Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Is Zen Naturalism a Religion?

The question may arise, “Is Zen Naturalism a religion?” And of course, the response completely depends on how “religion” is defined. Richard F. Gombrich, in his excellent book, Theravada Buddhism: A social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo, mentions a monk who told him, “Gods are nothing to do with religion.” For all Buddhists, gods are powerful beings who are seen as capable of granting worldly boons, but who themselves are not omnipotent nor omniscient, nor are any seen as a creator. And, like all other beings throughout the world system, they are subject to birth, decay and death.

For Buddhists, religion is a soteriology. Religion is a matter of proper understanding and practice of the Dharma with the purpose of attaining liberation which is seen as the complete eradication of greed, hatred and delusion. For traditional Buddhists, a person who accomplishes this is truly happy – the only happiness which is not transient and conditioned. For such a person, once the body dies, he or she will not be reborn, and thus will never have to suffer and die again. As Gombrich makes clear, “For Buddhists, religion is what is relevant to this quest for salvation, and nothing else.”

This soteriological approach to religion is akin to yoga, and the words themselves have a similar meaning. Religion comes from the Latin religio which means ‘to bind back’ and yoga has the meaning of uniting or yoking. Such a religion is often characterized as a ‘path.’ While Gombrich states that such a religion is primarily one of belief, I think it more accurate to say that the only belief needed is one that agrees with the hypothesis that life as commonly lived and thought about is a state of delusion and bondage, and that it is possible to wake up to truth or reality. Then, a kind of faith is required that is open to testing the practices to see for oneself. It is actually less an orthodoxy than an orthopraxy. And this has been true, historically, for Buddhism. Splits in the sangha were generally based upon differences in practice and not in doctrine.

Another kind of religion is one Gombrich calls “communal” and is characterized as a pattern of action, solemnizing major milestones in a person’s life such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death as well as celebratory rituals, benedictions etc. It is more social and centered around the ordering of society.

Hinduism, while giving forth various soteriologies, is primarily a communal religion, conceptualized and codified in Brahmanical law books. For instance, marriage occupies the most important position among the sixteen sacred rites of India, after which, one is seen as entering into the householder’s stage of life. The Buddha couldn’t care less about marriage, and in fact saw it and all other aspects of communal religion as something to be left behind as having nothing to do with liberation – and even, in fact, being obstacles to it! For most of its history, Buddhism had no such rite as a Buddhist wedding.

So, Zen Naturalism is, and can be considered, a kind of ‘secular religion’ or yoga as it too is soteriological at base. Only here, liberation means to be liberated from our conditioned reactivity and false identifications. It is not the world-wary attempt to leave the world altogether that is found in early traditional Buddhism. But also, as a contemporary movement, and one that does not reject the world, it is also a ‘communal religion’ that celebrates life in community and society. As such, it calls for active engagement to better life and the world for all beings. And rituals of celebration are designed to create meaningful relations among the various beings and experiences of the world.

In any event, Zen Naturalism does not need to seek meaning and validity in any transcendent realm. Zen Naturalism leaves most metaphysical questions open, including whether there is anything truly existent that is ‘metaphysical.’ That this may mean we must re-define 'physical' is also an open question.


Joe S said...

amazed (and sometimes frustrated) at the number of people who want to claim zen and buddhism as their own yet are stubborn about yet holding onto to at least a sliver of supernaturalism as the end point.. This to me contradicts all we continue to learn in the modern world of science and rationality but also runs counter to dualism Sidhartha found erroneous from the get go. If you have more posts about this specific subject I'd be interested

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...


Thanks for your comment. If you move through this blog, you'll see many posts where this specific subject (by which I mean a critique and rejection of essentialist and supernatural memes that run through much later buddhism -- and is rampant in contemporary buddhism).

For instance the very first piece I wrote for this blot was in response to such thinking by two well-known buddhist teachers here:

but the essays on a Revaluation of the Four Noble Truths and the teachings on "not-self" also address this issue.

Please let me know what you think!
And thanks again for "stopping by."

Martha said...

I have enjoyed reading many of your posts and find your readings insightful and refreshing.
I think I am starting to understand your philosophy and your creation of Zen Naturalism.
Very inspiring for sure.

I understand why you have chosen to so call " correct" some readings out there by various authors. But then I felt bad for those authors. I think they might have just been doing their best at the time. Don't you think? Or, that is simply their interpretation of the dharma.
I think individuals are drawn to different authors for a reason, it resonates well with them. People will go through authors. I sure have!
That is inquiry. ( Zen Naturalism)

Well maybe it is good to see your point of view on various readings.
We all have a point of view.
Zen mind Beginners mind? This was how Suzuki saw it. That was his point of view.

Never the less it is all the same teaching.

....,,,I had such a difficult time reading your post on "Why I hate Zen". How can you say that?
Simply what the Japanese developed, ( from China) opposed to Zen in Vietnam or Zen in Korea- Tibet-it only makes sense how each culture adapted the Zen Buddist practice into their lives. Right? It was what worked In their society.
Yes, th e formal hierarchy. And or how they handled the dharma .

It is really interesting how Buddhism has evolved.

Although you hate Zen Buddhism and you are not Buddhist. But you must respect it enough to teach it.
this point must be important or you would not write about it.

I really wish you did not hate Zen Buddhism. Where does that lead us?
Away from Traditional Zen Buddhism?

Never the less it is all the same teaching.

I respect you and your teachings and what you are offering In our community.
I am simply trying to sort this out. The above.
I only write this because it has definitely woken me up!
Now I will let go of it all.
Written words can be too much.

I have only sat with you once.
I am checking out different zen groups but my other long term practice is up in Tempe.
I miss having Sangha friends nearby.
Thank you for your precious time,

Poep Sa Frank Jude said...

Thank you for taking your time to read through this blog and to comment. I'd like to address some of your statements in order to hopefully crate greater clarity of my intention in working through this blog. I think the function of critique is very important; it's not that I see myself as "correcting" so much as critiquing other positions from the position I hold of philosophical naturalism and non-essentialism. That is, I take the emptiness teaching of the buddhist tradition very seriously and see that many contemporary teachers -- as well as many throughout the history of the various buddhisms -- have occasionally drifted into essentialism, as Joe points out in his comment above yours.

Of course we all hold to different interpretations. As the epigram at the top of this blog's home page points out:

"Here's where I attempt to explore an approach to zen buddhism that is firmly rooted in naturalistic, scientific, empirical understanding. It's a true non-dual 'spirituality' that has no need for the supernatural. Whether you do or do not believe in the supernatural, there's still a place for you here. What I am saying, is that if you do NOT believe in the supernatural, here's a zen that says, "you're home!""

Thus, I am absolutely transparent about my position and interpretation (which is not something many others take the time to do, by the way) AND I end by saying you don't have to believe what I say in order to study and/or practice with me. There are certainly people who sit in my sangha that do not accept all my naturalist teachings, but they find the practice and the structures here conducive to non-dogmatic practice.

Don't take everything as literal as it may seem. I 'hate' zen as I describe it as it has evolved, but I am an ordained zen teacher. Are you familiar with the Critical Buddhist movement in Japan? If not, you may want to look them up. They too make many of the same criticisms I make as Japanese practitioners of the Soto Zen School. Perhaps only those who love something and take it to heart can stomach rejecting and criticizing what they devote their lives to with such fervor!

And yes, I wholeheartedly wish to lead away from "traditional zen buddhism" because I think it fails many contemporary practitioners. Just look at all the scandals! Such scandal is to be expected when the traditional structures are as oppressive as they have been. Maybe you haven't read this post:

Please feel free to stay in touch, and I do hope you'll sit with us again here in Tucson! Our next Day of Mindfulness, perhaps? October 15th!