The Stink of Zen, the Monetization of Buddhist Images & a Couple of Traps on the Great Way

Noticing how religious images are co-opted for commercial purposes is nothing new. Think Quaker Oats. But it does seem that in recent decades Buddhism and Zen have become a particularly popular source of images for hustling product.

Rod Meade Sperry, web publications editor at Shambhala Sun has been archiving them for ages at his site The Worst Horse. He’s even given them a name, Dharma-burgers. Rod tells us “a ‘Dharma-Burger’ is… any example of Buddhist ideas or imagery in the marketing or production of (usually non-Buddhist) services and consumables.”

For many of us of a Buddhist persuasion these products can be pretty offensive. A “Buddha Bar & Grille” does feel a couple of steps too far.

And for some of us, while such images may well be offensives, they are often also a source of amusement.

The truth be told, if you don’t have a taste for irony, you’re going to have trouble living in this world.

And, hey, there’s even occasionally a small lesson to be pulled out of the mess.

For example, thanks to my old friend and collaborator at the Boundless Way Zen network, David Rynick, I see there’s a Zen deodorant.

I just delight in the idea of a Zen deodorant. Clearly the manufacturer is unaware of the term “stink of Zen,” or of its meaning as someone who is caught up in the purity of practice – and how that’s not a good thing.

There’s a story that illustrates what this is this nicely. Once upon a time the abbot of a monastery saw the cook spill some rice on the floor. He exploded at the cook’s recklessness. And then in an instant before he recovered his equanimity the kami, or spirit of the temple, manifested, made bows, and said, “I’ve been wanting to visit, and pay my respects upon your installation as abbot, but until now I’ve not been able to see you.” In Zen purity is just one more trap.

Genuine wisdom, truly following the path covered over by Zen deodorant.

Of course, of course Zen deodorant, takes us even further into the woods, if in another direction from the confusions of purity. Lost among the things of the world. Unable to see the path for the products, each vying with the other for our attention.

Kind of like life.

So, what is turning the light, claiming a new focus?

Much of the Zen project is about escaping the trap of our separation, and discovering our fundamental emptiness, or boundlessness. This is what most of us think when we think of Zen disciplines, of Zen wisdom.

And we find that great empty. And that is a wonder! And a delight! It shows us something of such value my words fail.

And then.

And then, it is about reclaiming our separateness as our boundlessness.

For those of us who are walking the path, that first awakening to emptiness turned out only to be a first step.

Not purity.

Not purchasing Zen deodorant.



Just this place, where everything is broken…

And perfect as it is…

  • Ken Rivard

    Ah, Zen deodorant! Would that it were so easy… Some years ago my wife asked me to meet her at a new restaurant whose very name had made me uneasy for all the reasons elicited in your. I joined my wife, gave the waiter my cocktail order, glanced at the menu then set it aside. The decorative them of the restaurant was Buddhas and while I’d be the last one to say that Buddha doesn’t enjoy a good drink once in awhile, seeing all of this Buddhist iconography reduced to interior design made me intensely uncomfortable. My wife asked me what was wrong and I explained. The chef, who knew my wife, came out to out table. She was delighted to see us, what were we going to eat, etc. etc. To my eternal gratitude my wife replied that we were only having cocktails, but just wanted to stop by to say hi. We haven’t been back. Since then my experience has been a sort of koan. It wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world to have eaten a meal there. And yet it seems just a little too facile to say, Okay, this is your present moment situation, so go with it. I am far far far from a rules-are-rules guy, but there was something inside me that simply felt like staying was somehow dishonoring practice. And yet… There’s always the and yet… Ken

  • John Pappas (@zendustzendirt)

    I go to the “Jesus Christ Steakhouse and Saloon” all the time. The proprietor is a dick but the wine is heavenly.

  • Tom b

    What’s the song about the “plastic Jesus ridin’ on the dashboard of my car” that doubles as a stash?

  • Gregory Wonderwheel

    Good post. I would add all the “Zen and the art of…. ” articles and books.
    Zen and the art of riding (motorcycles)
    ZEN AND THE ART OF MURALTO ELEGANCE (furniture making, supposedly “part pop-art, part Zen”)
    Zen And the Art of the Nike Sportswear Roshe Run (Nike shoes sales campaign)
    Just too many to count.


  • Mark

    The stink of Zen – I love it; would make a great name for the next version of Lynx.

  • Ryleh the Wanderer

    Whether you think about it or not, Irony is one of the Founding Principles of the Universe.