These questions are based on a set of questions posed by a group of students at Duke University, and by other friends. Except where an authority is cited, the answers express commonly held Buddhist doctrines or are the opinion of the Webmaster.

Question: "Is Zen 'religion'?"
. Yes. This kind of question forces us to back up and ask where it’s coming from. Sometimes this is a naive question from someone who doesn’t know a lot about religions other than Christianity. There are no God, no Bible, no Jesus, and no miracles in Zen, so it looks strangely nonreligious. You can substitute Buddha Nature for God, the Sutras for the Bible, Buddha for Jesus (sorry, no miracles) and this person can usually be satisfied that Zen is probably a religion.

A more sophisticated reading of this question requires knowing that Western interest in Eastern religions, and in Buddhism in particular, started out with the researches of 19th century Protestant scholars who were looking for a way to have a faith without a God and the "unscientific" aspects of Biblical religion. Theravada Buddhism fit the bill nicely. Zen, however, was Mahayana, which the early pioneers disdained as superstitious, and the Zen texts were written, not in Sanskrit, but in Chinese, with which they were less familiar.

The Japanese scholar D.T. Suzuki spent the better part of his very long life trying to convince several generations of American scholars that Zen was probably what they were looking for, and, in the end, he succeeded. Alan Watts brought Suzuki’s work to the attention of a more popular audience. Both Suzuki and Watts were at great pains to present Zen in a non-religious, often psychological, context. For younger readers, it should be noted that the 1950's, the heyday of Watts and Suzuki, were the absolute peak of skeptical, rationalist, scientistic rejection of religion in the intellectual community. But, because of Suzuki’s work, Zen was embraced by the Beatniks, by artists, by free thinkers–Zen was hip, Daddyo! Many writers on Zen in this era declared that it was not a religion, that it was beyond religion, etc.

So the question of whether Zen is a religion or not often arises out of this context. Zen can be turned into a philosophy of sorts if you cut it off from the religious practices, primarily meditation, which are its roots. Suzuki and Watts were not interested in meditation and often left it out of their presentations of Zen, even though the word "Zen" means "meditation." As soon as the question arises of how we, ourselves, can become Zen Masters and get enlightened, we are immediately thrust back into the religious practice of Zen, complete with the bowing, chanting, meditating, reading Buddhist religious treatises, and the taking of vows to follow the precepts.

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  Question: "What's different about the Soto approach to Zen?"

Zen is not a "spiritual" practice. Soto meditation is not an attempt to transcend the physical plane and find realization on a spiritual one. It is very different from Christianity and Islam in this respect. Americans think of themselves as "minds" inhabiting bodies, and we identify our minds with our brains. Today, if you call someone a "brain," that's a compliment. If you identify them with any other part of their anatomy, you're probably insulting the person.

Scientists point out that the whole nervous system is really the "brain." The whole body is the "brain"; there is "knowledge" in every part of our body. Japanese Soto Zen focuses on training the body/brain, focuses on the "yoga" of sitting uprightly in meditation. The power of Soto practice is that it reverses the Western priorities in education. Zazen is enlightenment in, of, and through the body, not an attempt to improve the "mind" or "purify" the spirit and become more God-like. Dogen says zazen is the "practice/realization of totally culminated enlightenment." You can't improve on that.

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Question: "Many Americans seem to think of the characters in Zen stories as being individualistic, 'cool' guys with lots of 'attitude.' Is this accurate?"
. It is a truism that we see what we are looking for. There are a number of areas in which Zen looks familiar and attractive to Americans, which is why Zen lore has been able to enter our popular culture so easily. Bodhidharma walks out of the "West" into China and seems to resemble some lone gunman entering a dusty cattle town. He is brought before the Emperor, who proceeds to tell him about all the temples he has built and good works he has done. The Emperor then asks how much merit he has earned for these activities and Bodhidharma says "No merit." The familiar pennywhistle sounds in our mental soundtrack and we seem to be watching A Fistful of Dharmas. The mondo, or dharma combats, that make up so many of the koans and Zen stories are full of characters who seem to us very quick on the verbal draw, unpredictable, and even violent.

We need a little bit of historical perspective. The literature of Zen (and these stories, which have been carefully worked over by ancient editors and writers, are literature) is seven hundred to a thousand years old. We’re not talking Chaucer, here, we’re talking Beowulf! They come from an era in which a Zen teacher is also a social superior, i.e., "master," to his pupils who stand in a relationship of social inferiority to him. The shouting and beating that goes on in these stories is part of this social relationship and is not necessarily an indication that Zen teachers were grumpy old men. Many of the stories are dialogues that take place between a master and disciples who are acting in the role of body servants–making tea, drawing a bath, etc. There is social separation and intimacy at the same time. The exchange of blows that we read about is taking place between people who are quite close to one another. Contemporary Zen teachers can’t use these methods because they would be inappropriate and abusive in a modern social context where teacher and disciple meet as social equals.

Another important factor which we tend to overlook is that these stories were remembered and written down precisely because they were unusual events. If Zen teachers were accustomed to slamming doors on their disciples’ legs and breaking them, or shouting at them so loudly that they were temporarily deafened, then no one would have bothered to mention it. Itinerant monks didn’t usually use the Buddha on the temple altar of the place they were visiting to make a fire to warm themselves! Nor are these stories meant as examples of people acting crazy. Each story has a religious point, and, often, one of the characters in the story has an enlightenment experience of some sort.

Unlike 19th century poets or 20th century rock stars, Zen Masters don’t use their "antics" to draw attention to themselves and "flip the bird" to the middle class world. Their actions are not expressions of alienation, but of the profoundest compassion and intimacy.

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Question: "But isn’t Zen anti-ritual? Isn’t the point of Zen to cut through the surface stuff and point to the deep meaning?"
. Here again, what we thought looked familiar about Zen may not be what we imagined. The French scholar, Bernard Faure, argues in his book, The Rhetoric of Immediacy, that one of the Chinese characters which makes up the word for seated meditation has a connotation, or secondary meaning, of "ritual," so that you could almost translate the word zazen as "the ritual of seated meditation." The 13th century Japanese Zen Master Dogen is quite eloquent on the point that Soto Zen seated meditation (zazen) is the bodily enactment, or realization, of enlightenment. Zazen is, then, a true ritual: one which unites body, mind, and world.

For modern Americans, the word "ritual" has almost no positive meanings or connotations, whereas for people a thousand years ago (or even two-hundred-and-fifty years ago) rituals were very positive, even necessary. A ritual was religious magic, or spiritual technology. The careful performance of a ritual by a qualified person could bring an individual, a community, or the whole world into harmony when it was out of balance causing disease, suffering, crop failure, etc.

The central ritual of the Western world, the Catholic Mass, was a re-enactment of the sacrifice of the Son of God to atone for the sins of humanity. The words "hocus-pocus" that we say when performing a magic trick are a corruption of the Latin hoc est corpus meum ("this is my body") which the priest says as he consecrates the Communion bread and transforms it into the body of Christ. In the ritual of the Mass, the believer consumes the body and blood of Jesus and becomes one with God. The rejection of this "sacramental" view of the Communion ritual by some Christians as a result of the Protestant Reformation could be seen as the first step in a 400-year-long process of rejecting ritual, and with it, religion, which is in full swing today.

Zen has arrived in America at a time when we need a fresh perspective on these matters. In the ritual of zazen, the meditator "settles the self on the self," or "lets drop both body and mind," and realizes non-dual enlightenment. But this same ritual/practice is also what in India is called "yoga." The meditator assumes a yogic posture, half or full lotus, and there is a strange mixture of doing something and doing nothing going on. We "do" zazen, even though we are admonished to do as little as possible while doing it. We don’t "do" Holy Communion, we "receive" it. This yogic element of "doing" is very attractive to Americans who adore effort and admire striving and hate passivity: "Zazen–just do it!"

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Question: "What sets Zen apart from Buddhism?"
. Nothing. Religions change and evolve with the passage of time. Religions also change when they move from one culture to another. Buddhism was nearly a thousand years old when the legendary monk from the West, Bodhidharma, is said to have brought Zen to China. The salient characteristic of Zen, the Mind to Mind transmission outside the scriptures, can best be thought of as representing more a shift in emphasis rather than as a difference in doctrine from earlier Buddhist schools.

D.T. Suzuki, or his scholarly sources, felt that Zen was the result of the blending of Buddhism and Taoism. But what is, perhaps, most peculiar to Zen is the setting up of a mythical Patriarchal transmission extending from the Chinese Zen masters back to the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, and beyond him to the "Seven Buddhas before Buddha." This probably represents Buddhism accommodating itself to the native Chinese ancestor worship tradition. Buddhism was suspect in China as a "foreign religion." Incorporating veneration of ancestors into the tradition made the religion look more familiar to the Chinese. Much of the ritual Americans are shocked to discover is part of Zen practice is tied up with making offerings to the Buddhas and ancestors.

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Question: "What are satori, kensho, and enlightenment?"
. These words really need to be defined in relationship to particular schools of Buddhism in particular historical eras. Here in America, we might say that the Japanese words satori and kensho refer to particular experiences, great and small, of insight into the true nature of things, or what the Soto priest Shunryu Suzuki Roshi used to call "things as it is." They are glimpses of enlightenment which show us the way to develop and continue our practice.

Having had a kensho experience doesn’t mean you are enlightened any more than sinking a pretty jump shot means you are Michael Jordan. The difference is years of practice, practice, practice. The scholar Robert Thurman says that the classical Indian texts give a description of complete enlightenment as being something akin to what we might describe in modern terms as "cleaning out our unconscious." The process is long and difficult; the Indian texts describe it as taking many lifetimes to accomplish. What sets Zen apart from the Indian traditions is its insistence that enlightenment can be attained in this lifetime. This is not an issue that can be resolved by disputation since no one knows whether this is their first attempt at enlightenment or their 363rd.

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Question: "How do you see the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God? How is this 'God' related to Buddha?"
. "God" means many different things in the West and around the world. Buddhism holds that the world doesn’t have a beginning in time (it either does or it doesn’t, eh?) and the Semitic religions hold that it does. So there is no creator god in Buddhism.

Historically, Buddhism doesn’t seem to have denied the gods of India, but to have considered them to be inferior to Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, or great enlightened beings. According to the Dalai Lama, God, as the immanent, sustaining force in reality, might be compared to the Mahayana idea of Buddha Nature. This works as long as you don’t start listing the attributes of God as they are found in traditional Christian theology and then begin wondering if Buddha Nature is thought to possess the same qualities. It doesn’t.

"But is Buddha God, or a god?" you’re asking. No. The historical Buddha was a human being and was not "divine."

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Question: "How do you make sense of karma?"
. One of the implications of the Buddhist idea of impermanence is that we must constantly reinterpret our received religious ideas in light of new ways of understanding the world. Karma is just cause and effect in action. All actions create karma. Karma is often presented as a sort of moral bank account: you do good, good things happen to you; you do bad things, they come back to bite you.

While this is obviously true, the workings of causality are far more complex than this simple, linear model would suggest. In a world in which everything is acting on everything else simultaneously, lines of causality are not easy to trace. Our karma is both individual and collective. We are part of large, fluid systems that may pivot and turn around karmic "strange attractors" none of us is aware of. We may suddenly find ourselves huddled together in box cars heading for the death camps and no one can say why.

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Question: "I thought Zen was 'beyond good and evil,' but the Buddhist precepts look pretty much like the Ten Commandments to me."
. The Precepts are not a set of rules imposed from beyond under a threat of punishment like the Ten Commandments. They are a recipe for attaining enlightenment. All Buddhist doctrines are "skillful means" to attaining insight and liberation. They have no objective or logical truth status apart from that goal. The Precepts are a guide to avoiding the creation of "bad" karma, karma which makes it difficult for us to enter Suchness, Big Mind, or "Things as it Is."

People sometimes say that, were it not for their fear of punishment in this life or the next, they would feel free to disobey all the rules of society and commit any crime they wished. There is a kind of naive assumption at work here that the actions which are forbidden by the Precepts, or the Mosaic Commandments, are forms of "good," or benefits, which we could, and would, enjoy were they not prohibited. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Real happiness, true peace of mind, is not possible when we habitually violate the precepts. Most of what is forbidden causes harm to others. We may think that we are oblivious to the pain and suffering of others, and by staying drunk we may maintain that illusion for a while, but because we are intimately connected to all other beings, eventually we will come to feel their pain, and their pain will be our pain. The other side of this coin is even harder to see and understand: when one person is enlightened, everyone is enlightened. That insight is "beyond good and evil."

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This FAQ was written by the Webmaster, not the Zen Master. The opinions expressed here are not those of the Chapel Hill Zen Center, its Board, its Officers, or its members individually or as a group.

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