You have asked me to speak a little about the differences between Zen Buddhism and Mantrayana. I encourage you and all seekers to visit, inquire, and learn directly from those Buddhist schools that may interest you. Evidently, I have a preferred view, and that is why I identify with one particular school. However, I do not claim ours to be the only way, nor the best way. It is best for me, but not necessarily for others. Each person must find that lineage and practice with which s/he feels most affinity.
With that essential preface, I will share with you some preliminary thoughts on the differences between Zen and Mantrayana, as I perceive them. Please know that these are not intended to be received as ‘Gospel truth’, and that they are uttered without malice or disdain.
Among the Buddhist schools that have migrated to the West, Zen lineages have been very prominent (mostly Japanese in the beginning, but now also Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese). Within Zen, there is great variation among its branches and lineages. All Zen lineages, however, claim that their Dharma transmission is ‘outside the scriptures’. Although they do study and recite sutras, they do not feel constrained to interpret them in traditional ways, and often use provocative language that is considered transgressive by other Buddhist schools, such as, “If you meet the Buddha, k*ll him!”
Although all Zen schools are fond of paradox (contradictory statements meant to halt conceptual thought), only the followers of certain lineages meditate on paradoxical formulas (koans), like the celebrated “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Our school, the Jonang, or Great Middle Way (a branch of the Mantrayana), is strictly scriptural. We only share and practice what is established in the teachings of the Buddha and the commentaries of the Masters, as received in disciplic succession. While the teachings are always presented and applied according to time, place, and circumstance, we do not interpret them in novel and arbitrary ways, absent sound scriptural basis, and we are careful never to use transgressive language that may challenge or destroy the faith of others. In fact, we take formal vows not to disparage the teachings of other Buddhist schools, nor those of any spiritual tradition, for that matter. We may express our agreement or disagreement with specific doctrines or practices, if and when asked to do so, but always respectfully.
Jonang Masters systematically teach the Three Wheels of Dharma in proper sequence: renunciation of illusion, emptiness of ego and phenomena, and the ultimate reality of Buddha Nature. We also declare that this Dharma-Ending Age requires mantra recitation (literally, mantra means “that which protects the mind”), as the level of agitation and stimulation prevalent in the contemporary world does not allow for the successful application of other practices, independently of mantra. Thus, our path is called mantrayana, the vehicle of mantra.
Perhaps the single most apparent difference is in practice. Most Zen lineages promote ‘just sitting’ (zazen) for everyone —silent meditation, often without applying any discernible method (except for the use of koans in some branches). Jonangpas recommend and utilize various different practices, according to the capacity, maturity, and disposition of each person. We are also careful to include practices that engage body, speech, and mind —such as offerings and prostrations, scriptural recitation and prayer, and mantra meditation (audible and silent), as we understand that Dharma cultivation should not be exclusively mental, but should encompass and integrate the totality of experience.
These are just some preliminary thoughts. Once again, I encourage you and all seekers to inquire directly from legitimate representatives of those lineages with which you feel affinity. While I may be a little qualified to speak of the Great Middle Way, I do not presume expertise in all Buddhist branches and lineages. The Buddha will guide you on the path. Do not worry.
om amideva hrih