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Daily Star Article:

Religion column: What is Zen? Many things

By Zen Master Wu Kwang
In the early years of my practice of Zen, my father would periodically ask me whether Zen was a religion or a way of life.

Seen from different vantage points, one could say that Zen is both religion and not religion, neither religion and neither not religion and perhaps religion before religion.

Such is the paradoxical and hard to define nature of the Zen tradition. I was always slightly perplexed by my father’s question because the exact distinction between religion and a way of life seemed vague. After all, for religion to be alive, it must be practiced as a way of life, rather than something one does only on Sunday or Saturday or on particular holidays.

The word religion derives from the Latin, religare, to bind back. In theistic traditions, this is related to the bond between God and man/woman.

However, Buddhism, in which Zen is embedded, is a nontheistic tradition. Therefore the practice of binding back has a somewhat different connotation.

Zen is primarily focused on the question of mind: What is the exact nature of the mind through which we experience ourselves and the world around us? How do we make a world of our own creation through thinking, conceptualization and holding various opinions and through generating views of self and other, subject and object and inside and outside? What is my original self before I give rise to any of these dualistic distinctions?

Therefore in Zen, to bind back is to redirect awareness from our small contracted egocentric view toward the openness of our original self before thinking. This implies clarity and lucidity rather than an empty blank state of mind.

Most spiritual traditions have practices involving vows or intentions and acts of repentance. Zen practice is also rooted in these attitudes and acts. In Zen practice we begin by making a firm decision to attain enlightenment or realize our true self and help others.

These are, in reality, not two separate acts. To perceive our true self is to realize our interconnectedness with all that exists, and therefore helping others is to realize our self. It is from this perception that the essential qualities of compassion and wisdom spring forth. To actualize compassion and wisdom in our moment-to-moment existence in the world is the expression of Zen mind.

Because we so often lose awareness of essential self and become caught in self-centered egocentric action, we feel a sense of estrangement. To recognize this is to have a feeling of repentance — an urge to return to openness and the perception of interconnectedness.

Zen meditation is involved with cultivating the practice of present centeredness and looking into the question of self by asking, "What am I?" Initially, one does this by setting aside some time every day to sit quietly and attempt to remain present with a sense of inquiry into the nature of self. Zen meditation, however, is not limited to a formal exercise done in a sitting position.

One is encouraged to cultivate the attitude of present centeredness and self-inquiry in all of one’s daily activities. Ultimately, there is driving your car Zen, eating Zen, working Zen, etc.

Because of Zen’s focus on present centeredness and self-inquiry, we often find people of different religions practicing Zen without relinquishing their connection with their own faith. I have known Catholic priests and monks, Protestant ministers and observant Jews who are also involved with Zen practice.

Much of the essence of Zen teaching is conveyed through stories and parables that emphasize the down-to-earth and everyday quality of the Zen tradition, and leave one with the sense of a question.

A monk approached Zen Master Jo Ju and said, "Master, I have just entered your monastery, please give me your teaching." Zen Master Jo Ju asked the monk, "Did you have breakfast?" "Yes I did," answered the monk." "Then wash your bowl," retorted Jo Ju. At this, the monk attained enlightenment. What was it that the monk attained?

Zen Master Wu Kwang, also known as Richard Shrobe, is the guiding teacher of the Three Treasures Zen Center of Oneonta.