What is Transmitted (1) Enlightenment?

Zen teachers are said to have received “transmission.” Does this mean that teachers are enlightened beings?

Most who enter Zen practice have done some reading, and heard about enlightenment, awakening, realization, and opening experiences, or perhaps heard their Japanese terms, kensho and satori. Bodhidharma, the first Chan ancestor in China, is said to have written:

A special transmission outside the scriptures,
Not founded upon words and letters.
By pointing directly to one’s mind,
It lets one see into one’s own true nature and thus attain Buddhahood.

So a good first guess at what “transmission” means is that “transmitted teachers” have “seen into their true nature” and received “enlightenment.” And, one may then conclude, that if one is a good enough student your teacher may someday “transmit” enlightenment to you. Many Zen stories about interactions between teachers and their Dharma heirs (and especially those in Keizan Jokin’s The Record of Transmitting the Light) end, after all, with “On hearing this, the [Dharma successor] was greatly awakened.”

I see four major problems with this equation of “transmitted teacher” with “enlightened person.”

First, enlightenment is not a matter of “once and done.” The possibility of awakening is in every moment. Once one has experienced a profound opening experience, one is unlikely to ever completely forget it. But one does not walk around then as a permanently enlightened person. One has not entered a new ontological state; kensho is not a culmination. You walk around as a person with a particular memory of insight, which is different from the insight itself. The path starts here, as the lifelong work of integrating such insights into our lives begins. Students and teachers would do well to remember that teachers are still on the path, not at its terminus.

Second, one may have a great deal of insight and yet not become a teacher. In my lineage, students learn that Eihei Dogen, the founder of our Soto School of Zen, had a great awakening upon hearing about “body and mind dropped away” from his teacher Tiantong Rujing. Dogen subsequently received Dharma Transmission from him. Yet in The Record of Transmitting the Light (p. 225) we also learn that Rujing confirmed that his temple’s illiterate gardener had “clarified the way.” Keizan comments, “Truly, in a community where the Way exists, there are many who have the way and are committed to it.”

I certainly see this in my home sangha. Many have great insight. Formal teaching, which also requires a conjunction of  particular circumstances and skills, may or may not follow. People who have awakened and are following the way may powerfully serve the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in a whole variety of roles and occupations. How limited our effect would be on the relative world if all of us devoted our time to preparing Dharma talks!

Third, while enlightenment experiences may come about in relationship with one’s teacher, they may also come in relationship with someone or something else. In The Record of Transmitting the Light (p. 227) Keizan raises the questions,

Xiangyan was awakened when he heard bamboo being struck, so why didn’t he become a successor to bamboo? Lingyun was awakened by peach blossoms, so why didn’t he become the successor to peach blossoms?

Keizan thus distinguishes awakening, which may be precipitated by a conversation with a teacher—or by bamboo or blossoms, a honking car or a sneeze—from the issue of teaching succession. He wrote (about a teacher he was criticizing),

It is a pity that Cheng-gu did not realize that succession takes place in the quarters of Buddhist patriarchs…it seems that he did not know of the mutual recognition there in the room.

It seems that teaching transmission does always happen between a teacher and their successor. When Bodhidharma used the term “transmission” in his lines (above) about “outside the scriptures” it seems he may have been using the term to mean something else. Perhaps substituting “understanding” or “realization” there would clarify things.

Lastly, the story of the teacher “transmitting” enlightenment suggests that the teacher is somehow in control of the timing and depth of the opening process. That attributes power to the teacher that is not theirs at all, but rather comes from Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In my experience, it seems that the timing of any individual’s ripening for an opening, while it can be helped along, is in the end uncontrollable and unpredictable.

Openings, while necessary for teacher status, are not sufficient. They are not “once and done.” Nor are teacher successors the only people who have had openings. Not all openings take place in the context of teacher-student relationships, nor do teachers cause them. But teaching transmission apparently does take place between teacher and student.  

Author: Julie A. Nelson

Julie A. Nelson is a writer on gender, ethics, economics, ecology, and Zen; a Professor of Economics, Emeritus; a Dharma Holder and Teaching Coordinator at the Greater Boston Zen Center; and mother of two grown children.

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