Thursday, May 05, 2011

Dharma Transmission


According to one “certified” master of the official Soto Zen school (which claims Dogen as their founder):

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.
Ryofu Pussel, Dharma-transmission in Dogen's Zen-buddhism

This definition generally agrees with the common understanding of the term as it is used in contemporary Zen communities.

As with most Buddhist teachings the tradition of Dharma-transmission should not be hastily understood; it is one expression of truth concerning the significance of the transmission of enlightened wisdom (prajna). Whenever sacred literature is reduced to biographical or historical fact it becomes susceptible to dogmatism and legalism. To regard such as the formulation of absolutes, rather than expressions of truth is to bring it down to mere idolatry.

While the evidence incontrovertibly refutes the historical possibility of “an unbroken chain of masters” going all the way back to the historic Shakyamuni Buddha, the Zen masters have never been overly concerned with historical facts; their business concerns the great matter of life and death. Master Yuanwu (1063-1135), compiler of the classic Zen text, The Blue Cliff Record, demonstrates one example of how Zen masters handle discrepancies between “matters of fact” and “expressions of truth.” Noticing just such a discrepancy in the first case of the Blue Cliff Record, Yuanwu commented:

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.
Blue Cliff Record, Thomas Cleary & J.C. Cleary

About a century later, Dogen came to a similar conclusion in relation to an issue concerning the Zen tradition of Dharma-transmission. Noting certain discrepancies among the variety of the lineage charts he saw while he was in China, Dogen questioned a senior monk about it:

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.
Shobogenzo, Shisho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

This monk’s comments were later supported by Dogen’s Chinese master and finally led 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 the Dharma 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.
Shobogenzo, Shisho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Having “got rid of an old nest” allowed Dogen to see through the “idol” (i.e. external fact) of Dharma-transmission to the mythological truth of the expression; such truths are never “arranged in a line nor gathered in a group.” In a commentary on the Dharma-transmission between Shakyamuni to Mahakasyapa, Robert Aitken Roshi 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

While the “literal” fact of formal Dharma-transmission can be used as guidance for the intermediate student (e.g. a student that has come to trust a teacher may find some assurance in that teacher’s sanction of another), a Dharma-transmission certificate, even in a “trusted lineage,” should not be regarded as guaranteeing a legitimate teacher. When we do find an authentic teacher, we can usually trust their ability to recognize others who have the skills and character needed to teach others. Nevertheless, we still need to check it out for ourselves; after all, it is the great matter of life and death.

In any case, the true significance of Dharma-transmission is not about lineage charts or certificates; it is about the transmission of wisdom (prajna) by wisdom, to wisdom. In Shobogenzo, Inmo, Dogen describes the significance of transmission in the context of the sixth ancestor of Zen, Huineng (Eno Daikan). After reminding us that Huineng, though never exposed to the “eternal teachings” was “suddenly illuminated” upon hearing a Buddhist scripture recited, Dogen goes on to say:

This is just the truth of Those who have wisdom, if they hear [the Dharma]{truth}, 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 {Buddhist teaching} 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.
Shobogenzo, Inmo, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

Dogen’s words, “wisdom is able to transmit wisdom, and wisdom directly searches out wisdom”, are a direct expression of Dharma-transmission itself. Wisdom (prajna) is Buddha-Dharma (Buddhist truth); wisdom transmits wisdom and is received by wisdom. Huineng heard the wisdom transmitted by wisdom (from the Diamond Sutra), his innate wisdom was “able to believe and understand at once.”

The jewel (wisdom) has been in the rock (body-mind) all along; the “rock” realizes the “jewel” has been embodied all along. “[When] a human being recognizes this [jewel], a human being seizes it.” Dharma-transmission is really the activation of inherent wisdom by expressed wisdom. To “grasp” the truth expressed in a sutra or a koan, is to actualize the fundamental point (genjokoan). That is Dharma-transmission. Thus, Dogen says, “a human being and wisdom do not know each other, but it seems that the truth is unfailingly discerned by wisdom.”
In Shobogenzo, Yui-Butsu-Yo-Butsu, he writes:

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.”
Shobogenzo, Yui-Butsu-Yo-Butsu, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross

This is Dharma-transmission. The Buddha-Dharma (wisdom) is transmitted by Buddha (wisdom) and realized (made real) by Buddha (wisdom). The “common man” is the “rock” (in Dogen’s earlier analogy); when the jewel is revealed, the “rock” is already a “jewel” – when the Buddha-Dharma is realized, the “common man” is already “Buddha.”



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