Tibetan Buddhism Vs. Zen Buddhism, 7 Main Differences Explained

Roof top of Tibetan Temple

Understanding Buddhism is not always easy. If you are traveling to Asia, it is good to understand some differences between the two major Buddhist sects.

Tibetan and Zen Buddhism are two different Buddhist sects that are traditionally practiced in different parts of Asia. Zen Buddhism is practiced mainly in East Asia, whereas Tibetan Buddhism is practiced mainly in Tibet, Mongolia, and other parts of Asia. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are also very different in how they practice Buddhism.

Some people spend a lifetime understanding and studying Buddhism; there are many differences between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism than the 7 basic differences listed below.

Tibetan Monks Outside a Temple
Young Tibetan Monks Outside a Tibetan Temple

These 7 differences are some of the major differences you will find between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.

1 – Zen is Minimalist and Tibetan Elaborate Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is a minimalist or minimalism kind of Buddhism. The pendant to live a simple life or minimalist life is strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism.

Tibetan Buddhism is a much more elaborate form of Buddhism. When you go to Tibet you will see how elaborate some of the Tibetan Buddhist temples are.

2 – Zen Is From Japan and Tibetan Buddhism from Tibet

Zen Buddhism is a mixture between Indian Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism. Zen Buddhism began in China and then spread to Korea and Japan.

As Zen is a Japanese word, most people think of Zen Buddhism and think of Japan; the word Zen can be translated to mean absorption or meditative state.

On the other hand, Tibetan Buddhism is a much older form of Buddhism that started in the 6 to 9th Century BCE. Tibetan Buddhism came from India to Tibet.

3 – Tibetan Buddhism is Better Known In The West Than Zen

Tibetan Buddhism is very well-known in the west. They are many Tibetan temples in the United States and Europe. This is largely due to the popularity of the Tibetan Buddhism leader, the Dalai Lama.

On the other Zen Buddhism does not have the same recognition as Tibetan Buddhism does in the western world. Most people in the west have heard of Zen, but they may not necessarily equate to Zen Buddhism.

Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto, Japan
Kinkakuji Temple (The Golden Pavilion) in Kyoto, Japan, A Zen Temple

4 – Worldwide There Are More Zen Buddhist than Tibetan Buddhist

Worldwide there are more Zen Buddhists than Tibetan Buddhists. This is because Zen Buddhism is prominent in many parts of the world, including Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and China. Zen Buddhism accounts for 20% of all Buddhist temples in Japan.

On the other hand, the main places that Tibetan Buddhism is practiced are Tibet, Mongolia, northern Nepal, and a small part of India, Siberia, Far East Russia, and Northeast China. Tibetan Buddhism is also the state religion of Bhutan. Population wise the Tibetan Buddhism practicing countries are far less densely populated than Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and China

Tibetan Buddhism is considered to be one of the smaller branches of Buddhism. This may surprise many people since most people have heard of Tibetan Buddhism because it is so popular in the west.

5 – Zen and Tibetan Buddhist Emphasize Different Things

Zen Buddhism emphasizes rigorous self-restraint, meditation practice and looks into the nature of the mind and things. Zen Buddhism looks at the personal expression into the insight into daily life, especially into the benefit for others.

Zem Buddhism focuses on clearing your mind through meditation. The main aim of Zen Buddhism is to discover that light hidden within each person

In Tibetan Buddhism, supernatural beings are prominent. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas abound, and as do other gods and spirits. Someone looking from the outside into Tibetan Buddhism may feel that Tibetan Buddhism is almost primitive; Tibetan Buddhism is actually very deep, with logical philosophies on life, death, rebirth, and existence.

Tibetan Buddhism’s spiritual development and aim are to receive Buddhahood or enlighten oneself to help others achieve the same state of Buddhahood.

6 – Zen Meditation Emphasis Breath and Tibetan Mantras

Zen Buddhism is about emptying your mind while following your breath. At the core of Zen Buddhism is to completely vacate or empty your mind to a state of “nothingness” so that you can purge yourself of all desires, ambitions, and emotions.

Tibetan Buddhism uses mantras and visualizations; mantras are short prayers that are thought to alter one’s mind and help connect with a particular Buddha or enlightened being.

Tibetan Monk Walking
Tibetan Monk Walking On Temple Grounds

7 – Tibetan Buddhism Is More Religious Than Zen

Tibetan Buddhism is thought of as a more religious form of Buddhism. This is because Tibetan Buddhism has supernatural beings. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, along with other gods and spirits. Tibetan Buddhism also has some very complex rituals and prayers.

Zen Buddhism also has some rituals, but they are all minimalist forms of rituals. Zen Buddhism is generally less complicated and less formal than Tibetan Buddhism.

Even though Zan and Tibetan Buddhism are different kinds of Buddhism, one is not necessarily better; they are both authentic forms of Buddhism.

Buddhism like so many other things in life is a personal choice.

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Anita L Hummel

Hi, I live in Hanoi, Vietnam but spend time traveling the region. I love to share with you things I see and learn through my travels.

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