Posts Tagged ‘zen’

Right now I am editing a book of Chinese Buddhist Literature, and as such am chin-deep in Chinese Buddhist lore. I find the stuff immensely fascinating. I think that some Buddhists are much too quick to poo-poo the “cultural” elements of Buddhism. A religion is far more than its scriptural teachings: it is the teachings as read and practiced by its adherents. Buddhism is found in its aesthetics just as much as its orthodoxy.*

That being said, the one thing that shakes me is that, time and time again, it seems like the way to know that a given figure is enlightened, the way to know that they’ve really got it figured out, is when they don’t act anything like one would think an enlightened person would or should behave.

It makes so little sense, but, coincidentally, that seems to be the very thing that such a trope is least interested in making. The concept of the enlightened person as the antithesis of an enlightened person assumes that this latter ideal, the standard and agreed upon garden-variety, halo-wielding enlightened being exists.


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Zen in the Economist

I was reading the Economist’s Gulliver blog, when I came across this line: “EXTRA fees get under the skin of all but the most zen travellers.” It looks as though the new sense of Zen isn’t just an American phenomenon. Of course, not all writers for the Economist are British, so perhaps it’s some New Yorker contributing here. This usage of Zen seems to mean ‘dispassionate’ or ‘detached’, as used in many other contexts.


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More “Zen” in the News

Yesterday the New York Times Carpetbagger blog put up a post with Zen the adjective: L.A. Dispatch: A Moment of Zen. Rev. Danny Fischer has previously kvetched about the implacable writers who use the word Zen in pop-culture because it doesn’t cling to its etymological roots. As I mentioned before, this pop-use of Zen is a little different from the use of Zen as a noun. Anyone who reads this is probably well-aware of this by now, but as for me, I have only just started to realize that this adjectival sense of Zen runs along the lines of “cool”, “dispassionate” or “untroubled”. Somehow, I’m perfectly fine with this. But then again, I don’t identify myself as a Zen practitioner. I haven’t yet scanned anything that the Buddhist language police’s written about this headline, as I’d seen over a similar gripe regarding a New York Times article was that mentioned the Zen Obama. I guess they’ve gotten it out of their system!

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I just read Rev. Danny Fisher’s brilliantly titled piece Zen and the Art of Using the Word “Zen”.Dhyana It’s a good talk about something known in the linguistic sciences as semantic drift, or more simply, changes in a word’s meanings. The specific issue here is the word Zen, originally from Sanskrit dhyana, and it’s (mis)use in respectable mainstream publications like the New York Times. When a Buddhist word is used in a non-Buddhist context, should we be insulted?


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It; The Shobogenzo

Recently, I have found myself doing something that I had hoped for but had never thought possible: reading the Shobogenzo and loving it.

Let me explain. I have a long standing difficulty with koans because they are commonly [and perhaps unfairly] characterized as having an alien logic all their own, designed to allow those who consider them to escape their wordly views which are immersed in duality and come to the realization of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all that is and ever will be and thus gain all kinds of groovy zen powers…


I’m sure that much of this is true, but what I find unhelpful is English translations that play up grammatical ambiguities in Chinese and Japanese for overflowing obtuseness and maximum mysticality. While these problems are assuredly reduced by a good student-teacher relationship, a parable that cannot be understood doesn’t have a whole lot of value.

To explain: on one occasion I stopped inside a Tower Records which was going out of business and, while passing the vastly marked down book section, found a modest collection of Buddhist books. I picked up a translation of the Chinese Shobogenzo, a collection of koans collected by Dogen, founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. Though this translation featured some ambiguity, the translator’s original commentary attempted to resolve these by layering on further flowery confusion. Consider this excerpt from the commentary on the much cited koan “Juzhi holds up one finger:”

“…Although the boy lost a finger, he gained his nostils. Don’t you see? The truth of Juzhi’s teachings is not to be found in the finger. This being the case, you tell me, if the truth is not in the finger, then where is it?”

I’m not sure, but this editor has decided not to include anything so silly as the answer in his commentary.

So such has been the case with me and koans, and my experience with the Shobogenzo. That is why Shasta Abbey’s Rev. Hubert Nearman’s translation of the Shobogenzo has been such a delight.

The Reverend’s translation is thoughtful, analytical, and helpful. When linguistic ambiguities are resolved, they are done so consistently, providing an overarching reading designed to develop understanding. The Reverend also takes care to tell you what it is he is resolving, so you can revisit those ambiguities on your own if you like.

It has been a great joy to read, and I hope to mention it more as I continue onward. I would recommend the translator’s introduction to anyone interested in truth and good writing from any walk of life with variable leanings towards the Dharma.

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