Question: Is Chan (Zen) a religion?
Chan Master Sheng Yen: Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment and taught Buddhadharma in India, at a time when its culture was spiritually and religiously oriented. He began his teachings by questioning some of the prevailing beliefs, such as the existence of individual souls, but for the sake of inducing followers of other faiths to follow the Dharma, he incorporated elements from other spiritual traditions. Also, as Buddhadharma spread, it absorbed some ideas and beliefs of other cultures. In the process, Buddhism became a religion. However, Buddhism is different from all other religions, and its fundamental principles are not necessarily of a religious nature.
Shakyamuni Buddha did not teach his disciples to pray to a deity, or even to himself for help or salvation. He encouraged sentient beings to help themselves as well as others. By studying and practicing Buddhadharma, sentient beings can relieve themselves of life’s vexations, and eventually free themselves from the cycle of birth and death.
(From Zen Wisdom — Conversations on Buddhism by Chan Master Sheng Yen, published by Dharma Drum Publications, 2001)