The assumption reminds me of a private exchange I had many moons ago about the differences between Thelema and Zen. My response illustrates Thelema’s unique characteristics by contrast.
My correspondent writes:
I just read Shun-Ryu Suzuki's "Zen Mind: Beginners Mind". And I was wondering, in what ways, practically speaking, would you say Thelema differs from the Zen approach? Because really, they seem very similar to me. That is when we define Thelema in the way you and Erwin do, as being something other than the practices and dogmas which are often bundled with it.
To quote Suzuki, "Zazen practice is the direct expression of our true nature. Strictly speaking for a human being , there is no other practice than this practice; there is no other way of life than this way of life."
Isn't that there the essence of Thelema, the true will, our "true nature" manifesting in the moment? Doesn't what is generally understood as Thelema lack for the simplicity of the Zen approach? Isn't much of it distractionary and even counter-productive? In short what does Thelema offer that Zen does not?
An excerpt from my response appears below the cut.
Suzuki's "Zen Mind: Beginner's Mind" is a great text. If you're interested in Zen, there's a nice (very short) book on the subject by Watts entitled "This is It." And Erwin's made reference a few times to another very good Zen book, "Everyday Zen" by Charlotte "Joko" Beck.
As you note, there are similarities between Thelema and Zen. Of course, there are also similarities between Thelema and Taoism, Thelema and Hinduism (or at least Hindu yoga), Thelema and Christianity, etc., etc.
In one sense, these similarities should come as no surprise at all. Human beings are human beings, after all, and we should expect "spiritual" systems to come up with similar ways to address similar problems all over the world. But at the same time, each of those systems needs something to distinguish them from the others (if not, there'd be no point in having distinct "systems" to begin with).
I'd say the primary difference between Thelema and Zen is that Thelema has a fully-developed concept of "True Will" (both in terms of theory and practice) that allows us to "course correct" (in a way that Zen never emphasizes) and to discuss and evaluate decisions that we make in our lives.
I've described "discovering the True Will" before as a process of catching oneself in the midst of making mistakes perceiving and then correcting in the moment. Although Zen puts a lot of emphasis on paying attention and mindfulness, it doesn't really clearly tell us what we're supposed to do once we *do* pay attention. Arguably, sufficient attention will smooth out these problems all by itself in the long run, but Zen doesn't give us the useful technical vocabulary with which to make the most of our mindfulness exercises.
Further, Zen doesn't have a concept of "True Will" in the sense of a "life path," for lack of a better term. To be clear, the "true will" isn't some kind of "plan" that has been destined since the beginning of time, but it is a route through life that emerges all on its own. Part of the usefulness of familiarity with the will is that one can infer where it's likely to go next, and one can plan accordingly.
When one makes decisions that have an effect on the long-term future, for example, one has to -- of necessity -- draw upon one's tentative conclusions about the will and what it would be happiest doing. Zen doesn't have language for addressing this kind of stuff: it's very much about switching off the mind, but it doesn't give any practical indications of what to do once the mind has been switched off (or how to continue to navigate the world once the mind has been turned back on).
Naturally, it goes without saying that one's decisions then have to be tested by observing the will in real-time. It can be useful to form a mental representation of the True Will, but not as a guide to action: a mental representation of the True Will merely helps the conscious mind in manifesting that will, always subject to revision based upon observation. If one were to only pay attention to the mental representation of the True Will, one might very well miss that the will now wants to do something totally different.