The Ideal and the Real

James Shaheen

Each Buddhist school has developed its own particular way of transmitting the teachings and assigning spiritual authority to successive generations. The most common way has been through scripture, thought to be the word of the Buddha. Zen is a notable exception to this. The Zen school claims a “mind to mind” transmission outside the scriptures, with authority resting on a lineage believed to extend, unbroken, from the Buddha up to teachers in the present day. But whatever form they may take, transmission narratives are central to all schools, each relying for final authority on the Buddha himself.

The problem with such narratives—at least the historical problem—is that they are all, like any human endeavor, fallible. They entail a free mix of fact and fiction, and so their claims, when taken literally, rest on shaky ground. In the case of Zen, for example, the lineage itself wasn’t constructed until centuries after the Buddha’s lifetime. No less important are the social and political considerations that have always played an undeniable role in determining succession. This isn’t to say that Zen is unique in being a compromised institution; rather, institutions, like individuals, get compromised, each in their own way.

Looking at institutions realistically and critically by no means implies a rejection of them. Institutions, and the collective life they give form to, have always been essential for the survival and flourishing of the dharma. It can hardly be happenstance that the Buddha would devote himself to setting down so thoroughly the ritual forms and regulations that would guide his monastic community, and that he would (at least according to the earliest records) entrust the upholding of his teaching to that community’s collective wisdom.

Like all religious stories, transmission narratives are, most significantly, concerned not with fact but with meaning. The story about how the dharma gets transmitted is a way of conveying the very attitudes and perspectives that the tradition most values. In that sense, each transmission story is true—not literally, of course, but mythically. It embodies the mythos of its tradition, and in doing so, transmits it.

The challenge, then, is to affirm the spiritual value of transmission narratives even as we recognize their social and historical unreliability. In “Roused from a Dream,” this is precisely the challenge taken up by the journalist Mary Fowles. She follows the development of Zen’s female lineage, constructed in recent years to restore the school’s women ancestors to the transmission narrative, which had until very recently been exclusively patrilineal. As Fowles demonstrates, the intentional exclusion of women from Zen’s core story has exacted a great price in the lives of women and, to a lesser extent, of men. She writes:

No matter how important a woman’s contribution to Buddhism was, her name would not make it into the traditional lineage chart. In this patriline, as in any patriline, there is no place for women. Quickly, women’s names and stories fade into the background or disappear completely, sometimes within the span of a single generation.

A crucial point here is that our understanding that the traditional lineage narrative is socially constructed rather than historically accurate does not diminish its mythic significance. Rather, it leaves open the possibility of change and, where necessary, redress. The restored female lineage is evidence of this.

Likewise, in another featured article in this issue, the Buddhist scholar Rita Gross, on whose work Fowles draws, takes on the subordinated role of women in Buddhism generally (“The Man-Made Obstacle”). Gross makes a sharp distinction between inherent obstacles—old age, sickness, and death—and the obstacles that we’ve invented, like gender or race inequality, issues which, like the exclusively male Zen lineage narrative, can and must be addressed.

While there is a big and obvious gap between an ideal of transmission and its historical truth, it would be a mistake, once aware of this, to dismiss the story of a transmission as a sham—its spiritual import is not lessened by the limits of its social reality. Yet if that reality is ignored, we are powerless to change anything, no matter how harmful it may be. That is why is it essential to hold both together: to appreciate transmission’s spiritual meaning while looking critically at how it plays out socially. In this way, the tradition is enriched and its promise extended, both because of—and despite—its own history.


—James Shaheen, Editor and Publisher

View the Summer 2014 Table of Contents

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rdewald's picture

I don't think the patrilineal character of the transmission narrative detracts from it's validity because it doesn't really have any in the first place. I've learned from the (female) nail salon owner who sits on the cushion next to mine just as I've learned from zen teachers who have been granted the "dharma transmission" endorsement by an similarly previously-endorsed older zen teacher.

That's not disrespect for the teachers in my lineage (a long list of names I have recited countless times at evening services, and will continue to do so) it's more remembering that this transmission narrative is nothing to rely upon, even if it is re-worked for females to be included in it. What's important now is that female students have a place to practice that is free from systematic exclusion by gender and sexual pressure by anyone, teachers or students. Full integration of female authority into zen will assist with this, but it's not the answer. One can't rely on the system to do good, people have to be good.

I think most people who have been as peripatetic in practice as I have been have come across a teacher who is a lineage member who was clearly still seriously struggling with their understanding in one area or the other (can you say sex scandal?). I am often skeptical of those given transmission by a teacher when the teacher knew the end of their life was rapidly approaching (poignant and touching gesture acknowledged). There are many such teachers in North America, and they continue to do transmission themselves, so ti goes on and on. Is that new? Surely not.

Similarly, I am sure there are many. many teachers over the centuries who were genuinely had an absolutely vital role in the process of the dharma reaching my mind who are unknown to me because they fell into personal disfavor, lost their own lives suddenly, or simply had a stubborn or inattentive teacher.

So, there's no there there, and I hope these efforts are focused on making Zen gender-agnostic now rather than going back to fix something that is likely beyond repair anyway.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's a case of religion reflecting the society in which it is formed. The world's increasing globalization indicates that a Buddhism befitting the time may just be around the corner.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The delusion is that "enlightenment" is a thing possessed by someone else that's handed over.

joehaase99's picture

I do not believe that Zen is a notable exception. Tibetan Buddhist transmission is also 'mind to mind'.