Theravada is the oldest form of Buddhism and means "Greater Vehicle." It was founded in India, whereas Zen originated in China, and is a subsect of Mahayana Buddhism.

Comparison chart

Theravada versus Zen comparison chart
Edit this comparison chartTheravadaZen
Place of worship There is no worship in Theravada, though there are monastic temples. Pagoda, Temple.
Goal of religion Deliverance of mind. Becoming an Arahant and freeing one's self from bondage, namely samsara. To gain enlightenment
Practices Donation (alms-giving, etc.), Morality, and Meditation (insight). (Morality is nobler than donation and meditation is nobler than morality.) Regularly visit temple to meditate & to make offerings to the Buddha and donations to monks/nuns.
Place of origin Indian subcontinent China
Founder Siddhāttha Gotama Founded by those who broke away from the original teachings of the Buddha or those who make adjustments to the teachings, during the Third Buddhist Council.
Literal Meaning Theravada means "teaching of the elders". It refers to the pure or original teachings of the Buddha over 2500 years ago. zen is the japanese translation of the chinese word "chan" which is the chinese word for "dhyana" which is the sanskrit word for the pali word "jhana" which means "meditation".
Clergy Sangha; ones who live according to the monastic codes. The concept of monk, or nun did not exist in earlier Buddhism. Those who chose to live under the guidance of the Tathāgata (Siddhāttha Gotama) parted from the worldlings. monks, nuns.
Use of statues and pictures Statues of the Buddha are objects of meditation. As a symbolic reminder, which can be found in sculptures, arts, and architecture.
Concept of Deity There are classes of beings. Some are called devas, higher life forms than human beings, though nothing supernatural. They are all stuck in their own samsara. There is no absolute entity, as an existing entity is seen as a conditioned phenomenon. believes in "Buddhas" which are immortal and exist in infinite numbers and have nearly every attribute usually given to deities of all religions. opposite what is taught in the oldest teachings (pali canon) validated by later mahayana texts.
Status of women Women can join the Sangha. In the Dharmic approach, the Buddha was the very first to allow women into monastic life. Women can become nuns.
Means of salvation Attaining Nibbāna through the Noble Eightfold Path, thus becoming an Arahant, an awakened one. seeks enlightenment
Marriage One can marry and lead a moral life but should know that desire, attachments and cravings lead to suffering. not specified in the sutras, likely varies greatly depending on which school of zen and in which country.
Belief of God N/A believes in "buddhas" that can live forever and influence man kind in ways similar to the abilities attributed to "god(s)". this information comes from the late mahayana sutras and is opposite the oldest, original teachings (pali canon).
Life after death Reincarnation, Heaven/Hell are both temporary Multiple births, ultimate Nirvana
Religious Law There are no religious laws in Theravada, rather teachings of wisdom, and the Dhamma for those who are seeking liberation. Dharma
Confessing sins There is no concept of sin in Theravada. Kamma implies volitional action and all deeds have their fruits. Nevertheless, not being mentally attached to a certain misdeed was strongly adviced by the Buddha. Not discussed
Human Nature Human life is very hard to obtain, hence it is very important to practice. An ordinary human is called a puthujjana, a worldling. This kind is motivated by their illusory ego in all aspects of life. Man's desire for material things leads to suffering.
View of the Buddha The Tathāgata is the worthy one. According to Theravada, Siddhāttha Gotama had the supreme enlightenment, which makes him superior to an Arahant. He's the one who propounded the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. Central figure of Zen. believed to exist in another realm and to be able to help humans. Although not heavily relied on in Zen, mostly the practitioner relies on himself or herself.
Belief There are no beliefs. However, there is a faculty of conviction that is required for a worldling in order to start their practice. Initially, it has to be embraced that the Buddha is fully enlightened, thus actual investigation might follow. follow Gautama Buddha and believe that he exists in a spiritual form and can answer prayers and help people. enlightenment is mostly up to the practitioner to attain. this is how it is in the mahayana texts which are opposite the original teachings
God's role in salvation Theravada rejects the concept of creator god. Beings are heirs of their own kamma. Zen does not specify any Supreme Being Who Is the Creator of the universe.
View of Abrahamic religions There are no specific views of Abrahamic religions in the Dhamma of the Theravada. Though they reject theism for themselves. Dharmic; Not Abrahamic. Sees no contradiction in following more than one religion.
About Spiritual awakening one's self through meditation. Zen follows myriad teachings that have accrued over millenia, many of which are attributed to the buddha in a retrograde fashion since he was dead when they were written. they also highly regard later zen teachers writings.
Identity of Jesus Regular Person who preached peace, love, and acceptance N/A.
Promised Holy one. None. The Buddha known as Meitreya.
Use of Statues Common Common
Three Jewels The Buddha, The Dhamma and The Sangha (like the most valuable or irreplaceable jewels in the world) buddha, dharma, sangha
Original Languages Magada (not pali); the universal language during the lifetime of the Buddha which was understood all over the universe. Pali, Sanskrit, Mandarin
View of other Abrahamic religions N/A Zen is a Dharmic religion. Not an Abrahamic religion, and sees no contradiction in following more than one religion.
Holy days Kasone Full Moon Day, Waso Full Moon Day, etc. Wesak, Sangha Day, Chinese New Year, Bodhi Day.
Geographical predominance Thailand, Sri lanka, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar (where the Four Noble Truths are best prominent) (Only five countries left) Asia, North America.
Virtue in which religion is based upon The Threefold Training: Morality, Concentration and Wisdom (insight) Compassion.
Views on other religion Do not accept any other beliefs other than the teachings of the Buddha. no conflict with practicing other religions.
Authority of Pope N/A N/A.
Status of Muhammad N/A N/A.
Resurrection of Jesus Denied N/A.
Place of worship / doing obeisance Buddhists do obeisance to the Three Jewels in their homes, in the pagodas or in the monasteries. Temple, Pagoda
Day of worship / obeisance One can do obeisance to the Three Jewels every day or as frequently as he or she can. May worship any day.

Share this comparison:

If you read this far, you should follow us:

"Theravada vs Zen." Diffen LLC, n.d. Web. 9 Jul 2020. < >