The Ch'an & Zen Lineages

Despite some claims today that there is no Zen Lineage, there is indeed a line of Teacher & Disciple transmission or direct oral teaching, which flowed from India, into early China and later into Japan.

The document called "The Transmission of the Lamp" is indeed a fable or legend created by a later school in China. However, the following text will illustrate that there was indeed a Tradition of oral teachings which goes all the way back to Shakyamuni himself.

Why is this important? In Buddhism, as well as many other religions, including Judaism, for example, many things were simply not written down, but were passed on through oral teachings only. I feel this was very insightful of early masters because it is too easy for texts and documents to be misconstrued and mis-translated, or selectively read according to ones own prejudices. This is a major function of having a teacher who had a teacher who had a teacher going back to the original source. If Buddha saw that Ananda misunderstood his teaching he would not have authorized him to write his teachings down, and to pass on his doctrines. This is the most practical form of Quality Control.

And so Buddhism was taught or "transmitted" via a system of written texts and oral teaching. In the entire history of authentic Buddhism nobody has become a teacher not having been a disciple of a Buddhist master who was once the disciple of another and another. All of the past teachers have been ordained Buddhist monks, and that is the heart of Lineage. As far as a perfect line of Masters transmitting to "Authorized" Dharma Heirs we cannot say this is true. In two notable cases of Zen lineage the teacher did not certify enlightenment of any heir, and the heirs shown in the lineage charts were masters who were appointed as their heirs after-the fact. This was the case with Hakuin and Yun-an P'u-yen (Un'an Fugan) 1156-1226 who both claimed the transmission after their teachers had died. However, the fact that they were ordained buddhist Monks and the oustanding students of these teachers is without question, and they have been accepted by generations of the Zen communities as a whole as a result of their obvious understanding. In some cases, there were politcial upheavels which effected record keeping, but always we find there is a Sangha of Buddhist monks where the lineage has continued. In Zen, there is the exception in modern times of the Sanbo Kyodan lineage, which now has no ordained Buddhist monks or nuns. Roshi Yasutani trained in both Rinzai and Soto Zen, and was transmitted by Harada Roshi who recieved transmission in both schools. Yasutani Roshi broke with Buddhist ordaination and founded the lay Zen school, Sanbo Kyodan. He did not stop the process of transmission, however.

Here we are going to pick up with the two most significant teachers in early Chinese Buddhism: Kumarajiva and Buddhabhadra. The later was a disciple of Buddhasena who was considered a great Dhyana Master in India, and Kumarajiva was a Buddhist Monk in the Sarvastivadin order who studied the Mahayana sutras for over twenty years and was an established expert in the doctrine in India before going to China. Although there was later a split between their students in China, both of these Indian Buddhist monks were sympathetic towards the other.

Next we skip to Hui-neng, because after him there is good historical records of a Ch'an lineage extending through Chinese history. It is the first five, of the Zen Patriarchs that is really in question historically.

According to some records, Hui-neng was initially ordained a Buddhist monk in the Nirvana School founded by Tao-sheng, a student of Kumarajiva and contemporary of Seng-chao. Therefore, even at this point we certainly establish the link into the Indian lineages. According to the records, he was ordained by Yin-tsung. Later it appears he studied with Hung-jen who was a disciple of Tao-hsin. Tao-hsin is listed as a disciple of Seng-ts'an of the Lanka School, but this connection is dubious. However, it is not dubious that Tao-hsin was a monk at the Great Woods Temple on Lu-shan. Zhikai who founded that temple was adapt in both the Sanlun and T'ien-tai schools of Buddhism. Tao-sheng was also a great teacher at Lu-shan, (The renowned center of early Chinese Buddhism) and brought there a copy of Seng-chao's. Prajna has no Knowing" Hui-neng was, with little question, a monk from the Nirvana line of early Chinese Buddhist monks. This, of course, is a twist in the Zen Lineage of the fable version of the "Transmission of the Lamp" and indicates that is doubtful that there is any connection between Bodhidharma, (if he existed) the Lanka school of Hui-ko, and the later schools of Ch'an. It doesn't invalidate the principle of oral teachings, disciple/master relationship, or transmission outside the scriptures. It is obvious this existed and continues to this day. It does indicate that Zen most likely descends from a combination of the Nirvana, San- lun, and T'ien-tai schools of Tao-sheng and Tao-hsin. However we should also note that perhaps all of early Buddhism in China, and perhaps Zen/Ch'an especially was no doubt greatly influenced by the first historical Buddhist figure in China, An Shih-kao who came to China from Parthia in 148 C.E. was the first to translate Buddhist documents into Chinese, founded the "Dhyana" school and taught the method of meditation from the anapanasati sutra.

After Hui-Neng, (which should be established as the beginning of the Ch'an/Zen schools) two significant lines arise in China. That of Nan-yueh (Huai-jang) 677-744 and Ch'ing-yuan (Hsing-ssu) 660-740. We have good historical evidence of this because the Tendai monk Saicho brought the forms from the four major Chinese schools back to Japan, which included: Exoteric doctrine (T'ien t'ai), esoteric ritual (Tantric rites), Meditation (ch'an), and monastic discipline (lu). Both of these lines descend from Hui-neng and considered part of the Southern School; a distinction brought about largely on the basis of the political activities and teachings of Shen-hui, who equates the Southern School with Nyorai Zen, or "Zen of the Perfected One" (Tathagata Zen) with Patriarchal Zen. (A distinction that really arises in the fable: "Transmission of the Lamp" at a much later date.) Even Shen-hui associates these two as the same thing. Where the association is made between Bodhidharma and the Southern school is from the reference in the Lankavatara sutra regarding Tathagata Zen and the accomplishment of the fourth Dhyana. Zen is the Meditation School of Chinese Buddhism, and one would not be considered to have been "Transmitted" unless they could achieve the fourth Dhyana, and this could only be verified by their teacher, who had also achieved this level of concentration and would recognize it in someone else. This is the very essence of Zen transmission.

Debate regarding the difference between the Northern school and Southern school is really of no consequence in terms of lineage and transmission, it was basically a political movement.

What is consistent and established throughout the Ch'an lineage's in China, and later the Zen lineage's in Japan is the acknowledgement by a teacher that the student has achieved the "Zen of the Perfected One"

Lineage of the Inza Ian Line of Rinzai Zen

Sensei Bodhin Kjolhede on Zen Lineage