What is Transmitted in Zen Teaching “Transmission”?

Teaching transmission is a big deal in Western Zen sanghas. But what does it mean?

I became a “transmitted Zen teacher” during a period of great crisis and questioning in my home Zen sangha. So I’ve had a lot of reasons to think about what, exactly, teaching “transmission” means.

It turns out that there is a great deal of disagreement about this. I’m not a scholar of Zen history, and I’m not going to try to sort all that out. (The Wikipedia article on it gives a useful summary of some of the controversies.) My concern is more practical: What does “transmission” mean for me as a teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, in the early 2020s, and for the teachers and students in my home sangha? Can reflection on this be of assistance to other teachers and sanghas?

Zen groups “in the West” (including the U.S., Europe, and Australia) have drawn inspiration from teachers whose own Zen development took place in Asian, largely monastic, environments. In adapting Zen practice to new environments, though, teachers and sanghas who are of mostly non-Asian ethnicity have been pretty much making things up as we go along. While we have continued the tradition of teachers individually “transmitting” authorization to teach to one or more successors or “Dharma heirs,” there is little standardization otherwise. Teacher titles, names of ceremonies, levels of authorizations, and criteria for transmission vary from group to group and even teacher to teacher.

So I will draw on my own experience. FYI, in the Soto lineage in which I began (developed in the West through Robert Aitken-John Tarrant-James Ford), my title of “Dharma Holder” signifies a first stage of lay transmission. It authorizes me to teach independently, teach from the Harada-Yasutani koan curriculum, and give jukai, but not to name successors. That would come with the second stage and the title of “Sensei.” “Roshi” is a title of additional honor. (I am not an ordained priest, although many in my lineage are. The question of special priestly functions remains even more unsettled.) But going from teacher-in-training to Dharma Holder is treated as a big deal. One’s new status is marked by a brown or gold rakusu, a teaching stick (kotsu), and, traditionally, a variety of traditional practices signifying special honor and respect. 

In the following posts, I will review several answers to the question “What is transmitted?” that I have believed or at least considered at various points in my practice. I have come, by reading and experience, to either reject or reframe most of these in new ways.

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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