By David Jones
Is Zen an Atheistic Practice?
This question could also be phrased, “Do I have to be an Atheist to practice Zen?” or “Will practicing Zen turn me into an Atheist?” Zen isn’t something that just overwrites your personality or replaces your thoughts, beliefs, and values. You might still make changes to some of those yourself over time, but it’s not required and never automatic.
There’s also “Zen the practice” and “Zen the body of philosophies or teachings.” Certain teachers emphasize some things over others, and different schools of Zen have a few things particular to them. You aren’t even required to agree with everything a teacher says, which is refreshing.
As for Zen practice, even the most ardent believer shouldn’t find anything unacceptable about sitting zazen (although their knees might).
And what is Atheism? Depending on the person, it can mean:
I don’t particularly believe in/don’t care about deities/God.
I choose not to belong to any body that teaches belief in deities/God.
I firmly believe deities aren’t real/God doesn’t exist.
It’s also important to distinguish between deities in general (a bigger aspect of life in the Eastern world) and the monotheistic deity in particular (a bigger deal in the Western world).
So what’s the answer? Do you need to be an Atheist in order to practice Zen? Will Zen turn you into an Atheist?
Nope and nope. Zen isn’t anti-religious so much as it’s just not preoccupied with religion, because Ch’an or Zen Buddhism wasn’t built around that issue. Life for folks in the East intersects with deities and spirits even in mundane life. In the West, folks often run into Buddhism as they run away from their own religious upbringing or abuse.
Is Zen incompatible with Western religious belief? Not specifically. For example, my relationship with God has grown thanks to Buddhism, particularly Zen. Folks who live within any other system (such as Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, earth and nature religions, pantheism, or Native religions) can find welcome in Zen without having to compromise or abandon their faith. Likewise those who stand outside of religion, or stand firmly opposed to God-belief, are welcome to find their place in the zendo.
Unfortunately in the West, “religion” seems to be carelessly synonymous with Christianity. Generally the more fundamentalist forms direct their members to avoid anything that isn’t their specific brand of Christian belief. That includes Zen but also other Christian bodies. Many Progressive Christians on the other hand rejoice in close fellowship with Zen practitioners.
A book I’ve read a few times now is There Is No God and He Is Always With You, written by Zen teacher Brad Warner, which is a deep dive on how Zen deals with God. And in his book Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye, he wrote:
“The idea that Buddhism is atheism with a happy face is very attractive to certain types of people. These are usually people who have been raised in very religious families or who for whatever reasons have come to reject religion and the idea of God. On the one hand, if God is defined as a big, huge white man with a long beard and magical powers who sits on a throne somewhere way up in the sky and sends people to hell for not kissing his ass well enough or in just the right way, then Buddhism does not accept the belief in that kind of God. Yet every decent Zen teacher I have ever encountered does believe in God. I believe in God too.”
One parting caution: it’s best if we leave our expectations about Zen, and those who practice it, at the door.
We might meet someone who matches our idea of a Buddhist monk or a Zen master, but more likely we won’t. If you get into Zen with expectations about it and what it should do for you, they’re likely to go unmet.
Too many people have joined or escaped religion, left one religion to join another, entered a monastic order or joined a commune, all in an effort to have external factors fix their inner ones. They don’t want to be lonely, tempted, scared, guilt-ridden, angry, or something, so they think the new environment will solve all their problems and turn them into better people who aren’t so vulnerable or lost. And at first it might work.
But one thing Zen is really good at is helping us to stop running away from ourselves and instead to honestly face who we truly are in all of our frightening, beautiful, broken, perfect reality. Embracing Zen or anything else to change you so you don’t have to put in the hard work is destined to fail sooner or later.
But if you give it an honest chance and want the benefits Zen has to offer, regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof, it just might be a missing puzzle piece you’ve been looking for.
If you get into Zen with expectations about it and what it should do for you, they're likely to go unmet. ~ David Jones Click To Tweet
Editor: Dana Gornall