I love the writings of David Hinton, an American poet and translator of Chinese poetry. If you don’t know his work, Existence: A Story, I strongly recommend it as a way into understanding Chinese art. One of his latest projects is a translation of the collection of 48 koan we Zen types know as the Mumonkan (Wu-Men Kuan in Anglicised Chinese and ‘No-Gate Gateway’ in Hinton’s title). It is a Chinese collection from the 13th Century and is known to Western Zen practitioners in several translations, many with commentaries by contemporary Zen teachers.
I should get round to writing something about the koan themselves, as that’s far more interesting, but I was intrigued by a sentence or two in Hinton’s excellent introduction where he insists that the Ch’an teachers in whose intellectual world the koan came to their current form did not consider themselves to be ‘religious’ but ‘philosophical’ in their disciplined exploration of the Great Matter of life and death. This reflects a common question that often hangs around Western explorations of Buddhism: is it a religion? Well, that depends what you mean by that word. Some would restrict it to systems of thought and practice that include a belief in a supreme being or deity. This, however, reflects a Western bias based on the Abrahamic faiths and may also reflect a contemporary awkwardness in dealing with anything that looks like language about ‘God’. Anyone who is familiar with Mahayana Buddhism will confirm that it is not a stranger to metaphysical speculations or, indeed, deities, even if it does not posit a creating God who is infinite, ultimate and beyond the realm of ‘things’.
The question of Buddhism as a religion or not may well be in the ‘walks like a duck’ category of silliness but it opens up another related question: is Christianity a philosophy or a religion? Certainly, early Christian thinkers like Origen were not shy of claiming it as a philosophy and it seems likely that other ancient philosophical schools would look much more like ‘religions’ than the kind of ‘schools of thought’ that inhabit Western universities in modernity. They would have had practices, defining characteristics and patterns of belonging that we would more readily associate with religions. In the modern world, adherence to a school of thought might have little impact on how your live your life day by day unless you make a living by writing books about it. But a Buddhist monk’s entire life is committed to the investigation of the Great Matter through meditation, study, communal life, rules for eating, dress, ethical conduct…
Ultimately, it is of little importance whether you call something a religion or a philosophy. What matters is the way it shapes your life. I bow respectfully to anyone who commits themselves to a serious and disciplined inquiry into this whole business of being alive!