Snow Angels as “Zen”

I’m teaching a course on minority American religions in which we just wrapped up a unit on Buddhism. Yesterday, as the class was meeting, our first snowfall was drifting past the windows, distracting students. The snowfall had made me pretty giddy, too; I performed a couple verses of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” with dramatizing gestures and soft shoe, as class was beginning. (Video of that display has not surfaced online, to my knowledge.)

At five minutes to dismissal time, after we’d finished dissecting a video about the Hsi Lai temple in Los Angeles (which will be the subject of my next post to this blog), I said: Okay, folks, officially I have you for five more minutes, but I’ll let you go early if you promise to do something “zen.” I hasten to add here that I was consciously using “zen” in its now-popularized meaning of “quirky” or “bizarre” (as in The Daily Show‘s “moment of zen”). We had discussed in a previous session how that usage arose from the post-1950s and -1960s surge in Zen’s popularity among majority Americans and thus their passing familiarity with the tradition of koans.

Anyway, back to my speech to the class: I told them I’d let them go early if they promised to do something “zen”–specifically, if they would make snow angels. In fact, I said, improvising off the looks of disbelief I was getting, if you send me a selfie of you making a snow angel, I will give you an extra participation point. Boy, did that create a happy buzz. (Students invariably overestimate the mathematical significance of an extra credit point. Are people in general suckers for things “extra,” or is that a more particularly American cultural trait?)

So now I have photos of students making snow angels showing up in my inbox. “Practicing my zen!” was one student’s subject line–which would itself be an interesting cultural artifact to unpack: In what sense is she “practicing” zen? What’s meant by that possessive pronoun “my”? And, of course, what popularized perceptions/conceptions of “zen” have I now reinforced in her mind?

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