Daily Archives: July 9, 2009


This is one of the most overused and persistently misused words in English marketing today. It is typically used to evoke some balanced or focused state of mind, or anyway something to do with enlightenment or bamboo or all that Asian stuff that’s, you know, so wise and calming and all that. The sound of one hand clapping, you know? Hm. How about the sound of one finger raising, specifically the middle one. Given that Zen Buddhism teaches you to eschew attachments, anyone who uses zen to sell anything has already earned a nice, fat fail.

But it is a calming word, isn’t it? That buzz at the start and the sonorous [n] at the end, and the [E] neither broad and brassy like an [a] nor high and tight and sharp like an [i], yet forthright and bright rather than withdrawn and hollow like an [o]. The lips need not move at all; the tongue is resting, with the tip doing all the work, caressing and touching the alveolar ridge. Hours of om could tire your lip muscles, but hours of zen would be no problem – and hours of zen would be even less so, as one does not recite a mantra out loud in zazen.

In what? Zazen is the sitting meditation of zen. In fact, that’s what zazen means: “sitting meditation.” Zen is “meditation,” Japanese, from the Chinese chan (written in Japanese kanji with the same character as used in Chinese), which is turn is taken from Sanskrit dhyana, “meditation.” Yes, this stereotypically mystical Eastern word is a loan from an Indo-European language, mutatis mutandis.

But of course zen is not generally used to refer to meditation specifically. In fact, it’s usually treated as a proper noun when it’s not being used to sell beauty treatments and sports equipment; Zen Buddhism is a sect of Buddhism that focuses on achieving enlightenment through meditation. There are several schools of Zen Buddhism, the two most important being Rinzai, which focuses on meditating on puzzles meant to push the mind towards a sudden attainment of enlightenment, and Soto, which focuses on simple breath meditation and gradual enlightenment.

But this is not a religious studies tasting note. This is a taste of a bit of verbal sushi – a neatly constructed little word that gives a delicate flavour. This set of letters shows up in words such as frozen and mizzen, but those words don’t start with z and they don’t give full value to the vowel – it’s reduced to a schwa. For them, the zen is a buzz, something less than pleasant, whereas when you start with the z you get something exotic, and the associations of this word keep it calming.

And then there’s the sight of it in all capitals: ZEN. Nothing but angles, so sharp. But there’s more: the ending letter, N, is the starting letter turned 90 degrees counterclockwise. Turn your paper 90 degrees clockwise and start the word again. Do this again, and then turn it one more time and you have just the E to make a square. And you have come back to where you started and realized the difference between end and beginning was just a matter of turning your head.