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The true meaning of Zen

Zen is the flavour of our times. In everything from cooking and audio equipment to gardening and interior decorating, “Zen” epitomises the essence of style. We arrange pillows on a sofa, furniture in a bare room, food on a plate — then call it Zen. There are Zen beauty salons and bookstores, Zen designer clothes, Zen lounge suites.

“Zen” has even become a brand name: Singapore-based Creative Technology has registered the word “Zen” as a trademark for its range of digital entertainment products, most notably the Creative Zen MP3 player, claiming that “when you listen to our players, you are in your very own world of Zen”.

What’s going on here? How did one of the world’s oldest religions become whittled down to an aesthetic that has infiltrated our homes and gardens, our very lives?

According to Zen teacher and psychologist Geoff Dawson, one of the founders of Zen Buddhism in Australia, it has a lot to do with the word. “‘Zen’ is a very powerful word,” he says. “It evokes something which is Eastern, mysterious, simple, elegant, cool. It’s not surprising that it’s become an advertising tool.”

Behind the word, of course, is the look. “What I think people are referring to [when they say something is Zen] is aesthetics — a space or a room, a way of dressing, a way of presenting yourself that has some of the characteristics of spaciousness and simplicity, with perhaps one aesthetically pleasing object like a flower setting it off. It has a beauty and a simplicity in its unclutteredness,” says Dawson.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon, but it does seem to be gaining momentum. Writer, filmmaker and Zen teacher Gillian Coote, who teaches at Sydney Zen Centre, has been watching with interest Zen’s journey through the mainstream press over the past 20 years: “I started noticing the word creeping in in the mid 80s but it seems to be gathering pace. Similarly, in the 80s, you’d see very flash interior magazines that might have a beautiful Buddha head, probably an antique from Angkor, in a room. Now, every second Women’s Weekly has them. It’s all become more mainstream.”

The way we use the word is also changing, says Coote. Not content to use it as an adjective to describe our Zen kitchens and cosmetics, even our friends (“He’s so Zen”), we’re now using it as a verb: “I’ve heard people say, ‘I’m going to Zen my bedroom’ and I say to them, ‘Wow! What does that mean?’ ‘Oh, it means I’m going to completely tidy it up and throw out everything extraneous and make it absolutely Zen.’ Perhaps they’re looking for the Japanese garden effect, that marvellous emptiness with a few things; it’s spare, austere and rigorous.”

Zen is finding its way into the English language in other ways, too. When British combat photographer Tim Page, who made his name shooting the Vietnam War and became the inspiration for Dennis Hopper’s character in Apocalypse Now, described his technique in a recent Sydney Morning Herald interview, he said, “There is a magic Zen moment as you touch the shutter. You instantly know you have the frame or you haven’t got the frame.”


Less is more

Why does the simplicity that originated in Japanese Zen temples — raked gardens, empty meditation rooms, inspired brushstrokes on a white sheet of paper — have such a hold on Western culture? One reason for its widespread appeal, says Gillian Coote, is that Zen’s minimalism feels like an antidote to consumer-driven lives: “We’re overwhelmed with stuff, we drown in stuff, everybody’s got too much of everything and we keep buying more, but the ideal is to have minimalism.

“There’s this idea that if you were a really cool person, you’d live in this extraordinary, spare, austere, uncluttered kind of space, without a speck of dust and no newspapers lying around. Of course, it’s harder to live like that in our culture than if you’re a monk in Japan, because the whole point of this culture is that it’s an invitation to buy, buy, buy — particularly in the United States, where all our trends come from. So there’s something very idealistic and wishful about putting Zen into everything.”

Going beyond aesthetics, the appeal of Zen might also have something to do with the fact that it can be iconoclastic and irreverent — qualities that resonate with the questioning, often sceptical Western mind, though often for the wrong reasons, according to Geoff Dawson. “There are all these stories about the monk warming his bum by the fire by burning a statue of the Buddha. So Zen appeals to people because of its humour and irreverence, but a Western mind, especially a Western hippie mind or angry young radical mind, can pick that up as being anti-establishment, deconstructing everything, and that’s a misunderstanding because Zen is Buddhism. All the stories about challenging Buddhist ideas and concepts are in the service of deepening Buddhism and waking up and developing compassion and wisdom. It’s not just about being a rebel without a cause.”

Secularising Zen — taking what we want (the aesthetics) and discarding what we don’t (its Buddhist elements) — is missing the point. Zen teacher Susan Murphy admits she’s “a little troubled by the spiritual buffet approach where you take a bit of Zen style and plonk a Buddha somewhere. You might feel that you’ve purchased a little peace or serenity but, of course, that’s a deep delusion.”

Rev. Lynn “Jnana” Sipe, Zen teacher at the International Buddhist Meditation Centre in Los Angeles, agrees: “Popular culture’s embrace of Zen is a mile wide but only inches deep.” But what are we missing, exactly? Where does popular Zen end and genuine Zen practice begin? To find out, we need to go down the rabbit hole to where Zen Buddhism began.


Zen + Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is a school of Buddhism that originated in India, where it was called “dhyana”, a Sanskrit word meaning “meditation” (hence the emphasis on meditation in Zen practice). Around 520 CE, Bodhidharma, an Indian Buddhist monk and meditation master known as the father of Zen Buddhism, took this form of Buddhism into China, where it became known as Ch’an Buddhism.

When Ch’an crossed the Japan Sea to take up residence in Japan in the 12th century, the Japanese pronounced it “Zen” and made it their own by blending elements of Taoism, a nature-based religion popular in Japan at the time (hence Zen’s affinity with nature and simplicity), and applying it to artistic practices such as calligraphy, tea ceremony, architecture, haiku and painting.

Two teachers were instrumental in developing Zen Buddhism in Japan. One was the monk Eisai, who founded the Rinzai School of Zen. Rinzai Zen emphasised koans (stories or questions that seem outside the bounds of logic, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”) as a means to awakening.

The other teacher was Dogen, founder of the Soto School of Zen, who de-emphasised koans in favour of sitting meditation (zazen). Most Zen centres in North America and Australia derive from the Soto School, although both schools now study koans and practise zazen. As Dogen saw it, meditation is the way to realise one’s buddhanature (true nature), become less self-centred and thereby wake up to the wonder of life. His famous quote says it all: “To study Buddhism is to study the self; to study the self is to forget the self; to forget the self is to be confirmed by the ten thousand things.”


Japanese story

Whispers of Zen Buddhism began reaching Western ears in the 1930s but first came an interest in Japanese art and culture, which helps explain today’s interest in Zen aesthetics to the exclusion of Zen Buddhism. In fact, much of what we now regard as Zen style is actually Japanese style dressed up as Zen.

After centuries of isolationism, Japan was officially opened to the rest of the world by the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa between Japan and the US. Suddenly, Japanese woodblock prints, as well as kimonos, fans and antiques, were seen all over Europe, especially Paris, in the late 1800s. Many of the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists of the time, including Vincent van Gogh and Monet, developed a passion for Japanese woodblocks. A French art critic even coined the term “Japonisme” to describe the craze for all things Japanese.

While Japanese art and artefacts were flooding into the West, artists and architects began visiting Japan for inspiration. One of them was American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who first went to Japan in 1905 and became an avid collector of Japanese woodblock prints. Contemporary architecture actually owes much to his interest in Japan, as Sydney architect Tony Coote explains: “The clean lines and horizontality [Frank Lloyd Wright] noticed in Japan still have an enormous influence on modern architecture. For instance, the latest fashion for having walls that open right up — that’s straight out of Japanese temples with the sliding screens … [and] that whole tradition in America of the California bungalow is almost a direct copy of Japanese domestic architecture.”

Just to confuse matters, the Japanese/Zen concept of “wabi-sabi” is now gaining currency in the West; it has even been called the “new” feng shui. In contrast to the sleek, high-tech promise we usually associate with Zen style, wabi-sabi offers a more natural, worn and comfortable aesthetic — think natural fibres and hues, a cracked pot that’s been mended many times, a roughly hewn wooden stool that has darkened with age.

As San Francisco-based artist, architect and writer Leonard Koren explains in his book Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (1994), “Wabi-sabi is the most conspicuous and characteristic feature of what we think of as traditional Japanese beauty … Wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is the beauty of things modest and humble … The concepts of wabi-sabi correlate with the concepts of Zen Buddhism, as the first Japanese involved with wabi-sabi were tea masters, priests, and monks who practised Zen.”

Its imperfection seems far from Western ideals of Zen perfection, says Zen teacher Susan Murphy, who is also a writer and filmmaker. “Sometimes, the very best Japanese craftsmen who do the finishing work in temples, when they’ve done effectively perfect work, they go to a dark corner of the room and deliberately mark or make a chip in the skirting board. Because the perfection was oppressive — it didn’t have human-beingness. Let me put it this way: the Chinese character for ‘mistake’ is the same as for ‘miracle’. It would be a terrible mistake to miss that.”


How the West was won

Once Japanese aesthetics began seeping into our culture, our vocabulary and our homes, the stage was set for Zen Buddhism to make its entrance. Japanese scholar D.T. Suzuki is widely credited with introducing Zen to the West through his writing and translations of Zen texts. He also did a lecture tour of the US in 1951 and taught at New York’s Columbia University from 1952 to 1957.

Around the same time, the world got its first “Zen in/and the art of” book: the classic Zen in the Art of Archery. Written in 1953 by Eugen Herrigel, a German philosopher who lived in Japan for several years and studied kyudo (Japanese archery), it was one of the first books to introduce Zen to westerners. Herrigel used his lessons in Japanese archery as a vehicle for espousing Zen Buddhist concepts. For instance: “The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him. This state of unconscious is realised only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.”

Other Zen-inspired books followed, including The Dharma Bums (1958) by Jack Kerouac, loosely based on friend and poet Gary Snyder’s experiences at Zen monasteries in Japan. But it was Robert Pirsig, author of the wildly popular Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, first published in 1974, who picked up the ball and ran with it. Although Pirsig was a student at Minnesota Zen Centre when he wrote it, his contemplative novel about crossing America on a motorbike wasn’t actually about Zen and he once said that, despite its title, his book should “in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice”.

But it was too late for that. Whether Pirsig liked it or not, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ignited something in Western consciousness. Zen had become cool.

Zen was embraced by the hippie culture of the 60s and 70s, but it was already diverging from traditional Zen. According to Geoff Dawson, who began studying and practising Zen in 1975 in Australia and Hawaii, “a ‘trendy’ Zen developed in the West because a lot of the first books on Zen emphasised satori [a sudden awakening] or enlightenment — there was very little about practice or long hours of meditation. The impression was taken (perhaps not given) that Zen is a way to instant enlightenment, and of course that fits with the Western narcissistic ideal of instant gratification, instant grandiosity, too.”


The real thing

Zen has travelled a long way from its 12th-century origins in Japan, perhaps too far. As Geoff Dawson says, “Beautiful as Zen aesthetics might be — like a Zen temple which is there to evoke a feeling of simplicity and unclutteredness — the aesthetic experience outside is a poor substitute for a change in mind that occurs through practice.”

So what is genuine Zen really about? At the risk of oversimplifying things (or not being simple enough), at the heart of all Zen practice is an aspiration to wake up — to life and to our own habits of thinking — and to free ourselves from the delusions that keep us locked in a cage of self-centredness. It’s grounded in meditation — specifically sitting meditation called zazen, sometimes combined with koan practice — but instead of transcending everyday life or discovering an everlasting Zen calm that will shield you from life’s ups and downs, it’s about developing a sense of intimacy and connection with life, including its difficulties and including ourselves.

Susan Murphy writes in her book Upside Down Zen: “Zen is the practice of agreeing to live with a mind and self as alive and fluid as breathing itself: accepting the offer of each moment, yielding to the passing of each moment.”

There are teachings on “emptiness” and “beginner’s mind” as well as Buddhist ethics, compassion, humility and wisdom. But, as Geoff Dawson explains, Zen practice is ultimately a way of life: “It’s all about living in the here and now. But you can live in the here and now in a very self-centred way, or you can live in the here and now in a very compassionate, unselfish way. True Zen is definitely the latter. Zen is not a philosophy and it’s not an explanation for life — it’s a way of life, and without meditation practice, you’re still living in your head, thinking Zen thoughts.”

Above all, Zen is simple and direct. It invites us to let go of all we know and think we know, about everything, including Zen, to better appreciate this precious life. As the late Shunryu Suzuki, who founded San Francisco Zen Centre in 1962, wrote in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “Zen is not some fancy, special art of living. Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense.”


Louise Southerden is a Zen student with Ordinary Mind Zen School, Sydney (; Geoff Dawson is her Zen teacher. Gillian Coote is a resident Zen teacher at the Sydney Zen Centre (; her husband Tony Coote is an architect ( Susan Murphy is the author of Upside Down Zen (published by Lothian Books, 2004; to be republished by Wisdom Books later this year) and a Zen teacher at Zen Open Circle (; Susan also teaches in Melbourne and Northern California.


Louise Southerden

Louise Southerden

Louise Southerden is an award-winning travel writer and photographer based in northern NSW who has a passion for sustainable, simple living, at home and away. She’s happiest outdoors, preferably in water (she loves swimming and surfing).

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