Interview with an agnostic Zen Buddhist

A student friend of a friend was doing research for a comparative religion class, and I was asked if I would represent Zen Buddhism and answer some questions about my practice. I said I didn’t think I was a good choice to represent Zen, but my friend said that was OK.

The questions and answers are below. I still think my answers say more about what I’ve done with Zen (of far) than what typical Zen practice should be. Perhaps I protest too much. It can be an enlightening (no pun intended) exercise to have to explain one’s beliefs and practices. I had tremendous fun doing this, and the student’s project was so well received that she didn’t need to take her final exam! I’m hoping to get a copy of her complete report. 

Do you practice religion?
In a manner of speaking.

If so, which one?
Zen Buddhism, which is more of a way of life than a specific set of religious beliefs.

What scripture does your religion follow?
There are many. The Pali Canon is probably the main one for Buddhism as a whole, less so for Zen, which places less emphasis on written scripture. For myself, I mainly read the Tao Te Ching, which is a Taoist text. Zen is said my some to be a fusion of Taoism and Buddhism. Buddhist sutras of particular importance to me are the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra.

What does your religion do for your over all physical and mental health?
My practice greatly reduces stress and helps me appreciate the present moment, which keeps me feeling pretty good.

What religious experience have you had that you value the most?
Daily zazen, which is sitting meditation. It clears the mind and reminds me that there is no gap between myself and the rest of the world.

What sorts of impacts/influences does religion have on your life/lifestyle (ex. going to Church on Sundays & Holidays, Religious statues/paintings can be found in your house, Praying at certain times of the day, Praying before you eat, attending Church social groups, etc.)?
We have several Buddhist statues around the house, and some Zen-inspired artwork. I meditate for 20 minutes twice a day, morning and evening. I occasionally go to my local zendo to meditate with others and to listen to dharma talks.

What is a traditional marriage ceremony like in your religion?
I don’t know! I’ve never attended one. I can’t imagine it’s very different from other religions.

Do you feel religion should be taught in the educational curriculum in public schools? Why or why not?
Regarding religion in public schools, I’m all for education, not indoctrination. When I was in high school, we had a comparative religion course wherein representatives from the various local churches and temples would come in and try as best they could to explain their beliefs and practices in 45 minutes. It was a fascinating class. The upside to this is to better understand religions other than one’s own. The downside, at least for believers, is the idea that one’s religion could be subjected to critical analysis.

Do you think society is as religious as it should be?
In America, at least, there’s too much religion in society and politics. I believe social and political institutions should be secular so as to be more inclusive. Religion is a personal matter.

Do you have a favorite religious holiday? Why or why not?
Buddhist holidays tend to be very minor affairs. I’ve only ever celebrated the Buddha’s birthday and the day of his enlightenment. I still enjoy Christmas, more as a cultural holiday than a religious one. My favorite holiday is Thanksgiving, because gratitude should always be celebrated.

Do you have a least favorite religious holiday? Why or why not?
Easter has lost it’s appeal because I don’t believe in the Resurrection. But I still appreciate the celebration of renewal.

Are you actively practicing your religion? Why or why not?
I meditate. I try to remain mindful every day. I try to adhere to the Buddhist precepts:

Affirm life – Do not kill
Be giving – Do not steal
Honor the body – Do not misuse sexuality
Manifest truth – Do not lie
Proceed clearly – Do not cloud the mind
See the perfection – Do not speak of others’ errors and faults
Realize self and other as one – Do not elevate the self and blame others
Give generously – Do not be withholding
Actualize harmony – Do not be angry
Experience the intimacy of things – do not defile the Three Treasures

The Three Treasures are the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings) and the Sangha (Buddhist community).

What do you think it means to be a follower of your religion? (For example: If you are a Muslim, you would answer this question – What do you think it means to be a Muslim?)
To live one’s life according to the precepts, to realize there is no separation between oneself and the rest of the world, and to live in the moment. The past is gone, the future doesn’t exist; all we ever have is now.

What is the single most important aspect of your religion to you, and why?
The emphasis on compassion.

How did you come to be a believer of your religion? Were you raised in this tradition or did you seek it out yourself? Would you consider converting to another religion?
I was raised Roman Catholic, but had my doubts about it even as a child. In my early twenties, I read Bertrand Russell and was able to shed the last vestiges of my Catholic guilt. For a short time, I considered myself an atheist, then decided that was just as silly since it required a similar degree of certainty as to the existence (or in this case, non-existence) of God. Reading the Tao Te Ching got me interested in Taoism. Listening to Alan Watts on college radio got me interested in Zen. After reading Zen Mind, Beginners Mind by Shunryu Suzuki and Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor, I sought out a local zendo and, at age 51, had my jukai ceremony and “officially” converted to Zen Buddhism. The only other religion I think I would consider is Quakerism.

Does your family practice the same religion as you?
Everyone in my immediate family practices meditation to some degree, and we try to view life though a Buddhist lens as it were.

If you practice a different religion than your close family members, how do they feel about it?
My brother is a devout Catholic, and he expressed some concern for my soul when I converted. He seems OK with it now. Everyone else is fine with it.

If you practice the same religion as your close family members, how do they feel about how active/non-active you are practicing religion?
My children think I should go to the zendo more often.

How religiously active is your close family (parents, siblings, children, grandchildren)? How does this make you feel? Do you think they should be more/less active?
My brother goes to church regularly, as does my mother-in-law. The rest of my close family are not particularly religious. I’m comfortable with all of it; to each his own.

Have you ever converted to another religion? Why or why not?
See above. Roman Catholic > atheist > agnostic > Taoist > Zen Buddhist. I took this path because I had serious doubts about the religion in which I was raised.

Have you ever questioned/doubted your religion? Why or why not?
I questioned my Roman Catholic faith from a very early age. Many of the rituals seemed superstitious and archaic, and other practices, like priests and nuns not being able to marry, just seemed inhumane. And I came to view the Bible as not the word of God, but the words of men in search of God, and therefore fallible. As for Buddhism, I have doubts all the time. But unlike Catholicism, Zen Buddhism is far less dogmatic about it. It’s actually encouraged.

Do any of your personal beliefs differ from your religion’s beliefs? (ex. do you believe it is okay not to attend church every Sunday, you don’t need to make donations to your house of worship, skipping confession will still allow you to go to heaven, it is okay to eat meat & kill animals for food, etc.)
I still have problems with the Buddhist ideas of rebirth and karma across lifetimes. On rebirth, I believe that whatever we are goes on to become other things after death, but I’m not sure anything that could be identified as “me” survives, much less gets reincarnated. But the Dalai Lama has me rethinking this. Someone asked him “Do you remember any of your past lives?” He just laughed and replied “I don’t even remember what I did last week!” Think about that. Do you remember what it was like to be in your mother’s womb? Or what it was like to be four months old? I don’t. So I now try to keep an open mind about it. As for karma, I’ve seen it work within my lifetime, but I’m not sure about karma following you across lifetimes. It just seems like another carrot-and-stick scheme to get you to behave well, not unlike the promise of heaven and hell. But I also think our actions send ripples out into the world, like a pebble tossed into a pond. And maybe those ripples continue after I’m gone.

Do you feel as if people who do not follow your religion are misguided or living a sinful life? Why?
No. We each need to follow our own path. But if your religion says it’s OK to kill non-believers, you need to get a new religion.

What is your concept of Deities/God(s)?
My concept of God is closest to the Tao. It has always been, it will always be, we are in it, and it’s in us. Zen Buddhists do not revere the Buddha as a deity, only as a great teacher.

Do you believe in Deities/God(s) and/or Satan, Heaven and/or Hell?
I believe in a higher power, like the Tao or Emerson’s Over-soul. Separating God and Satan is a false dichotomy; you can’t have one without the other. It’s Yin and Yang, a universe of necessary opposites. You make your own heaven or hell. The “Kingdom of God” is here and now.

How do you think Deities/God(s) view you? Why?
Probably the way I regard my spleen or my breathing. We’re all part of the same thing. “The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me: my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing and one love.” ~ Meister Eckhart

Does your religion consider it to be a sin to be homosexual? Do you agree/disagree with your religion?
As far as I know, Buddhism doesn’t view homosexuality as sinful, only the broader category of sexual misconduct. I agree with that.

Do you believe people are born good/evil? Can they change? Why or why not?
I believe humans in general are good, otherwise we would not have survived this long. Evil exists because it’s a possibility. Too many things contribute to the kind of person we are: genetics, biochemistry, environment, family, friends, food, education, our choices. I believe people can change.

How does your religion influence the way you think and feel about life, death, and the after life?
I’m grateful to be here. Death is a normal part of the process. As for an afterlife, I defer to Thoreau (who may as well have been a Buddhist): “One world at a time.”

What do you think will happen to you when you die?
Haven’t a clue. My atoms will go on to become other things. Not sure what happens to my conscious “self.” But I may find out one day.

What do you think will happen to other people (who practice a different religion than you) when they die?
Same thing.

Do you believe life has a purpose? What is it?
Life will not be denied. It will take hold in the most godawful places and do its best to thrive. I have no idea why. We each give our lives a purpose.

Does your religion influence your everyday decisions? If so, how?
Yes, in that I try to live by the precepts and try to be mindful in everything I do. I don’t always succeed. But I don’t give up.

How does your religion influence your choices of what is morally right & wrong?
If you proceed from a compassionate heart, you’ll know what is right.

Do you believe there is a difference between spirituality and religion? Why or why not?
Yes. Spirituality is something we all possess just by being alive. It’s the part of us that knows we’re connected to everything else. Religion is something we do to it in an effort to understand it. Religion is also a way for some to use spirituality to manipulate others.

Are you spiritual? Is there something you think/feel connects you with the rest of humanity and other living things?
Yes. That’s the foundation of Taoism and Zen. We’re all manifestations of the same source.

How do you spiritually choose what is right and wrong? Does religion influence your spiritual choice between right & wrong (if you believe religion/spirituality are different from one another)?
If you proceed from a compassionate heart, you’ll know what is right. “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” ~ The Dalai Lama

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