Friday, March 19, 2010

So, Is Zen A Religion, Or What?

Laughing Buddha
Laughing Buddha At Chinese Restaurant, Helsinki, 2005

If some early bird around six o'clock on a March Sunday morning had happened to look in through the window of the classroom in Pernaja that we had converted to a zendo, I don't think he'd have had many doubts on this score. He would have encountered a pulsating growl of two score people chanting something along the lines of...
Praise to the Buddha
All awaken to the Buddha
Buddha, Dharma, Sangha
Eternal, joyful, egoless, pure
All the day Kanzeon
All the night Kanzeon
This moment is born of Mind
This moment is Mind
...with a dignified lady in freshly pressed black robes performing prostrations on a pale yellow mat before a bronze statue on a makeshift altar, with someone else beating a wooden drum shaped like a fish's head and another one sounding a big bell that looks like a cauldron (with the Lord knows what in it).

In fact, he'd probably have called the police. Or an exorcist. And had he happened by later, during our yoga interlude, when we were tugging at our earlobes in complete silence with frighteningly concentrated expressions, an ambulance.

If Zen isn't a religion, it sure looks and sounds like one. However, in other ways it is significantly different from what we in the part of the world that used to be called Christendom understand by it. Western Christianity has been very much focused on questions of doctrine and belief, from the Christological debates of late antiquity, through the scholasticism and heresies and inquisitions of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the dogmatic disputes of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, ultimately to the tone of discourse set by Biblical literalists of our time. Protestantism has taken this near its logical conclusion, as it painted over the images of saints in churches and made religion a matter between the believer and God, and sola scriptura its ultimate authority.

I think Zen may have more in common with Judaism than Western Christianity. It's not so much about believing anything in particular is it is about following a practice. I don't think it's a coincidence that there are so many Jews among Zen teachers and practitioners in the West: they already know how to practice, which gives them a huge head start. The rest of us have to first figure out what practice even is, before we can get started on it. Even more than Judaism, Zen is about orthopraxis rather than orthodoxy: doing things rather than believing things.

The problem with characterizing Zen as a religion – or not – is largely due to our reflexively seeing religion in terms of orthodoxy. By those terms, it's not really much of a religion. It's apatheistic, beliefs are pretty much optional, and doctrinal disputes are about the how rather than the what. Brad Warner thinks koans will fuck you up and it's better just to sit quietly and let things happen; Kapleau Roshi thinks that you have to give yourself to the practice body and soul1 and chip away at the roots of your delusions wielding the koan given you by your teacher, or you might as well not bother.

There is a huge amount of conceptual apparatus around Zen, from the core described already in the Pali Canon to contributions by the likes of Ashvagosha and Nagarjuna, Hakuin and Dogen, not to mention the anonymous authors of the Mahayana sutras.2 Much of it is intellectually highly attractive – practical, coherent, logically sound. Much is dense, opaque, and difficult, and does not make a whole lot of sense unless you're already pretty far in your practice.3

Together, this corpus does constitute a philosophy, every bit as much as, say, Marxism or Platonism or post-structuralism, and from where I'm at, it has a good deal more intellectual coherence and rigor than some of the above. But that's not all Zen is either, any more than it is only meditation or only ritual.

Ultimately, it boils down to the pithy subtitle of Philip Kapleau's book – enlightenment, teaching, and practice. Buddha, dharma, sangha. Whether that constitutes a religion is something of a matter of opinion. It's pretty pointless to argue about it, really, very much including this little ramble. Personally, I think I'm only interested in the question because I haven't thought of myself as religious or spiritual since I gave up on Christianity around the age of ten or eleven, and I'm rather surprised that I find rituals like chanting the Kannon sutra so easy and natural, or that when I recite the Four Vows, I actually mean them, at that moment, as silly as it may sound.

If your definition includes belief in the supernatural, blind faith, or ideas of absolute right or wrong, then Zen is not a religion. If it doesn't, Zen probably is a religion. Ultimately, the whole question is just about slapping a label on an abstraction, and abstractions definitely have no independent existence of their own – no matter what you think about anatta.

1 Which are illusions, naturally. Uh, right?
2 No, I don't believe they were really dictated by the Shakyamuni and then hidden by dragons for a few hundred years, before being conveniently discovered inside treetrunks and under rocks by monks who felt Buddhism had gotten too self-absorbed. That's just silly.
3 Anyway, I hope that's the reason, and not just that I'm too hopelessly dense.


  1. Zen is a religion.

    Next question?

  2. Seriously, great post. Only I'd comment that the "sectarian" divisions amongst Buddhists - and Zen Buddhists in particular, with notable exceptions - aren't worth measuring.

  3. (2)You're really a party pooper, ain't you?
    (3) Or, Yama forbid, time is being miserably wasted.