The religious elements with which Zen is often presented may prevent many people from hearing what it has to offer them. This is unfortunate. Most people, religious or not, hold at an intention to learn and grow throughout their lives. Yet few people are aware that there exists a well-developed course of training and study that can support their intention and give focus, substance and intensity to their efforts to become the best human being they can possibly be. This course of study is Zen practice, but if people can only access a Zen practice enveloped in a religion, they may avoid the practice altogether.
At a relatively shallow level Zen is palatable in a popular context; basic meditation, mindfulness, calm and an appreciation of simplicity have seeped out of the religion into western culture. However, anyone seeking to engage Zen practice at a deep level is likely to be surprised at the full-blown religion they find at their local Zen Center (although many Zen Centers try to dial the religiosity down to be more accessible). Many Zen practitioners feel some disinterest or aversion to Zen as a religion at first, but end up embracing it because Zen practice is so rich and rewarding. I hope that continues to happen, because I believe religion has a great deal to offer people and we should try to make positive changes to its well-deserved bad reputation.
By “religion” I refer to a coherent set of traditions, resources and institutions human beings create around a particular approach to spiritual questions. The official definition of religion, “relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity,” has become more associated with the word “spiritual” for most people, I believe. When someone describes themselves as “spiritual but not religious” they usually mean that they pay attention to issues beyond their immediate and personal physical, emotional and mental concerns – issues such as universal truths, morality, or the existence of God – but they do not identify with an established tradition, set of beliefs, or institution. If we use this popular understanding of religion, we might use the term “Zen practice” to refer to the Zen teachings and practices that address our relationship to ultimate reality, and the term “Zen Buddhism” to refer to the set of traditions, resources and institutions that people have created to support and convey those teachings and practices. Zen Buddhism includes writings, a special vocabulary, history, mythology, rituals, devotional practices, imagery, religious objects, clergy, institutions and – most important of all – many groups of people, now and over the course of the last thousand years, consciously practicing Zen Buddhism together.
Unlike some people, I don’t think Zen is necessarily better without religion. I have trained in Zen as a religion and I am a Zen priest that usually teaches Zen as a religion. However, many people have reasons to forgo being religious, or have another religious faith and don’t want to add another one to their life, and I believe these choices deserve respect. Some people identify as non-religious with the same level of conviction as the most devout Buddhist or Christian identifies with their faith. While I love Zen Buddhism and can make a good argument for how almost every aspect of the religion is an invaluable support or venue for Zen practice, it pains me to think of someone who could benefit from Zen practice, but who cannot embrace it because of religion.
I hope non-religious folks, or people of another religion, can find a way to practice Zen, because I believe that in its essence Zen is about training to master the art of living a human life. I want people to have access to that training no matter what they feel about religion. I see this training as a wonderful opportunity to take full advantage of having a human life, but even more I see it as a fundamental human responsibility. Should we not work to master the art of our human life as we would work to master a skill, a trade, or another kind of art? Should we not diligently train ourselves throughout our lives toward greater wisdom, compassion and facility with using this tool of a human body-mind?
Unfortunately for those looking for secular Zen teaching and community, most of us qualified to teach Zen Practice “grew up” in Zen Buddhism the religion. For many Zen teachers, the religion has become inextricably woven into their Zen Practice; for them, Zen is a religion. It can be a tough world out there for the aspiring secular Zen practitioner because engagement with a teacher and sangha (the community of people practicing together) is arguably essential to one’s Zen practice – religious or not. There aren’t many places to practice Zen without religion, but with other people, with a full depth of Zen teaching (not teaching limited to meditation and mindfulness). This is why I have decided to offer Secular Zen meetings where people can come together to sit zazen and study Zen, without any of the “religious” elements we use at Bright Way Zen at other times. How this group will evolve and relate to the rest of the Bright Way Zen sangha over time will be very interesting to watch! On Mondays I will teach at Bright Way without my priest’s robes, and will put a screen in front of our altar. I’ll do anything I can to make the zendo (meditation hall) inviting to anyone interested in Zen. Then, on Tuesdays, I’ll get to appreciate the beauty of the bell calling us to meditation, and the familiar ritual of offering incense and bowing at our altar. All of this reminds me of a sweet poem by the 16th century Japanese Zen master Rikyu (although I can’t remember the source, or the exact quote, unfortunately) that goes something like this:
The Buddha’s robe –
putting it on
taking it off