Home Institution

Middlebury College

Publication Date

Fall 2013

Program Name

Nepal: Tibetan and Himalayan Peoples


Exchange between Tibetan Buddhism and Zen1 Buddhism in the United States has proven fruitful and mutually beneficial to each form as practiced in the American context. The relationship between the two began famously with the intimate relationship between Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Chogyam Trungpa, arguably the two most influential Buddhist teachers in the West during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Although short lived, this relationship led Trungpa, from the Kagyu Tibetan lineage, to reach out to other Zen teachers in America and adopt zen art forms and meditation style in his teaching. On the side of Zen practitioners in America, Trungpa had a significant influence on the training programs of some of the foremost American Zen centers, such as John Daido Loori Roshi’s Mountains and Rivers Order. This fruitful exchange between the two forms of Buddhism, however, is much more limited closer to each school’s homeland. Although both forms were built on the foundation of Mahayana philosophy, Tibetan Buddhism and Zen developed in different contexts, place importance on difference aspects of the dharma, and take different approaches to practice and study. Furthermore, Tibetan Buddhism drew on tantric practice, Zen developing without. During the early years of Buddhism in Tibet between the 7th and 8th century, Zen enjoyed a significant following in the region. Sectarian disputes broke out between the Chinese and Indian approaches to the religion, however, coming to ahead in the purported Samye Debate at the end of the 8th century. King Trhisong Detsen called on Nalanda scholar Kamalashila, and Zen monk Heshang Moheyan to defend their approaches to Buddhism, with the winner enjoying official recognition by the Tibetan monarchy. The outcome of the debate, although disputed, led to the banishing of Zen from the Tibetan region, and increased Indian and Nalanda influence on the development of Tibetan Buddhism. The debate also served as a valuable insight into two competing views on the nature of enlightenment, Kamalashila defending the gradual path, and Heshang Moheyan defending sudden enlightenment. This dichotomy has largely determined the key characteristics of each approach to Buddhism, with the gradual path representing orthodox Indian doctrine, and sudden enlightenment becoming a key fixture of Zen. Gradual and sudden, however, are not as simple as they may seem, and I will dedicate a significant portion of this paper to discuss the approaches to each. Past the Samye Debate, however, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism rarely came into contact; subitist teachings in Tibet met intense criticism, as did gradualist teachings in Zen. Despite this doctrinal contrast, there is much room for dialogue between the two traditions as evidenced by a number of Tibetan2 and Zen Buddhists in Dharamsala. Each tradition has developed significantly since the 8th century, and it is now much easier for the two to enjoy exchange. Although combining traditions may not happen to the extent it did and does in America, the strengths of each tradition could help mitigate perceived weaknesses. I will explore different avenues for dialogue between the two traditions through the perspectives of practitioners in Dharamsala. I intend for this paper to explain the historical contact between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, the divergent qualities of each, and the dialogue between the two as gathered through informants.


Asian Studies | History of Religions of Eastern Origins | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion | Social and Cultural Anthropology