Monday, 23 May 2016

Is Zen a religion? If so or not so, so... what?

There will be a point to this, I hope, about mindfulness and Zen. So bear with me, or alternatively, not....

Is Zen a religion? This might matter more than it seems. 

Let's not get bogged down in definitions, but I'd like to consider this: Zen came out of a traceable lineage in Buddhism. Buddhists tend to point out that Buddhism isn't a religion, i.e. Gautama Buddha didn't think he was a supernatural being, any more than anyone else was. Zen could be seen as the least religion-like branch of Buddhism.

However, Gautama's was an age (6th century BCE) in which his people very broadly believed in reincarnation, and therefore in a metaphysical reality beyond our observable and measurable lives. I mean, something/someone has to move from a dying person to the next object of reincarnation if the system is going to work, and it can't be the sort of being you could meet in the frozen food aisle in Tesco's... (if you think, by the way, that you have met such a being in Tesco's, maybe seek help?)

But despite this supernatural component to Buddhism, derived of course from his Hindu background, Buddha wasn't a god in the usual way we use the word; he didn't rise from the dead, ascend to heaven etc. He didn't see himself as a supernatural being, or preach to people from such a standpoint. So Buddhism isn't a religion in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic sense - though at times it sure looks like one and perhaps gets used like one.

(OK, Buddhists may say, they aren't worshipping a god here, they are merely venerating historical enlightened people. But they do ask sometimes for what a Christian might call intercession. H'mmm...)

Interestingly (to me anyway) Zen developed out of the kind of Buddhism in these photos, the Mahayana, as opposed to the rather more austere Theravada Buddism of Thailand, Burma etc. These shots are of the huge Yonghegong Tibetan Buddhist temple in Beijing.

 When Buddhism came to China from India/Nepal, a school of thought developed called Ch'an, which was influenced by Taoism. Then Japan absorbed Cha'n Buddhism and Zen developed.

That's the end of my weak attempt at a history lesson. 

Zen perhaps more than any other form of Buddhism doesn't look to me like a religion, despite having monks and temples. The stories and meditative exercises I've come across make no mention of gods, miracles, prophets of a god.

Of course, a Zen monastery looks like - well, a monastery, which most of us would call a religious institution:

amd the monks look like....
er, monks....

So, assuming you don't want to rush off to Japan, shave your head and join a monastery/nunnery, what's in it for us run-of-the-mill Western meditators? Here speaks one who may help us:

"Zen does not yet exist in the West as a living tradition. Many monks are teaching the practice of Zen there, but this practice remains oriental; foreign to western culture. The fact is that Zen has not yet been able to find roots in this soil. Cultural, economic and psychological conditions are different. One cannot become a practitioner of Zen by imitating the way of eating, sitting or dressing of the Chinese or Japanese practitioners. Zen is life; Zen does not imitate. If Zen one day becomes a reality in the West, it will acquire a Western form, considerably different from Oriental Zen."                                              Thich Nhat Hahn

 "Zen is life; Zen does not imitate." I'll carry that thought forward to my next post on this subject. Please do try to contain your eager impatience....

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