I had been practicing Zen meditation with my teacher, Dai-En Bennage Roshi, while in college when I asked her about how someone becomes a Zen Buddhist. I was not so interested in this question personally at that time. I was studying World Religions and sincerely interested in what was required of Zen Buddhists to become members of their faith.

Dai-En Roshi told me the story of a westerner who trained assiduously in a Japanese Zen Monastery for several months. He liked the experience so much that he wanted to become a member of the Sangha, or community. He asked the head monk, “What do I need to do to become a member?”

The monk scratched his left temple with his right hand indicating his confusion by the question. He paused and thought for a few moments in silence. He responded to the westerner, “How does a cloud become a member of the sky?”

In other words, becoming a Buddhist is not nearly as important as seeing your true nature, and that you already belong simply because you are here. The more important question that Zen Buddhists deal with is this: who am I, where do I belong, and what should I be doing in this moment, now? This is not a question that I or anyone else can answer for you. The question itself is Zen’s gift to you. Moreover, the question is not one directed at the intellect, but at the hara, the place two finger widths below the navel.

In Asian thought the hara is said to be where the mind sits, not the head. An answer that comes from the head or intellect is not the right answer. It’s not deep enough. It’s a shallow answer. The answer needs to come from the gut after sitting with the question and not analyzing it with the mind.

It’s human beings that like to divide things up and make categories with our mind. From the viewpoint of the Ultimate Dimension, there are no such distinctions as “Buddhist” and “non-Buddhist.”

The westerner’s question is a western question. He may be concerned about being “saved.” He may want to be a member because he does not want to be excluded from salvation in his life after death. Again, the Zen perspective on this is upside down from the western view of the purpose of religion.

A Japanese man once asked a revered Zen monk where he will go after he dies. The monk pointed downward and said, “I’ll go straight to hell!” The man was shocked saying, “But you are such a holy person. What have you done to deserve that?” The monk responded, “My job is to free all beings before I myself am freed. There are already plenty of angels in heaven. I am needed in hell to help people, like you, who are suffering. That’s why I am going there when I die.”