Is Buddhism, including Zen Buddhism a religion? If we take as a given that mysticism is religion insofar as the nature of religion depends upon mystical gnosis which is both transcendent and salvific, then Buddhism is religion because it is, foremost, mysticism (German theologian Friedrich Heiler says that Buddhism is the only consistent form of mysticism).
Arguably, the mysticism that the Buddha teaches in the discourses is consistent mysticism because the discourses teach a path to nirvana, which is transcendent and salvific, which might be thought of as the pillars of mysticism.
If, on the other hand, mysticism is to be separated from religion, religion believed to be the worship of God, Buddhism still remains mystical. It might even be argued that from the Buddha’s perspective, the worship of God is unnecessary. Even if a creator god or a demiurge creates the sensible world, this fact does not rule out a much higher principle that mystical awakening allows us to access.
The source of contention is that religion wants to deny the primacy of mysticism. It is uncomfortable with it—it speaks a strange language. On the other hand, mysticism views religion as an inadequate form of mysticism which is corruptible as religious history shows us. What makes it inadequate is the intrusion of secular values into religion which eventually render it an empty shell. But what has been emptied out is not so much religion as every vestige of mysticism. Emptied of mysticism, we can understand why 28 articles of the mystic Eckhart’s teachings were condemned in a papal bull “in agro Dominico,” in 1329 after his death.
If we are looking for a recrudesces of religion it can only come by way of authentic mysticism—this is what history should tell us. Yes, religionists can keep hope alive but it will simply not allow religion to sprout wings. I think it is to Buddhism that religion must look to rebuild itself. As regards my own mystical encounters, mysticism proved to be the answer. By it I came to see what true religion is about: it is acknowledgment of the animative principle that moves all living things; which is undying. On the same score, mysticism is direct entry into this animative principle.