Is Zen a religion?From an outsider's perspective, all of the bowing and chanting definitely constitute what ordinarily passes as a religion. A Buddha statue rests on an altar, the subject of veneration. Candles and incense burn, lending to the air of solemnity.
While these aspects of Zen liturgy/service/practice are the most visible, they are not the bones of Zen. Zen includes but ultimately transcends these.
In my opinion, authentic Zen transcends Zen. It sheds any sense of itself, molting its skin like a cicada, leaving just a fully engaged life.
There is so much talk in Buddhist circles about "practice," but true practice must eventually erase itself. Mindfulness, while the most popular expression of Zen practice in action, eventually dissolves into (at the risk of sounding cliche) life itself.
In other words, authentic formal Zen practice--the deliberate act of being mindful/present/aware, meditating, koan practice, bowing, chanting--becomes no-practice. It loses its self-consciousness and eventually blends into our ordinary lives, not in the usual sense that people mean when they say that "washing the dishes" is practice, for that still stinks of Zen, to borrow from the ancient masters.
These are all expressions of Buddha, but they still contains a vestige of intention.
Zen must completely self-immolate until nothing remains, only non-reflective action. Like the elegant movements of a ballerina or master martial artist, Zen practice flows without getting its own way, completely uninhibited by its own self-awareness. Jazz guitarists don't think about what note to play next; they just play. Or rather, the notes just play themselves.
Life becomes a spontaneous expression of the present moment.
At the risk of sounding biased, true Zen transcends religion because it is nothing special. Religion, after all, means acknowledging something as sacred, which naturally invites the distinction between "that which is not sacred." Zen allows no such duality. When everything becomes sacred, then sacred and profane lose their meaning.
Then there is only scrubbing the toilet, paying the bills, watching TV, unencumbered by self-consciousness, any notions of self/other, practice, Buddhism, Buddha, religion, or Zen. This in no way prevents us from bowing or chanting or meditating; quite the opposite--it frees us to do them as a genuine expression of this moment. They are celebrations of life now.
This is what Bodhidharma meant when he said, "Vast emptiness, nothing holy."
I do not claim that Zen is alone in its sloughing off of itself--any spiritual practice is capable of it, provided it is willing to sacrifice itself--but ultimately any religion that is unwilling to transcend itself is just that...a religion, in the modern sense of the word.
A construct, a thing, or more precisely, an obstruction.
Paradoxically true religion is ultimately no-religion. At least not a religion in any sense that the Supreme Court or Hobby Lobby would understands.