Are you zenned out right now? Are you going to zen your living spaces?

Recently I’ve noticed how the word ‘zen’ has come into the modern lexicon to mean something like “chill out ” or “make calm and decluttered”. Whilst it is common for language to ‘borrow words’ from other cultures, I admit to being surprised to find a word which hitherto meant a specific religious or spiritual school being used in such a manner. How do ‘borrowed’ words enter into a new language and morph into a lesser meaning within the space of a generation or two?

Zen  is a Japanese word, stemming from Zen Buddhism.

In Chinese, this character is pronounced chan and the school of Buddhism is known as Chan Buddhism.

looks a bit like  神

which means spirit ( at a lose translation).

The philopsophic and practical aspects of Chan – or Zen – Buddhism are quite complex, involving medative practices,  specific scriptures and ways to enlightenment. Buddhism had spread to China from it’s native India early in the first few centuries A.D., but it wasn’t until a monk called Xuanzang went for a very long walk in the Tang dynasty that it began to enter into the wider Chinese society. Xuanzang walked from Chang’an ( present day Xian), the then capital of China, to India, loaded up 600 odd Sanskrit texts on his 22 ponies and walked back to Chang’an.

He spent years in the Big Goose Pagoda, funded by the Emperor,  translating the scriptures. British film-maker Sun Shiyen, wondering what it was like to walk such a long way, and what difficulties the monk might have faced,  retraced the long journey and wrote about it in Ten Thousand Miles Without a Cloud. To find out how Xuanzang might have felt, read Sun’s book – it describes the journey from a modern day perspective as she ruminates on how the old master might have felt.

You might be familiar with Xuanzhong –

Xuanzang ( the Tang Monk) with Sun Wu Kong, in a movie version of Journey to the West.

he has been fictionalised in the ever-populuar “Journey to the West” books, movies, and spin-offs. In popular fiction, Monk Xuanzang is often overshadowed by Sun Wu Kong, also known as the Monkey King.

Sun Wu Kong with the Tang monk

We digress. Whilst the Tang monk Xuanzang was busy  translating Buddhist scriptures, Buddhism, sinicised, was becoming more popular. The very first Buddhists in China were actually Daoist monks, and the mix of Daoism and Buddhism formed the basis of the meditative school of Chan. ( Some link Chan history to an Indian monk, others suggest this ‘history’ was backwards written – ie developed at a later period to justify it’s ‘antiquity’. Jump forward a few centuries, Chan Buddhism entered Japan after monk Eisai, dissatisfied with Buddhism as it currently existed, visited China and brought back Chan Buddhist theory and green tea seeds.

Chan  – 禅 – became zen  – 禅 – in Japan and the tea seeds Eisai brought back developed into Japanese tea culture. Linguistically, at the time of Eisai’s trip, the Chinese word 禅 was pronounced more like djen  –  and became zen in Japan.

Zen Buddhism entered western culture in the early 1900’s via a twofold process – D T Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism was published in London in the 1920s, whilst at a similar time a Japanese Zen teacher moved to the United States to teach zen meditation. Decades later, returning soldiers from World War 2, the Korean war and the war in Vietnam brought an interest in Asian culture and the beginnings of the growth of Buddhism. Another Japanese teacher surnamed Suzuki arrived in the USA in the 1960s, and interest in Buddhism spread.

A new Zen sect called Sanbo Kyodan (Three Treasures Religious Organisation in Japanese) was formed in 1954, and it ‘welcomed non-Asian practioners’. American followers of this sect then started their own schools, which were tainted by “charismatic authority“. ( Some charismatic leaders were found guilty of abuse).

Zen, in Western thought and practice, had strayed far from it’s Japanese origins, which in turn came directly from China. Buddhism from India merged with Daoism from China to form Chan,  which migrated to Japan in the 12th century to become Zen.

With such a long history covering centuries of religious and spiritual practice in the East, “zen” entered the West and in less than a century lost much of its spiritual heritage till it entered into the lexion as nothing more than another word that meant “to chill out”.

Can philosophies and spiritual traditions which are firmly linked in one culture be understood in other cultures? Are the West and the East really so dissimilar? How can we be informed by other culture’s  ideas, philosophies and spiritual practices and remain respectful of them?

Now that the word zen  appears to have entered the English language, devoid of its origins and spiritual meanings, can it ever regain those associations?

The Monkey King and the Tang Monk were in Zhouzhang, Jiangsu, when I photographed them. References for information found in this post can be found by clicking on the links in grey font throughout the text.