What is Zen Psychology?

If people are confronted with the words "Zen" and "Psychology" in the same sentence, many will envision visiting some sort of guru meditating on a mountain top, while thoughts of "oneness with the universe" float through his head. People may also foresee a client in East-influenced therapy turning into a Birkenstock and bead-wearing "granola" who, at the hair salon, won't stop talking about her "mystical visions while in a transcendental state." Warping the stereotypes further, people may associate "Zen and Psychology" with Dianetics, Moonies, Hare Krishna, or any one of the strange cults they heard about on "Oprah" and "Hard Copy." Are these stereotypes warranted? Is there any truth to them? What is Zen, anyway? Please, read on...

Is Psychology a Science?

What Is Zen?

Is Zen a Religion?

Zen Psychology

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Is Zen a Religion?

Zen has three elements that are shared with religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam: the sangha (the church, including the body of adher ents both present and past), the Dharma (the "message"), and at least one historical figure who was a testament to the credibility of the message or philosophy and role model for later people (Siddhartha Guatama, the original "Buddha," or "Enlightened One"). These are the "Three Treasures" of Buddhism, and although they have a lesser role in Zen, are the foundations of the Buddhist's life. For some people, those similarities are enough to call Zen a religion.

However, I agree with my trusty Webster's Dictionary which states a religion is "theistic," that is, contains a belief in the existence of a God or Gods. Whereas Christianity and the other religions mentioned above have a God or gods central to their beliefs, Zen has no such player. D. T. Suzuki, famed academic who brought Buddhism to the West, further suggests that Zen is neither theistic nor anti-theistic- following Zen in no way negates the existence of a God.

Another departure of Zen from Islam and the others above is that Zen does not discuss the "Meaning of Life," or our purpose on earth. Zen only describes the condition of existence (life is suffering), and how to deal with that fact and overcome it. Buddhism contains stories of creation, but these were discarded as extraneous by early Zen practitioners. Simply put, there is not a primary teleological ("meaning of life") message in Zen.

"I've heard people say that the Buddha and Zen are "Gods." Isn't that the idea of Zen?"

A person may try to explain the Buddha and Zen as a God because the audience may already be familiar with the concept (for example, explaining a flashlight to a Yanamamo tribesman in terms of fire). This can be a misleading undertaking, though, as such comparisons can point the way to Zen, but cannot point to Zen. Asking a practitioner, "What is Zen?" is a tricky question, and will elicit a different response depending on the practitioner's understanding of Zen. In fact, it is common for a master to ask variations of this question of his disciple- the answer will immediately show the master the level of understanding the disciple has thus far achieved.

One major misconception about Zen is that bowing and meditation is about "praying" to Buddha. Anyone can pray to the Buddha if they want- but they'll be disappointed. The masters of old say that you might as well pray to a tree than a Buddha-image. Zen isn't animism, and the Buddha isn't manifested in stones, trees, or statues.

How Grass & Trees Become Enlightened

Zen master Shinkan received many obscure questions from monks, but rarely answered them. One day an elder monk came to him and asked if the trees and grass will become enlightened, as Tendai Buddhism had taught him. Shinkan answered, "What use is it to you if grass and trees can become enlightened? Why worry about grass and trees when you should be asking how to become enlightened yourself!

In Buddhist mythology, there are some stories of past Buddhas appearing and fading again. But part of Zen's development was the trimming of the extraneous stories like this. Zen has no power you can tap into, no being to ask for divine grace. Buddhism does not claim there is, nor ever was, any divine or otherworldly, active or conscious force directing the goings on in our daily lives. There are no divine miracles in Zen, other than the miracle of day to day life.

The Miracle of Zen

A priest of a Buddhist sect once challenged Zen master Bankei, "Our sect's founder had such amazing powers, he once wrote the name of Amida (Buddha of love) on a sheet of paper right through the air, while standing across the river from it. Can you perform such miracles?"
Bankei replied, "Your fox may have performed that trick, but that is not of concern to me. My miracle is that when I am hungry, I eat. When thirsty, I drink."

"Doesn't Zen say that everyone is a God?"

There is no narcissistic worship of the self in Zen. Practitioners believe that through matters in our daily lives, our inner purity and goodness has been clouded up by the dust of our day-to-day lives. It is the hope of the Zen practitioner to, at the least, remove the grime from the self and let the true self shine, unencumbered by the weight of the world, yet still fully living in it.

There is an old Zen saying, "If you see a Buddha, Kill the Buddha." "Buddha" means "The Enlightened One." Calling oneself "the enlightened one" would indeed be narcissistic, and would probably get oneself in trouble, if not with your therapist, then certainly with a bartender somewhere. The point of the statement is not to kill someone, but to remind us not to perceive anyone as different from another. Who is so lofty among men that they should receive such a title? Not even a Buddha deserves any title other than "human." The discrimination between man or woman and Buddha is only an idea in our heads. It is that idea that we should kill- then, we are left with the truth- that a Buddha is only a man.

Three Pounds of Flax

One day while Tozan was weighing a bundle of flax, a monk asked him, "What is Buddha?" Tozan said, "Three pounds of flax."

"What about morality?"

Buddhists have something similar to Christian morals. There are the Five Great Precepts:

  1. Do not kill.
  2. Do not take what is not given.
  3. Do not engage in misconduct done in lust.
  4. Do not lie.
  5. Do not indulge in intoxicants to induce mindlessness.

the Four Immeasurables:

  1. Give limitless kindness toward all beings.
  2. Give limitless compassion for the suffering of all beings.
  3. Hold sympathetic joy in the happiness and liberation of others.
  4. Feel equality for all, seeing friends and enemies in same light.

and the Perfections from the Paramitas:

  1. Generosity (Dana).
  2. Morality (Sila).
  3. Patience (Kshanti).
  4. Energy (Virya).
  5. Meditation (Dhyana).
  6. Wisdom (Prajna).

These are considered the codes of proper moral conduct for Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay persons. For his students, Chinese master named Zengetsu wrote some particularly charming advice labeled No Attachment to Dust in "101 Zen Stories" (Found in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps):

"Living in the world yet not forming attachments to the dust of the world is the way of a true Zen student.
When witnessing the good action of another encourage yourself to follow his example. Hearing of the mistaken action of another, advise yourself not to emulate it.
Even though alone in a dark room, be as if you were facing a noble guest. Express your feelings, but become no more expressive than your true nature.
Poverty is your treasure. Never exchange it for an easy life.
A person may appear a fool and yet not be one. He may only be guarding his wisdom carefully.
Virtues are the fruit of self-discipline and do not drop from heaven on themselves as does rain or snow.
Modesty is the foundation of all virtues. Let your neighbors discover you before you make yourself known to them.
A noble heart never forces itself forward. Its words are as rare gems, seldom displayed and of great value.
To a sincere student, every day is a fortunate day. time passes but he never lags behind. Neither glory nor shame can move him.
Censure yourself, never another. Do not discuss right and wrong.
Some things, though right, were considered wrong for generations. Since the value of righteousness may be recognized after centuries, there is no need to crave immediate appreciation.
Live with cause and leave results to the great law of the universe. Pass each day in peaceful contemplation." (Reps, 1968)

For those on the path to Enlightenment, the Eightfold Noble Path is the road to end suffering in this world:

  1. Right view.
  2. Right resolve.
  3. Right speech.
  4. Right conduct.
  5. Right livelihood.
  6. Right effort.
  7. Right mindfulness.
  8. Right concentration.

Basically, you have a choice in this world to follow this path or not. In Zen, there is no divine being that keeps a list of our actions, brings vengeance, or forgives. Again, the Buddhist codes for moral conduct do not negate the existence of God. They're just suggestions, a combination of precepts and ideas that were put together over an immeasurable amount of time on how to relate to the world, enjoy life, and become a better person.

Joshu Washes the Bowl

A monk approached Joshu, "I am new to your temple. Please teach me the ways of Zen."
Joshu asked, "Have you eaten?"
"Yes," answered the monk.
"Then you had better wash your bowl," Joshu replied. At that moment, the monk became enlightened.

So, Is Zen a religion? According to the United States' Internal Revenue Service, I believe it is, for the purpose of tax status. But call it what you will- like Shakespeare's rose, Zen will not change because of an arbitrary label.

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The text on this page (c)April, 1998. Modified, September, 1998. All images are thought to be public domain. If you feel an image infringes on a copyright, please e-mail me at the address above.