Doing Zen Badly

What is the sound of one’s pretentiousness collapsing?

My path to enlightenment began with a “Daydreamin’ at the Beach Zen Garden.”

Yup, it’s just as ridiculous as it sounds. I laughed for a solid 15 minutes when I spotted this absurd little product one afternoon in a Target somewhere.

Imagine one of those miniature Zen gardens you see on the desks of trendy corporate executives and bored denizens of Cubeville: a small tray of sand with pebbles or sea shells, inviting you to carefully rake the sand into simple, soothing geometric patterns.

Then add:

  • a miniature lounge chair
  • a miniature beach ball
  • a miniature beach umbrella (“with stand!”)
  • miniature sandals
  • miniature sunglasses
  • and, yes, a miniature cooler

The same company also makes a “Day Dreamin’ on the Green Zen Garden,” complete with 18th hole and flag, artificial turf, and a golf ball and tee. And (from the Department of Redundancy Department) there’s the “Day Dreamin’ in the Garden Zen Garden,” which includes a trellis, flower pots and a watering can.

Yeah, leave it to us Ugly Americans to take a centuries-old philosophical and religious tradition and reduce it to playing in a sandbox.

That was going to be the theme of this article, how we so callously degrade all things sacred to other cultures for a cheap joke or quick buck. But then the enormity of my hypocrisy rose up in front of me, a mountain in my path: how can I criticize anybody for cheapening Zen when I had just okayed this issue’s silly title, “Zen and the Art of Doing Things Badly”? It’s a jokey reference to a book that, by its author’s own admission, doesn’t even have much to do with Zen (and it turns out that book’s title is a joke referring to an even earlier work.)

Hell, all I know about Zen is what I learned in 10 minutes on Wikipedia.

But something I gleaned from that short time is that obstacles are not always what they appear. The founder of Zen, a legendary Indian monk named Bodhidharma, is said to have spent nine years doing nothing but meditating before a cliff wall. Nine years. My own mountain of hypocrisy warranted at least a few minutes’ more reflection.

See, I had forgotten that I made my own “beach Zen garden” more than a year ago. No, it didn’t have a beach ball or cooler, but it was almost as absurd.

Some brilliant marketing company mailed me a packet of beach sand and small shells as part of a resort promotion. Refusing to throw away something so bizarre, I emptied the sand into the bottom of a paper cup. A coworker supplied a lollipop as a miniature, single-pronged rake.

The funny thing is, it was actually relaxing! I used the lollipop stick to unearth one or two tiny shells, placing them carefully on the surface of the sand. I gently smoothed the sand, then raked concentric ridges over the surface. Sometimes the circles echoed the form of the cup; other times, they rippled out from the shells and into each other.

It may not have been authentic, but that dippy little “Zen garden” made it easier to empty my mind — of stress, of distractions, of everything. That cup of sand stayed on my desk at work for months, helping me get through one of the most frustrating periods in my career.

So, who knows. Maybe a cultivating a faux-Zen garden with a lounge chair and umbrella will invite someone to learn more about Zen meditation practices. Maybe a Web ’zine’s little article about dance aerobics will lead a few people toward greater self-understanding.

All I really know about Zen is this:

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Article © 2006 by Michael Duck