Zen and Things Called Zen

What is Zen?

I could say, it’s a branch of Buddhism, based on the Chinese shan and introduced in Japan during the 12th century.
I could say, it’s an art of living, bringing tranquility and serenity into the mind.
I could say, it’s writing haiku, going to a tea ceremony and doing Japanese martial arts.

According to Google, Zen has a lot to do with stones.

According to Google, Zen has a lot to do with stones.

I could say a lot more, but it only confirms the clichés. Next to that, I’m too young to understand (for once I admit), and I have only some vague idea of Zen. Fortunately, there are some other people out there who have deeper insight on this matter and have written books about it. For example, Reginald Horace Blyth and his Zen and Zen Classics. Hereby I confess that Blyth is one of my favorite writers on Japanese topics. I like his witty cleverness, his on the same time philosophical but clear writing style and his intertextuality with Western literature. Some quotes:

All kind of people do Zazen for all kinds of reasons. (…) Some people like Zen because it gives them an excuse to be rude. Some whose heads are not good enough to understand philosophy are glad to hear that Zen is against it. Some people like anything mysterious and exotically esoteric. Many people want to live calmly, not bothered with unimportant (or even important) things.

What is Zen? Zen means doing anything perfectly, making mistakes perfectly, being defeated perfectly, hesitating perfectly, having stomach-ache perfectly, doing anything, perfectly or imperfectly, PERFECTLY. What is the meaning of this PERFECTLY? How does it differ from perfectly? PERFECTLY is in the will; perfectly is in the activity.

There are the artistic, the philosophic, the moral, and the poetical approaches to Zen.

Haiku, for example.

yado no haru
nani mo naki koso
nani mo are

In my hut this spring,
there is nothing,
there is everything. (Sodō)

There is nothing, there is everything. So simple can a poem be. So simple can life be. I sense this feeling of meekness or equanimity as an acceptance of how things are. Whether it is the truth or not, that doesn’t matter. It is. And at the same time, it isn’t. So who am I?

The logic of Zen would seem to be this. I am nothing. I have no special wants or wishes, no particular desire for the things of this world. But you want them, and I am you, so I want them,-for you.

Life is the stream, and we drift like fallen leafs upon it, carried by this strength of nature. Do not block the stream by looking back or wanting other things; just live in this moment.

Look for unity, inside and outside yourself. Do not see the forest as trees, do not see yourself as apart from others.


ame arare
yuki ya koori to
otsureba onaji
tanigawa no mizu

Rain, hail and snow,
ice too, are set apart,
but when they fall-
The same water
of the valley stream.

Nevertheless, Blyth states:

The mistake of Zen is its (mystical and scientific) over-emphasis on unity.

To live undisturbed doesn’t mean to get rid of your emotions. As far as we’re human, feelings will always be stuck in our heads. The Zen approach rather encourages us to acknowledge the feelings, in order to find our “true self”. Declaring: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” would be of much greater help than walking furiously up and down because of pent-up rage. Once you see emotions as they are, you can make the choice to not let them affect you.

Only when you neither love nor hate does it appear in all clarity (Hsinhsinming)

So how becoming Zen? The two main methods are sitting meditation (zazen 座禅) and kōan 公安 practice. The last one tests the insight of the pupil. The Zen teacher tries to provoke a spontaneous answer by making a paradoxical or absurd statement/question. Sometimes he beats the bewildered student monk to assure the purity of the answer. The most famous kōan is: “What is the sound of one clapping hand?” Somehow it reminds me of Zeno’s paradoxes. That Zen is paradoxical itself, proves following quote:

Zen is at once irresistibly and unutterably repulsive.

Everything written above was only the introduction for our topic of today. I could have made it shorter, but I believe that Zen, although teaching a simple philosophy, deserves a more extensive explanation. Now, let’s turn to the presentation of Zen in media. When looking through fashion magazines, I often notice things (randomly) called Zen. Is it Zen aesthetics that appeal so much to influence our buying behaviour? Or wait, what exactly are Zen aesthetics?


"Zen tastes like chocolate." Why not.

“Zen tastes like chocolate.” Why not.

Zen makes us realise that, only “what interests is interesting.” (…) Zen is the universal standard of judgement we have all been looking for. Zen is good taste.

Rupert Cox focuses in his book “The Zen Arts” on the culture of aesthetics form in Japan. That is, he only indicates chadō 茶道 (the way of tea), 能 (traditional theatre), shodō 書道 (calligraphy) and budō 武道 (martial arts) as owners of the Zen aesthetics. The outer appearances, referred to with the concepts of wabi 詫び and sabi 寂び, are projected into the mind.

The michi and dō 道 of the of the Zen arts were more preferred to be more well-known as Japanese aesthetic terms, like wabi (poverty) and sabi (rusticity).(…) The assumption is that these aesthetic ideals are transmitted directly, from the physical or material form to the mind (kokoro) and describes as gradual process of psychological change within a linear notion of time. (R. Cox)

Beauty is a subjective matter, and only when I can decide to find true beauty in everything around me, then things become beautiful.

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or in the picture? The Zen view, and the right one, is that beauty exists when and only when I am the picture. Though the picture is a bad one, or even a blank canvas, there is still Zen, if and when I am the canvas, but beauty arises when the canvas has already suffered a sea-change, a universe-change, a Zen-change.

Zen expresses our search of serenity. Up till now, relax exercises, wellness weekends and healing music has never been this popular. After a stressful day arriving at a house like this, should ensure a Zen life:
In my opinion, calling these things Zen is quite eccentric. Apart from the soothing feelings these products should enhance, I don’t see any link with the philosophy itself. We don’t go around saying :”O my god, this soap is so Buddhism!” And what concerns my MP3 player, I don’t get it at all.

Ceci n'est pas Zen. C'est un lecteur MP3.

Ceci n’est pas Zen. C’est un lecteur MP3.


– All quotes, unless stated otherwise, are taken from:
Blyth, Reginald Horace. Zen and Zen Classics. Volume 1, From the Upanishads to Huineng. Tokyo : Mountain Press ; San Francisco : Heian International, 1960.
or: Blyth, Reginald Horace. Zen and Zen Classics. Volume 5, Twenty-five Zen Essays. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press, 1962.

– Cox, Rupert. The Zen Arts: An Anthropological Study of the Culture of Aesthetics Form in Japan. Richmond: Curzon, 2001.


7 thoughts on “Zen and Things Called Zen

  1. I completely agree with you. It is so silly when people tell each other that they are feeling so zen today, or that a product is zen. It happens all the time these days in Belgium.

    • I discovered lately that the hairdresser around the corner also believes “Zen” to be a suiting name for his shop. Now that I was focusing on it because of this post, it’s really amazing how many products and shops in Belgium feature themselves as “Zen”. Did you notice the same thing in Japan?

      • Haha, good question. And the answer is ‘not at all’. As far as I could tell, in Japan, zen is just a meditation technique practiced by buddhist monks. They do, however, have a whole range of specific vocabulary to describe some of the many things that are called ‘zen’ in Belgium. My favourites are wabi sabi, mono no aware and yutakana kokoro.

  2. No one is more of an authority concerning zen than you; that would be the most zen thing to do, to state your take on zen. You did that. I tire of reading unairworthiness views on zen; your take is refreshing.

  3. Pingback: How to Meditate Like a Pro | nippaku

  4. There is no way to translate the traditional characters but deep wisdom

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