Zen & Taoism

Lao Tzu, the patriarch of Taosim, reportedly lived around the same time as Buddha.
... Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images

At first glance, Zen Buddhism and Taoism have a lot in common. They both originated in China, although Buddhism, of which Zen is a branch, has roots in India. The practice of meditation is important in both traditions, and there has been cross-pollination in their enigmatic stories. Contemporary Zen is the product of a thousand-year evolution in Japan, however, and its art and practices are significantly different from those of modern Taoism.

1 Origins

Taoism is older than Zen, but it probably isn't older than Buddhism itself. The Buddha reportedly lived in the 6th century BCE, as, probably, did Lao Tsu, the legendary author of Taoism's central book, the Tao Te Ching. On the other hand, the first Chinese patriarch of the Ch'an branch of Buddhism, Bodhidharma, lived a thousand years later. It wasn't until the 12th century CE that the Japanese monk Eisai brought Ch'an to Japan and founded the Rinzai school of Zen. Dogen founded the other major school, Soto, a hundred years later.

2 Esoteric Roots of Zen

Bodhidharma belonged to a tradition that began with Mahakasyapa, a disciple of Buddha. According to the tradition, Buddha was gazing upon a flower when he began to laugh. Because Mahakasypa was the only disciple who understood this "discourse", the Buddha entrusted him with the teachings that could not be spoken. Meditation, or dhyana, was central to this tradition, and when it became Ch'an, silence and paradox were the tools Bodhidharma and other masters used to propagate it. The message they conveyed was that truth eludes the mind's ability to grasp it, a theme very much in tune with Taoism.

3 Taoist Ambiguity

The word "Tao" means path, or way, and the first line of the Tao Te Ching reads: "The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao." The ambiguity established by this passage permeates Taoism and is echoed in the Chuang Tsu, the second of three important Taoist books. Together, these writings spawned a complex tradition based on mysticism, flowery imagery and, sometimes, magic. The central message of the Taoist teachings is similar to that of Ch'an, however. It is that the ultimate truth is essentially unknowable and inexpressible, at least as far as the human mind is concerned.

4 Divergence

The Tao Te Ching, the Chang Tsu and Taoist stories undoubtedly influenced the koan, or public stories, that are characteristic of Ch'an Buddhism. The traditions remained separate, however, and Zen diverges from Taoism even more than Ch'an. This divergence is evident in the difference between meditation techniques. Taoist techniques, such as Ta'i Ch'i, seek to balance energy and promote longevity, while Zen techniques, such as zazen, are designed primarily to awaken. Modern Zen is a path and practice that is quintessentially Japanese. If there is such a thing as a counterpart to Taoism in Japan, Shinto, the indigenous religion of Nature worship, fits the bill better than Zen.

Chris Deziel has a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in humanities. Besides having an abiding interest in popular science, Deziel has been active in the building and home design trades since 1975. As a landscape builder, he helped establish two gardening companies.