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Pop Zen or The Branding of Buddhism: Remix

posted by Evelyn Cash

by Evelyn Cash

A few weeks ago, Jerry Kolber wrote an article on this blog about the Branding of Buddhism. 
His piece presented an intriguing argument for branding and
popularizing Buddhism in order to make the Buddha’s valuable teachings
available for everyone.  Inspired by Jerry’s title, I’ve been thinking
about the ways Buddhist terms or ideas already show up in popular
brands sold everywhere and what, if anything, these brands mean to
those of us who call ourselves “Buddhists.”


my little knothole, it seems like the most branded Buddhist term out
there is Zen.  Most mornings at work, I grab my mug and head to the
break room for hot water to steep my Tazo Zen tea (their website
is and example of what I’m talking about and features links such as “Be
Enlightened” and “Enlighten Us”).  Before I finally broke down and
bought an iPod, my MP3 player of choice was the Creative Zen V.  And for those of you who watch the Daily Show, you already know Jon Stewarts famous send off: “here it is, your moment of Zen.” 
There are many many more examples of this sort of “Pop Buddhism” that
come to mind once you stop to think about it (I just remembered that
Pinesol commercial with the guy meditating
and floating off the ground).  You can go to the store and pick up a
Mandala card coloring set (which I own by the way and actually enjoyed)
and grab a mini-Zen rock garden on your way out.

What message
are these marketers trying to send when they label their products with
Buddhist terms or when they design products modeled after aspects
Buddhist practice?  You would never see Tazo Presbryterian tea or a
Creative Catholic MP3 player.  Maybe it’s just the allure and “mystery”
of the East or maybe it’s just one more piece of evidence for Jerry to
add to his argument against Buddhism as a religion (if it’s a tea, it
can’t be a religion.. right?).  The truth is, I don’t know why
marketers use Buddhist language to sell their products and as a
practicing Buddhist it doesn’t really bother or offend me anyway.  I
do, however, wonder how people who know nothing about Buddhism view
these types of products.  Before high school, I knew next to nothing
about Buddhism but I don’t really remember noticing or thinking much
about these types of things.  Nowadays, when I see people perusing the
discount section in Barnes and Noble and picking up that Mandala card
set, I do wonder what they are thinking. 

In most cases, I
don’t think these Pop Buddhist products are doing much harm.  In
general, these products are neither postive nor negative reflections of
actual Buddhist practice.  More often than not, they have nothing to do
with Buddhism or Zen at all (the MP3 player comes back to mind).  If
anything, some of them may inspire the random curious individual to do
little research and find out more about meditation and Buddhism.  On
the other hand – and mostly in relation to the prevelance of the word
“Zen” for everything from yarn to project management
– I do hope that this phenomena doesn’t give people the wrong idea of
what Zen is.  I know from my own experience that when I tell someone
I’m a “Zen Buddhist” I do tend to get a quizzical look that either says,
“yeah right” or “so you basically do nothing?”  I tend to think that
these products make Zen seem like a very esoteric, “empty mind” yet
very cool approach to life.  For me, Zen has been a much deeper spiritual practice and philosophy than these products seem to give it credit for.  Then again, maybe that’s exactly what Zen
is and the marketers have got it right and they’re selling it.  

Comments read comments(33)
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posted September 27, 2009 at 10:56 am

Yes, how does the branding of Buddhism effect its conception in popular culture? Maybe it’s all good, and some individuals will take a closer look. My gut is a bit skeptical, though. Hippie used to be a lifestyle. Now it’s been marketed into merely a style. Hanging a tapestry on the wall and wearing tie dye is a look, not a movement. Likewise, drinking Zen tea or going to eat at Om Restaurant (Harvard Square) or listening to Buddha Bar CDs (Paris) doesn’t necessarily speak to an inner movement. I wonder if simplifications of the Dharma into comfortable atmospheres and solid beats might mis- (or under) represent Dharma in ultimately unhelpful ways. But what to do with tasty teas, hip restaurants, and groovy tunes?
I say require a meditation session before enjoyment. Wouldn’t that be rad, if you had to first sit for a 1/2 hour before seeing the menu at Om or Buddha Bar. Anyone willing to take up this next step in branding Buddhism?

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posted September 27, 2009 at 11:33 am

Morrison, thank you for the quick reply comment. You touch on exactly what I was trying to get at with my post. What are marketers trying to get with Zen tea, Zen restaurants and Zen mp3 players? What does it mean for Buddhism and Buddhists in the West? I don’t have answers but I did want to at least throw up the question.
It would be pretty cool to make people sit if they want to eat at Zen Vegetarian restaurant here in Wichita. I would love to walk in and see a bunch of people at the table just staring down at empty plates.

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posted September 27, 2009 at 12:20 pm

a zen restaurant with a 20 min “meditation wait” seems like a good idea…

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Your Name

posted September 27, 2009 at 1:03 pm

its only a word, a name a concept, why possessive consciousness, owning the ism what make U think everybody is [not] bodhi awake being? reifying meditation big deal, peasants sit amiably for days at roadside for a bus ride, patient and awake and cut milk teeth in preschool with limmericks ‘there was a young one of Peel who said Pain is not real for when I sit on a pin and it punctures the skin I IMAGINE the discomfort I feel. Propaganda insights? ha ha Not so fast Sid we all have siddhis ha ha hum Phat take that
its free

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posted September 27, 2009 at 2:37 pm

I think this branding or commodification, if you will, is about branding an experience – one that folks living in western culture think we are missing, or need to connect with on some level. Some idea of peace, calm, centered, zen experience that will sell products. It could be as simple as word association – what do you think of when you read or hear the word “zen” ? Using the term in connection with a product, or an experience (like eating at a restaurant, or listening to music) is meant to evoke that meme, or cultural understanding that comes along with that naming of ‘zen.’
Advertisers are sharp – they make their living out of understanding the interactions we have with out culture and how, in my experience, we westerners exoticize the experience of Shangri La or the idea of Buddhism as containing something that we don’t have inherently in US culture.
I think our job is to do what we’re doing – look twice at the use of these labels and maybe, why the work on us. and then look again and see that they are just labels. But how well we are triggered when we hear them or interact with them.

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bob knab

posted September 27, 2009 at 11:52 pm

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bob knab

posted September 27, 2009 at 11:53 pm

O Wonderful
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Jerry Kolber

posted September 28, 2009 at 10:21 am

Evelyn thank you for making me laugh so early in my day – “if it’s a tea it can’t be a religion right?” – well maybe, maybe not. ;)
I think the whole Zen thing got brandified because it was “hipster cool” (real hipsters, not the Buddy Holly glasses single-speed bike micro-brew mofo’s skanking around w’burg and LES and the IDP) you know, Alan Ginsberg, Dean Moriarity/Neal Cassady, Kerouac, maybe built on a little Alan Watts, expanded on by Robert Pirsig then forgot about in a haze of cocaine, disco, junk bonds, and parachute pants, only to resurface on October 19 1987 when all those 1962 20-year-old idealists became 45-year-old mortgage holders with declining portfolios and kids in college and needed to chill out a little man, you know, all ready to be sold a little moment of peace, and hey anyone remember all that Zen shit?
And thus begat Zen tea, Zen music players, being all “zen” – zen became a synonym for zimple, blizzed out, not strezzed.
Total co-optation of a word sold back to people who never really explored what it meant in the first place but have a shallow enough understanding of it to be willing to pay for some of what it offers.
Awesome article. Funny!!

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posted September 28, 2009 at 10:44 am

Could part of the problem be that many people market the Dharma in the first place? We have t-shirts for expression, tons of books and CDs which put a price tag on what the Buddha offered freely for the welfare of all beings, and let’s not forget the classic “Buddha in a Box”.
Surprisingly we haven’t seen anyone marketing “Dharma Dawgs” as a vegitarian alternative to Oscar Mayer wiener.

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posted September 28, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Jerry, glad you liked the post and thanks for the inspiration!
Dharmakara, I think you may be on to something with that Dharma Dawg… that would surely sell. I’d buy a 8 pack of Dharma Dawgs if I found them at Kroger.

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posted September 28, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Buddhism is compatible with pop and easy to re-mix because it’s the most *portable* religion (whether we believe it to be a religion or not) – see

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posted September 28, 2009 at 4:12 pm

I, for one, endorse the deep and extensive commodification of Zen in the sense that the more Zen brands and products that capitalism can generate then the more everything becomes equivalent to everything else, and, when this happens, the only things that count are the ugly compulsions for the abstract accumulation of power over people for various kinds of bonds as well as the pitiful exaltation of specular prestige. Under such gloomy conditions, singularity and finitude are considered necessarily scandalous, while “incarnation” and death are experienced as sins rather than part of the rhythms of life and the cosmos. The time is thus ripe for Zen awakening which will blow apart the cozy subject-object distinctions upon which capitalism, not to mention religion, is predicated.

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All is one

posted September 28, 2009 at 9:43 pm

I would not buy a buddha statue in a “world market, etc” because I think the intentions are for decoration purpose. If a “marketed” item is in spiritual/religious shop if their intentions are for spiritual growth then ok. The point is my own personal direction is what is important to me and the meaning behind the item. I do on the other hand believe in my tshirt that has “the buddhist way-do no harm” as a message to myself and sharing this with others (end of suffering type message) but I wouldn’t by a shirt from Dillards with a buddha on the front. What ever we choose to do or not do, I don’t think that’s the problem. What we need to do as Buddha said to once we find our way to share it with others. And that’s what I do, if people ask I tell them, if I learn and share then maybe two people are now happy instead of just one. =)

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Anan E. Maus

posted September 28, 2009 at 11:01 pm

I think the term is used to create a sense of the allure of mystery.
I don’t think that is a particularly bad thing. Without the allure of mystery, some folks don’t search.
And without search, there is no realization.
If the expression is to mock…then there can be a problem. Any effort to mock or diminish the spiritual path is a demonic movement…and that is rarely a good thing…and, of course, for the person engaging in the behavior, it is the harbinger of doom -working against the very purpose for which we are alive.
It incurs the worst karma that can possibly exist.

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posted September 28, 2009 at 11:08 pm

Here is the 5th-fold truth:
Truths 3 and 4 are in error. You cannot avoid striving or the pain it causes. You can however, decide what is important to strive for, and what is worthy of the pain.
The cat has exits the paper prison.

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posted October 28, 2009 at 8:50 am

The overuse of the word Zen bothers me a lot. I get tired of hearing people very flippantly refer to their houses, furniture, jewelry or workplaces as Zen. I don’t prefer to hear people say they “want to get some Zen” when what they are really saying is that they need to relax or relieve stress. The word has become another way that Americans eschew using actual language to describe things. Instead of saying, “I tried to achieve a cool color palette with minimalistic furnishings in the living room,” they say, “I just wanted a Zen look.” The implied meaning is clear. I just think that they should be aware that they are speaking about a practice, a way, and not a motif or design aesthetic.

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