Sunday, February 28, 2010

Zen and Religion -

Certainly not "the" first question, but one of the first questions , westerners ask when they approach Zen is whether or not it is a religion. It seems odd but if we look back say 200 or so years in history no one seems to have been concerned with this question before Buddhism and Zen made their way to the west. I will speculate that the reason for this was and is Buddhisms head on collision with Christianity in the west. Most early descriptions of Buddhism in the English language were written by Christian Missionaries. It is believed that the first Zen master to teach in the United States was Zen Master Syen Shaku, Lord Abbot of Engaku-ji Kencho-ji, Kamakura, Japan. Master Shaku came on a lecture tour of the US from 1905 to 1906. His lectures were in essence an apology for Buddhism to a western audience made up of primarily Christian Clergy. Those lectures translated by the now famous D.T. Suzuki are still in publication today and probably still one of the best explanations of Zen and Buddhism for the western reader. So even a 105 years ago Zen was trying to explain its religious nature to the west.

Over that 105 years we have moved from western Christians just trying to understand the enemy as it were to western Christians adopting Buddhism and Zen. Back almost 25 years ago one of my first Buddhist teachers was a little adapt from Taiwan. One of the things that seemed to dishearten him was that so many of the young people who came to him were more interested in disliking Christianity than they were in learning Buddhism. From his point of view Buddhism didn't slay any Gods at all, Brahma and Jehovah and Allah were all alive and well and he didn't want any of these ticked off at him. His concern was Buddha's teachings not the god's and their followers. Many of the folks who come to Buddhism become shocked when the hear talk of Heavens, and Hells, and then see rituals and see folks bowing and doing prostrations. These things smack of the Christan religion they are in fact fleeing from or worse the dreaded word "superstition". We tend to see a lot of folks who have a scientific bent of mind who see all things spiritual as "superstition" and ex Christians and Jews who want nothing that reminds them of the religion of their fathers.

Now to make the matter more complex we see the secularization and pop culture dissection of Zen and Buddhism. over the last 100 years , psychologist, therapists , pop culture gurus and even so called health culture celebrities have mercilessly ripped zen apart taking what they want of the pieces, and claiming they have discovered the cure. I sat in the waiting room of a doctors office a few weeks ago, on the wall the big flat screen was running an add for the clinics "mindfulness therapy" program. Buddha should have filled out some copyright forms.

If you ask them most people when asked what they mean by religion will tell you about "Theism" or the belief in a God. Most modern Buddhist simply reply to the idea of Theism with the knee jerk response that Buddhism recognizes no creator god. But Shaku in his lectures felt called upon to explain the Buddhist concept of God to the christian clergy in order to justify his position that Buddhism was a religion. His explanation was to introduce them to the concept of Dharmakaya. It is an essay worth reading. It redefines the classic idea of a superman in flowing robes as God.

If you do a bit of research you find that there are many different explanations as to what the word religion means. The Encyclopedia of Philosophy simply gives a check list of the attributes of a religion rather than a definition. Common ritual, world view and understanding of how the universe works are all attributes of a religion. But here today I am going to adopt the system that C.S. Lewis proposed in his essay "The Problem of Pain." Lewis states the all true religions have three particular attributes. 1) "The experience of the Numinous". 2) The consciousness of a moral law, at once approved and disobeyed and 3.) The realization that there is a direct connection between the Numinous and the moral Law.

The first essay on the concept of the Numinous was written by a professor Rudolf Otto in 1917. It has since been analyzed by Carl Jung, C.S. Lewis and several modern writers and philosophers. But reference to this idea can be found in many ancient writings going back thousands of years. In essence it is an adjective to describe the experiencing of the divine. Zen Master Shaku calls this religious sense "Prajna". Lewis describes it as becoming personally aware of the fact that the universe is not just composed of material things, that there exists in reality something beyond materialism and the five senses. I have observed that should we grind the universe down to its finest components we would find not a single atom of compassion as we sifted through the remains. Yet for man, for the human being there can be nothing more valuable than compassion.

In his book "Opening the Hand of Thought" by Zen Master Kosho Uchiyama we find "If religion means teaching about the most refined attitude towards life, then Buddhism is certainly pure religion, ... This life attitude is referred to in Buddhism as compassion."
He continues: " A person unable to find compassion towards others cannot be called a person of Zazen who has awakened to the reality of the life of the whole self. " Master Shaku states that : "Religion wants to see and not to demonstrate; to grasp directly with her own hands and not to rely upon a medium; to see intuitively and not discursively." In other words religion, and particularly Zen, is founded on and consists in the truth of ones own spiritual experience. This is beyond intellectual demonstration.

If by now you have not said to yourself yes there is the Law of karma and yes there is a connection between that law and the truth that we find in Zazen, well perhaps it is time you considered it.

So yes Zen is a religion, if your actually doing Zen.

Monday, February 1, 2010

For the love of not knowing

Compared to the Galapagos turtle we live for just an instant compared to the fruit fly we live for an eternity. But turtles and fruit fly are not curious, and they don't have to Know. We do.

We ask how karma works, how one becomes a Buddha, what is a Bodhisattva's nature and what is the nature of nirvana. Since we think we need to know for almost three thousand years Buddhist monks and scholars have attempted to give us the answers to these questions and more. Fueled by the imagination of man strapped to the powerful engine of his intellect all the schools and types of Buddhism have generated their own answers to these questions.

Even some Zen scholars have made the tragic mistake of believing there is a rational, logical expressible answer to everything. We end up with wonderful statements like:

"The Buddha Nature is eternal, Bliss, the self, and the pure, The Buddha nature is non-eternal, non-bliss, non-self and non-pure."

Well that straightens that out-- right...

Somewhere in the distant past a Zen student asked a Zen master to show him the nature of time, the Zen master said "of course!" and then proceeded to kick the student in the testicles. " You will note how time slows, expands and almost stops, said the zen master."

"Of course!" says the student, as he keeled over, and of course he was instantly enlightened. And thus the Koan was born!

We must get over the idea that we can know everything and that there is a logical rational verbally expressible answer to all our questions if we are to proceed in Zen.

This dose not mean we abandon our desire to understand, nor that we simply accept what ever we are told. to the contrary we doubt, we doubt and we doubt. We swim out into that ocean of emptiness miles from shore and never look back.