Saturday, January 06, 2007

Dharma Transmission as Myth and Metaphor Part 1

Dharma Transmission as Myth and Metaphor

The Zen tradition of "mind to mind transmission," or "Dharma-transmission," is one of the least understood, and most abused doctrines in modern Zen teaching in both the east and the west. The misunderstanding, while partially due to the profound, subtle meaning within the doctrine, is mainly due to deliberate obfuscation aimed at validating spiritual superiority, thereby insuring authority.

According to the orthodox teaching of the official Soto Zen school in modern day Japan, Dharma-transmission is received by a student from a master that has received Dharma-transmission himself (not herself, as all have been males) from a master in the Soto lineage.

According to one "certified" master (Ryofu Pussel):

The term "Lineage" refers to an unbroken chain of "masters" having received "Dharma-transmission", going all the way back to the historic Shakyamuni Buddha. This authentic lineage is said to insure that the Buddha’s original teaching (Dharma) is preserved and transmitted in its original.
(Dharma-Transmission In Dogen’s Zen-Buddhism, Ryofu Pussel, p.31)

This definition roughly outlines the understanding of the term for most sects and lineages within Zen Buddhism. As an "orthodox" teaching for the spiritually na├»ve, this tradition allows the beginning student to lay aside doubts about their particular teacher’s authority and simply accept and follow the master’s instruction.

As with most orthodox or "exoteric" doctrines, the Zen tradition of Dharma-transmission contains a powerful esoteric meaning and significance. The true significance of Dharma-transmission is the transmission of wisdom (prajna). When the "awakened" mind is exposed to the "Dharma" of Buddhas and Zen ancestors, wisdom is transmitted. We will come back to this later.

Of course, exoteric or orthodox teachings are usually beneficial, and in some cases necessary to the spiritually immature. However, when this kind of teaching becomes insisted on as historical fact rather than as metaphor, or temporary expediency, it becomes idolatry. The transparency of the doctrine becomes opaque; concealing the very reality that it was intended to reveal.

Modern scholarship incontrovertibly reveals that any claim that posits as fact the myth of "an unbroken chain of masters" going all the way back to the historic Shakyamuni Buddha is untenable. (See for example, Seeing Through Zen, John R. McRae; The Zen Canon, Steven Heine & Dale S. Wright; The Bodhidharma Anthology, Jeffrey L. Broughton; Zen Dawn, J.C. Cleary.) In addition, genuine Zen masters have always understood the insignificance of historic or literal truth, compared to the reality of which the teachings transmit.

Yuanwu, the compiler of the classic Zen text, The Blue Cliff Record, gives us a good example of how authentic masters handle discrepancies between "fact" and "truth" in mythology. In the very first case of the Blue Cliff Record, Yuanwu notices just such a discrepancy:

"According to tradition, Master Chih died in the year 514, while Bodhidharma came to Liang in 520; since there is a seven year discrepancy, why is it said that the two met? This must be a mistake in the tradition. As to what is recorded in tradition, I will not discuss the matter now. All that’s important is to understand the gist of the matter."
(Yuanwu, Blue Cliff Record Case 1, Cleary & Cleary)

Yuanwu lived 1063-1135. One hundred years later, Dogen made a similar conclusion regarding the doctrine of Dharma-transmission. While in China, Dogen noticed that there were discrepancies in the lineage charts and asked about this:

"The veteran monk Shugetsu, while he was assigned to the post of head monk on Tendo, showed to Dogen a certificate of succession of Unmon’s lineage… Mahakasyapa, Ananda, and so on, were aligned as if [they belonged to] separate lineages. At that time, Dogen asked Head Monk Shugetsu, "Master, nowadays there are slight differences among the five sects in their alignment [of names]. What is the reason? If the succession from the Western Heavens has passed from rightful successor to rightful successor, how could there be differences?" Shugetsu said, "Even if the difference were great, we should just study that the buddhas of Unmon-zan mountain are like this. Why is Old Master Sakyamuni honored by others? He is an honored one because he realized the truth. Why is Great Master Unmon honored by others? He is an honored one because he realized the truth." Dogen, hearing these words, had a little [clearer] understanding."
(Dogen, Shobogenzo, Shisho, Nishijima & Cross)

Shugetsu made a very good point that was reiterated by Dogen’s own master, thus allowing Dogen to accept "for the first time, the existence of Buddhist patriarchs’ succession of the Dharma":

"My late Master, the eternal Buddha, the great Master and Abbot of Tendo, preached the following: "The buddhas, without exception, have experienced the succession of the Dharma. That is to say, Sakyamuni Buddha received the Dharma from Kasyapa Buddha, Kasyapa Buddha received theDharma from Kanakamuni Buddha, and Kanakamuni Buddha received the Dharma from Krakucchanda Buddha. We should believe that the succession has passed like this from buddha to buddha until the present. This is the way of learning Buddhism." Then Dogen said, "It was after Kasyapa Buddha had entered nirvana that Sakyamuni Buddha first appeared in the world and realized the truth. Furthermore, how could the buddhas of the Kalpa of Wisdom receive the Dharma from the buddhas of the Kalpa of Resplendence? What [do you think] of this principle?" My late Master said, "What you have just expressed is understanding [based on] listening to theories. It is the way of [bodhisattvas at] the ten sacred stages or the three clever stages. It is not the way [transmitted by] the Buddhist patriarchs from rightful successor to rightful successor. Our way, transmitted from buddha to buddha, is not like that. We have learned that Sakyamuni Buddha definitely received the Dharma from Kasyapa Buddha. We learn in practice that Kasyapa Buddha entered nirvana after Sakyamuni Buddha succeeded to the Dharma. If Sakyamuni Buddha did not receive the Dharma from Kasyapa Buddha, he might be the same as a naturalistic non-Buddhist. Who then could believe in Sakyamuni Buddha? Because the succession has passed like this from buddha to buddha, and has arrived at the present, the individual buddhas are all authentic successors, and they are neither arranged in a line nor gathered in a group. We just learn that the succession passes from buddha to buddha like this. It need not be related to the measurements of kalpas and the measurements of lifetimes mentioned in the teaching of the Agamas. If we say that [the succession] was established solely by Sakyamuni Buddha, it has existed for little over two thousand years, [so] it is not old; and the successions [number] little more than forty, [so] they might be called recent. This Buddhist succession is not to be studied like that. We learn that Sakyamuni Buddha succeeded to the Dharma of Kasyapa Buddha, and we learn that Kasyapa Buddha succeeded to the Dharma of Sakyamuni Buddha. When we learn it like this, it is truly the succession of the Dharma of the buddhas and the patriarchs." Then Dogen not only accepted, for the first time, the existence of Buddhist patriarchs’ succession of the Dharma, but also got rid of an old nest."
(Dogen, Shobogenzo, Shisho, Nishijima & Cross)

Many contemporary teachers have failed to get "rid of an old nest" and continue to apply much significance to the external fact of Dharma-transmission while failing to grasp the more important mythological truth of the doctrine. Despite efforts by Dogen and his teacher to show that transmission has nothing to do with being "arranged in a line nor gathered in a group," many attach a kind of superstitious significance to the physical "certificate" rather than the spiritual implication of transmission.

(End Part 1)


Anonymous said...

Gudo Nishijima has written on his blog that certificates are not reliable...

What is it that can possibly be transmitted?

If anything is transmitted it perhaps can be no more than an unspoken but felt acknowledgement "I see you, you see me".

Sometimes, it might happen that it is one way "He can see me" because the other is still sleepy.

What it perhaps comes down to is nothing more than the [mutual] recognition that a separate ego is not present.

Finally, what use is transmission?

Is it nothing more than recognising that you are heading in the right general direction?

SlowZen said...


I like your questions here, I aked similar questions of my own teacher.

I am eager to see your answers and the next installment of this post.

Be well and happy!

Moby Dick said...

What about Wu-Wu Zen?

Ted Biringer said...


Thanks for the comments.

I think the true meaning of transmission in the Zen Buddhist tradition has deep and powerful significance. I hope to clarify my view in future posts...


I don't know.


Anonymous said...

I hope this blog comes back to life! Some great material on here. I'm just starting my own as I begin to read and practice again. I guess "certification" as the end result of a process without a "certification body" to supervise it all (assuming a body that one can trust) is probelmatic. I would hate, however, to just toss certification out the window. Without it, people will never find a teacher...

...or maybe they shouldn't? It occurs to me that maybe modern communication technology makes certification of teachers pointless, one just finds the book, the postings, the lectures that help. Not long ago, and still true in many nations, the vast majority of the population was entirely illiterate and/or did not have access to publications (books were too expensive even in the early 20th century for most househlds to have more than a very few).