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I am primarily interested in following the teachings of Mahayana. Mahayana refers to the path of the Bodhisattva, a person capable of achieving Nirvana, a state in which the practitioner is released from the effects of karma and the cycle of death and rebirth, but instead chooses to save other beings from suffering.

Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are two different schools of Mahayana. What is the essence of these two paths, and how do I determine which path to follow in order to become a Bodhisattva?

  • It would take volumes to distinguish between the different types of Tibetan Buddhism let alone distinguish them from zen. – user17214 Dec 22 '19 at 17:54
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    @user17214 I think if a user asks a very broad question they might be asking for an introductory superficial answer. Or if you happen to know where the specific question has been answered in-depth -- in one book or article, for example, rather than "volumes" -- then a reference to that might be a welcome answer too. – ChrisW Dec 23 '19 at 2:54
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From my experience, the biggest diff is in the amount of rational explanation.

Tibetan teachers and texts are much more inclined to giving a step by step logical rational reasonable conceptual framework. Zen teachers and texts speak to direct experience, using spur of the moment analogies and play on words.

Judging by the very fact that you asked this question, you seem to be inclined towards the Tibetan style. (It seems to me if you were a good Zen material, asking this kind of question would not even occur to you. You would not trust anyone's opinion and would be inclined to try both and find out for yourself.)

And judging by how you mentioned "essence" and your practical tone, I suspect Kagyu may be a good lineage for you.

If you are interested in differences between Tibetan schools, you may want to see this answer.

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To paraphrase an answer I once heard from the POV of a Gelugpa Lama:

In Tibetan Buddhism, we guide the student to the top of the mountain using well-trodden and safe paths, around and up to the top. Zen goes right up the north flank.

Generally speaking, both are categorized as Mahayana, but there is much more ritual and esoterism in Tibetan Buddhism, it schools mostly subcategorized as Vajrayana than there is in Zen, which is often called the Sudden Teaching and subcategorized as Subitism.

One of the main reasons for this difference is the local culture into which both forms of Buddhism were imported from India and the related chronology.

In Tibet, the Buddhist texts were first translated from Sanskrit around the 8th century, and the wordings used to translate many of the Buddhist Sanskrit principles were based on local concepts from the Animistic Bon religion. In the texts that came to Tibet around this time, Indian Buddhism had transformed Buddha into a cosmic figure. This resulted in Indra, the Thunder God being absorbed by Buddhist spiritualism until Indra’s thunderbolt, known as Vajra, a symbol of the power of nature was transformed into the Buddha’s diamond scepter, representing spiritual supremacy and the power of compassion.

In China, the first Buddhist texts were translated much earlier, during the Han dynasty around 200 BCE, and influenced by the local Taoism. The texts central to Ch'an (Zen) only came to China around the same time Buddhist texts came to Tibet, but by that time the core Buddhist concepts were already part of the Chinese vernacular and had already been associated with core Chinese principles such as Tao. The essence of Zen is found in the Flower Sermon, in which the Buddha simply held up a Golden Lotus instead of preaching with words. The disciple Mahakasyapa, whose insight of understanding this message was shown only by a quiet smile, was designated his successor. The Chinese found this teaching to perfectly match with the opening verse of Lao-Tzu's Tao Te Ching:

道可道、非常道。名可名、非常名無名天地之始有名萬物之母

The Way that can be followed is not the eternal Way. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

Please keep in mind this is a very generic answer. If you would look at the establishment and evolution of individual Tibetan or Ch'an/Zen schools, a very different pattern emerges, and of course, there were new or refined concepts introduced in both schools. A good example of this would be Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka.

For a detailed comparison, see Presentation on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism

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The essence of these two paths is the Noble Eightfold Path. There are eight persons on this path:

DN33:3.1.9: The stream-enterer and the one practicing to realize the fruit of stream-entry. The once-returner and the one practicing to realize the fruit of once-return. The non-returner and the one practicing to realize the fruit of non-return. The perfected one, and the one practicing for perfection.

The Bodhissatva may be understood as one practicing for perfection. I started with Zen and now I study the suttas. Looking back it was always one path. The Noble Eightfold Path.

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