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Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis - Dhamma Wheel

Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

A discussion on all aspects of Theravāda Buddhism
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retrofuturist
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Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby retrofuturist » Sat Jan 03, 2009 1:44 am

Greetings,

Caveat: the following is bound to be riddled with historical inaccuracies and so on... I present it as an hypothesis, a current understanding, and look forward to hearing how this understanding can be corrected and/or developed. I'm also incredibly interested in other people's opinions on the relationship between the two traditions and the fellowship and mutual respect that seems to be emerging between the two.

Despite Japan being the most remote of the Northern Buddhist countries, with respect to the North-western Indian heartland of the Buddha, I often feel there is much in common between Zen and Theravada. There are strong differences in certain aspects, such as the position of the suttas, cultural heritage and teaching methods, but again there is something very similar they share. I feel they both approach the matter of experience and suffering directly, naturally, and in accord with nature.

As a modern Theravadin, open to Buddhist sources which are consistent with the Pali Canon, I find there is much to be learned from Zen stories and Zen methods. I also find that many Zen practitioners also feel a certain respect for Theravadin teachers, particularly those of the Thai Forest Tradition, who are perhaps a little less interested in scriptural orthodoxy than other areas of the Theravadin spectrum.

I'm always told by people that this interpretation of events is wrong, but it still feels to me that as Buddhism arrived to Japan there was a strong urge, amongst all the paraphernalia and cultural accretions to cut to the heart of Buddhism. To extricate the concessions made for the Chinese, Tibetans, Mongolians and so on and cut to the heart of the teachings. As I understand it though, there was little awareness or understanding of the Pali Canon or the agamas, so the early Zen masters would have to find out for themselves what was important and communicate that to their students via their unique method. I believe these Zen patriarchs connected to the original straight-forward simplicity and subtlety of the Buddha's teaching, yet expressed it in a unique form aligned with the Japanese culture, because understanding can never be totally separated from culture from which it is born and related.

What do you think of the relationship between Theravada and Zen? What benefit do you feel there is for a Theravadin in examining classical or modern Zen works?

Metta,
Retro. :)
"Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education." - Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead" - Thomas Paine

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby Ben » Sat Jan 03, 2009 2:02 am

Hi Retro

The poetic expression of spiritual experience within Zen is something that has always struck a chord with me. It did as an impressionable teenager and it still does today. Perhaps its time I revisit the writings of DT Suzuki.
Kind regards

Ben
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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby jcsuperstar » Sat Jan 03, 2009 4:31 am

coming from a zen background (a very modern version of soto-shu at that, my roshi was heavily influenced by kosho uchiyama) i easily felt in Theravada, especially the Thai forest tradition of LP Chah and the writings of LP Buddhadasa right at home.

my dissatisfaction with my former tradition came not from my teachers, or from zen, but from Mahayana itself. as a whole it's to much for me to be responsible for (does that make sense?) so much of Mahayana i had to argue away not only with others but with myself. and these ideas i had problems with just aren't found in Theravada.
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby retrofuturist » Sat Jan 03, 2009 4:36 am

Greetings JC,

Yes, it's interesting that Zen took on the bodhisattva ideal, and it would be very interesting to see what it would have looked like had that not been the case. What do you think that would have looked like?

Metta,
Retro. :)
"Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education." - Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead" - Thomas Paine

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Re: Theravada and Ch'an

Postby Will » Sat Jan 03, 2009 4:43 am

As an example, Ch'an Master Hsuan Hua, was close to several Ajahn's. He even donated a large amount of land for a retreat or monastery (I have forgotten which) for the Theravadins. Below is a picture of him and Ajahn Sumedho. So between Ch'an and Theravada, yes - I do not know much about Zen.

Image
A bodhisattva does not become weary of evil beings nor does he commit the error of bringing forth thoughts inclined to reject them and cast them aside. Avatamsaka Sutra, ch. 25

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby retrofuturist » Sat Jan 03, 2009 4:55 am

"Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education." - Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead" - Thomas Paine

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby jcsuperstar » Sat Jan 03, 2009 7:42 am

สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby christopher::: » Sat Jan 03, 2009 9:58 am

"As Buddhists, we should aim to develop relationships that are not predominated by grasping and clinging. Our relationships should be characterised by the brahmaviharas of metta (loving kindness), mudita (sympathetic joy), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity)."
~post by Ben, Jul 02, 2009

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby retrofuturist » Sat Jan 03, 2009 10:23 am

"Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education." - Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh

"The uprooting of identity is seen by the noble ones as pleasurable; but this contradicts what the whole world sees." (Snp 3.12)

"To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead" - Thomas Paine

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby christopher::: » Sat Jan 03, 2009 11:30 am

"As Buddhists, we should aim to develop relationships that are not predominated by grasping and clinging. Our relationships should be characterised by the brahmaviharas of metta (loving kindness), mudita (sympathetic joy), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity)."
~post by Ben, Jul 02, 2009

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Re: source of flag story

Postby Will » Sat Jan 03, 2009 7:04 pm

A bodhisattva does not become weary of evil beings nor does he commit the error of bringing forth thoughts inclined to reject them and cast them aside. Avatamsaka Sutra, ch. 25

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby Dhammakid » Sat Jan 03, 2009 9:22 pm

Hello All,
I love the flag story :D

My reasons for leaving Mahayana/Zen and Pure Land is because of my inability to justify some of the teachings with others I have talked to. I couldn't justify praying to Amitabha Buddha for rebirth in a land of bliss based on the idea that beings nowadays cannot attain Enlightenment by themselves. Every time I tried to differentiate Pure Land from Christianity, I always ended up coming back to Christianity. And during my time studying Korean Zen, I couldn't justify praying and bowing to countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, practicing karma-cleansing rituals and forgiveness sessions. Maybe I was doing it wrong, which is likely actually. But a pull towards the forest tradition and strong urges to study the teachings of various Ajahns ultimately lead me back to Theravada.

I kept telling myself that these practices are really just to cultivate mindfulness and do away with a concept of the self. But then I had to be real - you can practice mindfulness without praying and bowing to 88 Buddhas every Sunday. And save your knees a lot of suffering ;) I also found the concept of forgoing Nibbana until all sentient beings are saved a tad bit unrealistic, especially since the Buddha praised the attainment of Nibbana and Parinibbana and made it the ultimate goal. It's the cessation of suffering, which is what Buddha taught. Without Nibbana, what is the point of Buddhist practice other than hippy, lovey-dovey feel good? And it's funny, because Bodhidharma supposedly taught against ritual worship, and yet it seems Zen is full of it.

But I do find many Zen teachings to be incredibly profound and relevant to western life. The emphasis on emptiness has always been a cornerstone in my practice, even now. And I just love the work of Bodhidharma. Furthermore, ancient Japanese and Chinese culture has always been an interest of mine. But when I found out just how much of Zen is influenced by Taoism and Confucianism, that gave me more reason to embrace the forest tradition.

But I really do see Zen and Theravada slowly becoming more understanding and accepting of each other, especially among the laity but also even among monastics. I think some of the concepts found in Theravada are simply exaggerated and emphasized more in Zen (such as their being many past Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, emptiness, mindset at death determining rebirth [as in Pure Land, with the idea of dhamma-decline and enlightenment based on faith], etc). But ultimately the teachings point to the same moon ;)

However, I must say that I find it to be a matter of interpretation, which is very very important in my opinion. I think Mahayana has a somewhat skewed view of what the Bodhisattva actually is and what they actually do, especially because most all Zen teachers and practitioners I have heard from believe Theravada has no Bodhisattva ideal at all, which is completely false. Furthermore, Zen seems so inconsistent depending on who you talk to. Some Zen and Pure Land practitioners believe the Pure Land is just a mind state, while others take it quite literally as a place you are reborn in. It seems that most Zen practitioners hold real, actual Buddha-nature to exist, but some others dismiss it as just another translation of a universal spirit or Being or energy or something like that.

I guess I must admit also that Zen seems, in my perception, more focused on the laity and it appeals to them more, especially with the idea of sudden Enlightenment. But I am very much wanting to live the life of a renunciate, and I relate more to teachings coming from the renunciate tradition.

When it comes down to it, I think I could argue the similarities between Zen and Theravada up until we get to sudden vs. gradual enlightenment and authenticity of various texts. At that point, real differences emerge.

I hope I made some sense here. Forgive if I didn't.

Namaste,
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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby Cittasanto » Sat Jan 03, 2009 10:53 pm

hi All
to start with I didn't read any of the replies or the full post, but this is something I have thought about!
in particular when I read one of Ajahn Chahs books it reminded me of allot of Zen Teachings, and personally I think Zen is a stepping back to Theravada


He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them.
But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion …
...
He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby christopher::: » Sun Jan 04, 2009 1:56 am

I'm really glad we are having this discussion. I think we could have discussed this before and should have talked more. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions on both sides. I felt at times, in other places, like there may have been a subtle attempt to keep Zen and Theravadan Buddhists from having too many of these kinds of open respectful discussions. Sometimes its good to get a third opinion, but other times perhaps its actually best not... ?

:D

But that is the past, and another place. This is the present, and this space. I'm very very glad to be here with you all for such a discussion.

Zen Buddhism and the Forest tradition (especially) seem to me to both be attempts to get back to the roots of what Buddhism is about. Now, as Westerners, we have the opportunity to make choices ourselves about what constitutes essential dhamma teachings and practices, and what constitutes unessential cultural add-ons. I think its a gradual process, by which we may find ourselves collaboratively creating something new with our own traditions that is also deeply rooted in the essentials of the Dhamma. That is always the bottom line, imo.

Strong flowers need deep roots!!
"As Buddhists, we should aim to develop relationships that are not predominated by grasping and clinging. Our relationships should be characterised by the brahmaviharas of metta (loving kindness), mudita (sympathetic joy), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity)."
~post by Ben, Jul 02, 2009

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby jcsuperstar » Sun Jan 04, 2009 3:30 am

from my limited understanding, i think up until around the time of ajahn mun very little emphasis was put on practice in the Theravada tradition.
that it was the standard view that the path to awakening was basically closed so Buddhism should be focused more on study and vinaya.
i believe ajahn sujato talks about this too. that basically what we consider theravada, is a very modern (late 19th early 20th century) version of Theravada.
mahasi sayadaw, Pa Auk Sayadaw, U Ba Khin,lp buddhadasa, lp chah, lp mun, etc are all very recent, and pretty much everything we've been exposed to in the west has come from these modern interpretations of dhamma well, the practice of meditation more so than dhamma.

i see the same idea in dogen. here's a guy living in a time when it was supposedly impossible to wake up as well. so what did he do? he ran off studied and meditated came back and was all "hey you guys are wrong all we need to do is get back to meditation"

it's the same sort of drive i think. its asking the question not "what would buddha do" but rather "what did buddha do". the answer is simple. meditation!

(some) modern zen (from the soto school) is similar to these forest traditions because if you look at the history of dogen's school, it goes somthing like this: dogen teaches/writes founds a school, that school basically forgets all about him and becomes indistinguishable from any-other japanese mahayana school then in the 20th century starting at least as early as Kodo Sawaki you have people asking "well what did dogen do?" oh meditation.... and this revival of practice starts in soto-shu (though it's only through a few lines, uchiyama, nishijima, akiyama, basically those who studied under or were influenced by sawaki) also within Soto there is this critical buddhism movement, which is trying to remove (or at least seriously question) what they feel are non Buddhist elements that have creeped into japanese buddhism, the most controversial of which is buddha nature.

i see these modern soto lines as somewhat similar to movements such as Goenka's. from a theravada stand point they are nothing but lay meditation movements, but the teachers are highly trained (such as Goenka's) and not just random, "hey lets meditate at my house thursday nights" type groups.
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby jcsuperstar » Sun Jan 04, 2009 3:33 am

a bit more

about the vipassna movement

The various movements espouse similar meditation techniques. Teachers with the vipassana movement teach forms of samatha and vipassanā meditation consistent with Buddhist meditation as taught by the Buddha. According to S. N. Goenka, they are essentially non-sectarian in character and have universal application. One need not convert to Buddhism to practice these styles of meditation

this is similar to modern zen where xtion priests have recieve dharma transmission etc.
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby Cittasanto » Sun Jan 04, 2009 8:07 am



He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them.
But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion …
...
He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them … he must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form.

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby christopher::: » Sun Jan 04, 2009 11:42 am

Hi Manapa and JC.

This question of what is essential dharma, essential practice and what is a cultural add-on is not something people tend to come to easily, it really requires that we all put our heads together and discover from a mix of practice and study what works, and what doesn't. I think there are a lot of modern Zen practitioners who put a great emphasis on meditation but push away certain key Buddhist teachings. With something like belief in literal reincarnation i think that's okay (initially) but if you push away the precepts, ignore aspects of the 8 fold path or the teachings on dependent origination one may not really be practicing Buddhism.

The emphasis on the precepts, especially, is a strong point of Theravada as many of you practice it here, I feel. Though interestingly in both Thailand and Japan there are a lot of Theravada and Zen laypersons who seem to have completely lost touch with this. The taboo against sexual misconduct, alcohol and meat eating is ignored by many many here in Asia who call themselves Buddhists. In Japan we even find Zen priests drinking and eating meat, without a second thought.

I view things like prayer posture, rituals, bowing, clothing, chanting, etc as cultural additions, not core. But the precepts are core, meditation is core dhamma, imo. I'm not saying this in a holier than thou way, more based on my own struggles and lack of self discipline. Reading the discussion here last night that some of you were having about 5 precepts vs. 8 really humbled me. I'd say that each week I violate over half of the precepts at least once.

One reason I've been spending time here is that most of you provide a good model of practice for me to aspire to. I don't have a sangha or teacher here in the city where i live. I can study and discuss Buddhism on my own or at other websites but i really believe practice is key, how i practice day to day, situation to situation. And for that i need a sangha of like-minded individuals, with plenty of good role models. I don't feel we need to agree on all the teachings, its the transformation of bad habits, actions, behavior patterns that matter most, imo.

:roll:

PS. Last night I had chicken soup and two beers for dinner. Does that count as 3 violations or two?
Last edited by christopher::: on Sun Jan 04, 2009 11:50 am, edited 1 time in total.
"As Buddhists, we should aim to develop relationships that are not predominated by grasping and clinging. Our relationships should be characterised by the brahmaviharas of metta (loving kindness), mudita (sympathetic joy), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity)."
~post by Ben, Jul 02, 2009

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby jcsuperstar » Sun Jan 04, 2009 11:47 am

well theres no prohibition against meat eating
สัพเพ สัตตา สุขีตา โหนตุ

the mountain may be heavy in and of itself, but if you're not trying to carry it it's not heavy to you- Ajaan Suwat

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Re: Theravada and Zen - a comparative analysis

Postby christopher::: » Sun Jan 04, 2009 11:53 am

"As Buddhists, we should aim to develop relationships that are not predominated by grasping and clinging. Our relationships should be characterised by the brahmaviharas of metta (loving kindness), mudita (sympathetic joy), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity)."
~post by Ben, Jul 02, 2009


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