What is Transmitted: (5) A Set or Style of Teaching?

Perhaps Zen transmission has to do with the content or method of instruction…

While one might think that, since the word Dharma is often defined as “the Buddhist teachings,” that “transmission of the Dharma” meets the passing along of a set of scriptures. But this has never been true, even from the beginning.

According to the old stories, Shakyamuni Buddha’s disciple Ananda, who apparently had a great memory, was able to remember every talk the Buddha gave word for word and so preserve the teachings. But Ananda was not the one who received “Dharma transmission” from Shakyamuni. The next successor in the lineage was Mahakashyapa, who smiled when the Buddha held up a flower. Mutual recognition (see Part (2)) occurred between Shakyamuni and Mahakashyapa, and it was Mahakashyapa who led the community after Shakyamuni’s death.

As Part (1) of this series also pointed out, according to Bodhidharma it is a case of

A special transmission outside the scriptures,

Not founded upon words and letters.

Other stories illustrate how mere scholarly knowledge of the sutras is disdained. The young Deshan thought he was an expert on the Diamond Sutra, but burned all his commentaries after a woman selling tea by the road took him down several pegs. 

Or could it be that what is transmitted is a style of teaching? To some extent, this is true. Soto Zen teachers tend to have Soto successors, Rinzai Zen teachers have Rinzai ones, etc. Particular forms and rituals, ways of using koans, and even styles of dress tend to follow the paths of succession. But Dharma successors seem to have a habit of not quite following their teachers’ style—which is to the good. A student who merely imitates a teacher cannot be said to be fully fledged. Follow the example of Gutei Isshi’s “one finger Zen” too closely and you are likely to end up with only nine digits! Authentic teaching can only come when each teacher manifests in this universe as themself. 

The history of Zen is also full of stories of teachers who study with several teachers, combine different traditions, innovate, and take Zen practice out of the context in which they learned it and adapt it to new places and times. This is always surrounded by controversy, of course. But the Dharma is vast and alive, not something that can be confined in one “style.”

Considered as “skillful means,” and as connecting us with practitioners at other times, the traditional written teachings and the variety of our styles of practice are important and merit study. Yet these still do not fully capture the “what” in the question, “What is transmitted in teaching transmission?”

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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