Here in Southern California, some irate Christian parents are suing their local school district for offering free voluntary yoga classes.This reminds me a lot of Pat Robertson’s famous video telling Christians to fear yoga because it’s praying to Hindu gods. I imagine it’s all tied in somehow. The Vatican itself has even declared yoga, along with Zen and TM as potentially degenerating into a “cult of the body.”
People in America are very committed to their religions. A religion to them is like a wife/husband or girl/boyfriend. You can only have one of them! If you are a Christian and you do yoga, you are cheating on Jesus!
The Japanese, on the other hand, are very religiously promiscuous. They’re like polyamorists when it comes to religion. Lots of people over there go to Buddhist temples on the Buddhist holidays, Shinto shrines on the Shinto holidays and maybe even occasionally to Christian churches on the Christian holidays like Christmas or Easter. Lots of non-Christian Japanese people have church weddings, often with foreign guys pretending to be preachers. It’s no big deal.
Having been steeped in Japanese culture for so long it’s sometimes hard for me to quite get a grip on how my fellow Americans feel about this kind of stuff. But I get a lot of Christians asking if they can do Zen practice without giving up their Christian faith. I always say yes. There’s no conflict I can see between believing in Jesus as your Lord and Savior and doing zazen. Lots of Christians do zazen, like Thomas Merton. There are no matters of required belief involved in Zen practice. So there is no conflict. Besides that, there are Christian forms of silent meditation practice that are remarkably similar to zazen, although these aren’t practiced very widely in our contemporary American churches.
These Christians down San Diego way are saying that yoga is a form of Hinduism. You could make an argument that it is. The word “yoga” means “yoke” and comes from a Hindu concept regarding yoking oneself to God. And, of course, by God they mean Vishnu or Brahman or some of the other bazillion names they have for God and not really Jehovah. On the other hand, the word yoga has a huge number of meanings. It’s even used in the Buddhist tradition as in yogacara, the “way of yoga,” which isn’t Hindu at all. Nor does it involve doing downward facing dog or the “gorilla pose” this article mentions (I want to know what that one is!).
Which brings up a whole other point. What we call yoga in the West generally means the stretches and poses of the Hatha Yoga system rather than the more religious types of yoga. A case can be made that what we now know as Hatha Yoga is really an Indian version of some of the gymnastic poses and stretches they received when they were a British colony. Most yoga taught in the West is extremely secularized. Often the teachers don’t know or care much about the supposed spiritual aspects of the practice.
I think the issue of whether or not meditation is a religious practice is actually a hotter matter than yoga’s supposed Hindu origins. Nobody’s really worried about stretches. Though I have seen some argue that yoga poses are actually forms of worship, that seems to be a minority opinion. Where people really get their panties in a bunch is when it comes to meditating.
I know I’ve told this story multiple times. But when I first got into this Zen stuff I was dating a girl whose mom was a fundamentalist Christian. She was concerned that by opening up my mind in meditation I might allow demons to enter it and control me. It was kind of funny because zazen was usually so boring I kind of wished demons would try to take over my brain! Anything to relieve the tedium!
Lots of meditation teachers these days try to secularize things. Besides not making Christians upset, it seems like a really good way to expand your audience and make loads of money. Lots of what I see promoted as secular mindfulness practice and whatnot is just straight-up Buddhism. I’ve toyed with the idea of presenting things that way myself. In the earliest drafts of my forthcoming book I attempted to eliminate the words “Zen” and “Buddhist” as well as their various derivatives. But it felt deceptive to do so. I’d be lying if I tried to say I didn’t get these ideas from my Buddhist teachers and my Buddhist training. So I went ahead and said I was a Zen Buddhist, even though I think the term is a bit of a misnomer.
I think a lot of the concern Americans express over matters like this is based on that idea I mentioned earlier that one must be true to one’s religion. We’re really scared of mixing things up. But that kind of purity never really existed. What we know now as Christianity is basically a Jewish messianic cult mixed up with a lot of Greek philosophy. Contemporary Buddhism is certainly not pure either. It has dashes of Hinduism, the Bon religion of Tibet, Taoism and these days even some Christian notions thrown into the mix.
Having said that, I do get the idea of being wary of mixing things carelessly. For instance, I am not a fan of the way Zen is often seen as a kind of Japanese form of psychotherapy by many Americans. I think we have to be careful about this.
But perhaps the difference for me is that I see no need to go from being careful to being actually fearful of it.
So chill out down there in San Diego! Worry about ComicCon instead! That’s where the real devil worshipers hang out!
Come to our Zen and Yoga retreat at Mt. Baldy Zen Center in April!
Come to zazen every Thursday at 8:30 in Los Feliz!
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