Is Zen a Religion?

Is Zen a Religion? December 19, 2014
(Photo by Susan Kaplan)
(Photo by Susan Kaplan)

When I was about sixteen, I confronted the Catholic priest in my little northern Minnesota hometown with my criticisms of the Catholic doctrine. He listened with a stricken look to my many objections to the faith and then simply said, “It is not our job to understand. God moves in mysterious ways.”

“‘Mysterious,’ maybe,” I thought, “but would an omnipotent God be stupid?”

So I rejected religion and went searching for the truth. First, I tried drugs, sex, and rocknroll, then Western literature and philosophy and finally had the dumb luck to stumble into Katagiri Roshi.

The is-Zen-a-religion? question came up in a recent class on the three refuges, or triple treasure – buddha, dharma, sangha.

I found that the “religion” word still sticks a bit in my craw. And yet …

Taking refuge is at the heart of our Zen way and at the heart of much of the Buddhist tradition. In the nyoho-e style of sewing the rakusu and kesa, we recite “Taking refuge in buddha” with each stitch. And every ceremony, from baby welcoming through funeral rites begins with this tender, heartful intention – taking refuge in buddha, taking refuge in dharma, taking refuge in sangha.

What does it mean to take refuge?

To open-heartedly return home to groundlessness, the great mystery.

And, imv, taking refuge is one of the primary distinctions between Zen and the secular mindfulness movement. When we return home to groundlessness, our practice isn’t primarily about getting some short-term benefit but about letting go in timeless inconceivability (aka, “don’t know heart”).

But does that make Zen a religion?

Well, first, it’s important to acknowledge that there isn’t a comparable word for “religion” in Sanskrit (or so I’m told by Wikipedia) and that the closest translation would be “dharma.” Shifting the question to “Is Zen dharma?” doesn’t have much mileage, like asking is grass grass?

So let’s consider the question in terms of Western languages where there is the word “religion” and the concept that it represents. What does that nasty little word, religion, even mean?

Poking around the internet, with various definitions and unclear etymology of the word, I’m most struck by “respect for what is sacred” and the Max Weber note that religion is inherently social. In the Zen context, “sacred” = groundless inconceivability (aka, the great mystery).

Respecting the sacred can’t be done fully in our private soap-bubble world of the mind.

Now let’s return to the associations that the word “religion” evokes. It is loaded for many of us – mindless subservience to an institution and/or unverifiable, outdated, unhealthy, superstitious beliefs.

Many of us rejected “religion” and, like me, went searching for something else.

The challenge for our times, it seems to me, is to shuck the superstitious baggage from the great traditions while actualizing a respect for the sacred. Together and altogether – clear and gentle.

That requires that we bring the full range of human feeling from horror to awe into the field of religious practice, respecting the sacred as this very life, taking refuge in the great mystery.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

8 responses to “Is Zen a Religion?”

  1. Without the sacred I think the point is missed and you end up living in a much smaller box-like reductionist world.

    These days I seem to find myself saying “Mindfulness is OK, but really it’s a doorway into a whole other world and unlike Narnia, it’s a pretty good idea to find a guide”.

    But I’m pragmatic, mindfulness is being used by people I know for psychotheraputic benefit. What I can do is flag up how old this stuff is and flag the issues that mainstream mindfulness movements remain coy or ignorant about, but some are likely to hit.

    I still don’t know really what this Zen stuff is actually all about, but I’m left with a certain approach to life and a certain precision of perception that others seem to see as useful. Go figure!

    I think Zen and Mindfulness are going to duke it out. I hope Zen wins Insome form!

    • Mike,
      Nicely put. The relationship between the secular mindfulness movement and the traditional forms of Buddhism seems quite complex, to say the least. I hope that it doesn’t go to duking it out! And mostly I hope that in the future the traditional forms don’t get swallowed or co opted by secular mindfulness. The religious aspect is really important, imv. Not sure if I made that point clearly in the post!
      Thanks for you comment,

  2. Fascinating. And a question that comes up not infrequently.

    Speaking personally, I’m pleased to claim the term “religion” for my own practice–but perhaps that’s because (over time) I’ve shed most of the animus I might have once had for the word. (And perhaps because so many years of reading Robert Aitken Roshi employing the term has softened its (once cringe-inducing) effect.) 🙂

    The tough part is–as you point out–it’s a word. And beyond that, a concept. So perhaps the question becomes: according to *whose* definition of religion is zen, or is zen not, a “religion”?

    P.S.: Can’t help but think of this bit from Pirandello’s “Six Characters In Search of an Author”: “But don’t you see that the whole trouble lies here? In words, words. Each one of us has within him a whole world of things, each man of us his own special world. And how can we ever come to an understanding if I put in the words I utter the sense and value of things as I see them; while you who listen to me must inevitably translate them according to the conception of things each one of you has within himself? We think we understand each other, but we never really do.”

  3. Thank you for these thoughts and elaboration on Monday’s talk. Dosho. I am reminded of Wittgenstein who said, “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” It seems a notion that is applicable to this discussion. As an undergrad my philosophy professor was always challenging with, “Define your terms.” Therein lies, for me, the koan, of Zen: a term that escapes definition.

  4. Truth is too swift to be caught, yet remains ever still. Name it.

    Religion: from the Latin, ligare: “bind, connect,” and with the prefix to rebind or reconnect.

    My immediate answer was that Zen is a religion, but only if it fails “to open-heartedly return home to groundlessness, the great mystery.” Yet the order suggested in the term “religion” calls for the perpetuation and defense of its principles and traditions by the practitioner: is that the end of Zen?.

  5. Buddhadasa Bhikku, not a zen guy but a theravadan, considered Buddhism a religion because it held nature as god. My understanding is that the practice is submission to the three natural elements of life being, suffering, impermanence, and not self. And, the self only comes into being when we fight nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.