What Makes Someone a Zen Buddhist?

Here’s a question from the mail bag:

What makes someone a Zen Buddhist? Perhaps, for I assume many others that come from Western Christianity, it is a holdover idea that we have to meet some kind of bar that makes us “valid” or “true believers.” Would it be someone who does zazen, follows the Eightfold Path and ten precepts, and does their best to help others? 

Here’s how I answered:

It’s a hard question. It sort of depends on if you want to tell people you’re a Zen Buddhist or not.

There is a ceremony called Jukai in which you formally and publicly take a vow to follow the Buddhist Precepts. After having taken that ceremony you’re “officially” a Zen Buddhist. You get a new name and a certificate and everything! When people say they are the student of a certain Zen Buddhist teacher, what they generally mean is that they have taken the precepts ceremony with that teacher officiating.

Dogen describes the ceremony in detail in a chapter of Shobogenzo called Jukai. Here’s someone reading the chapter aloud on YouTube. And here’s a written English translation. And here is my teacher’s explanation of the precepts and their meaning.

Dogen rejected the designation “Zen Buddhist.” He said that what he taught was the Buddha Dharma, not a sect of Buddhism called Zen. My teacher didn’t like the term “Zen Buddhism” either. I use it because I have to. It’s what most Europeans and Americans call the form of Buddhism I do. So I somewhat grudgingly accept the term and use it. But whenever I hear someone say, “Hi! I’m a Zen Buddhist!” that indicates to me that the person hasn’t studied Zen Buddhism very extensively.

Be that as it may, as far as I’m concerned if someone wants to call themselves a “Zen Buddhist” I will accept that, the same way I accept other people’s various chosen identities. I would expect a person who calls themselves a “Zen Buddhist” to regularly practice zazen and to be trying their best to follow the precepts. I’d expect them to know at least the basics of the philosophy & history of Zen Buddhism. On the other hand, I know people who call themselves “Zen Buddhists” and don’t do any of those things. I don’t bother arguing against them.

As far as beliefs, it really doesn’t matter. Buddhism is not a belief system. Having said that, I should add the caveat that there are forms of Buddhism in which they care very much what you believe. But in the Zen form of Buddhism beliefs are not considered to be very important. My teacher used to say, “I believe in the universe.” 

Some Zen Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Others don’t. Some Zen Buddhists believe in God. Others consider themselves to be atheists. I even know some Zen practitioners who believe that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. I’m not sure if they call themselves “Buddhists” or not. But they could call themselves that and most Zen Buddhists would have no objection at all.


Angel City Zen Center now meets on ZOOM several times each week often with Brad giving the lectures. We’re even having an online retreat in November. For details check aczc.org


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IT CAME FROM BEYOND ZEN and SEX SIN AND ZEN are now available as audiobooks from Audible.com! You can also get Don’t Be a JerkHardcore Zen,  Sit Down and Shut Up and There is No God and He is Always With You in audio form — all read by me, Brad Warner!