DaftChris wrote:From what I understand, at the core, both schools are essentially the same. However, what are some distinct differences between Chan and Zen practice? If any?
All I know is that both have different countries of origin and that (from what I've read) Chan is fairly syncretic and can contain esoteric ritual.
Jikan is correct in saying that it's difficult to generalize about Zen in N. America. In terms of what is practiced, I would actually stretch this to include Zen in Japan. I wrote the following in another thread and it may be relevant here:
It's important to remember that "Zen" is not one standardized school, but rather a collection of many branching teaching lines. The actual practices stressed by these diverse lines, or even by individual teachers within the same line, can vary surprisingly. This is the case even with branches that share common connection to the larger "trees" of Soto-shu, Rinzai-shu, etc.
Some are these teaching lines are closely related like brothers/sisters, and so share something of the same "house style". Some only distantly so, like cousins you know are out there but will never meet. Depending on what is transmitted in the line you encounter, you may well find yourself doing all kinds of things. This will also be affected by the personal interests, experiences and research of the individual teachers who carry and transmit those lines.
As an example: it's true that the majority of Rinzai teachers will use wato/koan practice as one of their methods, and that there is a general approach to this since Hakuin that organizes koan into categories such as hosshin (dharmakaya), kikan (dynamic activity) and so on. But the actual shitsunai or curricula of koan practice vary widely from place to place according to what is handed down orally in each line...not just in terms of what koan are used, but also fundamental approach to the practice itself. These curricula and approaches are not static or unchanging even today, but could be added to with the experiences of each generation.
Esoteric practices are commonly found in various places (though I personally have not heard of Zen teachers giving kanjo, unless they have backgrounds also in Tendai or Shingon mikkyo...my experience is not broad in that regard, however.)
It is worth remembering that Zen's self-view is that it is a One Vehicle tradition pointing directly to the nature of mind, and as such is essentially without fixed
method. From this standpoint, any practice that is useful for recognition of one's nature and its embodiment could be "Zen". Also from that standpoint, Zen is not much invested in classifications of "esoteric" vs. "exoteric" (though various lines will still have their own traditions of what may be revealed openly and what is only to be transmitted privately...the sort of omote/ura thing you also see in many Japanese cultural arts).
So, I think it's important to balance the fact that the Japanese attempted to preserve and organize very methodically the Song-era Ch'an they received, as Indrajala pointed out, with a recognition of the sort of built-in fluidity and lack of total organizational control of practice curricula that has been demonstrated by the sometimes great variations in teaching lines. These different flavors themselves can actually become objects of veneration and preservation within each line.
Astus wrote:I think the Surangama Sutra is the one text that is central in Chan but rarely used in other countries.
I can't speak for all of Zen (especially given what I wrote above). But the Surangama is recommended in Rinzai-shu writings (e.g. Torei) especially for recognizing delusory states that arise during practice. I have no idea how many Rinzai folks actually read it for that purpose. Of course the Surangama dharani, or its core mantra, are very commonly used for various purposes.