The term “Zen” has become something of a marketing buzzword. Everywhere we look we are treated to “Zen” this and the “Zen of” that. Where once we had only Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, we now have Zen MP3 players and Zen tea kettles and Zen vacuum cleaners and Zen hair treatments and the Zen of Fundraising and even the Zen of Social Media Marketing. That’s a lot of Zen!

The saying in Zen is that the “Zen that can be spoken is not the true Zen.” So what is all this Zen, then?

Zen is just a word. But what it means – what it points to – is a tradition, a practice and a heritage.

Popular culture has extracted only a small part of this heritage and rolled it into the prevailing Zeitgeist. What “pop culture Zen” implies – and by extension, what marketers mean when they say “Zen” – is a kind of boiled-down aesthetic: simple, pure, fresh and clean. This is the Zen of “being in the zone” or what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “the flow.”

Presumedly – if you believe the marketing – a Zen vacuum cleaner will allow you to get in the “flow of vacuuming” so that housecleaning becomes simple, easy and effortless. Of course, this is laughable, and we all know that work is work and unless your vacuum is a robot, vacuuming your house will inevitably require some sweat and effort on your part. Nevertheless, this idea of “being in the zone” (even while vacuuming!) tugs at a deep-seated emotional desire, and subconsciously we may be swayed to buy a Zen vacuum cleaner anyway. After all, who wouldn't like something as mundane as cleaning the carpet to feel rewarding and fulfilling?

The truth is: any vacuum cleaner can allow you to get into the flow of vacuuming. You don’t need a special version emblazoned with the word “Zen” on it to do it. But this isn’t the point. The point is that all this Zen-branded paraphernalia is missing the point when it comes to what Zen is all about. Zen is about more than just “being in the zone.”

During a recent talk, my teacher – Jiyu Roshi – brought up the Lance Armstrong doping scandal to illustrate the kind of problems that simply “being in the zone” can bring. In his television interviews, Armstrong used the fact that he was “in the zone” as a kind of excuse for continuing to dope. In fact, during his interview with Oprah Winfrey, he said:

At the time, it was easy, it just flowed. I was in the zone like athletes get. It wasn’t exactly a perfect world, that wasn’t the happiest time of my life. I can tell you today that I am happier today than all those times. [Emphasis mine.]

Is this the “Zen of Cycling?” If so, it is not the true Zen. The true Zen has ethics.

Zen is a practice with a heritage. It is a form of Buddhism and cannot stand separate from Buddhism. The rich heritage of compassion and the strong ethical foundations of Buddhism are what delineate true Zen practice from mere “Zen marketing.” This is what makes Zen more than just about simplicity or “being in the zone.”

At the core of this heritage stands what are known as the Ten Grave Precepts. These Precepts serve as principles and guidelines to Zen practitioners on how to live an ethical life. In order, they are:

  1. To not intentionally or maliciously kill
  2. To not steal
  3. To not misuse sex
  4. To not intentionally deceive
  5. To not “cloud the mind” through drugs or alcohol
  6. To not speak of others’ faults
  7. To not praise oneself while criticizing others
  8. To not withhold spiritual or material aid
  9. To not indulge in anger
  10. To not speak ill of the Three Treasures (the core of Buddhist tradition)

In recent weeks it has become quite clear that Lance Armstrong failed to engage himself professionally in accordance with precept #4. The result has been catastrophic.

Zen practice doesn’t require anything special, but it does require more than simple, mindless, unquestioning “zoning out.” And it does require more than austere aesthetics or the raking of sand around some arbitrarily placed rocks. Real Zen asks for compassion, forgiveness and unending work in the building one’s character.

Perhaps “being in the zone“ is necessary at times, but it’s far from sufficient.