Words and descriptions don't get close
theravada can easily be described by using suttas, modern practitioners books, commentary, and so on. but when it comes to zen people always say this. why is that? something to do with that old zen saying perhaps?:
"A special transmission outside the scriptures;
No dependence on words and letters;
Direct pointing to the mind of man;
Seeing into one's nature and attaining Buddhahood."
whereas theravada is a progressive step by step teaching laid out in the suttas and elaborated on in the commentary and by later teachers, zen can only be transmitted from master to student by direct interaction?
i'm inclined to believe it but i don't understand it. trying to learn zen from a temple i found myself dragging. a lot. but i had full and complete faith that the monks and nuns there were getting somewhere with their practice. my final conclusion on zen is that one must have a TON of direct face to face teaching with a zen master to get anywhere, which is in accord with the whole attitude where it can't be described or learned from books, it must be learned from direct transmission and all that. i never was able to get enough time at the temple (once every six months or so, the retreats i attended were mostly not in english since it was just me and monks/nuns and maybe one or two other english speakers) and my teacher had a lot of students so my interviews with him were always short and muffled by his thick accent. however i'm fully confident he had mastered zen, it radiates from the guy and his dharma talks show a deep understanding. i just think it's not something one could learn without spending months of daily practice and interviews with a master or it might even require living in the temple.
Dan74 wrote:Nature and any sort of oneness are not what it's really about.
this is up for debate based on who taught a practitioner or master, their own interpretation of zen, their own experience, and so on and so on. one zen master may say this is what it's about, another will say otherwise and the vast majority will be so vague in their description that it could very well be this or something different. zen is so dependent on each individual masters ideas that there is no way to make a statement like that and be 100% accurate. as you said, "words and descriptions don't get close". so from that standpoint, saying "it is about oneness and nature" is incorrect and saying "that's not really what it's about" is equally incorrect, if words don't describe it, any textual description is automatically incorrect. whereas in theravada if someone says that all we have to do is look to the pali canon and decide whether or not that fits in with the buddhas descriptions of nibbana, it doesn't, so we can say that's not what it's really about with a fair amount of confidence.
zen has made itself so independent from other schools, certainly from any texts, vague and yet dependent on each individual master that it evades any kind of pinning down of it's definition and so everyone is right and everyone is wrong.
the only real way to speak with 100% accuracy is to talk about only one masters school. so one could fairly easily discuss dogens zen or another well defined and well written master, and back up discussion points with references from their written works or later disciples works but trying to just discuss "zen" in absolutes doesn't really work. from that perspective certainly you are correct and know what you're talking about, what school do you practice?