The difference between Theravada and Zen may be like night and day. I favour Zen over Chinese Mahayana because I don't quite prefer the Pure Land beliefs. Hence, I want to compare these two.

I already know that in Theravada, one seeks Nirvana and it is sufficient to become a Arahant which is already difficult enough to attain. However, in Mahayana, one aspires to go in the path of the Bodhisattva.

However, philosophically and doctrinally, what are the major differences between Theravada and Zen? Please elaborate.

For e.g. Zen has Buddha Nature and Emptiness which do not feature in Theravada. Compassion also features more strongly in Zen than Theravada. Zen also has Absolute Truth vs. Relative Truth? On the other hand, Theravada strongly emphasizes the Four Noble Truths, Three Marks of Existence, dependent origination and the Noble Eightfold Path. I'm not sure how important these Theravada doctrines are to the Zen tradition.

How do these differences in philosophy shape the differences in mindset and world views between the two?

For example, are Zen Buddhists more compassionate towards the suffering of others, while Theravadins are more detached from, and thus more apathetic towards the suffering of others?

Another example: Are Zen Buddhists more in touch with their emotions in terms of compassion and appreciation of the Buddha Nature and Emptiness in nature and in the world around them, compared to Theravadins who may want to be detached from their emotions?

The philosophical and doctrinal differences may also influence differences in terms of practice. Any examples of this?

4 Answers 4


The difference is an entirely different canon! Theravada follows the Pali canon whereas Zen pulls most of its philosophical underpinnings from the Mahayana sutras and its own oral and written traditions (i.e. koan collections, writings of folks like Dogen and Hakuin, etc.). That being said, I don't know how you would begin to explore what the effect on mindset would be. I would also wonder if it even makes sense to make that investigation. So much depends on the practitioner and their own development along the path. I've known practitioners of Zen who were total, intellectualizing jerks and Theravadans who were oceans of compassion.

Outside of the obvious doctrinal differences, another rather ironic difference between the two camps is the practice of meditation. Jhanas, as described by the Buddha in the Pali canon, don't often make an appearance in Zen. I say ironic as the word Zen itself is a twice removed transliteration of the word jhana (i.e. jhana/dhyana -> ch'an -> zen). In practice, Zen does not emphasize or pay much attention to being in, say, the third jhana over the second.

I'm a little taken aback by your statement that Theravada Buddhism doesn't emphasize compassion to the degree Zen does. If anything, the opposite is true. You find all sorts of meditations on the cultivation of compassion and loving-kindness in the elder tradition (the Brahmaviharas for instance) whereas Zen doesn't take the same practical, directed approach to its development as found in the Pali canon.

Lasty, emptiness does factor into Theravada. See the Maha and cula sunnata sutta for just two, albeit less emphatic, explorations of emptiness.

And to reemphasize, so much of this depends on the practitioner. I don't think it's helpful to view either school as monolithic. Setting one against the other isn't necessarily helpful or, in my opinion, even possible.

  • You're right. I almost forgot about Metta that is in Theravada.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 16:54
  • I think the implication is that being on the Bodhisattva path inspires more compassion than on the Arahant path.
    – ruben2020
    Commented Apr 15, 2015 at 17:26
  • Maybe. In practice, however, I'm not sure how tenable that is.
    – user698
    Commented Apr 16, 2015 at 12:06
  • To add to this good answer, I think Zen is more nihilistic and more evangelical than Theravada at the same time: "everything is empty, so pile an extra bunch of burden on my back!"
    – Ahmed
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 2:32
  • Many structural models, like dhyana, are ironically "skipped" (in the very rigorous manner that Theravada beautifully emphasizes) and unconventional techniques--bordering on assault--are used. Zen is like a computer programmer (teacher) hacking his program (student) to the solution (Awakening) whereas Theravada uses a procedural, complete method of penetrating through the ego. Zen requires the right student and a compassionate master. Books are not enough and is why you see a bunch of "intellectualizing jerks" reading Pirsig that actually don't know anything about the rest of Buddhism.
    – Ahmed
    Commented Apr 22, 2015 at 2:45

It's, in a way, like comparing apples and oranges. Theravada means teaching of the elders; all it means is taking the Pali tipitaka and commentaries as more or less orthodox, and denying any teaching that contradicts them. Within the Theravada, there are many Zen-like practices, and many practices wholly foreign to Zen.

Zen, on the other hand, is I think fairly ill-defined, and means quite different things to different people. At its core is the concept of "meditation first", hence the origin of the name itself. As such, and because there really isn't a Zen canon, it doesn't necessarily fall outside the Theravada at all.

In practice, of course, there is much difference, but this can be attributed more to the specific Zen and Theravada teachers than the core principles. Zen teachers tend to take a comparatively lax view of the precepts, e.g. white lies and moderate alcohol consumption not breaking the precepts. They also tend to shun textual 'truth', which some may consider a defining difference. But even the Theravada clearly espouses the view that it is only through meditation that one can come to the truth and enlightenment.

The point is Theravada is defined by its doctrine (the Pali canon and commentaries), whereas Zen is defined by its approach to doctrine (i.e. meditation over study). That might be simplistic, but it indicates that they are not a very good pair for comparison. Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, has stated the importance of the Pali canon in his writings, IIRC, which makes him potentially a Theravada-following Zen teacher.

  • 1
    Agreed. And I'm glad you pointed out that the two aren't mutual exclusive. Sheng yen was another Zen proponent of the suttas and their importance in reinforcing one's practice. There are also countless Zen practicioners like myself who dive into the Pali canon simply because it is so much more acessible (in translation and in content) than much of the Mahayana canon.
    – user698
    Commented Apr 17, 2015 at 1:15

My research and practice of meditation in this area is something I have internally debated for many years also. Comparing Zen, which is extracted from the Mahayana Tradition comparing it to my first love and study of the Theravada tradition.

Firstly the major differences that I have traced between Mahayana and Theravada is that Mahayana, is essentially a revised and blended system. Mixed with Taoism and Confusion (i don't think I spelt that correctly but anyway). There are many mystic and magical things written and adopted within Mahayana that are not present with Theravada which is the written adoption of what was taught originally by Gautama Buddha.

Whether you follow one or the other, or Zen or Vajrayana it doesn't matter, as long as you yourself are compassionate and a good person.

The major difference I have discovered is the approach to your own salvation. Theravada emphasizes you cultivate through meditation and compassion towards Buddhahood and then when you have reached where you can, you help others. Like climbing over a tall wall, you get up and then help other get up there with you.

Mahayana on the other hand has the opposite approach, first you help others as you travel the path so that they may reach their own enlightenment.

With Zen the approach seems to be neither here nor there with the path. Adopted from Ch'an with the Japanese strictness and systematic approach it focuses on a very deep foundation of meditation through which you achieve clarity. With this clarity one then is able to see things in a different light and able to help others.

If I were to classify myself I would be Theravadin, however I practice Zen style breathing meditation.

If Zen and Mahayana and Theravada where a venn diagram they would all overlap with each other with with areas distinct to each.

The only thing I can recommend, which Gautama Buddha himself teaches, is that you study and practice meditation. I believe that if you study deeply into one of doctrines and understand it, then you will be able to study the next and so forth.

Always comparing will cause confusion and distress in your mind and you won't be able to understand any of them at the end of the day.

As the Buddha said, question everything and make sure that it aligns with your own morals.

I hope this helps.

  • I think you meant "Confucianism", though I don't know what Confucianism and (Zen) Buddhism might have in common.
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 28, 2016 at 4:02
  • They don't, i was probably unclear in that bit. Buddhism has the ability to blend and merge with other belief systems. So it has transformed as it was adopted the further east it travelled, combining with local traditions, and in Japan that was the blending of Mahayana and Shinto. Commented May 28, 2016 at 6:36
  • Today it has become difficult to distinguish the Gautama Buddha's original teachings from what has got added. This is clearly seen in your post. In a comment like this I cannot go into detail as to what they are. In ending your post, you have given your take on the Kalama Sutta which is different to how Bhikku Bodhi has interpreted it. Commented Jun 15, 2016 at 1:46

The difference in teachings is that Zen is based more on Mahayana ideas, such as Two Truths and Six Paramitas. (Theravada's interpretation of two truths and paramitas is very different from Nagarjuna's interpretation).

In my experience, understanding of Two Truths (according to Mahayana) helps to abandon rigid ideas and develop insight; and the system of Six Paramitas helps to use daily deeds as practice. I'm not a specialist in Theravada, but I don't know there any similarly effective system.

Finally, Zen emphasizes the reliance on direct prajna rather than on the scriptures. Perhaps that leads to wider use of various skillful means.

As people are different, I prefer to not make generalizations comparing practitioners of Theravada and Zen. Though maybe dogmatic people are attracted more to Theravada, and nihilistic people are attracted more to Zen. Sometimes it seems so.

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