Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Zen and the Art of Poor Word Choice

Found my way to this USA Today article (not my regular news source, I swear) about Donna Karan's new grant to Beth Israel hospital to provide cancer patients with:
 'integrative therapists,' [that] teach easy yoga poses and breathing techniques, most of which are done in bed and are designed to help ease patient discomfort from surgeries, treatments and anxiety. They also offer patients meditative tapes during treatments, help them access all levels of care and reach out to family members.
Now I think this is a great idea and very admirable.  A local teacher named Susan Ginsberg is doing a similar thing - albeit on a more modest scale - here on the North Shore.  What spurred this blog post is Karan's name for her project: the Urban Zen Initiative.

Now I put on my cranky old man hat.  Zen is a school of Buddhism, and the word basically means "meditation".  By what stretch of the imagination is Donna Karan's undertaking - noble as it may be - a "Zen initiative"?   Does it involve Buddhists?  No, it's mostly yoga teachers.  Does it emphasize seated meditation and direct insight into the nature of things?  No. As far as I can tell, the only connection to Zen is the aesthetic of the website.

This misuse of the word "Zen" is just one drop in a sea of linguistic misappropriation currently washing through our consumer culture.  Seeking to add a tint of spiritual appeal to their products, a sense of calm and Eastern cool, marketers add the word Zen to bath soap, mp3 players, kitchen appliances, spa treatments, etc.   I have a profound respect for Zen practice, and part of me takes offense at the ignorant misuse of the term.  I doubt Donna Karan would think to name her non-Christian project the "Urban Christ Initiative".

Perhaps it all began with "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", an insightful book only tangentially related to real Zen practice.  Now publishers shamelessly use the template of "Zen and the Art of" for any conceivable undertaking: whittling, information security, competitive eating.

But from the perspective of Zen philosophy, it is in some ways very fitting that the word "Zen" should be so distorted.  Zen is very suspicious of language, the way words seem to be transparently meaningful yet in fact contain irreducible uncertainty (predating the postmodern interrogations of Derrida et al by many centuries).  Zen warns against getting trapped in the idea of "being a Zen practitioner", which builds the ego and leads to complacency.  So perhaps it is for the best that the word "Zen" be thoroughly drained of exotic meaning, so we can get on with the experience of Zen.

PS - For a true example of a Zen initiative, consider the National Buddhist Prison Sangha.

PPS - A good use of the word Zen: describing Obama.

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