Buddhism 101: Is Dalai Lama’s school same as Zen?

Buddhism is not particularly intuitive. If you are not familiar with it, it can be hard to tell if Dalai Lama’s Buddhism, which belongs to Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen, which is one of the Japanese Buddhist schools, are similar or different. So let’s figure it out.

Probably it makes sense to find Tibet and Japan on the map, and see how each region adopted Buddhism from India, the epicenter of ancient philosophies and religions, including Buddhism.

Siddhartha Gotama, who became Buddha (the Awakened One) and founded Buddhism, was born in Ancient India (current Nepal) somewhere during the 5th to 4th century BCE. As it kept evolving slowly in India after his death over the next hundreds of years, some traditions got blended with Hinduism, another influential domestic religion, and Tantric – the “escoteric” tradition – emerged during the 1st century. As Tibet is north of Nepal/Butan, which share borders with northern India, it adopted Tantric tradition directly from India during 8th – 11th century, and elevated it as what we know as the Vajrayāna Buddhism. 

On the other hand, Japan is very far from India both geographically and culturally. It took a village for Buddhism to finally reach Japan, as it was first introduced from India to China, then to Korea, then to Japan in the 6th century. For that reason, Japan looked to China, rather than India, as the capital of Buddhism: Japanese priests traveled to China to learn from Chinese priests and bring back scriptures that were translated from Sanskrit to Chinese, and also texts written by Chinese. It was as if Japanese imported the entire Chinese experience, who first learned Buddhism from Indians, digested it, and then spent subsequent hundreds of years to further refine it. Zen school was founded in China through those endeavors, reflecting Chinese value of practicality and physicality. It was brought to Japan during 11th – 12th century.     

Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen may not be the largest sects globally, but they are very well known even among non-Buddhists, partly because Tibatan Buddhism has Dalai Lama. For Japanese Zen, it was D.T. Suzuki (Daisetsu Suzuki, 1870-1966), who almost single-handedly promoted Japanese Zen to global audience as he wrote some critical pieces in English. 

Tibet and Japan are far from each other, and adopted Buddhism through different paths. The two still share the same principles, but their approaches became different, reflecting the cultural differences that fostered their respective belief system.

Tibetan Buddhism and its Japanese counterpart are like different branches that belong to the same tree. They are different, but share the fundamental and integral values that make the tree a profoundly coherent religion.

So the first step to dig into the branches called Tibetan Buddhism and Zen is to understand how the tree looks like – the fundamental values that make Buddhism Buddhism. But it’s not an easy task, so I am going to rely on “Buddhism for Beginners” written by Hiro Sachiya, Japanese scholar and prolific author on Buddhism. If you became interested in Buddhism after reading this article, I recommend you to explore other resources, because you may find other perspectives as Buddhism is so multi-faceted.

What is Buddhism anyway??

It should be safe to say that most religions, if not all, exist in order to salvage people from this world that is full pains, sorrows and sufferings. According to Hiro Sachiya, a religion can have two options to realize salvation: to create a supreme, absolute power that is capable of doing so, or to dissect/analyze the process of salvation itself so that people can follow the paths to arrive at it. It may help to picture top-down approach versus bottom-up one.  In the first option, or top-down approach, the existence of the absolute power, God, is the most important aspect, as he makes salvation possible. But in the latter, the bottom-up approach, the anatomy of the process toward salvation becomes more important, as it’s rather up to you to get there. Buddhism does the latter, and that’s why Buddhism can became complicated. But let me try to summarize. (NOTE: Be reminded that I stripped a lot of important details for the sake of simplicity.)       

Buddhism dissected the paths to arrive at the ultimate stage of deliverance/liberation by dividing them into four stages: 1) fully embrace the truth of the world we are in, 2) understand where it is coming from, 3) recognize what the solution is, and then, finally, 4) find out how you achieve it, and practice it.

Although the logic looks pretty straightforward, in reality it’s been a conundrum because none of our lives are straightforward, and our collective lives are even more complicated. But after an incredibly difficult religious pursuit, Buddha finally achieved Enlightenment and found the paths, which came to be called the “Four Noble Paths”: 1) the truth of the world is pain/sufferings, 2) It is so because everything in this world exists only in relation with other elements, and nothing is absolute nor permanent. (For example, no one can live forever and every relationship is eventually lost, which inevitably causes pain. This worldview is the key Buddhist doctrine called “dependent origination.”) 3) The only way to become completely and permanently free from pain and to achieve eternal peace is to give up any kind of desires, greed, attachment, negative emotions or ignorance, as they are the source of pain. 4) In order to become completely and permanently free from any kind of pain (Buddhism version of liberation called Nirvana), you need to pursue the “Eightfold Path,” which is to always maintain right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (‘meditative absorption or union’).

There might not have been Tibetan Buddhism and Zen, instead a single school Buddhism, if Buddha left very explicit or detailed scripture as to how to achieve the Four Noble Paths. But Buddha, who exclusively used dialogue to preach people (he had an exceptional ability to preach truth without denying anyone), refused to do so, as he knew that every truth would become subject to interpretation once written down and start deviating from its core, as we live in the world of “dependent origination (see above).” In addition, he strongly advocated “Middle Way” and denied everything that was extreme.

As a result, Buddha’s followers were tasked with an enormous job to figure out how to carry out the Four Noble Truth, only based on what Buddha told people verbally before he passed away. One of the biggest questions they faced was whether they needed to give up everything they had and devote themselves to the Eightfold Path in order to arrive at Nirvana. How else can you completely erase all sorts of desires? But a commitment to give up everything in your life, including family and job, is pretty extreme. So what to do? Followers debated it for a long time, and ended up separating in a group that pursued a strict religious life and the other group that targeted ordinary people leading an ordinary life. The latter is called Mahayana, or the Great Vehicle, meaning that everyone, including those who didn’t give up everything, is saved. Japanese Buddhism belongs to Mahayana, and Tibetan Buddhism is also strongly influenced by it.

There were a lot other details that Buddhists had to figure out. Over thousands of years, Tibetan Buddhism, and the Buddhism that reached Japan via China, ended up looking very different, even though both still adhere to follow the Four Noble Paths to arrive at Nirvana. Now let’s look at Tibetan Buddhism. 

Secret or non-secret teachings?

As shown in the figure earlier, Tibetan Buddhism belongs to Vajrayāna (or Mantrayāna, Tantrayāna or Tantric) Buddhism, which is also known as “secret teachings.” On the other hand, Japanese Buddhism is part of “non-secretive” teachings group (expressed ‘explicit teachings’ in Japanese). But what do they mean? If you imagined something like a secret society, that’s not what “secret” means here. Let’s take a step back to understand what it really is.

As confusing as it may be, Buddhism has many Buddhas. It is so because Buddha means “Awakened One,” and Buddhism assumes that more than one could have achieved that level in this almost infinite universe that existed almost infinitely, for, like, 5 or 10 billion years.

We’ve already talked about the best known Buddha, who was born sometime 5th – 4th BCE as a human being named Siddhartha Gotama in current Nepal. After an extraordinary religious pursuit, Gotama achieved Enlightenment and became Buddha. At this point, he is the only known human being that became Buddha. But there are other Buddhas both in the past and future in the wide universe, and Vairocana, the celestial Buddha, is considered the “First Buddha” that had always been at the center of the universe, being awaken forever.

According to Hiro Sachiya, Vairocana is a “cosmic Buddha” that resides in the universe and represents “cosmic law and order.” He is, therefore, ubiquitous and omnipresent. However, as he doesn’t necessarily belong to our small planet, he does not operate according to the rules/laws that people use. He does not speak our language. If we don’t try hard to catch his signals, we won’t even realize his existence.

Think about Isaac Newton’s apple story, Hiro Sachiya reminds us: gravity has always been existing as a fact/truth. It wasn’t hiding from us or anything. However, it took Isaac Newton to observe apples falling from a tree to find the law of gravity, as 99.999% of us don’t pay attention or try hard enough to seek the truth about gravity. By the same token, the teachings of Vairocana is always there – in our surrounding environment, in various phenomena, in ever-changing status of nature and people. But as we don’t pay attention, we are simply missing his presence.

In order to catch Vairocana’s messages, people came up with two approaches: one was by way of Gotama Buddha, the only “Awakened One” on this planet, who was able to speak our language. This approach is called “non-secretive (explicit)” because the teachings were understandable as is. Zen is part of non-secretive teaching. 

But there is another way to access Vairocana: you can connect directly with his teachings, or become completely embraced by him. As it cuts any intermediates, it will allow you to understand/feel/live the truth in its purest form. This is what Vajrayāna group, including Tibetan Buddhism, tries to achieve. It’s called “secret” because it attempts to understand otherwise secret/undecipherable Vairocana (and other non-human Buddhas).