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Thread: On the issue of Soto Zen as a religion

  1. #1

    On the issue of Soto Zen as a religion

    This probably the millionth discussion about this topic . I've been rereading Opening the Hand of Thought and Uchiyama touches upon Buddhism as a religion. When people ask me what my religion is I always answer that I am not religious. Even though I am a follower of the Soto Zen school I might just as well say that I am a follower, or rather, a practitioner of life. To me it doesn't matter if people qualify my practice as religious because it is just another example of conceptualization, just another example of defining this or that. To life it doesn't matter either because everything is what it is regardless of the thoughts we have about or labels we put on them. On the other hand there is of course Soto Zen as an institutution with its associations, organizational structures, buildings, leaders, priests, guidelines, rituals, the whole kit and caboodle. This whole thing has nothing to do with Uchiyama's point of view but reading about it made me wonder how fellow sangha members feel about this.

    Gassho,
    Seibu
    Sattoday/lah

  2. #2
    Hi Seibu,

    Nishijima Roshi wavered between calling Buddhism a "religion" or a "philosophy." He had a really wide definition of "religion" as any believe system about our ultimate human place and value in the world which informs our behavior, and which we proceed to act upon. That would include all the usual religions, but also Marxism, Humanism, and even atheism and maybe agnosticism as all religions. All are based on assumptions to one degree or another, and even "scientism" to the degree that it is an extreme faith in science as the only or primary truth to an extent far beyond the meaning of the scientific method.

    Zen and Buddhism have aspects of ethical, epistemological and metaphysical philosophy as well as psychology. However, if one actually looks at how Buddhism and Zen were practiced on the ground through the centuries, including by monastics like Dogen, from India to Thailand to Tibet to Tokyo, it certainly has many of the traditional elements of religion complete with saints and saviors, spirits and ceremonies and all the rest. Westerners and some Asians, in the later 19th century, who were Buddhist "modernists" tried to claim that such were popular fables and such which crept into "pure" original Buddhism, but really they were there from the start. On the other hand, many folks (I am one) think that Buddhist modernism is a pretty good thing overall, even if it is a rather new formulation of Buddhism.

    So, yes, I would say that Buddhism is generally a religion like any other, with most of the same elements as Christianity, Judaism and Islam. However, you can also find there what you wish to find. It can be "Seibu-ism."

    Sorry to run long.

    Gassho, Jundo

    STLah
    Last edited by Jundo; 05-23-2021 at 10:46 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  3. #3
    Hi Seibu

    Yes, it is interesting to consider whether or not Soto Zen, and Zen in general, is a religion or not, and opinions seem to differ.

    The American Rinzai pioneer Ruth Sasaki Fuller (1892–1967) had this to say:

    Fundamentally, Zen is a religion. Whatever other qualities or aspects it may have, all derive from or are by-products of the particular kind of religion Zen is. But a religion Zen certainly is, and of first importance in knowing something about Zen is to know it is a religion.

    -- Zen, A Religion (1958)
    For me, I think that the degree of organisation and codification of Soto practice makes it a religion but I don't have any kind of clinging to that notion. If people want to consider themselves and their personal practice not to be religious, I don't have a problem with that and think it will be interesting to see what the responses are here.

    Buddhism, and Zen are, in many ways, outliers in the world of religion, which has mostly been applied to the three Abrahamic and monotheistic faiths, in not relying on belief in a deity which may be why many people shy away from using the word. Also, as you suggest, the notion of a religion is just a concept imposed on certain forms of behaviour and belief, and many Buddhist teachers understandably talk about the dangers of attaching to labels. In Lion's Roar Buddhist magazine, three teachers were asked whether they considered Buddhism to be a religion or not, and the respective answers were 'yes', 'no' and 'kind of' (you might guess that it was the Zen teacher who gave the third reply!): https://www.lionsroar.com/is-buddhis...november-2013/

    In the end, after contemplating this for some time, I think that whether you call Zen a religion or not is far less important than the practice that we undertake. As Shakespeare said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", and our practice remains the same whether we call it religious, spiritual, secular or any other label.

    Gassho
    Kokuu
    -sattoday/lah-
    Last edited by Kokuu; 05-23-2021 at 10:59 AM.
    ------------------------------------
    Feel free to message me if you wish to talk about issues around practicing with physical limitations. This is something I have been sitting with for a fair while and am happy to help with suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

  4. #4
    as Jundo already said, it depends a lot on your definition. The word religion comes from a latin word, religare and religare means something like (re)binding. Binding again with something that goes beyond our daily concern. Paul Tillich writes that, “Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern."

    But that shifts the question to what is that ultimate concern? God? Maybe.. Brad Warner wrote a nice book about the question of who or where is god: 'there is no god and he is always with you. '



    aprapti

    sat

    Let silence take you to the core of life (Rumi)


    Aprāpti (अप्राप्ति) non-attainment

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Seibu View Post
    This probably the millionth discussion about this topic . I've been rereading Opening the Hand of Thought and Uchiyama touches upon Buddhism as a religion. When people ask me what my religion is I always answer that I am not religious. Even though I am a follower of the Soto Zen school I might just as well say that I am a follower, or rather, a practitioner of life. To me it doesn't matter if people qualify my practice as religious because it is just another example of conceptualization, just another example of defining this or that. To life it doesn't matter either because everything is what it is regardless of the thoughts we have about or labels we put on them. On the other hand there is of course Soto Zen as an institutution with its associations, organizational structures, buildings, leaders, priests, guidelines, rituals, the whole kit and caboodle. This whole thing has nothing to do with Uchiyama's point of view but reading about it made me wonder how fellow sangha members feel about this.

    Gassho,
    Seibu
    Sattoday/lah
    I consider buddhism and thus Zen to be a religion. When I light incense at the altar, ring the bell, light candles, put the rakusu on, I do it all ceremonially, as a religious act, yet when I wash the dishes or talk to friends I do it with the same reverence and respect and consider it just as much my zen practice, though not ceremonial. None of the ritual is necessary for the practice of zen, really, so to me, Zen is a religion to be practiced continuously and completely, sometimes ritualistically but all of the time just wholeheartedly.

    SatToday lah
    Bion
    美音

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  6. #6
    Hi Seibu

    This is a question that comes to mind from time to time. In the West, we learn to view Buddhism as a religion competing with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism etc. Much of my family are practicing Christians of one denomination or another. They would certainly view my receiving the Precepts etc as a conversion to another religion. Personally I don’t get to fussed about it. When it comes to the question of God, Gods, or gods I am agnostic. When it comes to this practice I tend to prefer the term life-practice. It is a way of living my life. I’ve used the term life-philosophy in the past but now I prefer life-practice. What ever it is I am wholeheartedly committed to this path.


    Tairin
    Sat today and lah
    泰林 - Tai Rin - Peaceful Woods

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Seibu View Post
    This probably the millionth discussion about this topic . I've been rereading Opening the Hand of Thought and Uchiyama touches upon Buddhism as a religion. When people ask me what my religion is I always answer that I am not religious. Even though I am a follower of the Soto Zen school I might just as well say that I am a follower, or rather, a practitioner of life. To me it doesn't matter if people qualify my practice as religious because it is just another example of conceptualization, just another example of defining this or that. To life it doesn't matter either because everything is what it is regardless of the thoughts we have about or labels we put on them. On the other hand there is of course Soto Zen as an institutution with its associations, organizational structures, buildings, leaders, priests, guidelines, rituals, the whole kit and caboodle. This whole thing has nothing to do with Uchiyama's point of view but reading about it made me wonder how fellow sangha members feel about this.

    Gassho,
    Seibu
    Sattoday/lah
    I like your thinking here. It doesn’t do much good to get tangled up in conceptions, especially if you are not living the philosophy/religion, this is how a Stoic I know put it and it is very illuminating (to become a better Stoic is the same as becoming a better Christian, Buddhist, Muslim etc etc) :

    https://medium.com/stoicism-philosop...n-2b8a10cd1521
    Last edited by StoBird; 05-24-2021 at 12:40 AM.
    “Do what’s hard to do when it is the right thing to do.”- Robert Sopalsky

  8. #8
    Thank you all for sharing your points of view .

    Nishijima Roshi's definition of religion is interesting because it is not strictly defined according to established scholarly, intellectual, or cultural criteria and and reveals a much broader view of the idea of religion. Jundo, if I have to use a definition (or two), I'm also a big fan of modernist Buddhism and engaged Buddhism.

    Kokuu, not clining to definitions and focusing on our practice I embrace wholeheartedly. Buddhist and scholarly definitions differ too because as Buddhists we are taught that definitions are exactly that and nothing more whereas a scholar might be working on a research project involving, for example, modern trends in religion, having to work with frameworks and definitions in order to measure certain things. Practice will be practice regardless of how others define it. Thank you for the link to the interesting and helpful article.

    Aprapti, this could become an interesting discussion because we could share our individual definitions of both religion and the idea of god and compare them with established cultural or mainstream definitions and other personal definitions. The word religion, as you explained, has Latin roots. What word would be used by, let's say the Japanese, or Indonesian people to define the idea of religion? Would it have the same meaning? Uchiyama says that who we are is a matter of random factors ranging from genes to culture and exposure to other ideas and experiences along the way.

    With regard to Brad Warner's argument that there is no god and he is always with you is not something I'd easily accept because I don't believe in a god. To me the idea of god is just another example of an idea, a concept, a notion etc. There are many gods according to many different people. Japanese gods, Roman gods (thank you Greeks), Greek gods, and a bunch of monotheistic gods among others. So which god that is not there would always be with me?

    Tairin, I see where you are coming from. You were probably familiar with commandments before you became a Buddhist, so I see how vows and commandments are linked. I like your definition of life-practice; that's what I find the most suitable definition if I have to use one.

    Stobird, yes most definitely. Since becoming a Treeleaf member I have been de-intellectualizing myself thanks to the wonderful sangha and Roshi here at Treeleaf. As a translator and university graduate, I used to intellectualize many things, including Buddhism. A lot has changed since then and I stick to life-practice nowadays .

    Sorry for running long.

    Gassho,
    Seibu
    Sattoday

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Seibu View Post

    Nishijima Roshi's definition of religion is interesting because it is not strictly defined according to established scholarly, intellectual, or cultural criteria and and reveals a much broader view of the idea of religion.
    I'm in the "Zen isn't a religion" camp, in part because I don't want it to be a religion. My personal feeling is that the "established scholarly, intellectual, or cultural criteria" are western-biased, and don't adapt well to concepts that are not those of monotheistic or polytheistic systems. Yes, Zen has rituals, temples, monks, etc, but that doesn't seem to me to be the heart of Zen. I see Zen as more like Greek philosophical schools, where practices are developed to live life better. Calling Zen a religion puts it in a different plane, partly one that is not questioned, but also one that can be considered weaker because rituals suggest a lot of blind adherence to old timey things.

    Consider Tibetan Buddhism: it is both a popular religion, and an esoteric philosophical system. Just as Christianity has two levels (or more) - that of theologians and that of basic practitioners - Tibetan Buddhism, with its complex rituals and devotional elements is clearly, at least partly, a religion. Zen doesn't have the same level of the latter, and strip them away, and all that's left is a philosophical system, complex perhaps, but simple at heart.

    Gassho,

    Ryūmon

    sat
    -----

    流文

    I know nothing.

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Seibu View Post
    Since becoming a Treeleaf member I have been de-intellectualizing myself thanks to the wonderful sangha and Roshi here at Treeleaf.
    “De-intellectualizing”. I really like this and I am with you on this. One of my commitments to myself on joining Treeleaf was to just live this practice and not engage in the discussions that veer towards being mostly mental gymnastics .

    Thank you for your practice


    Tairin
    Sat today and lah
    泰林 - Tai Rin - Peaceful Woods

  11. #11
    I am trying to figure this out as well. I have a lot of whiplash from modern paganism and the trappings there in so I would prefer to think of it as something outside of religion but Zen does have the trappings that allow it to be seen in such a light. It's a unique philosophy that lends itself to being a potent series of guide posts and practices to living our lives and for me that seems to be good enough.

    The real question I ask myself is "does it really matter?" and while my brain says yes I am pretty sure I am content without a distinction.

    Gassho
    Kaisho
    Lahsat

    Sent from my SM-A205U using Tapatalk

  12. #12
    Personally I think Soto Zen is both a religion and something else. Perhaps some people who practice Zazen are religious while others aren’t.

    Gassho,
    Gareth

    Sat today
    Last edited by bad_buddha_007; 06-02-2021 at 12:38 AM.

  13. #13
    As I understand it--based on what I've read, seen, and practiced--religion is a form of life constituted by the acknowledgement of and submission to a reality that transcends the mere individual. One could characterize the "acknowledgement of" as a way of seeing or witnessing this reality, and the "submission to" as responsive action to that reality. In this account, Zen is certainly a religion, and that's how I treat it, but like all religions, when properly practiced, it's just an open door.

    Gassho,

    Hobun

    STLAH

  14. #14
    It's worth looking at how the term "religion" is defined. This Wikipedia article shows how tenuous it is, especially once you leave the realm of monotheism.

    "In nineteenth century Japan, Buddhism was radically transformed from a pre-modern philosophy of natural law into a religion, as Japanese leaders worked to address domestic and international political concerns."

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition_of_religion

    Gassho,

    Ryūmon

    sat
    -----

    流文

    I know nothing.

  15. #15
    Quote Originally Posted by Ryumon View Post

    "In nineteenth century Japan, Buddhism was radically transformed from a pre-modern philosophy of natural law into a religion, as Japanese leaders worked to address domestic and international political concerns."

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Definition_of_religion
    That is just silly and, if anything, the exact opposite of what happened historically in the 19th century in Japan and elsewhere as Buddhists sought to strip Buddhism of many ages old religious elements in order to present Buddhism to the world as a modern and "scientific" belief system. Some wonderful books and articles on the topic;

    https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com...93521-0041.xml

    Also from Wikipedia Roshi:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_modernism

    Gassho, Jundo

    STLah
    Last edited by Jundo; 05-28-2021 at 10:40 AM.
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  16. #16
    Quote Originally Posted by Tairin View Post
    “De-intellectualizing”. I really like this and I am with you on this. One of my commitments to myself on joining Treeleaf was to just live this practice and not engage in the discussions that veer towards being mostly mental gymnastics .
    I was going to say that the way I relate to Zen - and the way many in this sangha seem to relate to it - is that of a practice. Like others, I'm not sure the distinction is important to me, but if a non-Buddhist asked if Zen was a religion, I'd probably say yes. After all, to do something "religiously" means to do it regularly without fail, not necessarily with some spiritual belief in place.

    Shinshou (Daniel)
    Sat Today

  17. #17
    FWIW I tend to regard "religion" as a noun.

    gassho
    d. shonin sat/lent a hand today
    Visiting unsui, take with salt. तस्माद् अस्तित्वनास्तित्वे नाश्रीयेत विचक्षणः।

  18. #18
    Yes and no, It is and it Isn't. In the end, they're just labels so it doesn't really matter to me.

    Gassho, John
    Sat/LAH
    Last edited by Synjin; 05-29-2021 at 06:07 PM.
    "If you’re not sure, don’t act. Once you act, you wander through birth and death and regret" -Bodhidharma Bloodstream Sermon

    "Frog is a good example of our practice —when a frog sits he sits. He becomes a frog, Zen becomes Zen." -Suzuki

  19. #19
    _()_

    gassho
    d. shonin sat/lah
    Visiting unsui, take with salt. तस्माद् अस्तित्वनास्तित्वे नाश्रीयेत विचक्षणः।

  20. #20
    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    That is just silly and, if anything, the exact opposite of what happened historically in the 19th century in Japan and elsewhere as Buddhists sought to strip Buddhism of many ages old religious elements in order to present Buddhism to the world as a modern and "scientific" belief system. Some wonderful books and articles on the topic;

    https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com...93521-0041.xml

    Also from Wikipedia Roshi:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_modernism

    Gassho, Jundo

    STLah
    I need to correct what I said a bit. It is true that the Japanese did not particularly have the word "religion" until westerners and their missionaries came (or its Japanese equivalent, Shukkyo, which means something like "Sect Teaching"). They just had what they had. Still, I would say that it was pretty much as I described with beliefs and practices to get in good with the universe or just get grandpa a good rebirth after he died. It was a "religion."

    Gassho, J

    STLah
    ALL OF LIFE IS OUR TEMPLE

  21. #21
    I might tell people that Zen is Buddhist practice stripped of the religious aspects, but then I can be found facing a wall, chanting, with a Rakusu on my head. What a strange sight my non-religion must be .

    Gassho,
    Phill / Sōka
    sat

  22. #22
    I have been thinking about this for a little while and I feel that not calling Zen a religion somehow waters it down for me.

    I get that this is mostly semantics, that Zen is ultimately a practice, but it means everything to me and is a major part of my moment to moment life, and so calling it a religion makes more sense to me.

    I was raised religious, and have been involved with various religions for most of my life so I suppose some of this is just comfort level with the term.

    The other part of it is, some of my family members don't quite understand why I have gone down the Zen path, and they would rather think of it as a simple practice (or phase) rather than a religious path. Hearing them talk about zen like that sort of cheapens it, because I feel like it minimizes how important it is in my life and how much I have grown and overcome since starting in Zen.

    Sorry for running long!

    Gassho,
    John
    Sat today

    Sent from my LG-H910 using Tapatalk

  23. #23
    John.3, I've struggled with that question many times especially in discussions with my family. I've taken an "audience" approach that seems to work for me. If my audience sees my practice as a religion, then I refer to it as a religion. If not, I refer to it as a practice. Either way my audience's opinion can not reduce the importance and regard I hold for my "religious practice" (see what I did there? LOL).

    I hope that helps in some small way.

    Gassho,
    Steve (from deep in the religious South)
    sat

  24. #24
    Sometimes I feel a pull to more religious dressing(seeing any personification as archetypal). Sometimes I just sit and don't think about all that.

    Dave

    Sat/LAH

  25. #25
    I have learned from this post. Thank you.

    Over 50 years ago I walked away from religion because it seemed made up of hypocrites, fairytales and was responsible for many crimes against humanity throughout time. As the decades passed and the passions of a rebellious youth subsided I saw that religion provided comfort, meaning and purpose for many. I began to appreciate it as a “practice” to guide people through life and it was not religion that encompassed the qualities I rejected but some of its practitioners. Some of that growth comes from 41 years of being married to an Orthodox Christian who practices Christian values.

    However the word “religion” still makes me uncomfortable. So when this post started I hung in there to challenge my views. Though I see Zen as my practice and not my religion I accept the assertions of many above that embrace it as a religion. That all makes sense to me now. Though when people ask my religion (not sure if anyone ever has and I never talk about it nor ask them theirs) I would probably say none or maybe Nature we are all one with (if I feel in the mood to be challenging which has been greatly reduced with age and possibly a result of decades of Zazen).

    Thank you all for the teaching. An old dog can learn new tricks. You provided me a teaching moment.

    Sorry to go long, this post caused me to explore my paradigm.

    Doshin
    St

  26. #26
    I will speak briefly. Mt father sees my practice as a religion, and images of the Buddha as idol worship. He cannot break free of centuries of misunderstanding. He has seen my beautiful poems, some Buddhist, on Facebook. I have posted our Zazenkai recording on my page. Perhaps he doesn't know what to make of them. We have been friends op Facebook for a decade or maybe 12 years. By now, he has seen much of Buddhist handiwork. So, I believe he won't invite me to fly from South Dakota to California. This is my practice, to allow life to unfold.
    Gassho
    sat/ lah
    Tai Shi
    "Nothing is so beautiful as spring--/ When weeds in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush: Thrush eggs look little low heavens, and thrush/ Through the echoing timber does not rise and wring/ The ear it strikes like lightening to hear him sing;.." Hopkins

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