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