Hip to be Zen
January 27, 2010
A Stonehill Alumni Magazine interview with Religious Studies Professor Chris Ives, author of the new book "Imperial Way Zen."
Many people imagine Zen- a strand of Buddhism- as a loose collection of poets, hermits and eccentrics, playfully free from conventional morality.
While these representations may hold sway in the popular imagination, history presents a different picture. Zen leaders, for example, displayed zealous nationalism in Japan during World War II, and in his recent book, Imperial-Way Zen, Professor of Religious Studies Christopher Ives (above) explores the ethical issues around this historical record.
Today, Zen has become a popular notion- even a buzzword- in the Western world to describe cleaning products, spa packages and home accessories. SAM asked Ives to clarify some of the common, more mainstream conceptions of Zen.
SAM: Why has the idea of Zen become increasingly popular to Westerners?
Ives: In the 1960s, many people who had been brought up in Christian and Jewish traditions found themselves disenchanted with those religions and turned to Zen and other Asian religions as an alternative. They were looking for a religious path that emphasized meditation, mystical experience, closeness to nature and egalitarian forms of community.
Ironically, though some Zen temples that have been founded since the 1960s do indeed emphasize these things, traditional Zen has featured the kind of formality, ritualism, authoritarianism and institutional conservatism that those seekers ascribed t Christianity and Judaism.
SAM: What is the connection between Zen and the natural world?
Ives: In addition to the prominence of natural images and symbolism in its poetry and painting, Zen revolves around a set of doctrines and practices that subvert human estrangement from nature and the domination of nature.
For example, Zen calls into question the dualism between self and nature and offers meditative disciplines that foster a realization of how thoroughly embedded we are in nature. Zen teaches that we are one form of nature, living and dying in interrelationship with other things and dependent on many of them for our healthy existence.
SAM: Zen is a concept that is used in product marketing as well as an adjective to describe elements of design and landscaping. Would Zen principles support this type of common use?
Ives: In some cases, the term "Zen" has been used as an adjective in novel ways that at least seem partly congruent with the religion's doctrines or aesthetic. For example, when people use the term to describe natural or minimalist décor.
In other cases, people use "Zen" in ways that stretch its meaning beyond anything related to the religion, turning it into a hip signifier that has little specific meaning beyond its exotic cachet. With Zen's traditional value system emphasizing simplicity, nonattachment and relinquishment of selfish desire, it is ironic how Zen has been used to market goods that satisfy certain artificial, consumerist "wants" as opposed to basic human needs.
This piece appeared in the Stonehill Alumni Magazine Summer/Fall 2009 issue.
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