Zen in Five Minutes: Is Zen a religion?
James Ishmael Ford
A number of years ago I served on the membership committee of the American Zen Teachers Association. It had been formed largely out of a list of names compiled by some of that second generation of Zen teachers such as Bernie Glassman and Mel Weitsman. But as it grew, we found it important to explore whether a potential candidate fit the definition of “peer.” As a peer support group that was very important.
Anyway, we also found it important to try and clean up that original membership list. And so it came to pass that one of our Zen teachers was assigned to check in with a Roman Catholic nun, Sister Elaine MacInnes. Actually she’s one of the more legendary figures on the Zen scene. While she lived much of her life in Japan and the Philippines, she was a Canadian, and in her retirement was home in Toronto. The interviewer is one of the more respected among our contemporary Zen teachers. Many would use the word Zen master to describe him. He went ot visit. And when he reported back, he said she turned the meeting into a Zen encounter and, well, she won.
So. A Christian Zen master. But also, most Zen masters train in Buddhist monasteries. Some live in them for the whole of their lives. Others become priests in charge of Buddhist temples. Ruth Fuller Sazaki, probably the first Westerner to be ordained a Rinzai Zen priest, co-author of the magisterial study of the Zen koan, “Zen Dust” wrote a widely read pamphlet, ‘Zen: A Religion.”
And, the Sanbo Zen roshi Koun Yamada would emphatically insist “Zen is not a religion.”
Part of the problem is semantic. It’s how one defines that word “religion.” A lot of dictionaries define religion as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural.” With Merriam-Webster you have to go to the fourth alternative definition for religion to mean “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” The field of religious studies isn’t a ton more help. Although for the most part, in that field “religion” is more the cause, or principle, or system of beliefs than anything in particular to do with God or gods.
Zen arises in early Medieval China, and while it is heavily influenced by Confucianism and most of all Daoism, it has always been a school of Buddhism that emphasizes two things. One is a practice. The name Zen refers to that. Zen means meditation. But it also has to do with a way of encountering the world called enlightenment or awakening.
Zen’s awakening is described in the Heart Sutra as knowing from inside one’s bones “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” This is a nondual understanding of how things are. And, while I would argue a nondual insight is perhaps best described within the Zen Buddhist school, it appears in possibly every religion. Each with their own emphasis, but all with a pointing into a mysterious realm of intimacy.
So, the master Koun Yamada repeated all the time, “Christians who do zazen can become better Christians. Muslims can become better Muslims.” And beyond that, he noticed they can awaken into the depths of the mystery, and critically, can from their own experiences answer all the koans. All of them. Like Sister MacInnes. As close to proof of the pudding as Zen can ask.
Also, this turns out to work with people of no particular faith, humanists, agnostics, atheists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, etc. Etc. Sensei Sasaki is right. Roshi Yamada is right.
There’s a famous story about the Buddha, which is captured as a Zen koan, a pointer to the intimate. In it a non-Buddhist comes to the World Honored One and asks the question of the nondual perspective, saying “I do not ask about what can be said; I do not ask about what cannot be said.” The Buddha responded by just sitting, present. The non-Buddhist witnessing this expressed her joy at the direct pointing, saying her heart had been put to rest.
Later, his disciple Ananda asked the Buddha what did the non-Buddhist understand? Ananda is always the straight man in these stories.
The World Honored one replied “that non-Buddhist is like a great racehorse, who dashes at even the shadow of the whip.”
So, if anyone can attain to the way, what would you say the answer to the question might be?
Is Zen a religion?