According to the book The Tao of Zen, Zen/Chan is esentially a form of Taoism. This makes sense to me, as it's hard to understand what is the common ground between the relative simplicity of Zen and the baroque belief systems of the other Mahayana traditions.

However, this is not a predominant opinion about the origins of Zen. I understand that it is generally believed that Zen is a branch of Buddhism, with some Taoist influences. What are the arguments that support this opinion? Has anybody provided counter-arguments to the ones presented in The Tao of Zen?

  • Zen teachers still refer to buddhist doctrine: four noble truths, noble eightfold path, karma, etc. And they still refer to buddhist texts, though mostly, prajnaparamita. But that is a personal observation, not a historical/scholar one.
    – user382
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 14:59
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    When Buddhism came to China, Daoists saw it as an external confirmation of their own philosophies. So to some extent Zen arose as a syncretism between Buddhism and Daoism... according to a course I took in university.
    – Anthony
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 15:12

8 Answers 8


the relative simplicity of Zen and the baroque belief systems of the other Mahayana traditions

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. But we should be more interested in content when evaluating where a tradition belongs. - The Sutras are written in a highly intricate, metaphorical language. Like the Zen master Bassui said: "Before we can read the Sutras, we have to open the mind that can read them." The Sutras are addressing a reality that is sometimes not available to an unenlightened mind.

it is generally believed that Zen is a branch of Buddhism, with some Taoist influences. What are the arguments that support this opinion? Has anybody provided counter-arguments to the ones presented in The Tao of Zen?

Every scholarly book written on the origin of Zen is a counter-argument.

Let's look at a few salient points - off the top of my head:

1) The Zen school was not called that at first. It was known as the "Buddha-Mind School" and the Zen masters were referred to as "the Lankavatara Masters":

In its beginnings in China, Zen primarily referred to the Mahāyāna sūtras and especially to the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. As a result, early masters of the Zen tradition were referred to as "Laṅkāvatāra masters". In other early texts, the school that would later become known as Zen is sometimes even referred to as simply the "Laṅkāvatāra school" (Ch. 楞伽宗, Léngqié Zōng). Accounts recording the history of this early period are to be found in Records of the Laṅkāvatāra Masters (Ch. 楞伽師資記, Léngqié Shīzī Jì).

(cf. Dumoulin, Heinrich (2005-A), Zen Buddhism: A History. Volume 1: India and China, World Wisdom Books, ISBN 978-0-941532-89-1 )

The whole school was called after a specific sutra, named the Laṅkāvatāra.

The First Patriarch of Zen is said to have handed this sutra to the Second Patriarch as containing the essentials of the school teachings.

If you study that Sutra closely, you will realize that it has all the essential teachings of Zen, and since it predates Zen, it is only reasonable to conclude it is the source. The main idea there is that "mind is buddha", that it all comes down to the mind of the sentient being; that everything is a projection of the One Mind (which is also what Huangbo says verbatim).

2) The Sixth Patriarch in the Platform Scripture says quite explicitly that to practice Zen, one has to study and recite the Diamond Sutra. Why does he single out that sutra and not the Zhuangzi or the Daodejing?

3) All the Zen masters used Mahayana Buddhist language and terminology: samsara, nirvana, bodhisattva, tathagata, etc. compare with how often they use terms such as qi, yin/yang, Heaven (in the Taoist sense), etc. It's not even up for debate. They overwhelmingly use Buddhist language.

4) They were all Buddhist monks, with Buddhist robes, shaved heads, etc. I mean, this is an obvious fact. Why stay in a Buddhist monastery if you're a Taoist?

5) All they say is traceable back to Mahayana Philosophy. Everything. The One Mind, transcending samsara, non-duality between samsara and nirvana, mind being buddha, truth being beyond language, silence as a teaching etc. Even the dismissal of Sutras is ultimately traceable back to the Sutras!

There's nothing original in the ideas of the Chan school:

There is nothing unique about Ch'an doctrine; it is an eclectic form of Mahayana philosophy. So there is no contradiction involved in a tradition of meditation practice co-existing with the sectarian doctrines of the various sects of Chinese Buddhism. Masters whose names appear in the succession-lists of both Ch'an and another sectarian tradition would simply be both dharma- and dhyana-masters in their respective monasteries.

Charles W. Swain, The Emergence Of Ch'an Buddhism, Chung- Hwa Buddhist Journal vol.2/Oct, 1988 P.391-399

In fact, if there's anything original, it's the style. If there's anything that cannot be traced back to Indian Mahayana - is exactly the style, the form their upaya takes, and not their doctrines, not their insights.

But why call that style "Taoist" and not instead call it "Chinese"? Perhaps there's some common source both Chan and Taoism are drawing from, and that has more to do with the Chinese character, that manifests there as abrupt and direct? What makes more sense instead is that Buddhism is adaptable, and so it takes many forms depending on the country and the spirit of the country where it takes root.

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    I think that the points 3 and 4 are not needed, as they are about the form, and nobody denies that Zen is Buddhist in form. Other points refer to the content, and that's exactly the kind of answer I wanted.
    – michau
    Commented Feb 14, 2015 at 23:04

I think that this kind of thinking is rather superficial. The essence of Zen is the teaching that all beings possess a Buddha nature, and that by seeing into one's true nature one attains enlightenment. None of this is a part of Daoism.

In addition, a lot of the similarities between the two are also found in Buddhist Sutras. For example, the extensive use of paradoxical language to cut through conceptual thinking is found in the Diamond Sutra and many other Buddhist texts, not just in Daoist texts like the Dao De Jing, and they are understood in very different ways as well.


This suggestion that Zen/Chan is Taoism tends to come from the Taoists/Chinese nationalists themselves rather than any real Chan teachings. I am from a Chinese Buddhist school of Chan lineage. Before becoming a practicing Buddhist I dabbled in self study of Taoist teachings.

Since historical times, Chinese civilization due to it's great power with respect to it's surrounding neighbors has always carry a deep conceit in their cultural superiority. This naturally extends into the field of philosophy and religions.

The truth is Buddhism is much much deeper than Taoism. Taoism is fairly enlightened no doubt, especially compared to some very unenlightened behaviors from monotheistic religions. But Taoism does not reach the Four Noble Truths, and does not practice the Eightfold Noble Path. Hence the depth of their wisdom is comparable to other Indian religious spiritual traditions such as Hinduism. But it is not at the level of Buddhism.

In any case, the Taoists out of conceit, tend to claim superiority over Buddhism without actually understanding it. They have even historically claimed that Buddha was Laozi, and even created scriptures to assert this narrative. Essentially they are appealing to Chinese nationalism to maintain support.

The story unfolds in China as Buddhism appears on the scene and is accepted by the Chinese population as a “simplified version of Taoism” that the Western barbarians (subcontinent Indians and Central Asians, e.g. Tibetans, et al.) could understand.

This is not to say Taoism is bad. There are many good things about Taoism. Their contribution to Traditional Chinese Medicine is probably one of the most important contribution. But to claim that Chan Buddhism is a form of Taoism is to give Taoism far too much credit.


Taoism and Buddhism go hand-in-hand. Taoism is largely about living in balance with existence, which is a manifestation of the middle way. As someone said, Buddhism came as something of an external confirmation of Taoism.


Truth is truth. Buddhism and Taoism are the same in the end, no matter what tradition you come from.

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    Hi Cameron and welcome to Buddhism SE. A good way to increase quality of an answer is to add a reference or source. Here, you can find more info on how to write good answer.
    – user2424
    Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 16:20
  • Source is the source. When operating from here one merely adapts impersonally to potential. There may be a continuation of practices but the essence of it remains consistent. It can't be any other way.
    – Cameron
    Commented Feb 17, 2016 at 0:16
  • Buddhism itself is not the same thing between different schools even though there are major similarities and disagreements. So i think your answer may be a bit Opinion based. @Cameron
    – Theravada
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 23:04
  • My answer did not disagree with your statement. They are different and the same in the end. No opinions there.
    – Cameron
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 7:17
  • @Cameron , I think I understand your comment. Do you agree if I could illustrate it with this zen saying: "If you don't understand the reality/truth, everything is as it is. If you do understand the reality/truth, everything is as it is". Do you feel it's in the same vein as your "Truth is truth" ? Commented Sep 6, 2017 at 12:01

Taoism is innately Chinese and predates Buddhism by at least one thousand years. The Tao Te Ching is attributed to Lao Tze (500 BC) and Zen Buddhism to Tamo (5th century). Early Taoism resembles ancient nature worship and the religious practices of many other early societies. Taoism and Buddhism merged in peoples' minds much later. Tao Tze and Tamo (and even Lao Tze's student, Confucius) were considered one old, wise teacher.


So to add to what Cameron to saying just so others might be cautious too, we'll in buddha dharma view is of utmost importance. The goal is to get beyond any view but it is very essential. What Cameron is echoing is in my view a fairly common modern misconception based on want to be politically correct and many other reasons perhaps. Say one believes killing animals in the name of God is fine which is true in many religions. From a buddha dharma perspective that will take you away from enlightenment. So clearly all beliefs, all opinions, all religions are not the same. To give nor example say in a religion people believe that killing 100 men in one life will lead to liberation. Now would you Cameron say that that is also a Buddhist view and that both will lead to the same goal?

I hope not. If that is true then you are immediately accepting all beliefs views are not the same and have different consequences. The question then is what views lead to what more importantly what view leads to Buddhist enlightenment. The word enlightenment is not important, what matters is if different views and practices lead to the same age that buddha talked about. And to be clear buddha himself again and again mentioned how his reaching is different from any other. For example he differentiated his teaching even from one of the practices which focused on jhanas merely.

Coming back to zen Methexis had an amazing anwer there. Wow. Thanks. Yes there are many non Buddhists who keep saying it's the same thing because they are ignorant of Buddha's teachings and they are I guess insecured about their own. If it was the same thing there would be some authentic Buddhist master say who recited Bhagavat Gita or Quran but nope. Only self declared unverified Buddhist teachers do that. And even they have not been many as once you start reading the idea of no Self it is different than any other spiritual system and against the most basic belief that we have. That is why it is called spontaneous grasping of self.

  • How does this answer the question which is: "Why is Zen/Chan thought to be more related to Buddhism than to Taoism?". The answer is commenting on other answers and not addressing the main question.
    – user2424
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 18:49

It seems to me that most of these 'answers' are based on personal experience, and an attachment to that. If one is shown a great path, one often thinks that it is the only true path, and that others are just lesser, or corrupted versions of that true path. There are many paths up the mountain :)

In reference to Taoist/Buddhist origins of Zen etc.. This is a very difficult one to answer, verifiable evidence is very hard to find from these earlier eras, especially when one considers the above, and human nature, and our ego. Buddhist and Taoist teachings have overlapped in many ways over the centuries, and much of Taoist teachings are misunderstood, and often not known, Taoist have historically tended to be 'retiring' by nature. The situation we have now, is that it is hard to be certain what is just Buddhist and what is just Taoist, there is a great deal of overlap, which is not surprising considering the history of both in China (for instance).

My own personal experience/understanding, having been a student of both Buddhist and Taoist teachers, the similarities are more common than the differences, especially in regard to the path(s) to enlightenment. The differences seem superficial, the core teaching is very similar, and may well be the same way. True or not, they both contain a way to enlightenment, apparently :)

Until we have more proof/evidence of the various claims and counterclaims, it is a moot point. It is also a distraction what is nothing other than an academic discussion, it isn't the path itself, however interesting it is, and it is. It's an interesting discussion but until we have proof one way or the other, but I'm not holding my breath ;)

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