When I see the same theme or point pop up in a several different contexts over a few days, I usually take that as a hint that it's time to try to write something about it.
A few days ago on Facebook, I shared a story about parents threatening to sue a school over teaching kids yoga, on the theory that it was religious indoctrination. Now, I'm about as strong an advocate of the separation of church and state as you'll find, but I also know that hatha yoga can be (and from all available info, seems be here) taught as a system of physical culture and mental discipline with no religious overtones.
Ian Corrigan (a leading instigator of the contemporary Neopaganism movement, who I've met through the Starwood Festival) posted the interesting question, "Doesn't stripping yoga from its religious origins leave it just half-a-thing?" To which I replied:
There are many tools of body-mind cultivation that originated in one religious context but can be used successfully outside of it. You don't have to be a Buddhist to do zazen. Heck, most ritual magic used in Paganism has roots in the Abrahamic religions.
Of course, at some point we hit the "what is 'religion', anyway?" question.
While that was still fresh in my mind, I came across Brad Warner's latest entry at his blog, Hardcore Zen. (Brad is a leading instigator in the contemporary American Zen scene, who I've also met through Starwood. Have I mentioned that the Starwood Festival has a dense concentration of interesting people?) In "Why I Am Still a Buddhist", Brad considers what it means to identify as part of a group, and says,
The name “Buddhism” was invented by Western researchers who thought that they had discovered a religion much like the religions they were already familiar with. They assumed that Buddha was a kind of god who was worshiped by his followers and who promised rewards in the afterlife to those who served him well. Even though Western academics who study religions have known for at least a century that this is not the case, the general public does not. I still run into people who assume I worship Buddha and wonder what Buddhist Heaven is supposed to be like.
Buddhism isn’t a religion or even a philosophy in the usual sense.
This, of course, also pops up the question of just what "religion" is.
That question is one that I've spent a significant amount of time with. It's the launching point for my forthcoming book Why Buddha Touched The Earth. (Coming soon from Megalithica Books!) If we use the essayist's cheap trick of turning to etymology, we see that (according to one theory) the word comes from re, as in "again", and ligare, "to tie, to bind" -- as in "ligature".
So religion means "to tie again". It seems to me that a more useful rendering into contemporary English would be "to reconnect" -- to reconnect us humans to something: either to the social order, or to the world of nature, both our inner self-nature and the outer physical natural world outside/beyond our social order.
Then, in the third and final signal that I ought to write something on this topic, my friend Robin Gunkel (a leading instigator of several community and literary projects in Baltimore and beyond) asked the Facebook groupmind, "I keep asking the question, how do we recreate interconnectivity in a world where the dominant problem is the break down of connection?" So, boom, that idea of connection pops up yet again.
Most of organized religion as we have known it for the past few centuries is concerned with enforcing the social order. These religions give us a heavenly hierarchy, and the goal of ritual is to put you in a proper relationship with the cosmic boss or bosses, lest they become angry and smite you. (As Monty Python satirized with a prayer in The Meaning of Life: "O Lord, ooh, You are so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell You. Forgive us, O Lord, for this, our dreadful toadying, and barefaced flattery. But You are so strong and, well, just so super.") This cosmic hierarchy is a projection of the social order; images of God on His Throne are very useful to earthy kings who want their subjects to be properly subordinate.
Of course not all religion, even in the West, is like that. There are traditions in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that stress a direct mystical experience of oneness with the divine. But they are the exception rather than the rule.
And Zen, which doesn't (usually) worship the Buddha as some sort of god, is an exception within Buddhism as a whole. Mahayana Buddhism adopted the gods and myths of many cultures as it spread, sometimes to the point of completely obscuring the Big B's teachings about the way to reduce our suffering. Zen was largely an attempt to strip away the encrufted superstition and supernaturalism and get back the basics of taking control of one's own mind.
In the typical Western model, religion is also an exclusive deal. You can't be a Christian and a Muslim -- since it's all about toadying up to the boss, there can be only one. But in Japan, it's perfectly okay to go to the Buddhist temple and then to the Shinto shrine. (And maybe stop in the Christian church along the way; while there aren't many full-fledged Christians there, and a complex history, many people get married in Christian ceremonies. I'm curious to see how Christianity might develop in a non-exclusive milieu.)
So I would have to say in so far as Brad (if I may claim first-name acquaintance) is talking about Zen, I'd agree that Buddhism isn’t a religion in the same sense as the mainstream Abrahamic religions, though I think I'd have to disagree about Buddhism in general. But if we see "religion" as a broader term, as a means of reconnecting us to something transpersonal, then I think that Zen fits quite well under the religion umbrella.