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.