Zen vs Chan: Similarities & Differences

If you Google, “What’s the difference between Zen Buddhism and Chan Buddhism?” the most common answer is, “The name.”

That’s not quite right, and it lowered my loving-kindness meter by a few points.

I practiced Soto Zen for the first two years of my Buddhist, uh, journey. Then I went off the rails and moved through all the Buddhist schools I could find, letting my practice change and evolve in the same chronological way that Buddhism did.

After that, I settled into Chan Buddhism, starting with Caodong then venturing into Linji, which is where I am now.

Zen and Chan are both based on the same Indian Buddhist teachings, and they’re both grounded in Bodhidharma’s creed, “A direct transmission outside the scriptures, beyond words and letters, directly pointing to the nature of mind and becoming a Buddha.”

They both use similar methods, they both recognize the same Bodhisattva vows, precepts, and Patriarchs, and they’re both big fans of black robes.

That’s where the similarities end.

Overall, Zen and Chan have two entirely different vibes. The best way I can describe it is: Zen is like a paved road, Chan is like a dirt path. Zen is clean and smells like a crisp autumn morning, Chan is earthy and smells like rain.

We can’t undersell the cultural differences between the two. Japan is a very socially conscious society, they had to be because they’re technically an island. This limited space made it easier to form uniform social customs, views, and hierarchies.

China is gigantic. The urban areas saw clearer hierarchies and norms, but most of the kingdom was agrarian and villages and monasteries were typically self-sufficient.

Teachings spread slowly, to the point that each temple—while still being Chan—had drastically different views and methods. Even after lineages became formalized, there were still marked differences in views and practices with each generation reinventing the wheel.

This acceptance of evolution and upheaval has continued to this day, whereas modern Zen is still a rough approximation of what Zen looked like hundreds of years ago. This has made it easier for Zen to take root in the West than Chan since there’s uniformity among the teachings and disciplines in Zen, not only between schools, but across generations.

Zen has a very orderly and systematic aesthetic. The roles and landmarks along the Way are clear. In Chan, the lines are often blurred, and the Way can be unpredictable.

Chan was originally in an intimate conversation with Taoism. In Japan, the Taoist flavor was replaced with a discourse with Shinto. In the West, that Shinto relationship has been replaced with Secular Humanism.

Even in the West, Chan still has its Taoist roots and the prototype of the wandering sage. Hierarchies aren’t as important, and discipline is less about order and more about fostering endurance and autonomy.

In Zen, the teacher plays a huge part in the student’s life and practice. When I was practicing Soto, my teacher was very hands on and he played a central role in the community.

In Chan, the teacher offers teachings and answers questions, but the student is expected to spend more time finding their own way. The community (Sangha) is also different. In Zen, the community was more intellectual and outspoken, but the teacher always had the last word.

The community in Chan has that more quiet, agrarian feel to it. Debates are less common, and there’s a bigger variance between students’ personalities, interests, politics, and intellects.

In modern times, the distinction between Chan and Pure Land is also less clear-cut than it is in Zen (except for Obaku Zen). Soto and Rinzai priests don’t teach reciting the Buddha’s name as a meditation tool, whereas Caodong and Linji priests do.

Chan also incorporates Hua Tou practice, a type of self-inquiry, whereas Zen doesn’t. Hua Tou practice was around in China when Dogen and and Myoan brought Caodong and Linji back to Japan as Soto and Rinzai, but—like I said before—China’s a big place, and Hua Tou was still relatively new when Dogen and Myoan were around.

Hua Tou is pretty much portable gong-an (koan) practice. Rinzai still uses koans, but koan zazen demands a closer interaction with a teacher than Hua Tou practice does. Koans are meant to be answered in some way—and the answers have been standardized to a degree—whereas Hua Tou is an ongoing process.

The exception to this is the Harada/Yasutani lineage in Zen, which uses the Hua Tou, “What is mu?” But Yasutani created a Western neo-classical hybrid Zen outside of Soto and Rinzai called Sanbo Kyoden, which is geared more toward lay practitioners than Soto and Rinzai are.

Chan has a long history of being accessible to laypeople, whereas the views and methods in Zen are more geared toward monastic or “serious” practitioners—with a few exceptions. Only a few of my Zen priest friends really offer in depth teachings to lay people, and they tend to push harder for practitioners to join the clergy.

Then there are the literary differences, of course. Chan and Zen both have their own homegrown teachings and teachers that set them apart from the Indian tradition they sprang from.

Unlike Zen, Chan entered a long period of decline due to wars, rebellions, and political upheavals. It was kind of rebooted in the 1900’s by Xu Yun before making its way to the States. Zen’s popularity is partially due to its accessibility, since it’s been relatively in tact for the last 700 years.


The West is an interesting place. Unlike China and Japan, the foreign traditions that take root here are—more or less—preserved in their transmitted forms for at least a few generations. That’s because the West is an immigrant nation. Ancient China and Japan were skeptical of outside influences, going so far as to change the names of the traditions into words suitable for their own dialects.

But here, Zen is still Zen and Chan is still Chan. If we kept with historical norms, we’d have renamed them both Meditation Buddhism, or Meditation Awakenism, since Chan/Zen means meditation and budh means Awake.

As it stands, Zen has been a little more Americanized than Chan since it’s more widely practiced. We’ve nixed the Shinto in favor of Secular Humanism. It’s possible that we might do the same thing with Chan over time, though you can bet your ass I’ll try to stop that from happening.

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