Zen is my favorite Buddhist tradition and I think everyone knows that. But, I am part of a non-sectarian Tibetan Buddhist community, and I love this community very much. I volunteer there and I teach classes there.
But sometimes people—especially people who follow my writing—ask me questions about Zen.
An entire book could be written on the subject, I’m sure. But I will answer as briefly as I can so that it’s not so long that no one reads it.
Here in the West Zen and Tibetan style are the two most well known branches of Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism is really well known. This is largely due to the popularity of the Dalai Lama and the efforts of Chogyam Trungpa, and there are other factors as well. But worldwide, Tibetan Buddhism is actually not all that common. It’s usually considered the smallest branch of Buddhism, even with all of it’s different lineages. It only seems big here. There are branches of Buddhism like Pure Land that are really common in Asia, but have barely taken root here.
Zen, on the other hand, is common here and worldwide as well. It’s been here in the West longer (since the late 1800s at least) and it’s taken root in a lot of places.
So, here we go.
Zen really emerged as a distinct sect when Buddhism entered China and Buddhist ideas merged with some of the Taoist philosophy that was already there. Tibetan Buddhism emerged when Buddhism entered Tibet and Buddhist ideas merged with the religion that was already present—a shamanic religion called Bon—that included a lot of things like nature spirits and ancestor worship.
Because that’s what Buddhism does. It mingles with whatever cultures are there already. Buddhism adapts to local conditions in a way that other religions don’t always. It’s a very versatile spiritual path. Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism both have several different lineages that emphasize different things, so I can only really write about this in broad strokes right now, although I may go deeper in a later article.
The really short answer is this: Zen Buddhism is minimalist and Tibetan Buddhism is much more elaborate.
Zen meditation is mainly about following the breath as well as emptying the mind. It also includes a few deeper things like meditative inquiry and riddles. Tibetan meditation often includes things like mantras and visualizations and concentrating on really complex thoughts.
Tibetan Buddhism is more what we would think of as religious. There are a number of divine beings and Bodhisattvas that are talked about, visualized, and even prayed to. There are also very complex rituals and prayers. Zen Buddhism has rituals too. Practitioners are expected to bow a certain way and enter the temple a certain way, but things are just a less complicated.
And how are they similar?
They both talk about lineage. Who your teacher was matters a great deal. They both emphasize Buddha nature—the teaching that we are Enlightened already—we just have to realize it.
I don’t think one is better than the other. They are both authentic forms of Buddhism. If you like elaborate ritual, then Tibetan style is probably right for you. If you don’t, then Zen might be a better choice.