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Transmission refers to the revelation of the Dharma, initiated by an enlightened master. Receiving the Dharma Transmission from a Zen Master is one way of attaining enlightenment; such a person becomes enlightened by definition. The transmission is not dependent on any words, phrases or discursive reasoning. Thus, while dialogue was sometimes involved, oftentimes the Masters and Patriarchs would transmit the teaching wordlessly. The transmissions that were formally recorded and recognized by the Zen sect came with the attainment of the title, 'Zen Master'. In the other words, a Zen Master is a person who has received the transmission of the teaching from another Zen Master.

Mahayana Buddhism holds that every being has the innate potential to awaken to the Dharma, so the Dharma is not something that can be given. Furthermore, since neither the Zen master nor the disciple can be said to have any inherent existence within the framework of Mahayana Buddhism, it is neither the master nor the student who is the ultimate 'cause' of the transmission. The will of an ego-consciousness cannot be an independent cause of enlightenment.

As such, the records of the transmission from one master to the next is best viewed as a series of encounters: a record of dialogue and actions that demonstrates what awakening is like. However, one must always keep in mind that each transmission story exists in its own context. Each transmission dialogue is the expression of what the respective disciple 'needed' in order to awaken, as well the conditions of the awakening, and the response of the master in each specific case.

In the Zen lineage, the transmission from master to master came to be held as a teaching from the Buddha himself, first passed on to his disciple Mahakasyapa, who then passed it on to Ananda, and so on. Thus, Zen represents itself as transmission of the Buddha's teaching. This would make Zen a vessel for the Buddha-Dharma, which is why the metaphor of a lamp was often used - one master lights the next master's lamp, and so forth.

However, in an early (8th century) Chan lineage history, the lengqie shizi ji (Record of the Masters and Disciples of the Lankavatara Sutra), it reads: "In the Wei Dynasty, [there was a] Tripitaka and Dharma Master [named] Bodhidharma. He carried on (承) the Gunabhadra Tripitaka later. That Bodhidharma was a meditation master (禪師) [and] he resolved to clarify the Great Vehicle." Thus, instead of Dharma or mind-to-mind transmission being spoken of, in some early texts "carrying on" a textual tradition is spoken of. Given the name of the text and the apparent lack of any special sense to "meditation (chan) master", this would seem to predate the notion of Chan as an independent school or lineage.

In early Chan, the Dharma, the Noumenon, the original mind, etc., were often described in metaphor as akin to a bright sun behind dark clouds. Even when covered over by delusion, enlightenment shines clearly. The metaphor of a lamp and the illuminating power of the Dharma were also emphasized; one without the Dharma was said to be stumbling as though in pitch blackness. This is why the Zen lineage records are known as the Transmission of the Lamp.

From the Sutra of 42 Sections:

The Buddha said, “Those who rejoice in seeing others observe the Way will obtain great blessing.” A Sramana asked the Buddha, “Would this blessing be destroyed?” The Buddha replied, “It is like a lighted torch whose flame can be distributed to ever so many other torches which people may bring along; and therewith they will cook food and dispel darkness, while the original torch itself remains burning ever the same. It is even so with the bliss of the Way.”

Indian Patriarchs

Flower Sermon

Niān huá wéi xiào (拈華微笑, literally "Pick up flower, subtle smile")

The earliest version of this transmission story does not appear until 1031 in China - in another country than the setting of the story and more than 1500 years later than it was supposed to have occurred. Chronologically, it is the first transmission of the Zen lineage to occur.

One day on the Spiritual Mountain (a.k.a. Vulture Peak), an assembly gathered to hear the Buddha’s Dharma talk. However, on that occasion, Buddha simply held up a flower offered by the Brahma King and gazed at the assembly, without saying a word. No one understood the meaning except Mahakashyapa, who broke into a smile. Thereupon the Buddha said, “I have the true Eye of the Dharma, the profound Mind of Nirvana, the Reality transcending all forms; the supreme and subtle teaching, inexpressible by words and speech; this mind seal outside of scriptures, I now transmit to Mahakashyapa.” Mahakashyapa later became known as the first Patriarch of Zen.

In ancient times, at the assembly on Spirit Mountain, the four groups (monks, nuns, men and women devotees) had gathered like clouds. The World Honored One held up a flower; Kashyapa alone changed his expression with a smile. The others did not know his meaning. (BCR, case 15; Commentary)

Wumen's Comment (case 5): Golden-faced Gautama impudently forced the good people into depravity. He sold dog meat under the name of mutton. And he thought he made it! What if all the audience had laughed together? How could he have handed the eye of the true teaching or if Kashyapa had not smiled, how could he have transmitted the teaching? If you say it could be transmitted, he is like a golden-faced old huckster swindling at the city gate, and if you say it cannot be transmitted, how does he hand it on to Mahakashyapa?

essentialsalts Comment: It's almost impossible that this transmission story isn't a complete fabrication. By McRae's estimation, that makes this an incredibly important transmission story - and he would be correct. This story is significant because it encapsulates the first two statements of Zen - A special transmission outside the scriptures (or, sutras, teachings), not dependent on words. The Buddha wordlessly demonstrates the whole of the Dharma to Mahakasyapa, making him instantly worthy of carrying on the teaching. Such an act on the part of the Buddha suggests both a God-like skillfulness in his teaching, and the mysterious nature of the Dharma.

Mahakasyapa's Flagpole

Ananda asked Kashyapa, "The World Honored One bequeathed to you his golden robe; what special teaching did he transmit besides?" Kashyapa called out "Ananda!" Ananda responded. Then Kashyapa said, "Take down the banner pole in front of the gate." (BCR, case 15; Commentary)

Wumen's Comment (excerpt; Case 22): If you can give a turning word, you will see the meeting at Spirit Mountain, still in session.

Chinese Patriarchs

Early Transmission Stories

The first three transmission stories - from Bodhidharma to Huike, from Huike to Sengcan, and from Sengcan to Daoxin - are roughly identical. Each prospective patriarch approaches the current patriarch with a problem. The patriarch then asks the querent to bring them the source of the problem - the mind, one's sins, or one's bondage - so that they can fix it. The only difference in each case is the formulation of the querent's problem.

Bodhidharma enlightens Huike:

Huike said, "My mind is not at peace. I beg the master to pacify it for me."
Bodhidharma answered, "Bring me your mind, and I will pacify it for you."
Huike said, "I tried but was unable to find it."
Bodhidharma answered, "I'm done pacifying your mind for you."

Huike enlightens Sengcan:

One day on the mountain Master Huike met a lay practitioner who had a skin disease. The layman asked the master, “This disciple's body is is bound up in illness. Master, please help me repent for my sins.”

The master said, “Bring me your sins and I will absolve them for you.”

After a pause the layman said, “Looking for my sins, I can't find them anywhere.”

The ancestor said, “There, I have absolved your sins. From now on live in reliance on your true nature, on practice, and on spiritual community.”

Master Huike ordained the layman and gave him the name Sengcan. His illness subsided, and he later became the master's most famous disciple.

Sengcan enlightens Daoxin:

When Daoxin was fourteen, he came to see Sengcan, saying to the latter: "I beg the master to have mercy. Please instruct me on how to achieve release."

The master said: "Is there someone who constrains you?"

Daoxin said: "There is no such person."

The master said: "Why then seek release when you are constrained by no one?"

Hongren's Pun on "Nature"

Daoxin asked the young would-be disciple his family name.

The term 'xing' in Chinese translates to 'name', as in a family name or lineage, though it is also used in the sense of the term 'nature' in English. As such, asking someone about their 'xing' could be interpreted literally as an inquiry about their family name; or, it could be an inquiry about what they and/or where they come from.

Hongren says, "I have a nature [xing], but it is not the usual name [xing]."

The Ancestor asks again, "What family name do you have?"

He says, "My nature is Buddha Nature [fa-xing]."

The Ancestor asks, "Do you have no name?"

He answers, "My nature is emptiness."

Huineng's Secret Transmission

One day, the Fifth Patriarch suddenly called all of his disciples together. After they had assembled, he said, ‘I’ve told you that the greatest concern for a human being is life and death. But you disciples spend your days making offerings, just looking for ways to reap merit and not for a way out of the bitter Sea of Sansara. If you’re blind to your own nature, how can you find the doorway to merit? Go back to your rooms and look into yourselves. Those of you who are wise, make use of the prajna wisdom of your own nature. Each of you write me a gatha. When I read your gathas, if any of you understands what is truly important, I will give you my robe and my Dharma and appoint you the Sixth Patriarch. Hurry, as if there were a fire!’

The venerable Shen-hsiu thought, ‘No one is going to submit a mind-poem, because I’m their precept instructor. But if I don’t submit one, how can the Patriarch tell if the understanding of my mind is deep or not? It would be right for me to show the Patriarch a poem that reveals my understanding, as long as what I wanted was the Dharma. But it would be wrong, as long as what I wanted was the patriarchship. I would be no better than a fool who thinks he can usurp the position of a sage. But if I don’t submit a mind-poem, I’ll never receive the Dharma.’ As he considered this, he kept thinking, ‘What a predicament!’

Finally at midnight, without letting anyone know, he went to write his poem on the middle of the south corridor wall in hopes of obtaining the robe and the Dharma. ‘When the Patriarch sees my gatha and reads these words,’ he thought, ‘if he comes to find me, the moment I see him, I will tell him I wrote it. But when he sees my gatha, if he says it’s not good enough, it will be because I’m deluded and the obstruction of my past karma is too great, and I’m not ready to receive the Dharma. The Master’s mind is impossible to fathom. I may as well stop worrying about it.’ So the venerable Shen-hsiu held up a lantern and wrote his gatha on the middle of the south corridor wall at midnight, and no one saw him. His gatha went:

‘The body is a bodhi tree
the mind is like a standing mirror
always try to keep it clean
don’t let it gather dust.’

(Red Pine's Platform Sutra translation)

All of Hongren's students were impressed with the gatha, he publicly declared that reciting it would be essential for his students to practice, and then offered the Dharma Transmission to Shenxiu. However, he asked him to compose a second gatha. Huineng, upon seeing the gatha, composed one of his own:

Bodhi originally has no tree.
The bright mirror also has no stand.
Fundamentally there is not a single thing.
Where could dust arise?

According to the basic Dunhuang account, Hongren denigrated Huineng’s verse in public, but late that night he privately taught the layman the ultimate teaching of the Diamond Sutra. Huineng was immediately awakened to its profound meaning, received the transmission of the sudden teaching and the Fifth Patriarch’s robe, and left the monastery in secrecy that very night. (McRae)

Early versions of Huineng's poem

The earliest version of the platform sutra contains two versions of Huineng's poem:

Bodhi originally has no tree.
The mirror also has no stand.
The Buddha-nature is
always clear and pure.
Where is there room for dust?

The mind is the bodhi tree.
The body is the bright mirror’s stand.
The bright mirror is
originally clear and pure.
Where could there be any dust?

"Clearly, the editor could not decide which was better!" (McRae) In later versions, Huineng's verses are synthesized into a single poem, and a famous third line is added:

Bodhi originally has no tree.
The bright mirror also has no stand.
Fundamentally there is not a single thing.
Where could dust arise?

…how should we understand the verses themselves? The traditional interpretation, since the time of the great systematic Chan and Huayan philosopher Zongmi (780–841), has been that Shenxiu’s verse represents gradualism and Huineng’s subitism (the position that enlightenment occurs in a single transformation that is both total and instantaneous). This simplistic explanation cannot be accepted. (Zongmi artificially claimed succession from Shenhui, but given the manifest difference between Shenhui’s teachings and the Platform Sñtra, Zongmi’s interpretation should be recognized as a tactical distortion of the original.) First, the verse attributed to Shenxiu does not in fact refer to gradual or progressive endeavor, but to a constant practice of cleaning the mirror. Hence, Zongmi’s traditional interpretation is conceptually incorrect. Second, the verse attributed to Huineng could not stand alone (nor could any of the variants attributed to him), since it could not be understood without reference to “Shenxiu’s” verse. Since the two verses constitute an indivisible pair—they indicate a single polarity, not two separate teachings—it is inappropriate to use either verse as a key to the religious teachings of the two historical individuals Shenxiu and Huineng.

Even at a glance we can see that it makes more sense for the anonymous authors of the Platform Sñtra to depict Shenxiu’s teachings as remarkably profound rather than as an elementary form of gradualism. Since the goal was to show the superiority of Huineng’s teachings, the comparison should not be made with something recognizably inferior—as gradualism was considered at the time, especially in this post-Shenhui moment—but rather with something already recognized as superior in itself. If I were to propose a new theory of mathematics, for example, I would not compare it to elementary school arithmetic but to something far more sophisticated.

There are also indications that the Platform Sñtra verses—both those attributed to Shenxiu and to Huineng—were generated utilizing “Northern school” rather than “Southern school” writings. We have already seen references to the “path of bodhi” and the body’s serenity as the bodhi tree in “Northern school” writings above (see p. 53), as well as allusions to not seeing “a single thing.” In this context it is significant that a Dunhuang manuscript containing numerous metaphors in the manner of the “Northern school” contains the line “within suchness there originally is really not a single thing.” The Chinese for this line is similar to the famous later third line of Shenxiu’s Platform Sñtra verse, implying that the scripture was modified on the basis of ideas originally transmitted in a “Northern school” style or context. Since “Northern school” refers to a sizeable movement associated with literate court society and Buddhism, while the “Southern school” of Shenhui and Huineng was a minor voice from the provinces to the east and far south, it should not be too surprising that the invention of a tradition associated with the latter used resources derived from the former.


Huineng's transmission, or Shenxiu's?

Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch:

"In my life I have taught numberless people. Many good ones have perished. I only give approval to ten as the ones who can transmit my path in the future. With Shenxiu I have discussed the Lankavatara Sutra, and he has penetrated its subtle truth: he is sure to bring much benefit. Zhixian of Zizhou and Registrar Liu of White Pine Mountain both have refined their natures. Huizang of Xinzhou and Xuanye of Suizhou I recall as worthy, though now I don't see them. Old An of Songshan profoundly practices the Path. Faru of Luzhou, Huineng of Shaozhou, and the Korean monk Zhide of Yangzhou are all fit to be people's teachers, but only local figures. Yifang of Yuezhou will continue to lecture and preach."

To Xuanze he said, "You yourself must properly maintain and cherish your combined practice. After I die, you and Shenxiu must make the sun of enlightenment radiate anew and the lamp of mind shine again."

(Record of the Masters and Disciples of the Lankavatara)

Unlike some of the best-known Chan teachers from the Tang era — such as Huineng, the putative “sixth patriarch” of Chan in China, who was a marginal figure during his lifetime and became only retroactively recognized as a major Chan patriarch — Mazu achieved considerable renown and became an influential figure during his lifetime.

(Poceski, Mazu)

See also: Seeing Through Zen Discussion Page - Historicity of the Platform Sutra, Shenxiu's Influence