Caveat: the following is bound to be riddled with historical inaccuracies and so on... I present it as an hypothesis, a current understanding, and look forward to hearing how this understanding can be corrected and/or developed. I'm also incredibly interested in other people's opinions on the relationship between the two traditions and the fellowship and mutual respect that seems to be emerging between the two.
Despite Japan being the most remote of the Northern Buddhist countries, with respect to the North-western Indian heartland of the Buddha, I often feel there is much in common between Zen and Theravada. There are strong differences in certain aspects, such as the position of the suttas, cultural heritage and teaching methods, but again there is something very similar they share. I feel they both approach the matter of experience and suffering directly, naturally, and in accord with nature.
As a modern Theravadin, open to Buddhist sources which are consistent with the Pali Canon, I find there is much to be learned from Zen stories and Zen methods. I also find that many Zen practitioners also feel a certain respect for Theravadin teachers, particularly those of the Thai Forest Tradition, who are perhaps a little less interested in scriptural orthodoxy than other areas of the Theravadin spectrum.
I'm always told by people that this interpretation of events is wrong, but it still feels to me that as Buddhism arrived to Japan there was a strong urge, amongst all the paraphernalia and cultural accretions to cut to the heart of Buddhism. To extricate the concessions made for the Chinese, Tibetans, Mongolians and so on and cut to the heart of the teachings. As I understand it though, there was little awareness or understanding of the Pali Canon or the agamas, so the early Zen masters would have to find out for themselves what was important and communicate that to their students via their unique method. I believe these Zen patriarchs connected to the original straight-forward simplicity and subtlety of the Buddha's teaching, yet expressed it in a unique form aligned with the Japanese culture, because understanding can never be totally separated from culture from which it is born and related.
What do you think of the relationship between Theravada and Zen? What benefit do you feel there is for a Theravadin in examining classical or modern Zen works?
With some minor differences, I do not find hardly any lack of a correspondency between them and incorporate both into my practice. I attend a local zendo for Zen meditation and dharma talks by the Zen monk there, but I still don't consider this teacher above the authority of the Pali canon, and still read the Pali canon for insight.
I would say that Zen Buddhists resemble Theravadins simply because they are such great and disciplined meditators. "Shikantaza," for instance, while often considered a distinct form of Zen meditation seems to be the same as the "signless concentration," of the Pali canon. And many (but not all) of the Zen koans seem to be derived from stories in the Pali canon, but with some details changed a bit.
To understand how Zen and Theravada are the same, it may be good to see how Zen and the rest of Mahayana are very different
. You can contrast the mainstream Mahayana Buddhist interpretation of Buddhas as being all-powerful celestial beings we devote ourselves to (through prayer and offerings) for salvation (much like the devas of Vedic Brahmanism), but then in Bodhidharma's Bloodstream sermon
, he says:
Buddhas don't ferry Buddhas to the shore of liberation. If you use your mind to look for a Buddha, you won't see the Buddha. As long as you seek Buddhas outwards, you'll never see that your own Heart is the Buddha. Don't use a Buddha to worship a Buddha, and don't use the mind to invoke a Buddha. Buddhas don't recite sutras, Buddhas don't keep precepts, and Buddhas don't break precepts, Buddhas don't keep or break anything. Buddhas don't do good or evil.
To find a Buddha, you have to see your nature. Whoever sees his nature is a Buddha. If you don't see your nature, being mindful of Buddhas, reciting sutras, making offerings, and keeping precepts are not equal to it.
At the same time, this shouldn't be taken out of context, because he continues:
Being mindful of Buddhas results in good karma, reciting sutras results in a good intelligence; keeping precepts results in a good rebirth in heavens, and making offerings results in future blessings -- but no buddha. If you don't understand by yourself, you'll have to find a teacher to know the root of births and deaths.
If you don't find a teacher soon, you'll live this life in vain. It's true, you have the buddha-nature. But without the help of a teacher you'll never know it. Only one person in a million becomes enlightened without a teacher's help.
People who don't understand and think they can do so without study are no different from those deluded souls who can't tell white from black.
Now, Ven. Huifeng told me that Bodhidharma's Bloodstream sermon wasn't likely written by Bodhidharma, because of some historical something-or-other about the date it was allegedly composed being long after Bodhidharma's life. But then, you could apply the same skepticism to Mahayana sutras as a whole, being composed so long after Gautama, and without clear authorship. Regardless, they've been influential.
You should also consider the way that Huineng defines the "Trikaya" in the Platform Sutra. Whereas most Mahayana Buddhist (especially Vajrayana) have an esoteric explanation, of the Buddha having three bodies: the Nirmanakaya (i.e. Gautama's physical body), the Sambhogakaya (i.e. Gautama's celestial body -- what caused him to glow after his enlightenment), and the Dharmakaya (i.e. the Dharma, the Buddha, same thing, transcendent body). This kind of teaching, to me, seems like very useless, abstract speculatory nonsense.
But Zen takes a very different position than this. From Wikipedia
The Three Bodies of the Buddha from the point of view of Zen Buddhist thought are not to be taken as absolute, literal, or materialistic; they are expedient means that "are merely names or props" and only the play of light and shadow of the mind.
"Do you wish to be not different from the Buddhas and patriarchs? Then just do not look for anything outside. The pure light of your own heart [i.e., 心, mind] at this instant is the Dharmakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-differentiating light of your heart at this instant is the Sambhogakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-discriminating light of your own heart at this instant is the Nirmanakaya Buddha in your own house. This trinity of the Buddha's body is none other than he here before your eyes, listening to my expounding the Dharma."
In other words, Huineng took what was becoming a ridiculous superstition and then tried to turn it into something useful. Gautama did the same thing with proto-Hindu beliefs... I see Bodhidharma and Huineng turning Chinese folk religion on its head as basically being the same thing Gautama did with proto-Hinduism. Rather than trying to work against the concepts through preaching beliefs people didn't agre with or understand, they took the wisdom of the Buddha and applied it contextually, working through
the concepts and mindsets of the people there.
Oh, and Retrofuturist, I would add, based on the above, that "Zen Buddhism" shouldn't be merely associated with Japan, but rather, China (Chan) and it was exported
to Japan. Bodhidharma, Huineng, the Zen classics from the Song Dynasty, these were all Chinese. What later became of Zen Buddhism (i.e. under the Samurai and the Zen Buddhist establishment during WW2), this was largely an embarrassment. As a result of it, and also as Chan died out in China, there have been many good Japanese Zen teachers, like D.T. Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki, and Gudo Wafu Nishijima, but there was also Hsuan Hua from China and Thich Nhat Hanh from Vietnam. Some people also like Seung Sahn, but I'm pretty skeptical of him, given his proselytizing, sexual impropriety, and handing out monk robes like they were napkins. There are probably many very good but less well-known Zen monks from Asian countries besides Japan, in countries like China, Korea, and Vietnam.