50 - Buddhist History 8: Aśoka, First Buddhist Emperor – Facts and Legend Part 2
52 - Profound, Practical, Mutable: Dharma Transmission in Zen – Part 2

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 introduce you to the practice, including a description of my own experience of it, the criteria for giving it, the great variability in how it’s viewed and used, and the sense in which it’s about  two individuals mutually recognizing awakened mind in each other.

 

 

Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
My Transmission: Preparation
The Mutability of Dharma Transmission
Criteria for Dharma Transmission
My Transmission: The Ceremony
Transmission as Personal and Profound
Sources

In Soto Zen Buddhism, we have a tradition called “Dharma Transmission” that originated around the 8th century in Chinese Chan Buddhism.[i] 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. It may sound simple, but the history and evolution of Dharma Transmission is very complicated, and its use and meaning have varied greatly over the centuries. Still, although incredibly mutable (that is, susceptible to change and alteration), this ritual plays an important role in Zen that’s both profound and practical.

In this episode I’ll introduce you to the practice of Dharma Transmission, including a description of my own experience of it, the criteria a teacher uses when deciding whether to give it, and the great variability in how it’s viewed and used. I’ll end with a discussion of the profound aspect of Dharma Transmission – the sense in which it’s two individuals mutually recognizing awakened mind in each other. Next week, I’ll talk about ancient Chan origins of the concept of “face-to-face-transmission” of the essence of Buddhism, and the use of Dharma Transmission as a system of teacher authorization in Zen.

Note: 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).

My Transmission: Preparation

I received Dharma Transmission from my teacher, Rev. Gyokuko Carlson, on the night of October 18th, 2010. At that point, I had been a formal, committed student of Gyokuko’s for over 14 years – 5 of those as a lay person, and 9 as an ordained monastic. My teacher and I had been preparing for the Transmission for about a year; I had to sew a new mustard-colored Buddhist robe, copy a book of secret teachings by hand, and complete a few other tasks personally assigned to me.

Then I had to set aside 3 full days and nights for a silent, private retreat, during which I hand-copied the traditional Transmission documents onto fabric. This is an extremely fussy and time-consuming process; the Transmission documents, called “silks” because that’s what they were originally written on, are about 5 or 6 feet long and 2 feet wide. They contain intricate diagrams, countless opportunities for mistakes, and require lots and lots of teeny tiny writing – picture ball-point pen on slippery material. The coolest part, in my opinion, was the fact that I was copying my teacher’s handwritten silks. She had copied them from her own teacher’s silks about 30 years earlier. As I focused on her writing, including her mistakes (carefully covered in white-out), I could easily imagine her as a young monk, head bent over the fabric, diligently fulfilling traditional expectations as she faced the next phase in her Zen life.

The process of copying the Transmission silks gives you plenty of time to reflect on what’s about to happen, and I thought about how there had never been any guarantee I would receive Dharma Transmission. While it’s generally assumed an ordained person in full-time Zen training will eventually be transmitted, it’s still entirely up to the teacher when and whether that happens.

The Mutability of Dharma Transmission

What criteria does a Zen teacher use when deciding whether to give Dharma Transmission to one of their students? That’s a tricky question to answer because there is an enormous amount of variation between Zen lineages in terms of how they use Dharma Transmission, as well as among individual teachers within those lineages.

Historically, in China and Japan, governments and religious bureaucracies have made repeated attempts to standardize the Zen Transmission process and reign in the creative variety that seems to inevitably arise over time. For example, the Japanese Soto School, a large and bureaucratic institution that controls many aspects of the way Soto Zen priests and temples function, stipulates you can only receive one Dharma Transmission (that is, from one teacher), and that the Transmission must take place face-to-face, or in-person.[ii] That latter requirement addresses previous instances of Transmission by proxy, or even mail-order, so the rules themselves are indications this ritual tradition has varied substantially over time.

Attempts to standardize Dharma Transmission in China and Japan have met with some success, but in the West, the variation in this ritual tradition of teacher authorization is even greater. Zen in the West – at least at this point, and particularly in North America – is relatively new, and more or less without any overarching institutional governing structure.[iii] So, every person who has received Dharma Transmission can pretty much do with it as they please. If I met someone tomorrow who has never practiced Zen but I thought they were really cool and “Zen” anyway, I could transmit them within the week. My fellow Soto Zen teachers would probably raise eyebrows and lose some respect for me, but they really couldn’t do anything about it.

Criteria for Dharma Transmission

Despite the variety in the tradition, however, there are a few things that most Zen teachers will agree on in terms of criteria for Dharma Transmission. First, most ordained Zen teachers will expect you to also be ordained. There are, however, a growing number of Transmitted lay Zen teachers in the West, most of whom trace their lineage back to a priest who was willing to give Dharma Transmission to a lay practitioner. Some of these lay teachers are empowered to transmit what they have received to other lay people, so we’re seeing the dawning of a new era in terms of Transmission and teacher authorization. However, fully empowered lay Teachers are still in the minority in Soto Zen. (This raises the whole question of what it means to be ordained in Soto Zen, but that’s an even more ambiguous and complicated topic than Dharma Transmission, so I’ll have to discuss it in a later episode!) In my particular lineage of Soto Zen, we do give the essential aspects of Dharma Transmission to lay people as well as priests, so for the rest of this episode I won’t distinguish between lay and ordained.

The second generally-agreed-upon criteria is that you have to work closely with your teacher for an extended period of time – usually 10-20 years – before even being considered for Transmission. The definition of “work closely with” will depend on the teacher, but it usually involves allowing the teacher to personally witness your practice and spiritual development over the course of many years, and in a variety of situations. This is achieved by spending a good amount of time in close proximity to your teacher while engaging in whatever forms of Zen practice are most valued in your lineage. These forms will almost always include maintaining a strong zazen practice and attending sesshin (5-7 day silent meditation retreats). Other typical expectations are that you’ll diligently practice with the Buddhist precepts, study at least the foundational Zen and Buddhist teachings, participate in important ceremonies, and learn to serve in traditional roles within the Sangha.

Once you’ve done all this stuff, of course, there’s still no guarantee of Dharma Transmission, which brings us to the third general criteria: the teacher believes you are capable of teaching Zen to others, and you won’t cause harm when doing so. Again, teachers and lineages are going to differ widely in terms of how they decide whether this is the case. For the most part, though, everyone agrees that someone presenting themselves as a Zen teacher should know what they’re doing. Ideally, they’ll have a direct, personal insight into the absolute nature of reality, but at least they will be familiar with all or most of the tools and teachings important to the tradition, have a strong, ongoing, authentic personal practice, and be able to guide and deepen that practice on their own (without dependence on a teacher, although a continued relationship with a teacher is strongly encouraged).

In addition, a candidate for Dharma Transmission should be an emotionally stable, sane, responsible, moral person who is unlikely to hurt others through arrogance, indulging anger, violating trust, abusing substances, etc. Ideally, they have a deep and thorough understanding of their own faults and limitations, know how to manage and mitigate them, and won’t let the potentially powerful role of “teacher” go to their head.

The first and second general criteria I just mentioned are fairly objective, but who evaluates whether you meet the third one? (That is, you’re capable of teaching Zen, and won’t cause harm?) Especially given that no one is perfect, and there are no guarantees that someone isn’t going to cause harm in the future, how does a teacher decide when it’s a good idea to give you Dharma Transmission? For the most part, Zen teachers make this judgment call more or less all by themselves. Ideally, they have peers with whom they can consult about this weighty matter,[iv] but the final decision is up to them. Not surprisingly, this is fallible system. Many people have received Dharma Transmission and subsequently gone on to cause significant harm in all the ways the Transmission ritual is meant, at least in part, to prevent.

My Transmission: The Ceremony

An envelope containing one of my Transmission silks

Because the Dharma Transmission system is fallible, there usually comes a time in the Transmission process when the student experiences a fair amount of trepidation. On the one hand, you can feel deeply affirmed by your teacher’s willingness to Transmit you. You can derive confidence from your faith in your teacher’s judgment. On the other hand, if you’re honest with yourself, you’re keenly aware of your limitations, and of the great responsibility you’re about to be saddled with! Personally, I had imagined – and hoped – that by the time I was finally receiving Dharma Transmission, I would have attained full enlightenment (whatever that means) and a near-saintly level of personal conduct in my daily life.

Alas, as I participated in my Dharma Transmission ceremony, I had to endure the cognitive dissonance from knowing I was still far from fulfilling my own ideals and aspirations. Still, it was time to leave behind the relatively comfortable position of “just a student” in order to help carry on the Soto Zen lineage. My teacher assured me I would grow into the new role.

The actual Transmission ceremony is a secret, known only to those who have experienced it. It takes place at night, in a private space. I can safely tell you, though, that it includes many cool and impactful ritual elements that help make it clear to participants that something very important is happening. Part of the process involves the teacher formally bestowing the Transmission silks on the student and giving the student a Buddhist robe of a new color (brown or mustard-colored for priests, and in my lineage blue for lay people). For the most part, no one else sees the Transmission silks, which are safely stored away, but the next time the newly Dharma Transmitted person appears publicly in the Sangha, their new robe, or okesa, will be quite conspicuous. In many lineages, most of the people in the Sangha will have remained unaware a Dharma Transmission was even happening until they witness this rather infamous “robe change.”

Transmission as Personal and Profound

The reason Dharma Transmission is usually conducted more or less secretly – traditionally in the teacher’s personal room in the monastery – is because, at a mythical level, the ritual is seen as one Buddha recognizing another Buddha. From the Zen point of view, Transmission is about the essential matter of Buddhism. This “essential matter” can be phrased many different ways, but it’s basically about awakening to the true nature of reality and being consequently liberated and transformed. The reality we awaken to is available to us at all times, and from the beginning we have had everything we need in order to realize it. Therefore, nothing is actually transmitted from teacher to student!

It might be more accurate to say, in Dharma Transmission, something is communicated between teacher and student. Although enlightenment can only be experienced directly and is beyond verbal description, it’s possible for two people to recognize its signs in each other. In a gaze, a smile, a bow, a gesture – you hear from the teacher, “Do you see?” And finally, you can respond, “Yes, I see.” When speaking of it, teacher and student are able to evade the traps of conceptualization and keep their attention on the luminous present.

This mutual recognition and communication between teacher and student is an integral part of the Zen mythology. According to our stories, this is how authentic Dharma is passed down through the generations – starting with Shakyamuni Buddha himself! In a legend created in the Zen tradition, Shakyamuni is teaching a huge assembly of people. At one point, he raises a flower and blinks. No one in the assembly understands the significance of this except the disciple Mahakashyapa, who smiles. Buddha then says, “I have the Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma and Wondrous Mind of Nirvana, and I transmit it to Mahakashyapa.”[v] (Obviously, this was a much simpler Transmission ceremony!)

I’ll leave on that profound note for now, and in the next episode I’ll turn back to the more practice aspects of Dharma Transmission. I’ll talk about origins of the concept of transmission in ancient Chan Buddhism and the corresponding idea of authentic lineage, and discuss how Dharma Transmission is viewed and held within the Zen school of Buddhism.

 

Sources

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.


Endnotes

[i] McCrae p4
[ii] Bodiford p270
[iii] There are a number of Soto Zen lineage-based organizations, and a national collegial organization of Soto Zen priests (the SZBA). However, participation in any of these is entirely voluntary and there is usually strong resistance from group members to any attempts to standardize teachings and practices – particularly priest ordination and Dharma Transmission.
[iv] And at least one lineage I know of, Boundless Way Zen, requires a teacher to consult with other members of a Guiding Teachers Council before giving Dharma Transmission. https://boundlesswayzen.org/authorization-ordination-transmission/
[v] Cook p32

 

50 - Buddhist History 8: Aśoka, First Buddhist Emperor – Facts and Legend Part 2
52 - Profound, Practical, Mutable: Dharma Transmission in Zen – Part 2
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