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Lions Roar : November 2013
BUDDHISM COVERS many traditions, evolving over vast stretches of geography and time and accommodating everything from a statue of Lord Buddha on a taxi dashboard to some of the most abstruse philosophical trea- tises ever written. The religious, the agnostic, and the completely irreligious, as well as those inclined psychologically, mystically, shaman- ically, or sociopolitically, can all find a home in the very big tent of Buddhism. So is Buddhism a religion? My seat under the tent is in the Chan and Zen koan section. From this perspective, the answer is a re- sounding “Yes-no-kind-of,” inside of which might be one of Buddhism’s most powerful possibilities. At its etymological root, religion is what rebinds or reunites us with the sacred. Many of us long for this return from exile and then discover that it leads us toward existential danger— the deconstruction and rearrangement of our very sense of self and reality. In common usage, religion often refers to the belief systems and institutions that surround this longing. These religious structures can sometimes be attempts to control the inherent wildness and risk of the root religious impulse. Is it possible to stay true to that first meaning of religion without calling into being the empires of the second? The religious event at the heart of the koan tradition is awakening, which reunites us with the sacred, or true, nature of things. The revelation of awakening is of the universe as one undivided whole, simultaneously eternal and shimmering in and out of existence. Awakening deepens as we integrate that revelation with our experiences in the everyday world of cause and effect, and in the nonlinear world of myth and dream. It’s an instantaneous reunion followed by a lifelong rebinding of our lives to the life of the world. The koan tradition supports this by way of a culture of awak- ening rather than through organized religion. Instead of infallible scriptures, there’s a body of conversations, stories, commentaries, songs, poetry, jokes—whatever has proven helpful in waking people up over the centuries. Quotes from Buddhist sutras are turned into koans, sometimes upending their traditional meanings. If there is a sacred text, it’s the world itself, which is called the Great Sutra, some- thing we’re learning to interpret. Zhaozhou said of reading the Great Sutra, “When I come upon an unfamiliar word, I might not know the meaning yet, but I recognize the handwriting.” We don’t always understand why something’s happening or what it means, but we come to trust that we, and it, are part of the same sutra. Then our response in any circumstance begins with some- thing like Notice what happens, a deceptively simple, easily portable, and gorgeously subversive suggestion. This doesn’t require or deny God or any other form of di- vinity. The koans are constantly urging us to see the radiance of each thing, galaxies to earthworms. Divinities, spirits, and mythological figures shine with the same light as everything else. Authority comes from how clearly the voice of awakening speaks through someone, regardless of title or position. Awak- ening is as likely to be sparked by a tree in sudden bloom as by a famous teacher. Interposing as few filters and preconceptions as possible between ourselves and our experiences, we become a welcoming home for all the moments of the day, including teachers and companions in whatever forms they arrive. Being crazy in love with awakening and committed to it for every being in the universe is a pretty strong religious impulse. Yet the koans and other traditions in the Buddhist big tent undermine attempts to solidify religion around that impulse. We don’t always succeed, but the fact that some keep trying is one of the powerful potentials of Buddhism: being deeply religious, without religion. ♦ JOAN SUTHERLAND ROSHI is a teacher in the Zen koan tradi- tion. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she teaches and leads the Awakened Life community. Kind of PHOTOBYJENNIFERESPERANZA BY JOAN SUTHERLAND SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2013 57