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Tao vs. Zen: Pick Your Potion

By Conscious Owl | Inner Peace

Oct 12
tao versus zen

Once upon a time, Chuang Tzu dreamed that he was a butterfly, flying about enjoying itself. It did not know that it was Chuang Chou. Suddenly he awoke, and veritably was Chuang Chou again.

He did not know whether it was Chuang Chou dreaming that he was a butterfly, or whether it was the butterfly dreaming that it was Chuang Chou.(From The Chuang Tzu)​.

If you enjoy picking up philosophic books from time to time, you may have noticed how many titles start with the Tao of…. Or the Zen of

For example, you can find the Tao of Physics by Dr. Fritjof Capra, or the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Ever since the 1960’s, Americans have had a love affair with two of the most esoteric traditions in the world.​

If you look into both subjects, you will most likely find them thoroughly entertaining and delightful. You can’t really go wrong with either.

The only challenge is which to pick; that is, if you really want to practice one over the other.

If you are looking for an easy way to enlightenment, which is more apt to be your cup of tea? When Steve Jobs was asked by a reporter, “Are you more of a hippie than a nerd?” Steve definitely said, “Yes.” The irony is that Steve was both, and he was most heavily invested in being a nerd.

The Tao and Zen Are Like Orange Juice and Lemonade

When you really look closely at these two marvelous traditions, you will find they both belong in the same family.

It is like having to choose between orange juice or lemonade. Or perhaps you would like to make it tangerine juice? They are both healthy citrus fruits, a bit acidic. It is all a matter of taste.

tao zen similarities

Both Taoism and Zen Buddhism defy authority, love nature, avoid politics, don’t trust words and are utterly convinced that there must be a better way.

Both have influenced each other, although Taoism has had more of an influence on Zen, than Zen on Taoism, because it is nearly a thousand years older. While both really started in China, Zen was perfected in Japan.

Both Taoism and Zen Buddhism are captivated by the exquisite beauty of creation, and intuitively feel the natural order is inherently superior to the civilized approach to life.

They have been a continual source of inspiration for all the arts, both in China and Japan, including calligraphy, painting, sculpture, gardening, fencing, tea ceremonies and flower arrangements. The aesthetic impulse toward art is every bit as strong as the religious impulse towards unity. Both traditions cannot imagine religion apart from art and beauty.

The Tao Is Not Zen

It would be a mistake, however, to equate the Tao and Zen, as if the Tao were only the Chinese form of Zen. While both find the answer to the human condition in nature, they go about it in very different ways.

You will find both philosophic and religious Taoism. The religious form truly is religious, with extensive ceremonies and an intense preoccupation with health and longevity.

It developed an elaborate mythology, backed up by an early science of its own that was thoroughly focused on this world, including the Yin and the Yang, and the Five Elements, along with the Tao, itself, the ceaseless flow of creation and consciousness.

Water and air are its primary symbols, with water being credited with sufficient force to grind down mountains, given enough time. Grand Canyon would be a great example in this case.


Taoism plays against Chinese Confucianism, a highly stratified approach to society, featuring filial piety. Confucius, who pandered to rulers, is made the butt of jokes in much of Taoist humor. You will see something in that like the hippie, rebelling against the hyper-regulation of modern society.

When asked by high officials of the king of Ch’u to come to the royal court and serve him as prime minister, Chuang tzu responded by mentioning a three-thousand-year-old tortoise enshrined in silk and a gold box for his majesty’s pleasure.

He compared himself to that tortoise, asking the officials, “If you were this tortoise, would you prefer to be venerated by his majesty, or alive again to swim around in the mud.” The officials enjoyed the joke of Chaung tzu, and carried his well-wishes back to the king.

Zen Is Not the Tao

Zen, on the other hand, is more for nerds than hippies, in that it requires immense discipline.

It is expressly designed to cure intellectuals of their attachment to logic and symbols. It is a branch of Buddhism expressly designed as a vehicle for enlightenment without reliance on either words or tradition.

You are required to “get it” in silence.

Zen is actually set up as a giant practical joke that can take years out of your life. You are required to forsake the comfort of women and go to a Zendo, or monastery, where you have to get up at 3:00 AM, do chores, chant and meditate up to 14 hours a day.

You are given a tricky saying without explanation, and asked to meditate on it for days on end. You are periodically reviewed for the proper answer without being given any context or explanation.

Zen practice

Meanwhile, your mind is on hyper-drive. All you can hear is the drunken monkey jumping up and down and screaming in your ear. You often have to work and sleep in the cold, and bathe in ice water. To top it all off, you have to beg the roshi to let you stay with him, and pay him whatever he wants.

You are wracking your brain for a single breakthrough moment, as you can figure nothing out. You are close to the point of suicide when the Roshi counsels you to try a little harder. Zen is Japanese through and through.

Anyone with less than nerves of steel need not apply.

Why Choose the Tao?

Taoism used to be challenging for Americans to practice, but ever since President Nixon flew to China and met with Chairman Mao, it has been vastly easier. You can find nearly 100 translations into English of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. You will find it the most beautiful book ever written with 81 short chapters of pure poetry.

You will also find the funniest stories of any philosophic tradition in the writings of Lao Tzu’s student, Chuang Tzu. He understood relativity better than Einstein, and provides you ironic twists to any condition of life.

You can then turn to practicing Tai Chi Chuan, with its hypnotic, slow-motion movements every morning, learning to flow with life.

You can drop out and live in hip communities, such as Sedona, Arizona or Santa Fe, New Mexico. You don’t even need to worry about becoming enlightened, as the working assumption is that being in nature will automatically wake you up.

Why Choose Zen?

As intense as the structured discipline within a Zen community seems to be, it is healthy and supportive.

The monks actually learn to love their Roshi, and intuit that he is doing everything within his power to evoke Kensho or Satori, a sudden glimpse, a mind-blowing realization, without his having to spoil it all by telling you.

You are in an environment optimized for you to make an authentic discovery.​

The consciousness of Zen is exquisite, as it includes bliss, even rapture, around natural beauty, along with the realization of perfection, that everything is as it is, and is as it should be, and it is OK that it be any other way, also.

In Zen, you are never really alone, as compassion is as important as wisdom in Buddhism, and you will find yourself wanting to become a bodhisattva, yourself. You might even like the idea of actually going through the paces and becoming a full-fledged roshi.

Everyone Is a Path Within Himself

An artist friend of mind, from my college days, Michael Sarraille, realized that each of us is his or her own path when he underwent internal conflict around a controversial guru. I never forgot his point.

tao vs zen path

Buddhism is an educational system, and Taoism is a way of being, a celebration of creation that can go with any other religion or philosophy.

You don’t have to believe either tradition. You just need to study them and apply them as you see appropriate.

For example, Alan Watts, who did more to popularize Zen in America than anyone else, was not enamored with sitting around staring at walls all day long. Alan saw virtue in walking meditation. In his later years, he increasingly studied Taoism, and appreciated its unique contribution.

Both the Chinese and Japanese have traditionally been synchronists, integrating different traditions. So can you. Try this on for size:

There is no Buddha,

no spiritual path to follow,

no training and no realization.

What are you feverishly running after?

(Final Realization)


About the Author

One conscious owl to another... sharing what we learned over the years, and from many wise owls before us.