Results 1 to 18 of 18

Thread: Zen a religion?

  1. #1

    Zen a religion?

    I always thought Zen was not a religion.

    But after visiting a few monks, the more I learn of Zen, the more religion like it seems.

    The Zen teachings of Bodhidharma, and also Huang Po's style of teaching seem very far from a 'religion' as such. They seem pretty bare bones, straight to the point.

    Bodhidharma even talks about certain rituals as being of no use, and that most of the Sutras are in Metaphors. But people have taken it literally.

    I don't want to go too much into the books, but do you think zen has changed from Bodhidharma's original intention?

    Any thoughts?



  2. #2

    Re: Zen a religion?

    Just to add, I don't want to start any sort of debate. Im just interested as to how Zen seems to have 'evolved' and would appreciate you thoughts/ideas.


  3. #3

    Re: Zen a religion?

    Hi Chogetsu,

    I say the following whenever I am asked about the history of Buddhism, not just since the time of Bodhidharma. It applies to your question too, I think.

    But one thing for folks to remember is that Buddhism did change and evolve over many centuries, as it passed from culture to culture in Asia. The Buddha lived 2500 years ago in ancient India, whereupon the philosophy passed to China 1000 years later, and then to someone like Master Dogen who lived about 1000 years after that in medieval Japan. You and I live in the strange world known as the 21st century. Certainly, some changes arose along the way in some important interpretations and outer forms. For example, the Chinese made Zen Practice very Chinese, the Japanese very medieval Japanese, and now we are making it very Western.

    However, the Heart of the Buddha's teachings ... the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, Non-Self, Non-Attachment, the Middle Way, etc. etc., ... All are here now as much as there then!!


    On the one hand some outer stuff is, well, changed. For example, when Buddhism came to China it was heavily influenced by, and pretty much merged with, Taoism (not to mention that it was already "Mahayana Buddhism" by that time, a very different flavor from the original). The result was this little thing we now call "Zen Buddhism". So, congratulations, we are already "Taoists" and "Mahayana Buddhists" ... not just "Buddhists". When it got to Japan, the Japanese added Japanese culture to it. In the West, we are now making some very good changes (although we have to, of course, try to avoid bad changes). These good changes include equality of the sexes and a greater emphasis on lay practice.

    But it is still Buddhism. What Dogen taught was Buddhism. What we do around Treeleaf (I do believe) is as Buddhism as Buddhism can be.

    I will even go so far as to say (and this is the kind of statement that has gotten me into all kinds of trouble on with some folks in Buddhism's own fundamentalist quarters) that maybe, just maybe, later Buddhism actually made some big and important "improvements" to the Buddha's original formulation with all those additions, and a couple of thousand years of working out the kinks and bugs. It is much like saying that Buddha was Henry Ford, who first thought up the brilliant idea of sticking 4 wheels on an internal combustion engine, but now we can drive a Prius! I even say that maybe, just maybe, the Buddha was not infallible on every darn thing and, while he was 90% right in his proposals, he also had some klunkers and narrow ideas here and there (as fits a man who lived in a traditional, myth based society some 2500 years ago in ancient India) ... like the whole thing about an overly mechanical view of rebirth, the place of women, the need to abandon the world and family in order to Practice and to repress or extinquish (as opposed to moderate & balance & pierce) the desires and emotions. ...

    Also, do not forget that what the Buddha taught was an oral tradition for hundreds of years, passed down orally alone, until somebody finally wrote it all down hundreds of years after he was dead ... and then all the Buddhists immediately set to disagreeing about which of them had the "authentic" teachings. (The book "What the Buddha Taught" tries to play down that fact). That is why a study of the entire history of Buddhism is useful in knowing the interpretation(s) of the "Eightfold Path".

    Dogen was different from Shakyamuni Buddha, who are both different from all of us.

    But when we are sitting a moment of Zazen ... perfectly whole, just complete unto itself, without borders and duration, not long or short, nothing to add or take away, containing all moments and no moments in "this one moment" ... piercing Dukkha, attaining non-self, non-attached ... then there is not the slightest gap between each of us and the Buddha.
    But, in any event, getting back to your question about whether Zen is a "religion" and whether it was in Bodhidharma's time ...

    Bodhidharma is really kind of a fictional composite, like Moses. That does not mean that he does not stand for something real, but nobody really knows what "Bodhidharma taught" (there is only one short writing that possibly is by him or from near his time.)

    In any event, for most of its history Buddhism would probably count as a religion. It is not a religion with a "God" so much, but in much of the Mahayana (and even some Zen interpretations) there was a "Cosmic Buddha" or some other "Force" that serves a similar role. On the other hand, Zen is also a school of agnosticism on many issues, so has aspects of just being a philosophy/school of psychology. It is kind of on the border.

    My own teacher, Nishijima, goes back and forth on the issue of whether it is a philosophy or religion. Certainly, if you came to Japan and visited a Zen temple, you would instantly recognize that it is a "religion", with ceremonies to keep the universe on our side, help Grandpa get a good afterlife and such, priests, incense and bells.

    Me, I don't worry about the question so much. As I often say ...

    If Zen is a "religion" or a "philosophy" or if there is a "Cosmic Buddha" or "Force" ... I just chop wood and fetch water, try not to do too much harm in life.

    And if Zen is not a "religion" or a "philosophy" or if there is not a "Cosmic Buddha" or "Force" ... I just chop wood and fetch water, try not to do too much harm in life.

    Gassho, Jundo

  4. #4

    Re: Zen a religion?

    Thanks for that reply Jundo.

    I think, as your website says, 'Life is our temple'.

    It would be wrong of me to assume that Zen can be limited to a 'religion', or a group of certain 'practices'. When in fact, Zen can actually be seen as everything, or rather, everything is Zen.



  5. #5

    Re: Zen a religion?

    HI Chogetsu,

    (So what does your name mean? just curious :mrgreen: )

    I do not refer to zen buddhism as a "religeon" because I think most people define a religeon as having a belief in (at least one) supernatural being (god(s)).

    So I would agree that it is a philosophy (there is certainly philosophy in it) and/or a way of life. This last one is becoming more and more relevant as I try to live my life more and more ethically and cut through more and more illusions in my life (the four vows are very central for me). But I am fond of saying zen buddhism is, most importantly, a process. I once had the experience of feeling, not that I do zazen, but that the zazen is doing me. And the koan, "what is a buddhist life" is constantly with me.

    thank you for your time,
    who is very fond of :mrgreen:

  6. #6

    Re: Zen a religion?

    Chogetsu means Bright Moon (At least, I think it does :? )

    It's not a name that was given to me, I just sort of, picked it for myself 'cos I liked it :P


  7. #7

    Re: Zen a religion?

    One of the Chinese teachers, I think possibly Hsuan Hua, said that Buddhism is not a religion but does not lack the elements of religion. I thought that was a pretty good explanation.

  8. #8

    Re: Zen a religion?

    But what if Zen was a religion?

    Not all religions have a lot of rituals. Even in Christianity, there are some groups that almost have no rituals.

    In Zen Buddhism, we talk about Guan Yin & Manjusri. Some folks see them as stand in for Bodhisattvas. Others as very real beings in another spheres of existence. Which is right? Which is wrong? Neither?

  9. #9

    Re: Zen a religion?

    I don't think that calling it a religion implies anything 'otherworldly' or anything to do with a diety.

    From my point of view, it's a religion because it comes with an actual set of practices, the full expression of which cannot be fully explained with words.


  10. #10

  11. #11

    Re: Zen a religion?

    Before rap came along, the word "music" had a moderately stable meaning in American popular culture. Then folks debated as to whether or not rap was a form of music or something that required a new word. Finally people gave up and just used the word that seemed the closest fit: "music." The same was true with rock, country, jazz, etc. So defining the word "religion" is the difficult part. Word meaning (if I might play a postmodern hand here) is never fixed but is a collectively agreed upon idea. The word "religion" means only what a group of folks takes it to mean, and that depends on geography, culture, education, etc.

    My take: Unless we are applying for tax-exempt status, does it really matter? If it walks like a duck, smells like a duck, looks like a duck, maybe it's a duck, or maybe it is a new species of bird that is a close relative. Regardless, I can admire the shiny feathers, the care that it take to raise it's ducklings, and it's ability to fly.


    PS: Ducks also poop alot.

  12. #12

    Re: Zen a religion?

    From the Bodhidharma perspective he was big on seeing one's true nature. This was most important. However, his "teachings" also urged not to become complacent. Said something like: it's easy to become complacent in one's practice at a certain point. So, you realize your true nature, but then the question is "What are you going to do with it?"

    Even Dogen kept realizing realization after realization, so what can we really say about chanting the Heart Sutra, or bowing in appreciation and understanding to a Buddha. Kind of thanking Bohdi D, and the rest. Well, we can't say much until we do it because we understand the reason.

    If by religion you mean a certian type of worship, or belief in some other grand being, then no Buddhism is not that. I would say instead that it is the belief in each and every person ability to accept and find peace so to speak. Kindness. Fun. Enjoyment. Understanding and Life.


  13. #13

    Re: Zen a religion?

    I think there are some advantages to seeing it as a religion. If we decide not to, then we have to figure out what to do with all the religious, devotional, mythical, cosmological, magical, poetic elements that are in Buddhism. And the non-religious, philosophical answer is that we should dismiss these things or find a way to "rationalize" them. And that leads to a lot of argument and anxiety.

    Plus, what if they have some degree of value? Maybe they point to something beyond rational conception.

  14. #14

    Re: Zen a religion?

    One other thought:
    The beauty of Zen is that for the non-religious it can be done non-religiously; for the religious, it can be done religiously.


  15. #15

    Re: Zen a religion?


    For me personally, it's not a means to an end, nor does it have anything to do with dieties or participating in any grand scheme of things.

    It's just how I choose to live my life.


  16. #16

    Re: Zen a religion?


    It all depends on what you "put in" into "religion".

    It can be both and neither.


  17. #17

    Re: Zen a religion?

    Thanks for the reply's everyone.

    Like I posted earlier, my own view now, is that Zen can't really be limited to anything. Zen can be everything.

    I think theres a quote that goes something like:

    When Zen becomes Zen, there is no Zen.


  18. #18

    Re: Zen a religion?

    What ever you think it is, it's not that. Now where does that leave us?


Similar Threads

  1. Religion is Daily Life
    By Yugen in forum Archive of Older Threads
    Replies: 5
    Last Post: 04-19-2012, 02:54 PM
  2. Is Buddhism a religion?
    By Gautami in forum Archive of Older Threads
    Replies: 34
    Last Post: 10-15-2009, 08:20 PM
  3. 6/6 - Zazen as Religion p. 109
    By Janice in forum Opening the Hand of Thought by Kosho Uchiyama
    Replies: 20
    Last Post: 06-21-2008, 04:11 PM

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts