It’s getting preachy in here. Turn back now.
I was baptized Catholic and confirmed Lutheran. My family was fairly religious, and we went to church every week. I have fond memories of Bible camp during the summer; backpacking in the Rockies, canoe trips to the Apostle Islands, and rowdy games around campfires and in darkened woods at local sites. In my teens, I lost interest in religion. Then, in my early twenties, I had a series of experiences that ignited a curiosity I’d not known before. After looking into various explanations and methods of inquiry into the universe, the school of Soto Zen Buddhism appealed to me deeply. Zen practice and thought resonated with me in a way that I couldn’t refuse to investigate. It was Buddhism completely stripped of frills, magic, and dogma. It was Buddha’s teaching distilled to a single practice. It didn’t need to make claims about how things work or what happens when we die. It didn’t try to tell me how to behave or expect me to believe anyone or anything. It didn’t defer my salvation to a higher power or require worship of a deity. It was just a way to look at the world, and that way was strong enough to stand by itself. I began practicing zazen on a daily basis, but knew taking this seriously meant finding an authentic teacher. Unfortunately, I didn’t think my chances of that were high in eastern Iowa.
As luck would have it, my aunt was long time friends of a man who had become a Zen priest and lived at a monastery just over the border into Minnesota. She gave me his number, I called him up, he invited me to spend the weekend training with him. He introduced me to a stunningly vibrant Soto Zen community in the midwest, and I lived at another nearby monastery for some time after nursing school. I received lay ordination there in 2013, and Soto Zen practice remains a cornerstone of my life today.
So, is Zen a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, or what?
Read through the teachings of various Zen masters over the centuries. Some say it’s absolutely a religion. Others say it’s absolutely not. Still others call it something else. Of course, the context matters, but even the masters didn’t really agree. Call it a religion if you feel it fits, or a philosophy, a discipline, or a joke. None of our labels do a very good job of pinning it down. I just call it Zen. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, and those labels don’t change the practice.
If you visit a monastery or Zen center, you’ll see elements that bear a strong resemblance to what we usually think of as religion. Services are held on Sundays; attendants gather in the Buddha Hall and seat themselves in orderly rows before an altar. There will be lit candles, burning incense, chanting sutras, bowing, recitation of the names of teachers past, and vows to end suffering for all sentient beings.
On the other hand, there are elements of Zen that set it apart from other religions. Though a likeness of Buddha sits high on the altar behind offerings of food, we don’t pray to Buddha nor to anything. Buddha is regarded with deep respect as the original teacher, but we embrace that he was nothing but a man who had a realization. Putting Buddha above ourselves defers our salvation to the benevolence of a higher power, but the liberation found through Zen must come through one’s own effort and thirst for truth.
Most religions enshrine a book, document, or scripture as the literal word of a god, prophet, or other authority. In Zen, we’re encouraged not to give too much weight to any words, written or spoken, regardless of the source. The Zen masters are often spoken of irreverently, and a famous tale has a master visiting a monastery and tossing their wooden Buddha statue into the fire for warmth. Responding to astonished protests, he stated (paraphrasing) “I’m burning the statue to make magical relics” to which they asked “How can you make magical relics from wood?” The master replied, “If it’s just wood, why do you care if I burn it?”
In the same vein, a common Zen trope is “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha”. Is there another religion that advocates murdering the founder?
“Meeting the Buddha” means to encounter some extraordinary external phenomenon and regard it as the aim of practice. “Kill the Buddha” means to discard this notion and any other direction of practice leading away from our fundamental selves. Because, as the masters taught, we already are Buddha, and there’s nothing to seek for.
So, the label you apply doesn’t matter much, and doesn’t change the practice.