Scholars of religious practice have long noted that monastics and mystics among the world's religions have much more in common than the average believer in these faiths would perceive. Zen and Sufi theologies both point towards the death of the ego as a gateway to enlightenment or union with God. The Sufis use the word "nafs" to describe the "desires" that Zen practitioners engage with non-attachment. There are many more examples of common philosophical and theological insights that Sufism and Buddhism share, and wiser teachers than I have published accessible books about them.
For purposes of this blog, let me name briefly some of the common structural, rather than theological, aspects of Zen and Sufism that are immediately evident:
1) Both are lineage traditions, with teaching authority passed down from individual empowered and authorized teachers (roshi or shaykh) to their students. How often a particular teacher exercises that authority and the criteria used for transmitting authority to teach are up to each teacher. The roshi's or shaykh's authority is unquestioned within the community that has gathered around them as long as this teacher exemplifies and embodies sound spiritual practice.
2) Because authority is diffused, tensions can arise about how various lineages have exercised the authority to empower teachers, and diverse lineages can have different practices and standards.
3) Liturgical practices of the two traditions both involve recitation from the scriptures and sacred poems, in chant forms.
4) Embodied practice is preferred as a gateway over academic study in both traditions. Although the practice of Sema, "turning", is unique to Mevlevi Sufism, it is interesting to remember that Zen meditation practice includes a period of " kinhin" or "walking meditation", five to ten minutes of slow and normal-pace walking in a circle while maintaining the meditative practice.
5) A unique training and teaching role for monastics in both the Sufi and Zen traditions in that of the Cook. The metaphors of food preparation are commonly used in teaching stories.
6) Stories are a common teaching vehicle in both traditions, and both tell teaching stories describing moments of enlightenment, when a student first "woke up".
7) Both traditions invite longer solitary retreat times as a formational discipline within a lifetime of spiritual practice.
8) Despite the value placed on solitary retreat, the support and shared practice of the community of students is essential.
9) Both Zen and Sufism remain minority mystical traditions within the world community of Buddhism and Islam, viewed with some suspicion and sometimes even hostility by many believers.