Zenography looks like it should be writing about Zen Buddhism, or a Zen style of writing, or something like that. Which would be what, exactly? I remember happily reading books of Zen poetry from my Dad’s library (acquired in the coursework for his PhD in Religious Studies), but as enjoyable as they were, the point they all made is that studying Zen by studying Zen poetry is like studying astronomy by examining telescopes. I also remember there used to be a travel agency on Spadina Avenue in Toronto that declared itself to be Zen Travel, and I thought, “Oh, you go in, they tell you you’re already where you want to go, and in exchange you give them all you have, which is nothing.”

But no, by Jupiter, zenography is not that. Zenography is different from Zen. Zenography is not like studying telescopes, it’s true – but telescopes will help you with zenography. Because zenography is the study of Jupiter. As in the planet. The big planet. The planet with the eye. A planet that, given the right light, you can even see with your naked eye – though a telescope will help a lot.

By the way, the word Zen – not as in zenography – is the Japanese version of the Sanskrit original dhyana, which means ‘meditation’. Zen is not an idea or a philosophy; it’s a practice of meditation: don’t just do something, sit there. The aim is to achieve enlightenment, a true understanding of the fundamental oneness of everything (here’s a Zen joke: a monk goes up to a hot dog vendor and says “Make me one with everything”) – or, really, the fundamental lack of substance and permanence in everything, but at the same time and inevitably a unity: no two things are really two things. There are two main schools of how to achieve enlightenment. One school focuses on approaching it gradually, sort of like getting halfway there, and halfway there from that, and then half of the remaining way, asymptotically approaching complete insight. The other school focuses on paradoxes as keys for sudden awakening – the famous koans, such as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and “What was your face before your parents were born?”

But, again, this is not that. OK. So why is the study of Jupiter called zenography? Well, if we called the planet by the Greek equivalent, it would be easier to understand. You may remember that the Roman gods were basically rebranded versions of the Greek ones. Ares became Mars. Aphrodite became Venus. And Zeus, the top dog of the gods, the bringer of mirth and hurler of thunderbolts and assaulter of countless women, became Jupiter.

So you might think that the study of Jupiter could be Zeusography. And you’d be on the right track. But in Classical Greek, the combining form of Ζεύς is Ζηνο-, Zéno-, for reasons that would probably make your eyes glaze over. So writing about Zeus – or Jupiter – is zenography, and anything centring on Jupiter is zenocentric, and if there were a magazine all about Jupiter it might be called National Zenographic or something.

This might lead to a couple further questions. One is “Is this related to zenith?” The answer is no. Zenith  traces to Arabic samt, as does azimuth. Another is “What about that Zeno guy?” And the answer to that is… yeah! The ancient Greek thinker we call Zeno was actually Ζήνων, Zénōn, a name derived from Zeus, sort of like how Christian is derived from Christ.

Do you remember what Zeno is famous for? He was a clever thinker and liked his paradoxes, and the best-known one of them is basically that if you’re going somewhere, you first have to get halfway there, and then you have to get half of the rest of the way, and then you have to get half of that, and so on, so that conceptually, you never get all the way there – it’s asymptotic. But of course, in real life, you just defy the paradox and get there. Still, the idea is rather enlightening, isn’t it, by Jupiter? And so we find a connection between Zen and zenography after all… which was perhaps inevitable, as they were never really two different things, more than anything else is.

One response to “zenography

  1. And the semantic connections between Zeus and Jupiter are closer than our orthography would suggest. Both Zeus and Jupiter (with its “declining” forms of Jovis, Jovem, Jove) are cognate – with the root meaning “shining”

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