51 - Profound, Practical, Mutable: Dharma Transmission in Zen – Part 1
53 - Buddha's Teachings Part 5: Karma, the Law of Moral Cause-and-Effect

In Soto Zen Buddhism, “Dharma Transmission” is a ritual in which a qualified Zen teacher acknowledges the ability of one of their students to carry on the lineage tradition of Zen. In this episode I give you a sense of the significance of Dharma Transmission in the history and development of Chan and Zen Buddhism, and the ongoing utility of the tradition in terms of teacher authorization.



Quicklinks for Transcript Content:
The Chan Myth of Lineage Transmission
The Classic Tale of Hui-Neng’s Dharma Transmission
What’s the Use of Dharma Transmission Today?
A Mutable and Imperfect System Is Better Than Nothing
Even Though Dharma Transmission Is No Guarantee


As I explained in the last episode, in a nutshell, Dharma Transmission is a ritualized event in which a qualified Soto Zen teacher – that is, a teacher who has received Dharma Transmission themselves – acknowledges and affirms the ability of one of their students to carry on the lineage tradition of Zen. This usually authorizes the student to function independently and teach Zen.

Last week I talked about how mutable – that is, changeable and varied – the practice of Dharma Transmission has been and is, the general criteria for giving it, and meaning of it in mystical terms. This week I’ll give you a brief sense of the significance of Dharma Transmission in the history and development of Chan and Zen Buddhism, and the ongoing utility of the tradition in terms of teacher authorization.

To repeat my disclaimer from the last episode: Rinzai Zen has a similar system of teacher authorization but uses different terminology, ritual, and criteria. Many of the things I’ll discuss regarding Dharma Transmission will also be applicable to the Rinzai system, but I will really be focusing on Soto Zen in this episode (although I’ll just say “Zen” most of the time for expedience).

The Chan Myth of Lineage Transmission

Starting in China around the end of the 7th century, the Chan school of Buddhism (that is, the meditation school, which is called “Zen” in Japan) began emphasizing the importance of a “face-to-face transmission outside of the scriptures.” The official Chan story was that the essence of Buddhism was the kind of personal, direct experience of awakening I talked about in the last episode, and this awakening wasn’t dependent on a scholarly understanding of Buddhist scriptures or – for that matter – on other kinds of Buddhist practices, such as chanting or devotion. The best practice for achieving awakening was meditation, but ultimately not even that was necessary! (Most of us ordinary beings need meditation to help us clear away the delusions that obstruct our direct experience of reality, but theoretically it’s possible to awaken without it.)

This Chan approach raises the question, of course: If the essence of Buddhism is this personal experience beyond verbal description, how can we know whether a given person knows this “essence” and can therefore help us to experience it for ourselves? The Chan answer is the rather mystical proposition that, meeting face-to-face in a particular way, a teacher and student just know. Based on this premise, Chan created lineage stories called “roku,” or “records.” These roku describe pivotal face-to-face interactions between teachers and the students to whom they transmitted the Dharma. These transmission records thereby established legitimate “spiritual genealogies” of sorts. (In his essay “Dharma Transmission in Theory and Practice,” William Bodiford suggests the Chan emphasis on “spiritual genealogy” was one of the reasons it became the dominant form of Buddhism in China, where Confucian society valued honoring familial relationships and ancestors.)

You might call these spiritual genealogies the Chan “myth of lineage.” We know many of the stories in Chan roku are fictional, and the relationships between teachers and students were rarely as straightforward as implied by the roku texts. In his book Seeing Through Zen, John McCrae points out the many ways in which Chan’s noble tales of unbroken, face-to-face transmission of the essence of Buddhism were drastically oversimplified and frequently tweaked for sectarian purposes.

The Classic Tale of Hui-Neng’s Dharma Transmission

A prime example of sectarian oversimplification of transmission lineage is the most prominent and dramatic story of Dharma Transmission in Zen – a story at the root of the whole Chan myth of lineage. A classic Chan text originating in the 8th century,[1] The Sutra of the Hui-Neng (also known as the Platform Sutra) recounts the Dharma Transmission from fifth-generation Chinese Chan master Hung-jen to Hui-Neng. The text presents the story as if it’s an autobiographical account by Hui-Neng, who explains how he was a poor, illiterate firewood seller but happened to overhear someone reciting the Diamond Sutra (an older, classic Chan text). Despite his lack of education or experience with Buddhism, Hui-Neng immediately became enlightened and understood the true meaning behind the words of the sutra.

Inspired, Hui-Neng took off to a monastery. The abbot, Hung-jen, quizzed Hui-Neng upon his arrival, and although he had a sense of the layman’s deep understanding, he sent him off to do manual labor in the rice processing shed. There Hui-Neng stayed for 8 months, toiling in anonymity, because the abbot was afraid others would do the layman harm if he was given any special attention. At one point, the abbot realized he was getting old and needed to name a Dharma successor who could eventually take over leadership of the monastery. He invited all the monks to express their understanding by submitting a poem. The star student of the monastery, Shen-hsiu, wrote the following:

“Our body is the bodhi tree,
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour after hour,
And let no dust alight.”[2]

Everyone was impressed with Shen-hsiu’s poem and no one else dared to compete by submitting one of their own. No one, that is, except Hui-Neng. When Hui-Neng overheard a monk reciting Shen-hsiu’s poem out loud, he asked the monk to write the following on the monastery wall in response:

“There is no bodhi tree,
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?”[3]

When the abbot heard about Hui-Neng’s poem, he knew the woodcutter should be his Dharma heir. He transmitted the Dharma to Hui-Neng in the dead of night, giving him his own Buddhist robe (noteably, Hui-Neng wasn’t even ordained as a monk at this point, although he did get ordained later). Because Hung-jen knew there would be an uproar because he chose to transmit the Dharma to a poor, lower class, illiterate woodcutter rather than the erudite, experienced, and diligent monastic Shen-hsiu, he told Hui-Neng to run away and stay hidden lest people try to harm him. One monk, however, managed to pursue Hui-Neng and finally caught up with him. The former firewood seller put the robe signifying Dharma Transmission on a rock and left it for the monk to take, but the monk was unable to lift the robe and subsequently asked Hui-Neng for his teaching. Later, Hui Neng gets ordained and starts teaching Zen.

Now, the reality is that, although Hui-Neng existed, this story about his transmission is more likely entirely apocryphal. Scholars believe this dramatic tale was cooked up a century after the purported events by a Dharma descendant of Hui-Neng named Shenhui, who promoted it as a way to strengthen the authority of his own school of Zen over competing schools or lineages.[4] (It turns out most disciples of Hung-jen stuck with the monk Shen-hsiu, who ended up being a highly respected teacher.) Regardless of how the story of Hui-Neng arose, however, ever after it has been held up as the prime example of Chan’s “transmission outside of the scriptures” and a strong justification for Chan’s myth of lineage. McCrae calls the story of Hui-Neng “the climax text of early Chan,” and refers to it as “one of the most treasured legends of the Chan tradition.”[5]

There are several core messages in this archetypal tale of Hui-Neng’s Dharma Transmission. First, the essence of Zen lies in a direct and personal experience of awakening to the fundamental nature of reality, this experience can be sudden (although doesn’t always happen that way), and it isn’t dependent on education, class, ordination, or even meditation. Second, while the kinds of Buddhist teachings that advocate gradually improving and purifying oneself are useful (wiping dust off the mirror of our mind so we can reflect things clearly), such teachings are provisional and the Zen teaching of non-duality (ultimately mirror, self, reflection, and effort are empty of inherent self-nature) is more profound and trumps anything provisional. Third, authentic Dharma Transmission is the means by which Zen realization is verified through the generations, and it conveys a mystical – even supernatural – level of authority.

What’s the Use of Dharma Transmission Today?

Remember, to call something a myth is not necessarily to disparage it. McCrae’s first “rule of Zen study” is: “It’s not true, and therefore it’s more important.” Whether or not face-to-face transmission is always legit, or whether it truly and authentically occurred between every teacher and student in a Zen lineage, the point is that the most important aspect of Buddhism is our direct, personal experience of awakening. That’s a tricky thing to verify and measure when you’re thinking about whether to authorize someone as a Zen teacher! Although the process of Dharma Transmission is mutable, fallible, and somewhat based on myth, it’s really not all that bad a system, considering. A transmitting teacher needs to get to know student really well, watch the student’s practice closely over a long period of time, and put their own reputation on the line by publicly affirming the student’s fitness to teach Zen.

So, back to the practical: What happens after someone receives Dharma Transmission these days? What are they empowered to do?

Again, there’s a high degree of variability here among lineages, and among countries. In the official Soto Zen institution in Japan (called the Soto-Shu), for example, Dharma Transmission is the lowest and most basic of qualifications, required for running a local temple. Above transmission is a whole host of ecclesiastical levels, each with particular requirements including education, additional training, ritual obligations, practical experience, and sometimes examinations. You need higher levels of authorization, for instance, to lead a training period at monastery, or perform certain ceremonies.[6]

In the West, there are plenty of Soto Zen teachers and temples who maintain at least some kind of official relationship with Japan (which is where the Soto Zen sect as we know it developed from the Chinese Caodong school). I believe these Japanese-affiliated lineages are predominant in Europe and in South and Central America, and they’re likely to treat Dharma Transmission in a way somewhat consistent with the Japanese Soto Shu (although the Japanese system is so complicated and bureaucratic, it’s almost impossible to fully meet its requirements outside of Japan.)

Japanese Soto Shu-affiliated lineages are also present in North America but are vastly outnumbered here by lineages who have proclaimed their independence and pretty much do their own thing. However, for the most part Dharma Transmission is viewed by independent North American lineages as full authorization to teach Zen and function independently of one’s teacher. (Do you see a theme of “independence” cropping up here?) Basically, once you give someone Dharma Transmission, you just have to pray they’re going to “do you proud,” because there’s no taking it back.

A Mutable and Imperfect System Is Better Than Nothing

This “wild West” system of Dharma Transmission – where essentially each teacher decides for themselves what Dharma Transmission means, the reasons for giving it, the criteria for doing so, and the level of authority it confers – can be problematic. For one thing, people interested in practicing Zen, or trying to relate to it from the outside, would probably appreciate a more consistent definition of Dharma Transmission and what it means to be a “Zen teacher.” Should you trust this “Zen teacher” person? What kind of training have they received? As it is, you pretty much have to do some research into a teacher’s lineage and history in order to answer that question for yourself. For another thing, differences of opinion about such charged and important matters as Dharma Transmission and priest ordination tend to keep Western Soto Zen priests and teachers from forming cohesive bodies that could help monitor ethical behavior in teachers and strengthen the lineage tradition as a whole so it will last more than a few generations in the West.

That said, although Dharma Transmission is an imperfect system, it’s much better than nothing. If someone has Dharma Transmission in Zen (unless they’re actually lying about it, which has happened), there’s at least one Zen teacher in the world who vouches for them. And the endorsing teacher, in turn, had to have someone vouch for them. It’s no guarantee someone’s legit or moral, of course, but at least you can weed out the wacky, self-proclaimed teachers from your Zen shopping list by doing a little research on whether someone has received Dharma Transmission, when, and from whom. The value placed on lineage in Zen is normative, as well, and when a teacher really steps out of line, it’s a powerful statement when other teachers in their lineage – their “Dharma brothers and sisters” – censure or even disavow them. (That’s another thing to research: What kind of relationships does a given teacher have with other teachers, and with their own lineage?)

Even Though Dharma Transmission Is No Guarantee

Finally, should you entrust your spiritual training to a particular teacher just because they have Dharma Transmission? Well, perhaps it’s best that you ultimately have to rely on your own judgment here, and accept that Zen teachers are just people, transmission or no transmission. They’ll probably eventually disappoint you in some way or another. But’s it’s not rocket science figuring out whether a teacher is good enough to help you in your practice. As my Dharma uncle James Ford wrote in his book Zen Master Who: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen:

“…when visiting a teacher or a center examine the teacher’s students. Are they simply clones-in-training of the teacher? This is probably not a good thing – after all, Zen is about becoming more fully yourself, not becoming more like your teacher. On the other hand, do the students seem to be people you like, and might like to be with? Can you recognize the values they advocate? Are they independent and engaged in the world? Can they joke about themselves? And, importantly, can they joke about their institution and teacher? And more important still: Do they seem to be genuinely on a path that is freeing them from their suffering?”[7]

As for me, receiving Dharma Transmission has been a wonderful opportunity to serve others and develop further in my practice. (As the saying goes, if you really want to learn something, try to teach it!) It’s also been very humbling. I remember, shortly after I received Dharma Transmission, people coming to talk with me, as a teacher, in private Dharma interview (we call it sanzen). This is one of the things transmission empowers you to do in my lineage, but I was very aware that the people who came – many of whom were much older than I was – were doing me a favor by coming to sanzen with a brand-new teacher. I was almost moved to tears each time someone left after an interview when I contemplated the openness, trust, and support they were showing me by willingly taking the role of student, if only momentarily. No student, no teacher.

For the most part, you learn how to be a good teacher by doing it, and by making lots of mistakes. I hope I’m much wiser, more compassionate, and skillful now than I was as a freshly-transmitted priest, but I know I’ll be much wiser, more compassionate, and skillful 10, 20, and 30 years from now. The ancient Chinese ideals of face-to-face transmission may have been about complete, perfect enlightenment, but in my experience, Transmission happened when I became just mature enough in my life and Zen practice to help pass this lineage tradition on to others.


Bodiford, William M. “Dharma Transmission in Theory and Practice.” In Heine, Steven, and Dale S. Wright. Zen Ritual: Studies of Zen Buddhist Theory in Practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Cook, Francis Dojun (translator). The Record of Transmitting the Light: Zen Master Keizan’s Denkoroku. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003.
Ford, James Ishmael. Zen Master Who?: A Guide to the People and Stories of Zen. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2006.
McCrae, John R. Seeing Through Zen: Encounter, Transformation, and Genealogy in Chinese Chan Buddhism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
Price, A.F. and Wong Mou-lam (translators). The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Hui-Neng. Boston, MA: Shambala Classics, 2005.



[1] McCrae p60
[2] Price and Mou-lam p70
[3] Price and Mou-lam p72
[4] McCrae p63
[5] McCrae p62
[6] Bodiford
[7] http://szba.org/finding-a-teacher/


51 - Profound, Practical, Mutable: Dharma Transmission in Zen – Part 1
53 - Buddha's Teachings Part 5: Karma, the Law of Moral Cause-and-Effect