Is Zen a Religion?

The question of whether Buddhism (and Zen) is a religion or not has been debated ever since its discovery by Western scholars and philosophers in the 18th century, if not before.

Buddhism is certainly different from most religions in the sense that the historical Buddha claimed neither to be a god nor inspired by one. In Buddhist mythology there is no Supreme Being or omnipotent creator deity, for there is no ultimate beginning, only a beginningless flow of “causes and conditions.” However, Buddhism did develop within a mythological system that contained gods or devas, a term for heavenly, divine, or celestial beings, and most forms of Buddhism continue to embrace this cosmology, or at least use it metaphorically. Within this mythology, these “gods” are not seen as particularly powerful, but bound, just like all other beings, to the endless cycles of suffering from which the Buddha promises liberation. In this system a Buddha (and there is one in each “world age”) is the figure who attains liberation and shows the way to others.

Nonetheless, as Buddhism developed, “Buddha” became a more nuanced and complex term, one that had additional conceptual and mythological meanings in addition to that of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical person who lived, taught, and died in ancient India. In Mahayana Buddhist mythology there are many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas—beings who will become Buddhas, but choose to forgo final liberation in order to continue their work of helping and guiding others. In some types of Buddhist practice (but not typically in Zen), these figures function in effect as deities and are prayed to and worshiped as an important part of practice. In Zen, the Buddha (in many meanings of the term) is afforded the highest respect; his statue is placed on the altar and bowed down to, but he is not usually thought of as being worshiped. In Zen, the question of whether or not there is a God or whether what we practice is a religion is not considered important. Different people answer it in different ways. Zazen is a nondenominational practice, one that is not “owned” by Zen or any religious tradition. One need not “become a Buddhist” in order to practice, and many serious Zen practitioners consider themselves to be Christian.

Buddhism is a religion in the sense that it is concerned with the ethical dimension of human life and teaches a message of respect and compassion for all beings. Like other religions, it is concerned with the most fundamental problems and questions of existence and provides a way of addressing them.

Zen & Buddhism >