Of “Zombies & Zen”

A guest post by Konchog Norbu

Periodically—blame it on the fevers of spring, perhaps—academics seized with whimsy loosen their collar buttons and scamper off into the wildflower meadows of popular culture. Such appears to be the case in the May/June issue of Philosophy Now magazine, in which various deep thinkers plumb the urgent matter of zombies and zombification. Hey, we all gotta get our ya-ya’s out somehow, but what cocked this reader’s brow was the header “Zombies and Zen,” in Prof. Dien Ho’s essay, “What’s So Bad About Being a Zombie?” After cataloguing the crummier aspects of zombification, Prof. Ho continues thus:

“But in other respects, the life of a zombie has characteristics many of us strive mightily to achieve. Their lives are highly centralized and simplified, since their needs and wants often revolve around just a few things, like brains or human flesh. They are largely indifferent to pain and suffering. Short of severe head injuries, zombies enjoy a type of immortality. Zombies do not care about most of the pesky concerns that fill our daily lives: they do not care about the weather, their appearance, their social status, their retirement plan, their morning commute, and petty office politics. They are not concerned about the threat of terrorism, floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes. And they certainly do not become jealous, depressed, worrisome, or suffer the other anxieties that regularly plague our waking moments. Indeed, if we focus on just these qualities, the life of a zombie resembles the ideal state of a disciplined Zen Buddhist monk who has managed to let go of his earthly concerns.”

Prof. Ho appears sympathetic here, so let’s just hope it’s unwittingly that he perpetuates one of the more persistent and misleading clichés about Buddhist monastic life in general, and Zen discipline in particular: that the strived-for result is the snuffing out of all human feeling, leaving one in a state that must be, well, zombie-like. This is common, because even among philosophers, there are few who can imagine pure awareness liberated from our conditioned states of mind, who can separate wisdom from indifference. Let’s let Dogen take it from here:

“The zazen I speak of is not learning meditation. It is simply the Dharma gate of repose and bliss, the practice-realization of totally culminated enlightenment. It is the manifestation of ultimate reality. Traps and snares can never reach it. Once its heart is grasped, you are like the dragon when he gains the water, like the tiger when she enters the mountain. For you must know that just there (in zazen) the right Dharma is manifesting itself and that, from the first, dullness and distraction are struck aside.”

Does that sound zombified to you?

Tibetan Buddhist monk Konchog Norbu says that while his mental state frequently could be said to resemble the undead, his actual experience with zombies is limited to a lifelong obsession with the band Chrome, and attending the original theatrical release of The Evil Dead.


  1. Posted June 5, 2013 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Some comments via FB:

    Tanya M: More writing from Konchog Norbu please!

    Radd I: Pure Awesomeness

    Linda RB: Konchog, you always entertain AND teach…a rare combination!

  2. Tom lauritsen
    Posted June 14, 2013 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

    Experience on the cushion is required to delve beyond the intellectual understanding of awareness. Well discerned insights, Konchog !

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