Zen & Buddhism Q&As

Is Zen a religion?

When Zen was popularised in the West, after WW2, there was a strong emphasis on its ahistorical, pragmatic nature.

There was a lot of talk of ‘enlightenment’, of ‘koans’, and of the paradoxical use of language. However, there was not so much on ‘ritual’ for example. That focus on a rational Zen, ignores the fact that Zen, with all its insight, is fundamentally rooted in the greater history of Buddhism in Asia.

So the question really is whether Buddhism is a religion?

This depends upon what you mean by religion.  Considering Buddhism from the western meaning of religion, it isn’t. There isn’t a God, there isn’t a heaven and there isn’t a soul. So in those senses, it’s not a religion but a way of living.

The focus, when we think about religion, is upon thinking in terms of belief, ‘What do these people believe?’ 

But this ignores something fundamental about religions, that they are a form of practice which by and large privilege the whole over the individual.  So while Zen is often difficult for acquisitive minded, rational people to understand, it’s actually more comprehensible for religious people. So, for example, if I was to have a conversation with a Catholic and say,

“Wouldn’t you say that the purpose of Catholicism is to exalt God rather than to exalt you?”

The Catholic would say, “Well, of course”.

Then I would say, “in Buddhism it’s like that too, except that what we are exalting is all of existence, which includes you, but, unlike spiritual materialism, we’re not exalting the hermetically sealed conceptual ‘you’.”

Whether you wish to describe Zen as a religion or not isn’t so important, but what is important, is to primarily see it as being something existing entirely outside the model of western individualism, and all that follows from that.

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