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.

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