Dharma Transmission in Zen
by Stuart Lachs
Despite its iconoclastic image, Zen has in actuality been a remarkably conservative institution throughout its history, almost always tied to and controlled by the state and elite elements of society. There is certainly nothing anti-authoritarian about the notion of unbroken lineage going back to the historical Buddha. Likewise, Dharma transmission was as much about institutional prosperity, prestige, authority, continuity and acceptance and control by imperial authorities as it was about notions of enlightenment and spiritual perfection. The Zen master is a role that stands as a representative of the entire Zen institution. He occupies an authoritative place in East Asian cultures that have already been imbued with a special level of hierarchy since ancient times. It could fairly be said that what is effectively transmitted by Dharma transmission is institutional authority, rather than religious wisdom. However, I do not mean to imply there is no inner spiritual content to the Zen tradition.
Dharma transmission has been awarded and is still awarded for many reasons besides spiritual attainment. In fact, it was often not based on spiritual attainment at all, most especially so in Japanese Soto Zen, which is the sect of Suzuki, Baker and the San Francisco Zen Center. In this sect, Dharma transmission is commonly a father-son transmission ritual culminating in the son's inheritance of the family temple. Spiritual attainment, insight into timeless truth(s) or any other profound changes in one's inner life play virtually no part in the majority of these Dharma transmissions or in the every day functions of these roshis.
But the Soto sect tries to have it both ways. It allows bureaucratic transmission, but it also uses "historical" biographies of eminent masters presented as desireless beings, the koans, and the many Zen stories and dialogues (mondo) to legitimize and to enhance authority, that make clear that transmission is given because of a deep insight into reality or spiritual attainment. Read any of these texts of Zen, The Book of Serenity, a Soto sect koan collection, being one prominent example, and this will be abundantly clear.
"Hollow" transmissions such as those between father and son are incorporated into the unbroken lineage to the Buddha. (If the reader wants to argue that Dharma transmission in the Rinzai sect or in the modern Sanbokyodan sect so popular in the West matches the ideal of Zen rhetoric, please feel free to email me at my address listed in the Notes.)
Even when Dharma transmission does reflect some level of something we may call spiritual attainment, it is not based on the idealized version proffered by the Zen institution: a mystical meeting of minds between teacher and disciple sharing a timeless truth that unvaryingly matches the minds of all teachers going back in the lineage, through the six Chan Patriarchs in China, and the twenty eight generations of the supposed Indian lineage going back to the historical Buddha, and beyond. This is a mythology of Zen, a pure fiction. The Zen institution requires the master because he is supposedly a living example of the ideal of Zen and, as such, represents all of its legitimacy and authority. A large institution like Zen requires hundreds of such living role players. This necessitates the production of virtual quotas of such highly exalted people, while in the realm of "spiritual attainment" it is rare to produce just one such person. Therefore, in the living world of flesh and blood we have people with some very limited level of attainment occupying a role that is defined as Buddha-like, actualizing perfect freedom and unfathomable compassion beyond the ordinary person's understanding and hence above question. However Zen texts may define the role, Zen masters have not been fully enlightened beings beyond question.
Quoted from Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi by Stuart Lachs.
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