looking at my body in a whole new way. Using many Eastern modalities I was able to heal physically through diet and nutrition, however complete healing didn’t come to me until I was able to get my thoughts in order. Through meditation and mindfulness I found clarity and health, dare I say a sort of “zen” that I had never felt before. Which is how the idea for my blog came to me. Oh, and zen just happens to rhyme with Jenn. :-)

    Would love to hear your thoughts.



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