You may ask what could be further apart and less compatible than Zen Buddhism and the “Preppy” way of life? On the surface -- nothing -- but a closer examination will reveal some surprising similarities, and the odd juxtaposition may not be as outlandish as it first appears.
To clarify, I use the term “Prep” here to encompass all that is well known regarding a specific group of people who adhere to a movement stemming from Northeastern American WASP behavior patterns -- originating in preparatory schools and Ivy League colleges -- who, in turn, initially flatteringly stole their core ideas from upper crust England. In contrast, Zen, of course, is a school of Buddhism characterized by a set of teachings and practices.
Are there major differences between Zen and Prep? Absolutely. Legend has it that the first Zen patriarch, Bodhidharma, spent nine years staring at a blank cave wall, and even cut off his eyelids so he could concentrate better and not miss anything. Contact-lens wearing Preps needn’t go to that extreme to reach their goals -- as we shall see with uncorrected 20/20 vision.
To begin with, both Zen and Prep are essentially ideologies with a consistent set of values and teachings -- interpretations on the best way to the wisest, most natural, spontaneous, and smoothest path through life -- with each emphasizing practical aspects as well. The pair is also comprised of material aspects -- outward manifestations that match their beliefs. In Zen, one surface illustration of this appears in the simplicity of bodily adornment and in Prep to the wearing of “classic” never-changing clothing.
Zen asks us to open our eyes to the wonder of being alive, and although Prep doesn’t reach quite that far, it does emphasize being aware of the kind of life you’re living. So Socrates examined life applies to both.
Simplify, simplify, simplify, urged both Thoreau and Einstein -- two fairly intelligent thinkers. Turn down the stress, free yourself, in other words. And in so doing this very act of simplification is where Zen and Prep coalesce -- nearly touching like the outstretched hands of God and Adam up on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Zen emphatically rejects over-elaborateness -- as does Prep in its penchant toward traditional upper-class patterns of dress and mode of living.
Simplification in Zen leads to peace and tranquility, along with the recognition and acknowledgment of limitations. Likewise, the Prep finds an inner satisfaction knowing that next year’s Milan fashion show will offer nothing new worth purchasing -- nor will the year after that and so on. Choosing a preppy wardrobe and pathway involves a terminus -- a deliberate limit as to what will ever be acceptable or desirable. And there is great comfort in following an aesthetic (or belief system) that tolerates no deviation, and better yet, it renders a potentially chaotic life simple. The need for experimentation (so far as what to put on to face the cold external world or how to act in it) is obliterated. So are some temptations. One’s pure Prep nature is enough. The simple wheel has already been invented, and so one need only slip on that blazer and khakis or a Lily dress, hop on and roll blissfully along with it.
Symbolism plays a significant role in Zen -- as it does to a Prep. The former reveres water (flexibility and purity), incense (selflessness as it consumes itself for others), the candle flame (wisdom), and the circle (completion, no beginning, or end). The Prep symbols (more like logos actually): French open-mouthed crocodiles, happy white whales, pink and green (yin and yang), monograms, and galloping horses with wooden mallet swingers aboard.
Zen’s emphasis on the direct transmission of information from Master to student rather than reliance on a scripture mirrors the mostly tacit way Preps are taught by their families. All one needs to know is expertly passed down by merely observing one’s surroundings. What is vital awaits the acolyte who only needs to seek the truth. And luckily, in the right Prep homes this is abundantly clear and on display 24/7.
Striving to “become” in Zen doesn’t exist -- one already IS everything (now if we could only truly believe that how much improved our hectic lives would be). Similarly, the fully realized Prep will see no need to expand the boundaries of his (or her) philosophy or aesthetic views. Doing so would be unnecessary and could only lead the believer into error. The Prep supermarket offers its’ all natural-fabric-wearing shoppers a meager, but well thought out variety of goods and concepts, thereby making shopping a snap and the express line quick.
Zen readily accepts the harmonious changes in the seasons -- as do Preps who welcome the springs and autumns with alacrity and greatly enjoy the rotation of their wardrobes -- a ritual of unpacking and packing that extends through life. Bright madras gladly gives way to somber wool, light deck shoes to heavier Bean Boots, and tennis racquets to skis. And vice-versa. By so doing, we spend our lives reacting to the predictable tilting of this planet’s axis.
Ironically, both the Prep exemplar and the Zen practitioner like having fun. Lots of it. It’s just that their ideas of enjoying themselves differ. For the Zen Man enjoyment is brought about by spending time sitting zazen (seated meditation), arranging flowers, scribbling a haiku poem, cultivating a rock garden, accepting and embracing the natural world, wall-gazing and deeply contemplating the unfathomable Koan riddles -- whereas the Prep may derive the same exhilaration from his or her hedonistic tailgating, drinking G & Ts and Bloodies with friends, or dancing uninhibitedly at a Charity Event in a new dress with matching accessories. Preps costume themselves for happiness as best they know it.
The Prep and Zen schemas each place value on their respective visions of enlightenment (satori or glimpsing into the real nature of existence); for the former this may evidence itself in avoiding purchasing inferior items from Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, or the LL Bean Signature collection, and for the latter in realizing that she already possesses everything within herself. Zen views enlightenment as finally freeing oneself from the incessant merry-go-round of births and rebirths. Nirvana. Yes, spelled just like the Seattle grunge band -- Nirvana. Being Prep brings forth an enlightenment that liberates one from the bondage of ever changing opinions, beliefs, and fashion whims -- even temptingly, drastically marked down sale items.
Zen and Prep put their emphasis on THIS world, and how best to spend ones given span on earth -- for it is only in the world of objects that we can have time, space and selves -- as T.S. Eliot once sagely observed. (A friend once told me that after this is all over he intended to meet St. Peter at the Pearly Gates wearing his well-worn, salt-water bleached Nantucket Reds and soup stained Hotchkiss tie. Will this qualify him for entrance? Maybe -- if they have a dress code.) Anyway, a person’s ordinary, mundane everyday life should be sufficient for everyone. This world contains more than its share of complexities and wonders and both Z & P devote themselves to analyzing and addressing them in their own fashion.
In conclusion, one may very well then ask could a Zen Buddhist Monk ever become a Preppy? A seemingly absurd question, but one, I think, worth considering. It’s possible, although the Zen Master would have to plunge his shivering bare toes into the icy materialistic stream more than he’d want. So I think the answer is probably no, the formers disinterest in the Prep world’s trappings would preclude that. And moreover, too many incongruities would surface; for example, to witness a bald, robed individual in sandals tranquilly shopping and sifting through the merchandise at Brooks Brothers or J. Press would create quite a stir. But it would be entertaining spectacle, wouldn’t it? Envision the Dali Lama trying on a pair of garish Go-to-Hell pants along with a button-down pink oxford. Then again, this question may also be answered by claiming that a mild practitioner of Zen (one who merely spends occasional time in meditation) would have no trouble being a Prep. Some already are.
Conversely, if Preps wanted to follow the total Zen path to enlightenment, they could give up everything, scissor their credit cards, donate all their possessions to the Salvation Army, and enter a monastery, but this is highly unlikely given the fact that his or her inculcation into the green and pink value system began from the newborn’s rocking cradle. Besides, sacrificing this much known comfort and satisfaction for the unknown rubs against human nature.
So, in the end, the essence of Zen and Prep boils down to just two ways of getting the most out of living.
--- Robert Reichardt, November 2011
Robert Reichardt, is a contributing writer and author of The Preppy and the Trout, found at smashwords.com.