Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: “Zen is Stupid”

Posted by Maximum Fun on 22nd June 2008

I’m not a Buddhist. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I’m not even an aspiring Buddhist. I’ve never even considered becoming a Buddhist. Buddhism isn’t among my top hundred interests — hell, it’s probably not among my top thousand. Thus, I suppose I’m a totally unsuitable reviewer for a Buddhist podcast.

But wait. Gwen Bell and Patrick Reynolds, co-hosts of Zen is Stupid [iTunes link] aren’t Buddhists either. At least that’s what they say in the episode about Buddhism [link]. They prefer to call themselves, say, “students of Buddhism” or “people who practice Buddhism.” That’s a good sign; it contraindicates my least-loved quality of the young American Buddhist. You know the type: superciliously strutting around in that more-enlightened-than-thou way, constantly mentioning how Buddhist they are. Insufferable.

Gwen and Patrick aren’t like that. Though they operate on a different Weltanschauung than I do, their podcast allows me to examine and consider that Weltanschauung without being buried under monstrous heaps of ‘tude. Each week, Gwen and Patrick take on a topic of modern relevance, be it diversity [link], driving [link], nostalgia [link], hipsters [link] or h8erz [link], and spend ten to twenty minutes approaching it from whatever Zen Buddhist perspective they can muster. (And it’s always Zen — they sometimes give the nod to other branches of Buddhism, but remain loyal to the Zen game.) For example, after a one-night stand, a Zen Buddhist might not wake up feeling like the bottom of an ashtray; they might wake up and cheerfully launch into a session of zazen, which, I gather, is this practice where you sit still for a long time. The duo’s attitude has drawn no small amount of scorn on iTunes from self-proclaimed Zen old-schoolers, which shows they’re on the right track: in any field, if you’re pissing off the old guard, you’re doing something right.

So what, for the non-Buddhist, is appealing about all this? First and foremost, learning about someone else’s take on the world never fails to fascinate me, especially if that someone else adheres to a system of thought that I don’t. (And, as the most a-religious, a-spiritual — as distinct from unreligious and unspiritual — person I know, they almost always do.) Second, unlike some religions I shall refrain from naming, Zen Buddhism has elements that can be genuinely thought-provoking even for the outsider, such as the concept of mindfulness, keeping maximally aware of the present moment, or the concept of beginner’s mind, disregarding biases and preconceptions when entering new informational territory. I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of thing one day maps to new discoveries in neuroscience.

I must admit, however, to an inability to get with certain other elements of Buddhism which, in many hands, seem to generate a kind of irritating nihilism. “Everything is everything,” intones the garden-variety lazy Buddhist I talk to, “so it wouldn’t be right for me to have an opinion on anything.” Then they mumble something about the limits of language. I was thus happy find that Gwen and Patrick take on this sort of nonsense without giving in to it; they are indeed opinionated, and they seem to have no problem taking action. That’s not to say that their discourse is completely devoid of muddled thinking — they’ve more than once fallen into go-nowhere discussions about how one should practice Zen, but they shouldn’t expect to gain anything from it, but they do gain from it, but wait, no they don’t, because you’re not supposed to want to improve in Zen, but maybe they do, or don’t — but for the most part, they mix Buddhism with pragmatism, which is precisely what most ancient beliefs sorely need.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here. I’m working on a special series of Podthoughts on podcasts by Max Funsters; if you do one, let me know about it here.]