Yes, I know what is always said: it’s not really a religion, it’s more a philosophy. Or it’s a “way of liberation” (in the words of Alan Watts in The Way of Zen). I understand that Zen is more subtle and less dogmatic that Roman Catholicism or Judaism or Islam, but so is Unitarian Universalism, and it’s still a religion.
A wholehearted embrace of Zen Buddhism, as I understand it, requires me to believe that there is some sort of god-thing that created all the universe, and further, that the concept of moksha represents true reality, an infinite, undifferentiated Brahman. It is this godhood, moshka, that the Buddhist seeks to apprehend, rather than the maya, the (illusory) world of sense experience and facts. No matter how much the techniques and principles of zazen (sitting meditation) and koans (zen riddles) may be intellectually stimulating and useful and even valuable in other pursuits, it seems that there is no getting around that the ultimate point of the exercise is understand something that is, by its very definition, incomprehensible by “ordinary” means.
What this says to someone of a positivist bent, like me, is that a fundamental piece of the puzzle has to be accepted on faith. (To be fair, I have much the same problem with Kant’s prsentation of the noumenon: talking about the ding-an-sich is by its very nature a nonrational activity.) And I’m not sure that I can - or am willing - to do that without reservation. To me, the world is what is before me: what we can see, touch, feel, and otherwise experience. The questions of what underlies it all are just not important to me; I think Douglas Adams put it nicely when he asked “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
So, as much as I believe and hope that the practices of Zen Buddhism will bring me to a more mindful existence and clearer thought, I can’t help but thinking that I am cheating a little, since I am not buying the whole package. Once we start to cherry-pick from a system, what happens to the integrity? Perhaps I am looking for something more like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink or Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, both of which address apparently non-rational experiences from a scientific grounding; I don’t know.
But I stumble on.