Tag Archives: zen


On the right side of my bookshelf, around where I keep a lot of my camera stuff, I have a section of books on Buddhism and related topics.

That photo is quite yellow. The shelf is lit by halogen lights and Christmas tree bulbs. It looks normal enough in person (well, a bit dark) because my mind adjusts to the colour. But the camera takes it and then we see the picture in a different context and we see the colour imbalance. So I reset the balance on the camera using a blank white sheet of paper – actually the back of an airline boarding pass that I have sitting around.

It’s not that that is perfectly neutral white balance. It’s just that it more closely matches our default bias. There is no such thing as unbiased, perfectly balanced colour, any more than there is such a thing as accent-free speech or an unbiased opinion. There is no neutral act of seeing. You just have to know what balance you want, acknowledge it, balance yourself according to it, just as you have to focus on what you focus on and choose what to have in the frame and outside the frame.

There’s one word that shows up a few times on the spines of those books. I could pull out any of them and feature it. I’ll pull this book out because I want to. I found it quite by chance in some used book occasion. It’s a book from 1960, although the first blank page has “January 1965” handwritten in fountain pen diagonally across the lower right corner. The pages are yellowing and smell of the gradual decay of tree-pulp paper and a bit of the basement it must have sat in for many years.

Here is the back cover.

That is the author. Does he look familiar? Here is his dedication.

The author was a motion picture actor. If you recognize him, it’s probably from The Bridge on the River Kwai. He played the Japanese Colonel. His name is Sessue Hayakawa. Actually, Sessue is a name he took when he started acting in movies; his given name – given at his birth in 1889 – was Kintaro.

Here is the front cover.

It’s his autobiography. The title kind of gives away the ending, doesn’t it? But it’s how he gets there that is of interest. He came from a noble Japanese family. He was all set for a career in the navy when, in a reckless diving misadventure, he burst his eardrum and was rendered unfit. He decided that he had dishonoured his family, and he resolved to do the honourable thing.

He in fact did commit seppuku, also known as hara-kiri (not hari-kari!). But he did not die. He didn’t have anyone to cut his head off at the end. So he was hospitalized with very substantial injury to his lower abdomen.

How do you follow up an act like that? With a visit to a Zen Buddhist priest. Followed by a lot of meditation. And then a career as an actor and more meditation and, well, this book.

I have several books on Zen. I have read much about it. Which is like shouting much about silence.

Whatever you think Zen is, it’s not. I can’t tell you just what it is. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that I am not a Zen master. I have meditated various ways at various times, including with Zen Buddhists, although in recent years my only meditation has been running, which doesn’t quite count. But I have no experience of enlightenment in the Zen Buddhist sense. I think I can see the shadow of a corner of it, maybe. I’m probably wrong.

The second is that you can’t explain silence with shouting.

I can tell you what Zen is. It’s a school of Buddhism, best known in its Japanese version although it also exists in China. Zen is the Japanese rendition of the word禅, which in Mandarin Chinese is chan. The full forms are zenna and chánnà. They come from Sanskrit ध्यान (dhyāna). Which means ‘meditation’.

Zen is meditation. In the plainest sense, that is what Zen is. To quote Sylvia Boorstein, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”

In some schools of Zen, that is it. You focus your mind, you watch the thoughts arise and pass by like clouds in the sky, you taste existence. In others, you strive to break your mind free from the ruts it travels in by meditating on paradoxical ideas.

In the end, you learn that you and the things around you are not many, not two. You come to recognize your position, your bias, your perspective, your focus, your frame. You learn that nothing has permanent existence, everything is changing, and what exactly is this “everything” and what exactly is this “changing” and what exactly is this “is” and what exactly is “what exactly” and

As in all Buddhism, the aim is non-attachment. I have some ideas about what is and is not non-attachment, but I’m not, you know, attached to them. Some people interpret non-attachment as meaning eschewing things of the world, but it seems to me that rejection is no more equanimitous than craving. Enjoying while it’s there and letting go when it’s not seem the best options. Fine words, of course, and badly self-incriminating, as witness the two thousand books I can’t bear to get rid of. Fortunately, like all fine words, they will eventually be forgotten.

The simplicity of Zen spills over into an aesthetic associated with it. But Zen gardens are not Zen any more than bedrooms are sleep.

I would like to eschew all marketing and branding that uses the word Zen. Putting Zen on commercial products is like putting vegan on roast prime rib.

I do remember fondly, though, one business in Toronto, no longer there I think – I used to see their sign in an upper window on Spadina: Zen Travel. I liked that. I imagined a place where you go in and they tell you that you are already where you want to be; you just have to realize it. But it’s how you get there that is of interest. In exchange, you pay them all you have, which is nothing.

But perhaps you will get a boarding pass. Which you can use in place of a blank sheet of paper to set your white balance.


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.