Thursday, January 11, 2007

Dharma Transmission as Myth and Metaphor Part 2

Dharma Transmission as Myth and Metaphor Part 2

(Note: Some of these comments are similar to those I posted at "Dogen Sangha" blog some time back. I have since been denied permission to post there.)

Exceptions to such fanatical insistence on literal facts by contemporary Zen teachers are rare. One exception is the elder statesman of Zen in the west, Robert Aitken Roshi (I would also include a few others, Thich Nhat Hanh for instance). In Aitken’s commentary on the Dharma-transmission from Shakyamuni to Mahakasyapa, in which transmission occurred when Shakyamuni twirled a flower, he wrote:

"The story of the Buddha twirling a flower before his assembly, like the story of the baby Buddha taking seven steps in each of the cardinal directions , need not be taken literally. The first account of his transmitting the Dharma to Mahakasyapa is set forth in a sutra of Chinese origin that is dated A.D. 1036, fourteen hundred years after the Buddha’s time. This was the Sung period—a peak in the development of Chinese culture when great anthologies, encyclopedias, and directories were being produced. Myth, oral tradition, and sectarian justification all played a role in this codification. The fable of the Buddha twirling a flower filled a great need for connection with the founder, and it was picked up immediately and repeated like gospel. The "Four Principles" attributed to Bodhidharma were also formulated during the Sung period, some six hundred years after Bodhidharma’s time, using some of the same language attributed to the Buddha: "A special transmission outside tradition—not established on words or letters." The Sung teachers were making important points with their myths.

"During World War II, I asked a Catholic priest who was interned with us, "What if it could be proved that Jesus never lived?" He replied, "It would destroy my faith." That priest was very young at the time. I wonder what became of him, and what he might be saying on the subject now. Something a little different, I would suppose. I too was young at the time, but I felt there was something wrong with his answer. I still think so. I don’t believe it is very important whether Jesus and Buddha and Moses were historical figures. True religious practice is grounded in the nonhistorical fact of essential nature. "The World-Honored One Twirls a Flower," "Pai-chang's Fox," and all the other fabulous cases of Zen literature are your stories and mine, intimate accounts of our own personal nature and experience."
(Robert Aitken Roshi, The Gateless Barrier, p.47)

One legitimate reason (besides giving assurance to the Zen beginner) for continuing the orthodox tradition of formal Dharma-transmission is this: it can be used as guidance for the intermediate student that has verified an individual teacher and therefore trusts the "sanctioning" of that particular teacher. That is to say, a Zen student may be unable to work with a particular teacher that they have come to trust, however, another teacher that has been given the trusted teacher’s sanction, through Dharma-transmission, may provide some assurance to the student. It is not much different than getting a reference from a trusted professional like a doctor, lawyer, or a mechanic about someone else that may be able to help.

Of course, Dharma-transmission in itself, even if in a "trusted lineage," is no guarantee of a legitimate teacher. Just a cursory overview of some of the expose’ books on American "Zen communities" is enough to arouse a healthy sense of caution. Unfortunately, many of the most popular Zen "masters" in America have proven themselves unable to handle the authority and responsibility of teaching. However, when we do find an authentic teacher, we can usually trust their ability to recognize and sanction others who have genuine realization as well as the skills and character needed to teach others. We will still need to check it out for ourselves, but it may prove to be a good starting point.

The esoteric or deeper significance of Dharma-transmission has nothing to do with lineage charts or certificates. Authentic transmission is, and has always been, transmission of wisdom (prajna) by wisdom, to wisdom. In reading Zen texts, including Dogen Zenji’s work, it is important to understand the fundamental role that Dharma-transmission plays in practice and enlightenment on the path of Zen. This theme is crucial to grasping Dogen Zenji’s more profound teachings, as well as the deeper, subtler aspects of Zen teaching in general.

In one essay, Dogen Zenji explains how transmission occurs in the context of the traditional story of Huineng, the legendary sixth ancestor of Zen, second in importance only to Bodhidharma. After reminding his listeners/readers that Huineng, though never exposed to the "eternal teachings" was "suddenly illuminated" upon hearing someone reciting a Buddhist scripture, the Diamond Sutra, he goes on to say:

"This is just the truth of Those who have wisdom, if they hear [the Dharma], Are able to believe and understand at once. This wisdom is neither learned from other people nor established by oneself: wisdom is able to transmit wisdom, and wisdom directly searches out wisdom ... It is beyond coming and beyond entering: it is like the spirit of spring meeting springtime, for example. Wisdom is beyond intention and wisdom is beyond no intention. Wisdom is beyond consciousness and wisdom is beyond unconsciousness. How much less could it be related to the great and the small? How much less could it be discussed in terms of delusion and realization? The point is that although [the Sixth Patriarch] does not even know what the Buddha Dharma is, never having heard it before and so neither longing for it nor aspiring to it, when he hears the Dharma, he makes light of his debt of gratitude and forgets his own body and; such things happen because the body-and-mind of those who have wisdom is already not their own. This is the state called able to believe and understand at once. No-one knows how many rounds of life-and-death [people] spend, even while possessing this wisdom, in futile dusty toil. They are like a stone enveloping a jewel, the jewel not knowing that it is enveloped by a stone, and the stone not knowing that it is enveloping a jewel. [When] a human being recognizes this [jewel], a human being seizes it. This is neither something that the jewel is expecting nor something that the stone is awaiting: it does not require knowledge from the stone and it is beyond thinking by the jewel. In other words, a human being and wisdom do not know each other, but it seems that the truth is unfailingly discerned by wisdom."
(Dogen, Shobogenzo, Inmo, Nishijima & Cross)

Dogen Zenji’s expression here, "wisdom is able to transmit wisdom, and wisdom directly searches out wisdom", is the very definition of Dharma-transmission. In its highest sense, wisdom is Buddha-Dharma (Buddhist truth). Wisdom transmits wisdom and is received by wisdom. When Huineng heard the wisdom transmitted by wisdom (from the Diamond Sutra), his innate wisdom was "able to believe and understand at once." That is Zen practice and enlightenment. When the Zen practitioner is exposed to the wisdom transmitted by the wisdom (of Buddhas and Zen masters, texts, koans, birdsong, raindrops, walls, stones, etc.), the practitioners own innate wisdom is activated.

Dogen Zenji likens this to a jewel inside a rock. The jewel (wisdom) has been in the rock (human being) all along, and as soon as the "rock" realizes this, the "jewel" is already embodied, "[When] a human being recognizes this [jewel], a human being seizes it." That is to say, "Dharma-transmission" is really the activation of (already innate) wisdom by wisdom. The path of Zen is the wisdom within us seeking the activation of wisdom through practice and enlightenment. When we "grasp" the point in a sutra, or Zen sermon, wisdom is realized, that is, Dharma-transmission occurs. When we discern the point of a koan, the wisdom of the koan activates our own wisdom. As Dogen Zenji says, "a human being and wisdom do not know each other, but it seems that the truth is unfailingly discerned by wisdom."

With this understanding, we can decipher the significance of Dogen Zenji’s teaching on "Buddhas alone, together with Buddhas." Throughout his works, Dogen Zenji repeatedly reminds us that "only Buddhas realize Buddha-Dharma." For example:

"The Buddha-Dharma cannot be known by people. For this reason, since ancient times, no common man has realized the Buddha-Dharma and no-one in the two vehicles has mastered the Buddha-Dharma. Because it is realized only by buddhas, we say that buddhas alone, together with buddhas, are directly able perfectly to realize it."
(Dogen, Shobogenzo, Yui-Butsu-Yo-Butsu, Nishijima & Cross)

This is the essence of Dharma-transmission. The Buddha-Dharma (wisdom) is transmitted by Buddha (wisdom) and can only be realized by inherent Buddha-nature (wisdom). The "common man" in this passage can be likened to the "rock" in Dogen Zenji’s earlier analogy. As soon as the jewel is revealed, the "rock" is already a "jewel." As soon as the Buddha-Dharma is realized, the "common man" is already "Buddha."

When we study Dogen Zenji with this understanding, many complications are resolved. For instance, when Dogen says things like, "a lay person has never realized enlightenment," we discover two levels of meaning here. There is the "orthodox" understanding, which can encourage the novice monk that has literally "left home"; and there is the deeper, more significant meaning that neither lay people nor monastics have realized enlightenment, for "it is realized only by Buddhas." The same lower/higher truths can be found in many of his teachings: reading, precepts, meditation, koans, activity, expression, etc.


SlowZen said...


“Zen practice and enlightenment,
Zen practice and enlightenment”

Could it be that these terms themselves may be the root of so many misunderstandings?

So many people have said that words do not express them or can encompass the whole meaning. As a result we end up with countless Koans, further distracting people from the truth.

Would it be easy to just say that Right Practice is the actualization of awakening wisdom?
And that having a good teacher may help you find out just what that right practice is for you?

Thanks for this post

I find it a bit strange that the administrators allowed the Tiger to post (briefly) but flat out denied you. I felt you were adding a lot of value to that community. To look at it now is like looking at a car that has been striped of all its features.

Be well and happy!

Ted Biringer said...


Thank you for your comments.

As far as "practice and enlightenment" go, I agree that they can be misleading or "distracting." I have alternated various terms over the years finally settling on "practice and enlightenment" (for the most part) because there is not really a good way to say it with one word. Using either the term "practice" or "enlightenment" on their own, seems to imply that they are, or can somehow be, seperate from one another. So I adopted Dogen Zenji's most common term, "practice and enlightenment" (sometimes translated as "practice and realization", or other equivalents).

Your term, "Right Practice is the actualization of awakening wisdom" is good, and I think it means the same thing, but it would often be difficult to work it into a sentence...

You are right about the many warnings that "words do not express them or... encompass the whole meaning," however, they also gave as many warnings about the dangers of discarding words (and koans). Here are some examples:

There is originally no word for truth, but the way to it is revealed by words. The way originally has no explanation, but reality is made by explanation. That is why the buddhas appeared in the world with many expedient methods; the whole canon dispenses medicines according to diseases.
(Shih-shuang, Zen Teachings, p.51)

The original truth has no name,
But by name the truth is made manifest.
When the true dharma is obtained,
There is neither truth nor falsehood.
(The Transmission Of The Lamp, Sohaku Ogata, p.20)

Q: Vimalakirti did not speak. Does this imply that sound is subject to cessation?

A: Speech and silence are one! There is no distinction between them. Therefore is it written: ‘Neither the true nature not the root of Manjusri’s hearing are subject to cessation.’ Thus, the sound of the Tathagata’s voice is everlasting, nor can there be any such reality as the time before he began to preach or the time after he finished preaching. The preaching of the Tathagata is identical with the Dharma he taught, for there is no distinction between the preaching and the thing preached; just as there is none between such varied phenomena as the Glorified and Revealed Bodies of a Buddha, the Bhodisattvas, the Sravakas, the world-systems with their mountains and rivers, or water, birds, trees, forests and the rest. The preaching of the Dharma is at one and the same time both vocal and silent. This being so, only silence belongs to the Essential.
(Huang Po, The Zen Teaching of Huang Po, John Blofeld, p.121-122)

All verbal teachings are just to cure diseases. Because diseases are not the same, the remedies are also different. That is why it is sometimes said that there is Buddha, and sometimes it is said that there is no Buddha.

True words are those that actually cure sickness; if the cure man-ages to heal, then all are true words. If they can't effectively cure sickness, all are false words.

True words are false words when they give rise to views. False words are true words when they cut off the delusions of sentient beings. Because disease is unreal, there is only unreal medicine to cure it.
(Pai-Chang, Teachings of Zen, Classics, Vol. 2, Cleary, p.14)

When Students of the Way are looking at sayings, you must exert your power to the utmost and examine them very very closely.
(Dogen, Record of Things Heard, Coll. Trans. Vol.4 p.825)

One day he instructed,

When students are beginners, whether they have the mind of the Way or not, they should carefully read and study the Sagely Teachings of the sutras and shastras.
(Dogen, Record of Things Heard, Col. Trans. Vol. 4, p.796)

From the Zen people of today, who are content to sit quietly submerged at the bottom of their “ponds of tranquil water,” you often hear this:“Don’t introspect koans. Koans are quagmires. They will suck your self-nature under. Have nothing to do with written words either. Those are a complicated tangle of vines that will grab hold of your vital spirit and choke the life from if.”

Don’t believe that for a minute! What kind of “self-nature” is it that can be “sucked under”? Is it like one of those yams or chestnuts you bury under the cooking coals? Any “vital spirit” that can be “grabbed and choked off” is equally dubious. Is it like when a rabbit or fox gets caught in a snare? Where in the world do they find these things? The back shelves of some old country store? Wherever, it must be a very strange place.

No doubt about it, these are the miserable wretches Zen priest Ch’ang-sha said “confound the illusory working of their own minds for ultimate truth.” They’re like that great king master Ying-an T’an-hua talked about, who lives alone inside an old shrine deep in the mountains, never putting any of his wisdom to use.
(Hakuin, The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin, p.24)

A bigoted believer in nihilism blasphemes against the sutras on the ground that literature [i.e., the Buddhist scriptures] is unnecessary [for the study of Buddhism]. If that were so, then neither would it be right for us to speak, since speech forms the substance of literature. He would also argue that in the direct method [literally, the straight path] literature is discarded. But does he appreciate that the two words ‘is discarded’ are also literature? Upon hearing others recite the sutras such a man would criticize the speakers as ‘addicted to scriptural authority’. It is bad enough for him to confine this mistaken notion to himself, but in addition, he blasphemes against the Buddhist scriptures. You men should know that it is a serious offence to speak ill of the sutras, for the consequence is grave indeed!
(Hui-Neng, The Diamond Sutra & The Sutra of Hui-Neng, A. F. Price & Wong Mou-lam, p.144)

As for the administraters at the other blog, I don't think they like to be seriously questioned about things that might seem to challenge official dogma...

Thanks again.

Gassho, Ted

SlowZen said...

Ted, Thank you for your reply.

Maybe we should conspire to make "Right Practice is the actualization of awakening wisdom" a new axiom for Buddhist trainees.

I am looking forward to your next post.

Be well and happy!

SlowZen said...

It looks like you should be able to post on the "Dogen Sangha" blog again.

Take care,