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Is Zen A Religion?

By Kubota Jiun
(Translated by Paul Shepherd)

Let me state my conclusion regarding the above question at the outset. I believe that Zen is not a
religion in the ordinary sense. There are several reasons I can give for this.

First of all, that which is usually referred to as religion begins and ends with the element of faith. That
is, religion conventionally starts with belief in an absolute or supreme being-God or Buddha, for
example-who can either be the creator of the universe or dwell in our hearts. This faith is then deepened
over the days and years until it becomes unshakable. I understand that as an absolute condition for religion
in the traditional sense. As for Zen, although belief in an intrinsic and essential nature, infinite and absolute,
is the start of practice, it is through realizing that infinite and absolute essential nature in the experience
of satori that the need for belief vanishes. Or put more succinctly, Zen practice begins with belief and ends
in actual experience. Here is an aspect of Zen that distinguishes it fundamentally from religions containing
only the element of faith.

A second reason why Zen is not a religion is the absence of particular scriptures to depend upon. Christianity
has its Bible, Islam its Koran; even in Buddhism, the Hokke Sect has the Lotus Sutra, the Kegon Sect the
Kegon Sutra, and the Jodo Sect the Jodo Sutra. These scriptures are all maintained and carefully preserved,
and the interpretation of individuals words and phrases has an extremely important meaning and significance. Although it would be inaccurate to say that writings in the Zen sect are not traditional scriptures, Zen is distinguished by lacking a single scripture upon which everything depends. And although we could stretch a point, perhaps, and say the Hannyashingyo (Heart Sutra) is such a traditional scripture, as long as study of this sutra ends in intellectual discussion, it has no relation to Zen whatsoever.

Yet another reason why Zen is not a religion in the conventional sense is its very practical approach of
negating all concepts. Although most religions also have a practical side known as prayer, this is usually a subjective action of the individual and not an organized system of practice. Instead, the most important role is played by the sermons of religious leaders, based mainly on inherited scriptures, or exposition of the meaning of individual words or phrases in those scriptures. Zen, however, negates all concepts; instead, the central focus is experience in which the fact is experienced as fact. Zen also has zazen, a concrete and practical method of adjusting the body, breath and spirit to realize truth. Zen has moreover developed methods of guidance
toward realization in which we practice zazen to realize the fact as fact. In this respect Zen differs
fundamentally from religions in the usual sense.

However, when we consider the matter carefully, is it enough in relieving human suffering and gaining true
peace of mind to simply believe sacred scriptures that are a natural outpouring of the enlightenment experiences of the ancient worthies? Is it enough to be able to interpret individual phrases of those scriptures with unsurpassed skill or simply pray in that direction? When all is said and done, we cannot forego the five aspects
of belief (shin), understanding (ge), practice (gyo), enlightenment (sho) and personalization (nyo). If peace
of mind is truly a matter of believing and understanding a reality that we have made our own, we must practice ourselves and realize so that it becomes an immutable fact. We must then personalize that experience before we can live relatively free of worry. Viewed in this way, perhaps only Zen, with its aspects of practice and
realization, can be called a religion in the true sense of the word. In Case Nine of the Blue Cliff Record, a monk asks Joshu, "What is Joshu?" Joshu is also the name of the area where Joshu Osho lived. With his question, the monk is pressing Joshu to reveal his enlightened state of consciousness. In reply, Joshu says,"East Gate, West Gate, South Gate, North Gate." Because the geographical place Joshu has an east, west, south and north gate, Master Joshu presents the monk directly with the geographical Joshu. In Joshu's consciousness, however, there are no gates at all. By his reply, Joshu reveals his totally free state of consciousness, telling the monk to enter from any gate that he wishes and Joshu will be a match for him. No matter what should enter by any one of the gates, the totally unfettered Joshu is ready with an appropriate response at that time and place.

That is the reason why Zen can accept people of any religion, and why all people, regardless of their
background, can deepen their state of consciousness through Zen practice and thus savor the true meaning
of the religion they profess. It is due to this special characteristic of Zen that so many Catholic priests and
sisters as well as Protestant ministers come to practice at San-Un Zendo.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Kyosho, No. 231, Sept.-Oct., 1991


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