Is Zen a religion?

YAMADA Ryoun
The abbot of the Sanbô-Zen

Zen is not a religion. This is a position I have continuously maintained. To say that Zen is not a religion is to say that the Buddha-Way [butsudo] is not a religion. However, religious concepts invariably are entwined with words such as Zen or the Buddha-Way. Most people have no problem with the statement that Zen is not a religion, but I think that there are many who have some trouble with the statement that the Buddha-Way is not a religion. Why is Zen not a religion? Why is the Buddha-Way not a religion? In clarifying these questions at the same time I would like to consider the question of why religious concepts are entwined with the terms Zen and Buddha-Way. To introduce this discussion we must begin from the question of what is a religion. But it is said that the definitions of religion number as many as there are experts in that field. Here, for my purposes, I will use the definition given in the Kojien[1] which seems to be representative. According to the Kojien: “Religion means activities and faith in a god or some kind of sacred being, which is differentiated from other worldly beings. And it also refers to those related structures.” In other words fundamental to establishing religion is to recognize a being that transcends the power of nature and of human beings. And from that one can say that religion involves faith in that transcendent being and activities based on that faith.

But then what is Zen? As I am always saying, Zen is experientially finding one’s true self and the effort to personalize that true self which was found. Put very simply, Zen is the pursuit and clarification of one’s true self. It is no exaggeration to say that that is Zen in its entirety. The object of Zen is, in the final analysis, the self and nothing else except the self. It should be clear then that religion, which begins from recognition of a transcendent being that transcends the self, and Zen are totally different entities.
But what of the Buddha-Way? As I wrote in the previous issue, Buddha and the Buddha-Way are ways of naming the true self which has been discovered. The true self that has been found is really one with all that is. The self and the whole universe are originally one being. In order to differentiate this true self that has been found from the one before, the words Buddha and Buddha-Way are used. By all means I want each of you not to forget that Buddha is another name for you yourself.

If one wants to go so far as to distinguish Buddha and Buddha-Way, one might say that Buddha refers to the true self and Buddha-Way refers to the functions of that true self. Nevertheless, each of these expressions is nothing other than a description of the true self. “”
But why is it that the terms “Zen,” “Buddha,” “Buddha-Way” are associated in common thinking with religion or a part of religion? I think it is because the true self which has been found, the real self, is so far separated from the illusory self which had been seen as the self up to then. The fact that the whole universe, all that is, and the self are exactly one and the same, is something too far removed from what one had thought about the self up to then. For, those who have not found the true self — that is the greater part of all humanity — cannot conceive of this experience in any other way than that of the self as some kind of completely transcendent being. And thus this would enter the realm of religion.
And the main reason that the Buddha-Way is being confused with religion is that those who should be responsible for disseminating the true Buddha-Way — that is monks of the temples and the great majority of those in charge of temples — look upon Buddha as a transcendent being and preach to others to have faith in the Buddha.

In conclusion, what separates those who consider Zen or the Buddha-Way as a religion or as something free of religion, is the presence or absence of a clear experiential discovery of the true self. It can be said that to be free of religion means the switch from faith to the pursuit and discovery of the truth of existence, and the process in which Zen and natural science ceaselessly come closer and closer. In that sense the mission of the Sanbo-Zen is the de-religionizing of Zen.
The words of Koun Roshi express this perfectly. “Christians who do Zazen can become better Christians. Muslims can become better Muslims.”

(translated by Jerome CUSUMANO with the assistance of SATO Migaku)

[1] One of the standard dictionaries for the Japanese language in Japan.

From the “Opening Comments” of Kyôshô (Sanbô-Zen’s official magazine) 347, 2011 (Mar./Apr.).