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  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

Is Zen Religious?

How to do Zen and remain faithful to one's spiritual beliefs


A brahmin once asked the Blessed One: Are you a God? “No, brahmin,” said the Blessed One. Are you a saint? “No, brahmin,” said the Blessed One. Are you a magician? “No, brahmin,” said the Blessed One. What are you then? “I am awake.” – Sutta Nipata


The question about whether Zen is a religious practice has come up often over the decades of my Zen training and practice. It’s addressed in books, articles, and in talks given by teachers. It’s on the minds of many practitioners who encounter Zen coming from a religious background that is very meaningful to them, and then the question is not abstract or intellectual but very concrete. Yet the question about whether Zen is a religious practice is sort of the wrong question. A more useful question is: Can I do Zen practice and meditation while still being faithful to my existing religious beliefs and activities?



I never dealt with this question in a personal way because I found Zen practice after explorations into other religious and spiritual efforts had not worked out for me. I was searching and not finding, until I encountered Zen. So it was easy to open to it as something to try. That’s a totally different experience from someone who has been grounded a long time in religion, with strong emotional and faith-based bonds to it. Such a person is expanding into something new when encountering Zen and that expansion can come with all sorts of questions, concerns, and even fears.


The sutra excerpt that begins this post is included to put some context into this topic. The "Blessed one" is referring to the Buddha himself, and the brahmin asking the questions is a member of the Hindu priest class, so a learned scholar and religious person. The Buddha will not let himself be labeled a god, saint, wizard, or any other such category. To the basic question of existence, he responds: "I am awake" and this is indeed the definition of the Sanskrit word "buddha" which means roughly "awakened." So right from the start, in terms of potential religious conflicts, the historical buddha did not present himself as god, saint, messiah, or any other such supernatural being. He presented as awake - awake to reality as it is, not as we conceptualize it.


Human Being


The question about a possible conflict with Zen and one’s other religious or spiritual beliefs is easiest addressed when considering meditation alone. I offer a simple perspective: there is no conflict in that regard. Zen meditation is a fully human practice. It is human being. To sit still, with one’s attention totally on the breath, is a pure and simple expression of our natural awake nature. What could be more human than just breathing? There is nothing religious or spiritual about it – it is getting out of our own way so that we can just be. “Getting out of our own way” means not clinging to thoughts or getting entangled with all sorts of mental-emotional stories. It also means not resisting so hard against the way things are, and instead just coming back to the breath, over and over again.


In that perspective, there is no conflict because just breathing and being mindfully attentive have no conflict with anything. What conflict can there be when there is only breathing and stillness? Conflict arises from thoughts and feelings: ideas, beliefs, values, expectations, fears, hopes – that’s where conflict arises as we try to force all the pieces of reality into what we feel is an acceptable coexistence with each other. But that will never be possible from a world view rooted in thoughts. There is no end to conflict and tension while we traffic all day long in thoughts and hold fast to life-long beliefs and concepts which we mistakenly take for being who and what we are.


Just being attentive, still, and breathing is very consistent with other religious practices. In fact, those qualities are often an expected part of other religious activities, such as prayer and devotional pursuits. Prayer requires one to be fully present and concentrated with effort. Prayer without full attention isn’t a very committed, meaningful, or pious kind of prayer.


Right Living

Zen truly is practiced. It’s not a set of things to believe, it’s a way to live – a way to navigate a complex world in ways that help us towards increasing insights into who and what we are, and towards more compassionate responses to ourselves and others. But there are lots of different ways to do that. Religions and secular philosophies have all kinds of recommendations or guidelines or even rules telling us just how to approach it all – about what “right” living means. This is the area in which conflicts are more likely to come up, around the ways Zen Buddhism is suggesting people should behave, because what if those suggestions don’t align with the ones from another religion one feels connected with?

Zen Buddhism is no exception when it comes to suggesting what right living means and what ethical or moral behavior looks like. But there is a serious difference in Zen with how the suggestions are offered. The guidelines for “right” living in Zen are not given as rules to be followed because an authority is telling you – there is no God or messiah to appeal to for answers, and no priest who can ever say they are delivering privileged messages from God to you. Those things simply do not exist in Buddhism. Instead, Zen suggests ways to live in the world as examples and models of the ways a wise, compassionate, awakened person chooses to live, based on the insights they have developed from a lifetime of practice and reflection.


Zen suggests that ways of wholesome and compassionate living emerge naturally when one has deeply seen into the interconnectedness of all people and things, and shaken off the delusion of having some permanent, separate self which is somehow apart from the rest of reality. These ways of living emerge, not from an outside authority telling us what to do, but from out of a fuller, personal understanding of what we really are. These fuller understandings, which can result from sincere and ongoing effort, replace the partial understandings and outright confusions that are our usual human predicament.


There is no end to conflict and tension while we traffic all day long in thoughts.

Is there a conflict between the kinds of examples of right living that Zen Buddhism gives and the ones that exist in other major religions like Christianity and Islam? I still think not. I believe the heart of right living in Buddhism is grounded in attention, compassion, and sincere effort, and I can’t think of any religious teachings that conflict with the devout working sincerely to be more mindful and compassionate.


So, I encourage you to try Zen practice and meditation, to learn about its suggestions for living compassionately, and if you ever run into a conflict of some kind, then you will decide for yourself how to integrate it all, or to resolve it to your satisfaction. Each of us gets to decide. In fact, it is our responsibility to decide such things as we choose how to live in the world with billions of other people and even more billions of other living creatures too. There is no avoiding such decisions, because avoiding them is a decision, just not a very good one.


Dwell as a lamp unto yourself, a refuge unto yourself. With Truth as your lamp, Truth as your refuge, seek no other refuge. – The Buddha, Mahaparanirvana Sutra

The quote above, from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra contains one of the final teachings the Buddha delivered to his followers. He was close to death, and these are a kind of parting words to his community. He is expressing a way of living in which we look to our own true nature as the guide for how to live wholesomely and how to take refuge from suffering. It is a challenge to us, because often we want to be told what to do, told what is right and wrong. Why? Because it’s easier than being curious and reflecting and searching, which take lots of effort. And also because not-knowing can be an extreme discomfort for most people. Taking up the challenge is a key aspect of sincere Zen practice and well worth the efforts, which can result in deeper understandings of both ourselves and the larger world to which we are totally connected.

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