Zen Is Not A Perfume

When Jan Chozen Bays noticed purveyors of commercial products appropriating the word “Zen,” she responded with an open letter published in the Fall 2002 Buddhadharma.

By Jan Chozen Bays

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

As someone who has practiced Zen for thirty years and is called a Zen master by some, I know I should have mastered allowing irritation to arise but not persist. But I haven’t. There’s one thing that really makes me crabby. It is the way the label “Zen” is plastered on anything anyone wants to sell, from perfume to computers.

The point of Zen practice is not to sell anything or anyone. It is not a name for a product. Enlightenment is not something to acquire. It is a process, lifelong—or lifetimes long. It is very hard and very rewarding work.

Zen is not a perfume. The point of Zen is not to cover up the stink of the sweating, striving self. The point of Zen is to put the entire mass of self-centered, self-serving strategies on a funeral pyre, strike a match and burn it down to clean ash. That ash serves as wholesome fertilizer for whatever life arises next, whether cabbage or king.

Does the name Zen really apply to what you are trying to sell or how you sell it?

I hereby ask all those who slap the label “Zen” on their beer bottles, paint it on signs outside their curio shops, or dot.com it on their website, to please think for a moment whether you deserve to use it. Do you know what the word “Zen” means? Have your ad agency guys even looked it up in a Buddhist dictionary? It means samadhi, a profoundly pure and quiet state of mind acquired—no, not acquired! uncovered— through deep meditation. Probably not acquired through buying your product.

At our Zen monastery (which I am not trying to sell, as we just bought it) we have a small business that we call ZenWorks. We think it’s a good name, because we know from personal experience that Zen does work. We’ve watched it transform our greed, anger, and delusion, albeit more slowly than we would like. We also picked the name because our products—air-filled meditation cushions and elevated meditation benches—make the work of Zen easier for those practitioners whose mind and heart are still willing but whose older, bulkier, and stiffer bodies are beginning to complain. We feel we have earned the name and we work at serving it.

Does the name Zen really apply to what you are trying to sell or how you sell it? Two fundamental tenets of Buddhist practice are to want little and to be easily satisfied. Is that your aim? Are you helping people to live a life of less suffering and more happiness through continuous practice of meditation, virtue, and insight?

Think for a moment. Would it make sense to pick names like Catholic Computers, Baptist Bubble Bath, or Lutheran Lager? Would you title a book Jesus and the Art of Selling Jewelry, or Methodism and the Art of Making Muffins? It’s disrespectful to use a name you did not earn.

If you should wish to use the name Zen honestly, let me know. I’d be happy to help you set up a meditation hall in your shop and teach the benefits of Zen practice to your employees. But you have to give them enough time to do it so that it becomes an integral part of their lives, their work, and finally, down the assembly line, your product.

I’m sitting on my cushion (ZenAir™) next to the phone. Give me a call.

Jan Chozen Bays

Jan Chozen Bays

Jan Chozen Bays Roshi is co-abbot of Great Vow Zen Monastery in Clatskanie, Oregon. She is the author of Mindful Eating and How to Train a Wild Elephant.