Theravaden Zen?

I heard a teacher of Theravada that I trust mention that Zen was the closest to the Theravada of any outside tradition that claims Buddhism. I’m not sure about this because I’m fairly certain they follow the Sanskrit not the Pali. I could be wrong. Any thoughts guys?

What they probably meant was in terms of focusing on the practice of meditation. Obviously the Zen inherited many Chinese texts and Theravada inherited many Sri Lankan texts, but in terms of practice there’s a striking similarity of minimalism and self-reliance. Hope that helps!


I’m fairly certain they don’t follow Sanskrit either.

To say that they are close depends on how much you are willing to abstract them. Of course you can find similarities between any two things. I’m sure someone could construct a “Theravada” in their mind that was similar to a “Zen”. But in reality, they are very different.


Ok 2 questions

  1. So zen practitioners don’t study the Sanskrit sutras?? Then what
  2. I thought Sri lankins were Theravada

Hi JoeL. Non-detailed and non-expert answers:

Texts were translated from various Indic languages, including Sanskrit, into Chinese, starting a few hundred AD, and the East Asian schools developed using those texts because that is what they had.

@cdpatton is currently working on translating many of these texts, and if you look at his posts you’ll find discussions of various issues.

Of course, in modern times, some Zen practitioners do look directly to the original Indic texts, but this is a modern development.

I think that it is actually difficult to answer your questions, as it really depends on what you mean by “Zen”. One or more of the traditional schools of Zen/Chan/Seon that still exist in China, Taiwan, Viet Nam, Korea, Japan, some with monastic lineage, some not? Zen as taught by Western lay teachers?

The majority of Buddhists there are Theravada. As in other SE Asian countries, different teachers can vary in what aspects they emphasise.

The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. For the Mahayana, the enlightenment which the Buddhist path is designed to awaken consists precisely in the realization of this non-dualistic perspective. The validity of conventional dualities is denied because the ultimate nature of all phenomena is emptiness, the lack of any substantial or intrinsic reality, and hence in their emptiness all the diverse, apparently opposed phenomena posited by mainstream Buddhist doctrine finally coincide: "All dharmas have one nature, which is no-nature.

Dhamma and Non-duality, Bh. Bodhi

So no, they are not close. This is no peripheral issue, but one at the very heart of Buddhist doctrine.

Zen can mean a lot of different things. So can Theravada, which like Zen, isn’t really a single practice as much as a collection of practices.

As a Mahayana school, it still has all the major features of that school including the bodhisattva path & buddha nature etc. Depending on the local flavour some Zen traditions may range from the antinomian to the orthodox.

Some core Zen texts, like the platform sutra of Patriach Hui-neng, have a philosophical foundation in Madhyamaka thought and the concept of a language game that are not native to Theravada. Zen is also philosophically Mahayana.

A teacher of Zen had once commented to me that sometimes Zen is like an in joke that is hundreds of years old, you need to know the history and background sometimes for anything to make sense.

I think most Theravada Buddhists would have little or no knowledge of these aspects of Zen, they would probably be as confused by them as I was. The intellectual history would put Zen texts in more of a continuum with intellectual Tibetan Madhyamaka.

In terms of monastic culture, there are some differences between north and south by the time bodhisattva precepts like brahmajala are also included, they are quite distinctive cultures.

Apart from that, sure, Theravada and Zen sometimes involve breathing meditation and some type of insight practice. But so do other Chinese schools that are not strictly “Zen” per se, I think you might see this in Tientai too as per texts like the Mohe Zhiguan (perhaps even more so with regard to breathing meditation). It’s just that Zen is famous (i.e. in contrast to Pure Land) which might be why people want to draw comparisons.


I thought Ajahn Chah sounded quite Zen.


I also heard some advanced practitioners in Theravada speak in a zen-like manner.

Anyway, my hypothesis now is that a lot of the Pali canon is in goal language, whereas the Mahayana, and Zen in particular has a lot of method language. To mistaken method language as goal language is an error which causes suffering, which is why most Theravada Buddhists don’t like unqualified statements from Mahayana, without proper context. Which means they are concerned about this mistake. One could investigate if it’s the same destination. As Mahayana schools do also acknowledge the 4 Noble truths, so we have the same goal language.

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