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Zen: Secular or Religious?

In this essay I want to discuss religious versus secular  – secular meaning not religious – in the context of Zen, with respect to how these things are subjectively experienced, and how they affect your spiritual practice. However, before I do that I have to define a couple terms. After all, language describes our experience, but if we don’t examine our language we can actually limit our awareness of our experience.

To begin, let’s define spiritual as I just used it in the term “spiritual practice.” This word, for better or worse, has come to refer to the “pure” or popularly acceptable aspects of religion, such as morality or an interest in life’s deeper meaning. However, the word has implications that are completely inappropriate in Zen, including the idea that you possess an intangible, animating “spirit” inside your physical manifestation. Spiritual can also imply that there is an incorporeal “spirit world” existing alongside the physical one you occupy; Zen is completely agnostic about this matter, claiming instead that there are much more important things to worry about. Neither of these definitions of spiritual are appropriate for use in Zen.  However, there is one more definition that I believe suits Zen’s purposes: of, or relating to, the sacred.

Now we have to define sacred for a Zen context. Essentially, something that is sacred is worthy of veneration – that is, inspired respect or awe. It is important to note that veneration is an experience of being inspired, not an act of obeisance that is imposed. People often feel things are sacred because they are connected with, or related to, God, or because the things are associated with their religious faith. However, it is also possible to feel respect or awe for the natural world, or for a system of practice that has freed you from suffering. In Zen, there is a great deal that is sacred; in fact, Zen encourages you to see everything as sacred. But more on that later.

So, let’s return to the question of whether (and in what way) Zen is religious or secular. There is no consensus out there as to exactly what religion means or is, so I’ll deal with this question by offering a number of things you are likely to assume are included in any particular religion, and then discussing whether (and in what way) that particular thing manifests in Zen – and therefore, where Zen falls on the spectrum between religious and secular.

Belief in and/or worship of a superhuman or supernatural being (or beings), who has some measure of influence over your life and well-being, and/or to whom you owe your existence. If this defines religion for you, then Zen is undeniably secular. Zen doesn’t oppose or deny the existence of God, or gods, or supernatural beings, so if you believe in them you are still welcome to practice Zen. However, Zen is not dependent on the existence of such beings, and is generally unconcerned about them. This may sound strange – not really caring whether God exists or not – but it reflects the reality of life for many people, who find it very difficult to believe in God, and who do not anticipate being able to verify his/her/its existence in this lifetime. Personally, I believe that if there is a God and I meet him in the afterlife, he will forgive my disbelief. I did my best.

Belief in a spirit or soul that dwells within and animates your body. In this case Zen is wholeheartedly secular, actually teaching you do not have a soul. It even teaches that believing you have an inherent essence is the root of many of your problems. However, the nature of our existence is very complex and subtle, so the Zen take is not as bleak as it might seem. It’s not that we either have a soul, or we are just organic machines with a delusion of importance. Even though Zen teaches there is no soul, it emphasizes that when you completely drop your self-concern, there is no real separation between you and the rest of the universe. You partake of universal being without having to possess your own particular parcel of it.

A system of morality. While people expect a religion to have a moral code, many people do not feel that you have to have a religion in order to have a system of morality. So, in this case, Zen could be called secular or religious in the fact that it has a moral code (many people don’t realize this; Zen’s moral guidelines are called the precepts). However, from a Zen point of view, the moral feeling or intuition that arises in secular people is evidence of the deep universal truths of interdependence and no-self. It is not arbitrary that most people end up with moral feelings and a general desire to do good and not harm. In this sense you might say Zen is religious in viewing morality as being inspired by something deeper and more universal than personal choice – although Zen does not see it as being inspired by God(s).

A set of practices and/or principles. Zen definitely has lots of practices and principles; you could study it full time for a lifetime and never come to the end of them. This fact doesn’t really make Zen religious or secular. Religions have sets of practices and principles, but so do professions, and the arts. However, “religious” principles and practices are often given a special weight by the people who ascribe to them, compared to the principles and practices of other disciplines. This is usually because they are held to be universally applicable to all people, or because they are the instructions and teachings of a divine being. In this case, Zen falls more on the secular side. You can engage whatever Zen practices and principles you want to, but none of them are a moral obligation (except basic morality itself), and nobody’s keeping track of what you do or don’t do. You verify for yourself the truth or utility of what Zen offers.

An institution created by humans and passed down through time.  Religions typically include traditions, organizations, sectarian definitions, buildings, professional religious people or teachers, and a sense of group identity. Although religious groups tend to split and evolve, at any given time a particular religion usually has a relatively stable sense of itself, its history, and its future. Some secular disciplines and organizations are similar (such as the martial arts, or fraternal orders), but the sense of belonging to an institution (large or small) generally reaches its most potent in the case of religion. There are certainly substantial institutions related to Zen that include all of the components listed above. However, there is a certain ambivalence in Zen toward its own institutions: they are viewed as being useful in a practical sense, but it is acknowledged that they can end up demanding so much time, attention, resources and allegiance that you can lose track of the essence of Zen: the practice and study itself. In this sense Zen is religious in having institutions to which you can belong, but it leans toward the secular in seeing institutions as being somewhat of a necessary evil. The persistent classic standard is that of a Zen master meditating all alone in a cave until others join him. You don’t need any stuff in order to do Zen practice.

A community of practitioners. Generally speaking, one of the main things that differentiates a religion from a philosophy is that a group of people regularly gather to study and practice the activities and principles associated with a religion, but not a philosophy. In this sense Zen is very religious. From the time Buddhism began 2500 years ago, a strong emphasis has been placed on the importance of a community of practitioners, or sangha. As a matter of fact, according to traditional Buddhist teachings, you can’t practice Buddhism without others. Well, technically you can, but you won’t get very far. This is not a judgment about your inadequacy, or a suggestion that the truth can only be obtained from others. According to Zen, you already have everything you need. However… human beings are social creatures, and Zen practice is very demanding. To bring your inner potential to its full fruition requires interaction with other people, particularly with others trying to study and practice the same thing you are.

Ritual and ceremony. Ritual and ceremony are powerful tools for influencing your behavior and accessing your emotions. Rituals engage the body and move you out of an intellectual, discriminative state into a more contemplative, intuitive, and less defended state. Their use is not limited to religion: think of award ceremonies, secular funerals, and even personal rituals you might have in your life. However, ritual and ceremony are usually at their most highly developed and overt in religious settings, and in this sense Zen can be quite religious. The tradition includes some very elaborate and moving ceremonies, as well as countless simple rituals to be performed by individuals, like putting your shoes straight or picking up items with both hands. Once again, however, ritual and ceremony are viewed in Zen as tools – very useful tools, but not inherently sacred. You may end up feeling they are sacred, but this is only because of what they point to or help you access, not because the activities themselves are any more holy or special than feeding your child or brushing your teeth.

Presentation of the sacred. Again, the sacred is something worthy of veneration – that is, worthy of inspiring your respect and awe. All worthwhile religions make presentation of the sacred central to their missions – helping you remember, understand, access, appreciate, honor and manifest it. This is what Huston Smith calls the “more” in his book Why Religion Matters, where he says, “Built into the human makeup is a longing for a ‘more’ that the world of everyday experience cannot requite.” Smith explains that religion has traditionally addressed this longing.   The fact that presentation of the sacred is central in Zen is something many people find surprising. Essentially, if you do Zen practice and achieve some of your goals by doing so, that’s great – but if you still miss the sacred, it’s considered quite a shame, so in this sense Zen is quite religious.  The “sacred” doesn’t have to be woo-woo, supernatural, or even make you feel overly emotional. You touch it through direct, unfiltered experience of your own human life – and Zen practitioners throughout history have discovered  that when you do that, it is impossible not to be inspired with respect and awe. Your morning cup of coffee and encountering traffic on the way to work are both sacred – but how often can you experience them that way?

So, the answer to the question of whether Zen is religious or secular is a classically Zen one: yes and no. You may want to be able to put something into a category and subsequently stop having to think about it so much, but Zen wants you to continue to think and question – so no simple answers here.

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I am a Zen practitioner, teacher, priest and author. I've been practicing Zen since 1995 and did monastic training from 2001-2010, and am the author of the most recent edition of Idiot's Guides: Zen Living. I am the priest and teacher at Bright Way Zen in Portland, Oregon, and often blog on the center's website, www.brightwayzen.org.

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