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“Religious” Practices at Bright Way

4 - Bright Way Zen Retreat Feb 2013-15

A mokugyo, a traditional percussion instrument used during Zen chanting

If you have read a few Zen books and are just interested in meditation and some Zen teachings, you may be surprised by some of our “religious” practices.

Of course, many people think of “religion” as referring to belief in a deity. Since we have no deities in Zen, it may sound strange to say that Zen is a religion, or has religious elements.

However, is meant here by “religion” is the coherent set of traditions, resources and institutions human beings create around a particular approach to spiritual questions. You might say there are the “pure” spiritual teachings and practices that inspire a group of people, and then those people go on to create a religion together. Using this definition, Zen practice is composed of teachings and practices concerned with your relationship to ultimate reality, while Zen Buddhism the religion includes things like scriptures, a special vocabulary, history, mythology, rituals, devotional practices, imagery, art, religious objects, clergy and institutions.

Altar with Manjushri - Mid

The Bright Way Zen altar (with a statue of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom)

At Bright Way Zen we make liberal use of the religious traditions of Zen Buddhism. You are very free to question these traditions and develop your own relationship to them. You don’t have to like them, or believe in anything. We sometimes bow toward the altar, chant homages to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, and wear small vestments that are a sign of our Zen vows. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, you are welcome to quietly watch instead of participate. Feel free to ask questions about anything, and honor your skeptical spirit if you have one. Zen is about fully examining your experience, so questioning and noting your reactions is important to practice.

For our teacher’s perspective on all of this, read her essay Zen: Secular or Religious? You might also want to read Why Do We Chant?