Morning Star, a blog by Boundless Way Zen teacher Mike Fieleke

Morning Star, a blog by Boundless Way Zen teacher Mike Fieleke

May 4, 2019

Is Zen a Spiritual Practice or a Religion?

Zen as Spiritual Practice

“Once religious rites and dogmas have become so rigid that religiosity cannot move them or no longer wants to comply with them, religion becomes uncreative and therefore untrue." Martin Buber

Many people today would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. For many, there seems to be something off putting about religion. Though raised Christian, as a teenager I came to feel like attending church meant someone would "preach" at me about what I should believe and do in order to avoid going to hell when I die. Seemed pretty "top-down." There was not much room in that for me to have an opinion. Also, religious traditions seemed steeped in the past. While science moves forward offering new rational explanations for different aspects of reality, religions can seem stuck with old stories that can appear irrational. While the teachings of the Bible may have felt relevant in the times of old, people change. Societies change. I think many people today often feel more comfortable calling themselves "spiritual" because it preserves a sense of independence from the doctrinal and dogmatic. People want something less hierarchical and more participatory, even democratic. People want something rational. In this society that values independence and freedom, fewer and fewer people want to submit to externally developed codes of behavior or beliefs. For many, Nietzsche's line "God is dead" resonates.

During this time of religious decline, self-help and spirituality book sales have thrived. While people don't want to have to toe the line and adhere to some middle-man's interpretation of God's commandments, we still seem to want some sort of support in living a meaningful, spiritually satisfying life. In a sense, many yearn for what has been lost in the rejection of religious traditions. We don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. We want to experience for ourselves the living God.

One reason I was drawn to Zen practice is because of how the teachings are offered. Most of us have heard the cliche, "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha." In other words, don't believe in a Buddha outside yourself. And it is common knowledge that Buddha said, in short, "don't take my word for it. Test these teachings out, and only embrace what you can verify for yourself." For American rugged individualists, this has a kind of On the Road Jack Kerouac appeal. Set out on a journey to find yourself. "I don't need anybody but me." Finally, Buddhist teachings have appeal even to rationalists. The arguments about non-self, for example, can be expressed as rigorous philosophical claims.

And generally, when the precepts, or moral guidelines, are offered, they are not offered as an absolute set of rules that Buddhists have to follow. Diane Rissoetto's book Waking up to What You Do says it all: practicing the precepts is not about adhering to commands but is about waking up. While the precepts do caution us regarding not killing, for example, there is this recognition that we have to kill to survive. We have to kill plants at a minimum. Our bodies kill off viruses in order to survive. There is no escape from killing. So while the precepts encourage us to minimize harm, there is some recognition that these precepts cannot be taken too literally. We need not be fundamentalists. Also, we will all interpret the precepts differently depending on our life circumstances. There is not a single dogma that we all should embrace. This is because Buddhists tend to recognize something called "dependent origination." Contexts matter. While minimizing harm is the central ethic and requires that we no longer place ourselves at the center of the universe (this is the key to any ethical system), Buddhist ethics tend not to be deontological. We can't necessarily say that any "rule" is absolute, though some might come close. One might find that it is necessary to steal in order to save a life. One would try to avoid doing so, but I can imagine circumstances where it might seem necessary. So long as we are doing all we can to minimize harm, perhaps such choices are occasionally necessary. The key is being awake to our actions and living consciously and choicefully.

None of this is to say that Buddhism is "better" than any other religion, though Buddhism is my chosen tradition. I trust that every tradition has its aliveness and that most traditions are born of our yearning to touch what we might call the divine. But I do appreciate the way Buddhist teachings tend to help us avoid the pitfall of dogmatism. Americans can get behind a practice that allows us to maintain our sense of rationality, individuality and freedom, so Buddhism has great curb appeal. Still, this self-reliance casts different shadows. Buddhism's curb appeal can also fuel a kind of self-seeking that misses the depths of the Dharma.

Zen as a Religion

Practicing Zen for many years has shown me that there is also a depth in Buddhist practice that I would call "religious." The flexibility in Buddhist teachings -- test this for yourself, context matters, etc -- helps prevent it from becoming dogmatic or fundamentalist and breathes a quality of personal responsibility into a Buddhist life. But Buddhism simultaneously challenges the very same rugged individualism that draws many people through the door in the first place.

First of all, "spiritualists," as multiple book titles suggest, tend to seek liberation and appreciation of life's depths for themselves, but Mahayana Buddhism asks us to seek it for all beings. In my view, this is one of the most essential, challenging, and transformative teachings of Buddhism that makes it more of a religion than just spiritual practice. The longer one practices Zen, the more one realizes that we are all deeply interwoven and interdependent, and we do not exist as separate entities. We actually come to see that we cannot save only ourselves. We can't exist as separate, rugged individualists after all. This "failure" in our spiritual quest for personal happiness is our first success in our religious practice. Now we are truly living for something greater than ourselves, and this, to me, is what characterizes the religious enterprise.

Second, we may come to value the very "traditions" that at first repulsed us in religious practices. Things like bowing are often done only begrudgingly by initiates. They may feel like they do not want to bow to something other than themselves. "I came here to find the truth within, not to bow to some external god. In fact, I am here out of avoidance of such a thing!" More than a few who walk through the door come only once because of the practice of bowing. But if we keep showing up, bowing has a way of growing on us. At some point, we may begin to feel that when we fight reality, we lose. Things are as they are. This does not mean that we cannot also take action to change things, but the first step is seeing things as they are, and this requires accepting what is. Bowing is a kind of submission that in time feels beautiful. How lovely to bow, to simply accept what is, then go from there.
Is Zen a spiritual practice or a religion?

And then along comes a religious feeling. A feeling of opening and recognizing the intimacy of things as they are. This easily misunderstood pointer does not mean that "I" am "one with everything" (a very conceptual, self-centered understanding), nor that the relative truth of separate existences is erased, but that there is a way that all things are boundless, are interpenetrating, and can only exist together. While language may point to this realization, awakening itself cannot be symbolized or realized with the rational mind. Here, our separate, fixed selves dissolve into a thusness that might best be described as a "religious experience" and that cares not for rugged individualism or rationale. Here we find that all beings reside in our hearts.

There are different kinds of freedom in this world. Sometimes we feel the freedom of going it alone. But sometimes we feel the freedom of opening our hearts to the vast, interpenetrating boundlessness that is our true nature in which we seek nothing, gain nothing for ourselves, and still, taste the deepest meaning of existence. For me, this is the heart of religious experience and is why I characterize Zen not only as a spiritual practice but also as a religious tradition.

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