What is Transmitted: (6) Responsibility

If Zen teaching transmission is not synonymous with enlightenment, and not centrally about mystical power, authority, leadership, or the content or style of teaching…what, then, is the key feature?

In the final analysis, it seems to me that Zen teaching transmission is primarily of teaching responsibility.

The teacher giving transmission believes that the person named as a successor can be trusted to continue the manifestation of the Dharma, and to open the path for others to the best of their ability. They can be trusted to put the teaching of the Dharma and the well-being and development of students above their personal interests. They can be trusted to serve the Buddha by serving the sangha in a teaching role. The successor merits such trust when they truly take on and fulfill these responsibilities.

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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.

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What is Transmitted: (4) Leadership of the Sangha?

Zen teachers are looked up to as spiritual leaders and guides. Does a teacher’s authority extend to all decisions affecting the community?

In the Asian monastic traditions, the question of succession often included the question of who would be the next abbot of the monastery. The abbot was the head of the whole shebang, not only the top spiritual teacher but also the top authority regarding the day-to-day functioning of the institution and planning for its future. Yet this model is problematic, even in the cultures in which is originated.

For example, many Soto Zen students know that Eihei Dogen and his Dharma descendent Keizan Jokin are considered the first founders of the Soto school: Dogen for the original formulation, and Keizan for spreading it through Japan. But Keizan wasn’t even born yet when Dogen died. We usually don’t hear about what went on in between their times. 

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What is Transmitted: (3) Patriarchal Authority?

Traditionally, teaching transmission adds one’s name to the list of Zen “patriarchs.” Perhaps this isn’t the greatest image for here and now…

Lineage charts (kechimyaku) play important roles in Zen ceremonies. These purport to show a direct line of transmission all the way from Shakyamuni Buddha, through ancestors in India, China, and elsewhere, and ending with the recipient of the chart. A red “bloodline” connects the names. The word patriarchs, from the Greek for “ruling father,” is traditionally synonymous with ancestors, since all but some very recently recognized ancestors are men.

Students receive a lineage chart when we receive the  Buddhist precepts (ethical teachings) in the ceremony of Jukai. The relevant use of the term transmission for this discussion, however, is at the ceremonies of teaching transmission from a fully transmitted teacher to their “Dharma heir.”  A teacher who receives full transmission becomes an “ancestor” themself if they convey teaching authority on to further “heirs.” 

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What is Transmitted (2) A Special Mystical Power?

Zen teachers are said to have received “mind to mind” transmission. What does that mean?

We speak of “mind to mind” transmission of the Dharma. This can be confusing. I remember hearing that a rumor circulated among the students of a well-known abbot: The act of teaching transmission, supposedly, involved the teacher pouring something special into the successor’s brain by means of them sitting for a long time with their heads pressed together.

Even if we aren’t as literal-minded as that, the fact that teaching transmission traditionally happens in a ceremony conducted at midnight, privately and in the teacher’s own quarters, may get us thinking that some thing in the mind has been mysteriously transferred

Much more helpful, I believe is Keizan’s phrasing (see Part (1)) of “mutual recognition” in the room. In modern lingo, we might say that the teacher and student have found themselves to be “on the same wavelength,”  and that transmission involves formal recognition of this.

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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.”

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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?

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Spiritual Teachers Need to be Clear About What We Offer

Students assume that spiritual teachers will act with the sort of wisdom and compassion that we teach about. But what happens when expectations and reality collide?

Upon finding out that our Spiritual Director had engaged in a year-long secret emotional and sexual involvement with a student, many members of our Zen sangha felt emotionally crushed and spiritually adrift. Our trust in him, and even in the Dharma, had been badly violated. We reached out for understanding and help from our remaining teachers.

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Self-Policing Doesn’t Work

Self-policing of conduct hasn’t worked for police forces, the military, or the Catholic Church. Why, then, would we think it should work for Buddhist teachers?

The sanghas I’ve been a part of have had groups of senior teachers, instead of just one, at least in part on the philosophy that teachers are less likely to abuse trust when other teachers are watching them. Nice idea. Doesn’t actually work.

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Any Spiritual Teacher Can (and Likely Will) Cause Harm

No human is perfect. The question is whether our less-than-skillful uses of power will be minor or devastating.

Sometimes teacher misconduct is thought of as something committed by only a very few “scoundrels and sociopaths” (source of quote: open letter signed by 90 senior Zen teachers). Yet if we stay uninformed about teacher power and do not use it with extreme care, it is not only possible but likely that we will end up misusing it ourselves.

The longer I’ve been practicing, the more fellow practitioners I find who are on their second, third, or fourth spiritual community…or have given up entirely. They encountered teachers who acted like bullies. Or know-it-alls. Or who spread around things told to them in confidence. Or demanded complete, unquestioning loyalty. Who misspent funds, lied to authorities and to the sangha, or, yes, pushed sexual boundaries. Or simply did little things that made a student feel “icky” one too many times.

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