Buddhist Reaction to a Beverage Called Zen

by Tom Armstrong, Zenunbound.com, Dec 9, 2004

San Francisco, USA -- Our non-scientific survey of reactions from vegetarian Buddhists and European Zennists to the naming of a new dairy drink brought a wide range of responses. The drink, dubbed Zen, a thin yogurt, spiked with magnesium to promote relaxation and dampen stress, has been introduced into the marketplace in Ireland and Belgium, prelude to a probable rollout throughout Europe. [Read our earlier story "A Beverage called Zen."]

The drink is produced by the French company Groupe Danone, the largest producer of yogurt products in the world. Its subsidiary, The Dannon Company, distributes Dannon yogurt products in America.

From the teaching, or from the opened-heartedness that Buddhism promotes and extols, Buddhists come to identify with all sentient beings. As a result, a large percentage of Buddhists are vegetarian, to deter the butchery of animals. Many of us restrict our diet further, becoming vegan, in an effort to lessen or protest the torment of animals caught in the chain of uses humans make of so-called animal byproducts.

Our question, to the Buddhist community: Is it OK for a dairy beverage to be named Zen?

Don't cry over shilled milk?

Several people pointed out that everyone has become accustomed to the relationship Market Street now has with consumers.

Brit blogger and meditator Terry Madeley made this point most crisply:

"As Buddhist themes continue to make their way into the mainstream it's only to be expected that certain terms will be (mis)appropriated to help brand certain products in certain ways. Does it matter? Were the grunge band Nirvana really enlightened? Do we think hyped up web-design gurus and management-theory gurus are enlightened? Plenty of samurai action in Tarantino's Kill Bill, but had that anything to do with warrior zen? Is the importance/relevance/need for Buddhism lessened by any of this?"

Every shopper is aware that marketers try to use jazzy, aluring names to entice consumption. Products are given names that pique shoppers' interest and are memorable. If Zen works as a product name, so be it, some said. The act of branding products may twist and skew the language in various ways, but this is unaviodable; freedom requires that no word be made sacrosanct in the communications jungle.

An Irish Zennist named Graham dismissed the whole matter of the drink name as "unworthy of comment."

His colleague on a Irish Zen group message board, Antonio, who had seen an ad for the drink, said that in his view "a yogurt called Zen does not present any problem to me. In fact I think it is quite a positive ad, as it does not make fun of Zen (as it might), and it stresses one of the possible benefits of Zen (calmness)." He added, impishly, "I just hope Danone does not trademark the 'Zen' brand, otherwise we might have to change the name of this forum to Irish Yogurt Forum!"

Antonio, who had lived in America for five years, saw a cultural divide that would make Zen a more palatable drink name to Europeans than it might be to Americans. "[O]n average Americans are much more [uptight] than the Europeans. For example, Janet Jackson's breast caused an uproar in the USA, but in Europe you see boobs on TV every day of the week and nobody blinks an eye."

He also said "using spirituality to sell products is very common in Europe," and he cited many examples, involving Christianity's Seven Deadly Sins, New Age therapies, and people in lotus position.

But, for what it's worth, using Eastern spirituality to sell product is also common nowadays in America. There are three different Fandango commercials, now running in movie theatres, that feature, and make fun of, Buddhist or Hindu sack-puppet characters. It started with Xerox, but now other TV commercials make fun of monks, Buddhist and Catholic. Chipotle, the gourment burrito restaurant chain has a Zen billboard ad it uses. And, as a Cleveland Buddhist pointed out to me, there are two Zen beverages already marketed in America: Tazo's Zen Tea, offered at Starbucks, and SoBe Zen Tea, universally available at convenience stores, served cold in 20-oz. glass bottles.

Zen on the Rocks?

Terry Madeley expressed especial concern for the linking the dairy drink makes between its name, Zen, and mere relaxation. "[But h]aving said that," he wrote, " I recently attended a 'meditation class' at a local complimentary medicine/health centre, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was very much centred on the dharma, and not simply an hour of wishy washy, fashionable mumbo jumbo. So there's hope yet, that we're not being entirely 'dumbed down.'"

Terry writes the blog "More coffee, less dukkha" and might find more appreciation for the product, if not the brandname, SoBe Zen Tea, which in stark contrast to Danone's Zen drink, has ingredients to rev one up. SoBe's Zen has high fructose corn syrup, tea solids, gensing root extract and guarana on its ingredients list. One 20-oz. bottle might even have coffee-acclimated Terry bouncing off the walls.

It is VeggieDharma's Gabe Konrad who most eloquently made the case for concern for the naming of Danone's new drink:

Buddhism has been popular with marketing and advertising executives since "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" first came out. This interest presents two problems. The first is that it's insulting to an entire religious community when you use its holy words and images to make money. Our spiritual beliefs should not factor into a corporation's profits. Danone would never consider calling this drink "Muhammad: Powerful and Just... delicious," or perhaps a low-fat version: "Jesus is the Lite." But Buddhism? No problem.

The second problem is that they are selling a product that goes against the teachings of the Buddha. An immense amount of suffering is generated in the procurement of dairy products, not to mention the growth hormones, vast quantities of antibiotics, and the by-product of unwanted calves entering the hell of veal "production."

In a Buddhist chatroom, we tossed around Gabe's idea of a parallel product that, somehow, would not be subject to marketers' manipulation. The hypothetical product we used was Jew Bacon. Would a slaughterhouse brand their packaged bacon Jew? And if not, why not? Is this an exact parallel to naming a dairy drink Zen?

It was quickly determined by the room that Jew Bacon was a supercharged, special case. Persecution of the Jews, the concentration camps, antisemitism all weighed in very heavily. But as one chatter said, the situation with Zen milk drink is the same, it's just a matter of the degree of perceived and real insensitivity. "Zen [dairy drink] is still offensive in the same way that Jew Bacon is. And, of course, there is no Zen Anti-defammation League to step in and organize picketting of grocery stores where [the drink] is sold."

In summation, Ron Epstein -- writer, animal rights activist and Research Professor at the Institute for World Religions in Berkeley -- put it well: "In the commercial materialism fostered by the multinational corporations, nothing is sacred."

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