Zen isn't really a religion, it's more of a philosophy…
- radom co-worker
Is Zen a religion? Or is it more of a philosophy? I've heard this question asked a few times, it's sometimes generalized to Buddhism in general but Zen has attained a particular mystical quality in the Western consciousness since it's introduction. When seen from outside, it has all the trappings of religion but there is no supernatural power to worship, as we find in most other religions.
Sakyamuni Buddha was a bit of an agnostic—though that term didn't exist until Thomas Huxley coined it 1869—when asked if there was a god or supernatural powers his answer boiled down to, "I don't know, it's not important to your enlightenment. don't worry about it." Zen continues this tradition of relying on direct experience, you can imagine a Zen Master responding to the same question in much the same way the founder did, though they might make you do a Koan or two first.
So the open question is how do you define religion, there are plenty of definitions that either imply or require a God to fit the bill, here's the first definition from the dictionary that I have handy:
religionnoun, the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods
Zen, and Buddhism in general, with their emphasis on direct experience and the present moment, don't so much say that there is or isn't God or a life after death, but that it's not really possible for us to know and thinking about it is just another mental formation which comes and goes and has no reality. Another way of looking at it is that the question itself separates the asker from God; the idea that you have a self individual from the universe and that there is another, separate entity which is more or less than you is what prevents you from directly seeing the answer to the question. In essence, Zen refuses to answer the question when posed in this way: it's best answer is, mu.
Buddhism is at first glance polytheistic, as there are many different statues of various Buddha and Bodhisattva incarnations all over the temple, altars to the myriad various forms taken by the Buddha over the two and a half millennia of development and transmission across Asia. D.T. Suzuki describes Kannon or Avalokitesvara in Manual of Zen Buddhism:
Kannon is exclusively the Bodhisattva of compassion. In this respect he resembles Fugen (Samantabhadra), … He is one of the most popular Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism.
Except, if you clicked the link to Kannon, the Japanese name for the god, you'll notice that the figure depicted is the earlier feminine form Guanyin, which came from China. Some scholars argue for an origin in Tamil or Hindu traditions suggesting that Bodhidarma brought the idea of the Bodhisattva across with the Dharma and welded it onto an existing popular figure.
What's going on here is called syncretism, it's the combination of previously unrelated religions traditions after they are exposed to each other. Buddhism, as it's made it's way across Asia and eventually to the shores of America has synthesized with established religious order and modified itself to adapt to local tradition, the Bodhisattva ideal being used to explain the actions of the existing local deity. It happened in Tibet with Bon, in China with Confucianism, in Japan with Shinto and here in America with Church Culture (which is why we have Saturday and Sunday programs with a talk for lay practitioners, for e.g.).
At each stop along the way Buddhism adapts itself to the local religious environment, never trying to displace and freely adapting it's symbolic language to match the local idiom. The concept of a Bodhisattva, one who surrenders their own enlightenment for the sake of others is an easy match in most religions. Jesus Christo Bodhisattva, already exists in peoples minds, I think.
This provides us with a tantalizing clue about what we're looking at; the symbols in our altars are just that, symbols. The priesthood understands this and allows the symbols to change with context while maintaing their meaning within the dharma. The dharma is modular and adaptable to different religious environments, it's also able to coexist with other traditions in relative harmony because of this, but is that enough to make it a religion on it's own?
If It Walks Like a Monk…
Here's where it's hard to look at Zen and not see religion: monks, monasteries, chants, prayers, ceremonies, candles, incense, bowing, retreats, study, sutras and the congregation of lay followers all scream organized religion (the kind that makes the new age, 'spiritual but not religious' crowd recoil a bit). If all the external trappings of religion are there, isn't it a religion? If it walks like a monk and chants like a monk, isn't it a monk?
And yet without one or more deity we question it, we wonder if it isn't all just a complicated pacifier for the human need for structure and ritual, evolved over the centuries as a way to give our natural desires for religious experience an outlet while preserving and perpetuating the dharma. The priests like to say that "emptiness is form" which implies that even the absence of something can make something else a reality.
The First Science of Mind
Buddhism is arguably the first psychological science since it relies and insists on direct experience of the practitioner to develop an enlightened mind. Buddhism developed and evolved during a period of great religious and philosophical diversity in Asia, to survive and perpetuate it needed a freely relatable set of symbols which could be mapped to other religious systems, creating a bridge from one system to another.
By venerating the local gods and idols for their most noble traits, no sense of competition is created and the ideas in the dharma can be introduced. By having a strictly agnostic stance on the existence of any sort of god or gods prevents conflict by essentially avoiding the sort of questions which lead to religious wars.
These features of Buddhism have allowed it to survive alongside one or more religions with relatively little cultural cost. When engaged in theological discussion there's very little firm ground in Buddhism to defend, so it's hard to win or loose an argument about any religious topic when the opponent openly professes to not knowing the answer and isn't interested in fighting at all.
What is This Thing Called Zen?
So if, Buddhism itself isn't a religion, but a system of psychology and practice that uses the religious nature of humanity to perpetuate itself and maintains a parasitic or viral or symbiotic relationship with one or more 'traditional' religions, what then in Zen? Has the vast silent emptiness of sitting meditation taken early indian, Himalayan, Confucian, Shinto and finally American traditions and given us something that is the ultimate subversion of religious thinking (is there a soul? how can there be when there isn't even a self!) but which could not have come down to us through the ages without it's close alignment and coexistence with several different religions.
Zen then is the syncretic product of the original Buddha Dharma and a number of religious and philosophical traditions, the rituals, robes and forms carried forward and absorbed from various contacts over the millennia. Leaving us with a rich history of literature, ceremonies and artwork depicting the development and transmission of the way (an idea borrowed from the Tao). Buddhism may not, in itself, be a traditional religion because of it's lack of any recognizable god, but everywhere that it is practiced it has adopted and preserved the rites and icons of some other religious institution, along with the seed of the dharma itself.
There is another definition of religion in the dictionary, one which I think fits Zen much better than the first:
a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance: consumerism is the new religion
Zen sees the transmission of the Buddha Dharma as being of supreme importance, it is pursued with religious fervor by the priests as they spend each day trying to make themselves into a Buddha for the benefit of all of us. I can't think of any greater act of devotion or worship or faith. If that's not religious I'm not sure what is.