A student new to Eastern Religion recently asked about the functional distinctions between Buddhism, Taoism and Zen. I thought I would write down some off the cuff thoughts on how to consider these perspectives.
As a kind of crude thumbnail reference, one could associate Taoism with physical action (flow) Buddhism with matters of mind (perception) and Zen with the ground from which they spring (field).
It’s not quite true that Zen means meditation. Zen (Zen-na) is a Japanese term derived and abbreviated from Ch’an or Ch’an-na, a Chinese interpretation of a Sanskrit word “Dhyana”.
Though Dhyana is often translated as “meditation” it is useful to reflect that we may not quite know what we are saying when we use the word. Dhyana is perhaps more accurately translated as meditative absorption, but given that, it is important to ask “absorption of what?” and what is absorption derived from?
Buddhism was an outgrowth of the Hindu Vedic traditions in India. Buddha’s great awakening clarified and organized many elements of the yogic “Siddha” spiritual traditions. Siddha’s were regarded as saints capable of fantastic feats. Hence, Siddhartha was the name of the nascent Buddha. Buddhism, as it came to be known in the West, began in India. It developed before Taoism by several hundred years, beginning around 500 BC. Taoism developed in China prior to Buddhism being introduced there, and laid the foundation for Buddhism’s entry into China through the legendary Indian monk Bodhidharma. This happened sometime around the first century CE. By that time there had already been 28 generations of Patriarchs in India in intimate succession from Buddha himself.
Buddhism and Taoism are complementary. Taoism developed in China creating a rudimentary ground for Buddhism’s sophistication, with an emphasis of spaciousness and elemental complementary opposites, interpenetrating as expressions of harmony in nature. These led to developments, over time, of a physical pragmatism that found expression in the notion of “chi” (subtle energies linked to breathing and characterized as “winds”). The identification and cultivation of Chi was developed as a subjective science that gave form to profound Chinese cultural expressions in medicine, calligraphy, painting and the martial arts.
In the abstract, Taoism is represented by the familiar yin-yang symbol. Usually it is thought of as a two dimensional representation. But you could get an idea of its relationship to Buddhism by imagining it as a two dimensional surface floating on a three dimensional basin. That begins to suggest contexts that broaden the basic elements of Taoism to include time and space and a perceptual field well beyond mechanical interactions. The frames of reference in Taoism are related to energy and polarities of discernment (hot/cold, yes/no, good/bad etc) or motion (fluidity or stagnation) while in Buddhism the source ground or wellspring is “emptiness,” stillness, or silence (shunyata).
Just to get a sense of contrasts you might consider any mechanical cause-and-effect interaction as two-dimensional compared to a more elaborate model of, say, an integrated circuit. Such a circuit is like a skyscraper in that it has many levels of circuits, like floors of a building, that interact not just horizontally on one floor, but also vertically between floors. Those relationships between floors broaden the scope and complexity of any interaction by many factors of scale. Holding that model in mind, then, take it one step further to feature the “building” as a three dimensional imaginary grid that provides reference points through various strata of barometric pressure densities and convection currents of wind, water vapor, and rain. Imagine them continuing to move forth as water going through different densities of earth and rock and all these elements interacting fluidly in various ways over time. Through this analogy one begins to view the way Buddhism developed in the great specialized universities in India as a kind of vast intellectual project, like the cyclotron or fusion projects of today. Buddhist investigations of “mind” were pursued with just that sort of focused intent over centuries, prior to the beginning of the Christian era. You could say that, by contrast, western science is “mechanical” whereas Buddhist science is “organic”. The implications are striking.
Significantly, Buddhism and Taoism were never used coercively as political tools to subvert people’s internal frames of reference in the corrupting way the Judeo-Christian traditions have been leveraged. The fundamental reference point was where Buddha said, in effect, “Don’t take my word for it. Test it out. See for yourself.” Buddha was a man. He was an example of the highest and best human effort to the highest purpose, but there was never an absolute deity to lean on. Though there are deistic references in various Buddhist practices, they take form as archetypes of consciousness. Visualizing their form and embodying their attributes aid people in various stages of their development, but they are not absolute. Therefore, you don’t have the problem of an authoritarian template to overcome that tends toward authoritarianism. Instead, there is Practice: one of the most brilliant inventions of humanity.
These elements were distilled in the development of Ch’an. However, to have a sense of the scope and genius of this distillation, it is necessary to realize that Buddhism is not a belief system in the same way it is thought of in Judeo-Christian culture. It’s practices and tenants are not derived from philosophic speculation or political manipulation. They are all derived from practical experience rooted in physiology. Buddhism and Taoism aim at and are derived from primal experience and, in this sense, there was never the split between mind and body as has confounded the West. In this view, Buddhism and Taoism become not just a different philosophy or social system, as contrasted to its Western counterparts, but rather it is hundreds even thousands of meditative techniques applied to the single goal of overcoming the delusional artifice of the felt separation between oneself and the world. All those techniques were developed to apply to different sensibilities at different times and stages to accomplish that unification. That goal realized is called enlightenment. Zen developed as the most direct, most sheer, most intuitive and dramatic expression of that path and accomplishment. It did not involve stages of attainment or steps and stages of logical increments in its expression, but rather “a direct seeing into the Mind beyond words and scriptures”.
“Esoterically regarded, Zen is not a religion but rather an indefinable, incommunicable root, free from all names, descriptions, and concepts, that can only be experienced by each individual for him- or herself. From expressed forms of this, all religions have sprung. In this sense, Zen is not bound to any religion, including Buddhism. It is the primordial perfection of everything existing, designated by the most various names, experienced by all great sages, saints and founders of religions of all cultures and times. Buddhism has referred to it as the identity of Samsara and Nirvana. From this point of view zazen is not a ‘method’ that brings people living in ignorance to the ‘goal’ of liberation; rather it is the immediate expression and actualization of the perfection present in every person at every moment.”
The important thing to know at the outset is that however flawed or deprived one feels at a given moment the field of enlightenment is present. It may be obscured by the conflagration of habitual thoughts and emotions but the taste of enlightenment is like nectar from the conscious flower of the entire ecosystem. It is compassion itself. It is at once your resource, your birthright and your destiny. It is the transformation of possessiveness, aggression and ignorance into generosity, compassion, and wisdom. In this transformation, the consciousness of humanity and the consciousness of the world merge as one.