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First Person: Zen and the art of misrepresenting a spiritual practice

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

By Caroline Abels

The Buddha probably wouldn't drive an Infiniti Q45. And he probably wouldn't stay in the snazzy W Times Square hotel in New York, which boasts a sleek style the Buddha might dig but charges up to $459 a night. I also wonder whether he'd hang out with Jim Carrey. Or play the bass like Ray Brown. And would he consider cat litter an embodiment of the religion he inspired?

   Caroline Abels is the Post-Gazette's cultural arts writer (cabels@post-gazette.com). She practices Zen with Stillpoint, a group based in Lawrenceville. 

I wonder about these things (smiling as widely as those ubiquitous little Buddha statues) because the Q45, the W Times Square, Jim Carrey, Ray Brown and cat litter have all been described in newspaper articles as "Zen-like" -- similar to the sect of Buddhism that encourages mindfulness through silent meditation.

(You're curious about the cat litter reference, aren't you? In a Santa Fe New Mexican article about pets and cold weather, the writer described some cats who "marred the Zen-like surface of the cat litter.")

You don't have to attend Harvard Divinity School to understand what these journalists were trying to say. They rightly assumed that in popular American parlance, the word "Zen" has come to mean one of the following:

a) calm

b) intense

c) observant

d) sparse

e) Asian

f) zoned out

And so Zen has been used to describe fly-fishing, playing Ms. Pac-Man, parachuting, using bubble bath, searching for wild mushrooms and doing the tango.

The question is, can these activities be used to describe Zen?

If they did -- if fly-fishing and the tango and lying in the tub reflected the Zen way -- it would be a fun and soothing spiritual practice that would do nothing more than help people relax, withdraw from society and chill out, all the while shrouding them in funky Asian aesthetics. It would be easy. It would be popular. It would be smooth sailing.

But if you talk to people who work day in, day out, trying to master the rigors of Zen meditation, they would tell you about the struggles and challenges related to a practice that, although deeply rewarding, is one of the most difficult of activities.

For one, sitting in silent meditation taxes the body. Americans, not raised in a floor-sitting culture, find it tough to sit cross-legged on a mat, with a straight back, focusing on their breath while attempting to let go of the random thoughts that come into their mind. Although sitting in a chair is accepted by most American Zen groups, most people persevere on the floor to use moderate pain as a tool for greater awareness of each moment.

It's nothing like sitting in a bubble bath, drinking herb tea or using other spa products that incorporate "Zen" into their marketing.

Meditating also reveals a torrent of thoughts that can be startling. Because Zen practice is meant to bring awareness to the chaos of the mind (so that we can understand how thoughts create suffering), beginning students are often stunned by the junk that bubbles up in their head when they sit in complete silence for half an hour. It takes courage to face all that junk, which may be why committed Zen practitioners are not as numerous as the pop culture references would lead us to believe.

Zen also leads its most ardent students to feel a deeper connection with others and with the natural world. Such a connection is developed, paradoxically, by detaching from the mind in meditation. But that detachment is often mistaken for cool indifference. In reality, Zen practitioners are some of the most socially engaged people you'll find.

It's understandable why Zen is used to describe the peaceful and the ethereal. One does develop a sense of inner calm after practicing regularly, and one is often able to remain composed in difficult situations. I therefore wouldn't fault the use of the word Zen to describe certain people or situations. In fact, by using the word, Americans in the 21st century might be saying a lot about themselves.

"There's a deep longing for peace in people's lives," says the Rev. Kyoki Roberts, head priest of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh. "So when they want to refer to that somehow, they're going to use the word Zen."

Too often, however, the reference is only to the shallow experience of the practice.

Perhaps we can thank Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg for that. They introduced America to Zen in the 1950s, but many of them mistook the Zen teaching of accepting each moment as it is for a license to justify libertine behavior. In fact, an authentic Zen life is a strongly disciplined life.

In 1973, the word gained further exposure from Robert Pirsig's popular book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," a re-examination of Western philosophical tenets. Now we see "Zen and the Art of Making a Living," "Zen and the Art of Stand-up Comedy," and "Zen and the Art of Diabetes Maintenance." But these books, oddly enough, have little to do with Zen.

As a journalist who has often been frantic to come up with the right word on deadline, I don't blame writers for choosing a catchy Zen phrase that has widespread understanding. Maybe use of the word is helping to create acceptance of Zen and even spur some readers to try it for themselves.

But as a Zen practitioner, I'd prefer it if the public weren't led to assume that this sect of Buddhism is breezy and fun, when in reality it can be the most difficult -- but inspiring -- work there is.

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