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.

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)