Zazen in the midst of Easter and Passover Barry Magid April 4th 2015

The passover seder can be said to look back to the past. To a continuity and connection with a tradition. Christian Easter can be said to be forward looking with the resurrection pointing to a promise of a life beyond death. How do we understand Zen as compared with these religions? How do we understand religion without a concept of a god? What is it for you?

While we sit today, we may also be celebrating Passover and Easter, and as we do so, I think it's worth paying attention to how we see what we do here in comparison to how those holidays are thought of and celebrated. Some of us are here because we quite consciously left the families, religions and cultures of our birth and chose to practice Zen instead of Judaism or Christianity, in effect converting, becoming Buddhists as part of this practice. But it's equally common in America for people to maintain a kind of dual identity or allegiance, practicing in a zendo, returning to their family for Passover Seder, continuing to go to church, maintaining kinds of family and cultural connections somewhat independently of any belief or theology.

I think that when we look at what we do here, we do not always see it or practice it in a way that is evidently religious. We can practice in a way that we engage in some other kind of activity like therapy or yoga, in a circumscribed way that doesn't necessarily interfere or even interact with what goes on elsewhere. As you know, I feel pretty strongly that zazen is a religious practice, but it's not always clear what makes it religious, and it's something that we have to continually go back and examine, explore, particularly in a context like this, where we're in a zendo, not in a temple or monastery, where I'm a teacher, not a priest or a monk.

It's interesting to me that someone like Thomas Merton, who was a Trappist monk, engaged in dialogs with Asian counterparts like D. T. Suzuki or Thich Nhat Hanh, and he was able to go to Asia and meet with the Dalai Lama, where there was an immediate recognition and affinity based on recognizing that they were engaged in a similar form of life, that monasticism was recognizable by both sides. The monks in the Trappist monastery and the monks in the Rinzai monastery in Japan might be doing very different things, but they would immediately recognize each other as monks because there was something that they basically had in common, and their forms of life had very strong parallels, even though as far as I know there is no direct historical influence or interconnection between these forms. In some ways it's as if artists or musicians from very different cultures encounter one another, and even though their aesthetics may be very different, they each recognize that what the other is doing is art. Something like that happens around the practice of meditation or contemplation, or prayer. Yet what we do can be very, very different.

In a Passover Seder, we remind ourselves of our historical connection with the Jews who were slaves in Egypt a couple thousand years ago. There is an affirmation of identity and of our dependence on God as a liberator, someone who lifted us out of slavery and gave us freedom, and in return, we bind ourselves in certain ways to Him through the forms of life and rituals that are prescribed. Much of it seems to me to be organized in that kind of looking back, that kind of sense of historical continuity.

When I think of the celebration of Easter, I look at it more from the outside, and perhaps it's an idiosyncratic view, but it seems to me in some ways to be oriented very differently, that even though it is a remembrance of the life of Jesus' crucifixion, at the center is the resurrection and a sense of looking forward to the overcoming of death and the promise of eternal life for those who believe in God. And in that sense, Christianity has always been oriented in the future, in the next life, in the life after death, and the promise of that.

Our Zen practice, in a strange way, looks neither back nor forward It is a practice of being present, in that who we are is defined by what is happening right now and not so much where we came from and not so much where we're going. It’s more what we've been, or what we're trying to become. “What is this right now?” as we say.

Both Judaism and Christianity define the relationship of their followers to God, and there's no equivalent to that in our practice. It's a nontheistic practice, and for many people it's very hard to understand how the word religion can apply to something that completely leaves out the existence of God, a god. We do not worship Buddha, except perhaps in the sense that a poet worships Shakespeare as a model of what's possible. In many ways, as we chant, we hold and maintain a tradition, and yet, at the same time, we're actively recreating, reinventing and modifying that tradition as we go. Sometimes I think what we do here is closer to what the Stoics or the Epicureans were up to, in an intersection of philosophy, where the main question was "How should I live?" In the West, for a very long time, from the time of classical Greeks through the Roman Empire, that was a province of philosophers as much as of priests, where, in the model of Socrates, or Zeno, or Epicurus, or Plato, a life was modeled to enable us to contend with the suffering and contingencies of life.

In many ways, a contemporary version of that is psychotherapy. Again it’s a kind of nontheistic investigation of "How should I live?" For some people, again, it’s something that easily goes alongside of whatever religious practice they have, although for Freud, his kind of scientific objectivity and his ruthless examination of fantasy and myth precluded any kind of religious belief.

So it's not clear just what it is we're doing here. I believe this practice is religious, because it's not instrumental, it's not a technique or a means to an end. It's not an exercise to increase fitness or mental health or happiness. We're not here in the equivalent of a spiritual health club or gymnasium. Our practice is grounded in presence and reverence, a simple experience and appreciation of this moment just as it is, which for me is a religious feeling.

What is it for you?

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