I gave this Dharma talk at the Greater Boston Zen Center on Tuesday, October 13, 2015.
Blue Cliff Record Case 77: Yunmen’s Sesame Rice Cake
A monk asked Yunmen, What is the conversation that saves the buddhas and goes beyond the ancestors?”
Yunmen said, “Sesame rice cake.”
Tonight I want to take up a rather slippery topic: Zen as religion.
We don’t spend much time in Zen circles engaging in theological reflection – at least not the sort of analytical reflection and discourse that’s common in other traditions. We don’t concern ourselves too much with definitions and boundaries. It’s not a tradition that demands adherence to any particular beliefs.
There are ideas and principles practitioners through the ages have found useful, based upon their own practical experience with them, but there are no litmus test beliefs that define what it means to be a Zen practitioner.
(To be fair, we concern ourselves with definitions and boundaries some; for instance, in relation to authority within the community, as is true of any other organization, religious or secular.)
There are some western Zen practitioners who don’t think of themselves as practicing a religion. I suppose it’s possible to view Zen as a sort of psychological system, as some western practitioners seem to do, though I think that’s a limited and limiting frame.
Scholars debate the defining characteristics of religion. We won’t resolve that debate tonight. But let me offer one element of one scholar’s working definition of religion as a launching pad for some things I want to say about Zen. Émile Durkheim, the great 19th century French sociologist, famously defined religion this way:
Since the idea of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from the idea of the profane in the thought of men, the mind irresistibly refuses to allow the two corresponding things to be confounded, or even put in contact with one another.
We see this sort of binary between profane and sacred, between the mundane and the other-worldly, defining religion in the work of other scholars, like Rudolf Otto, for instance.
It’s a fair point. This is a key insight into much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions – including some strains of Buddhism, I believe – so it’s not surprising that this binary is considered by many to be a defining characteristic of religion.
I’m hedging, of course, when I say that this binary describes “much of what’s going on within many strains of most religions.” There certainly are strains of most religions that resist the idea that there’s an impenetrable barrier between sacred and profane, as Durkheim imagined.
For example, one might say that Christianity was founded on a degree of resistance to this binary. Dominant strains within the Greek philosophical tradition that held sway within the ancient world into which Jesus was born maintained that what is ultimately real is removed from this world. Think: Plato and his forms. Christianity upended that notion. Here was God among us.
Of course, the Christian community found itself in schism at times over questions about the extent of this divine-mundane intermingling. Some Christians really pushed the edge of that envelope along the way, like Meister Eckhart, the great 14th century mystic. It was orthodox to regard Jesus as the Son of God, of course, but Eckhart also said, “We are God’s sons and daughters, but we don’t realize it yet.”
That has a real resonance with how we sometimes talk about Buddha nature and enlightenment in Zen, as D.T. Suzuki and other Zen scholars have noted. Of course, Eckhart was tried as a heretic by the Inquisition. Fortunately for him, he managed to die before his verdict was pronounced.
Does this sacred and profane binary describe Zen?
Yes and no, I suppose. But, more than most strains of most religions, I think not.
We have our notions of the absolute and the relative, of emptiness and form, yet we’re reminded again and again and again that they’re one and the same.
And, as we think and speak about the relative and the absolute – think and speak about them – they’re notions, of course. Ideas. Whatever God or the absolute or emptiness or the ultimately real is to you – well, I sincerely hope you experience it, or come to experience it, as something other than an idea.
The koan with which I opened this talk is typical of so many. A student comes to a teacher and asks earnestly, “What’s it all about?”
A rice cake, Yunmen says.
In other cases, we hear it’s about . . .
. . . three pounds of flax
. . . a pail of water
. . . the oak tree in the courtyard
. . . even a dried piece of dung
Our tradition seems to be making a point of imploding distinctions between sacred and profane; of playfully poking fun at our tendency to make such distinctions; of using that tendency as a nudge toward realization – dangling the distinctions as cat nip. Lovely story after lovely story like that.
From a theistic perspective, one might say Zen brings heaven and earth together, without obliterating either. It’s relentless in this way. It’s the religious equivalent of a supercollider. A theological Large Hadron Collider.
From an atheistic scientific materialist perspective, one might say Zen brings the dead (the inert) to life. In this day and age, it’s something of an antidote to the turn in philosophy that attempted to jettison metaphysics – yet still a place, in this day and age, many skeptics feel they can call home.
Tapping on a coffin (in a koan set at a funeral), one monk asked another, “Dead or alive?” “I won’t say! I won’t say!” replied the other.
Can this be contained in sacred or profane, heaven or earth, absolute or relative, dead or alive?
This/that mind is concerned with pulling Humpty Dumpty apart and putting him back together again. That capacity is immensely, immensely useful. And, even as we exercise that capacity in those situations where it’s useful, we can know in our bones that Humpty Dumpty is, fundamentally, everywhere and always, together in its distinctions.
That potential is one of Zen’s great invitations and gifts to us.
Is Zen religion?
Let me close with another story (also from a koan):
The Emperor Wu of Liang asked Bodhidarma – the 28th Buddhist patriarch, who brought Buddhism to China, where it mingled with Taoism and became Chan, eventually migrating to Japan, where it’s called Zen – “What is the highest meaning of the Holy Truth of Buddhism?”
“Empty – there’s no holy,” Bodhidharma replied.
Stunned by this answer, the emperor asked, “Who are you facing me?”
“Don’t know,” was Bodhidharma’s response.
Is Zen religion?
Who are you facing me?
Who are we facing one another?