In this Partially Examined Life podcast one of the presenters stated that Zen is an extreme form of Mahayana. Is that true in any sense? Are there elements of Zen that could be classified as extreme? Or is the statement entirely wrong?

  • 1
    Maybe you can explain why they called it extreme.
    – catpnosis
    Aug 9, 2014 at 16:19
  • 2
    You need to define what extreme means, what normal Mahayana is and where is the borderline where this Mahayana deviates from being normal. People are different and they need different methods. What looks extreme to you might be perfectly natural to others. I don't see the point in making classifications based on a very subjective term like extreme.
    – Rabbit
    Aug 11, 2014 at 10:06
  • @Rabbit I do absolutely agree. But the point is that this is a quote from a podcast I was listening to. The presenters didn't clarify this point at all - it was in fact a throwaway comment. So the question really is - is there any possible way that this could be true. If not and there is no sense that Zen is an extreme form of anything then this is the answer. I guess there is an implicit invitation for any answerer to define their own version of 'extreme'. Maybe the question doesn't work on those terms. I'm happy to delete it TBH Aug 11, 2014 at 11:56

2 Answers 2


Extreme means "furthest from the center or a given point; outermost." Zen comes from Japan, which came from Chan in China which came from Mahayana in India. Thus Zen is far removed from the origin in India making it more extreme. I am a Zen practitioner in Florida of the United States. Here it is even more of an extreme since we are even further from the center point of origin.

"the extreme south of Florida"

Or look at it this way, your arm is an extremity of your body. Zen is an extremity of Mahayana buddhism. One could say the arm and the body are one. And one could also say the arm is an extremity of the body. Both view points are correct.

Zen in Japan has a lot of added texts and stories. Check out the book "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones". The "Gateless Gate" is in that book. The Shōbōgenzō written by Dogen is a Japanese Zen text. These are texts native to Japanese Zen that you will not find in the Chinese/Indian/Tibet texts. As far as practice, meditation on a Koan is a good example of a specific Japanese Zen practice that you will not see in Indian mahayana buddhism

  1. Zen is extremely different in style from the other Mahayana traditions. Some even believe that the essence of Zen is Taoist, and not Buddhist, but this is also acknowledged by those who see Zen as predominantly Buddhist:

Are we talking about style? Yes, the records of the Zen masters resemble the style of the Zhuangzi more than they resemble the style of the Avatamsaka Sutra.

  1. Zen, unlike Chan or Seon, underwent several reforms: simplification, stripping of the Pure Land component, association with arts and Meiji reforms. This can be said to be an extreme change.

  2. In the end, Zen was popularised in the West by DT Suzuki, who stripped it from any remaining references to religion. The result, again, can be said to be extremely different from traditional Mahayana.

The last two points are based on the MatthewMartin's great answer to another question about Zen.

So Zen, both in its Japanese and in its Western version, is stripped of many things typical for Mahayana. If we regard whatever that remains as the core of Mahayana, we may call Zen an extreme form of Mahayana.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .