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Over the past several decades, Zen has become a mark of global cosmopolitanism. Largely divorced from its religious context, the word “zen” appears in many languages with a remarkable diversity of accepted meanings and usages. In this paper, I outline the historical and cultural factors which have contributed to the dramatic semiotic transformation of Zen in the popular imagination and international media over the past century. I demonstrate that ideas about Zen have evolved through strategic cultural and linguistic associations, and show how the resulting polysemy has led to Zen becoming an ideal marketing byword—one that is freely appropriated and commoditized in a manner that differentiates Zen from almost all other religious traditions. I further suggest that for the Japanese Zen sects, the global popularity and cosmopolitan appeal of Zen has come hand-in-hand with a decentralization of traditional authority and a challenge to the clergy’s role in shaping the future development of Zen.

Original Citation

Irizarry, J.A. (2015). Putting a Price on Zen: The Business of Redefining Religion for Global Consumption. Journal of Global Buddhism, 16(2015), 51-69.