Huineng didn’t pass the robe on, as his teacher had because he didn’t want the Dharma to go forward in the same way. He wanted to change things, and he really wanted to make the Zen tradition available to everyone.

By Daniel Scharpenburg 

I have to admit that I’d pretty much written off my one-time teacher as a crazy person. Teacher is probably not the right word—I should probably refer to him as a mentor or tutor instead.

I had already dropped out of Zen monk school, and taken Refuge and the Bodhisattva vows at my local non-sectarian Buddhist temple before I found him.

He claimed to be a lineage holder, a chanshi.  I studied with him for just a couple years through correspondence. One day he told me that he wanted to pass his lineage on to me, to make me a Dharma holder in the Caodong lineage of Master Xu Yun. He told me this lineage was fundamentally empty (as are all lineages) and largely unknown.

I suppose it wasn’t completely out of nowhere. He gave me a Hua Tou; he pointed me to a lot of texts to read; he explained Enlightenment in a way that I could understand, and helped me pierce through a lot of my delusions. But we never met.

My first thought, of course, was that I didn’t earn that level of trust. He said this was a lay lineage—in the vein of Vimalakirti—not an ordained one, so he didn’t ordain me. But he also told me the difference between a monk and a layman is imaginary. And while he was passing the lineage to me, he told me lineage wasn’t important; practice and enlightenment are the things that matter.

He followed the path that I follow: the path of the Bodhisattva, the path of service, the path of being in the world instead of apart from it. This is not the path of renunciation that monks follow.

He told me, “You hold the Empty Cloud Lineage now. Proceed as you see fit.”

And then he ghosted me—he completely disappeared. We didn’t correspond anymore on any level. I suppose that’s an easy thing to do when you only know someone on the internet. That’s what made me think he was crazy; to entrust me, without meeting me, and then disappear on me made no sense.

I’ve resisted even referencing the Empty Cloud Lineage. I reached out to a few other Dharma teachers, asking what they thought. Other lineage holders claim to have received transmission from Xu Yun, but not the same lineage (he’s said to have held five distinct lineages and passed on at least three of them separately). It’s been a head-scratcher for every Dharma holder that I’ve discussed it with.

So I’ve just carried this confusion with me. What do you do when your teacher disappears?

There’s a diversity of opinion in the Buddhist world regarding receiving teachings online or through correspondence. There are plenty of teachers who say that you have to sit with a teacher in person multiple times over many years, and I do feel like there’s a certain inauthenticity to studying and practicing with a teacher from a distance.

It’s definitely a non-traditional teaching method. They can teach you philosophy and how to work with your mind, but they can’t really show you anything.

I’ve thought about these things for a while, written about these questions, and I’ve talked to a few teachers. I’ve spent a little time looking for other teachers.

I sometimes think it would be great to become a Zen Priest, but there’s not really a path to that for me here. And I know then I’d have the pressure of being a role model.

I’ve never stopped diligent practice and study: I meditate every day, I go to a local non-sectarian Buddhist temple, and I go on retreats there. I volunteer in a number of ways, and I study sutras and other Zen texts all the time.

I was recently reading the Platform Sutra while thinking about these issues and something clicked with me. I had read it before, but this time it had a different meaning.

Another teacher once said to me, “The sutras don’t make any sense if you don’t practice,” and I think that’s true. I think that we can often develop different relationships with the sutras when we read them throughout our lives and practices.

The Platform Sutra is a really important text. It was written by Huineng, the sixth Chinese patriarch. He’s the one that really made Zen spread. Bodhidharma brought the lineage to China, but it was Huineng who spoke about it in an accessible way. It was Huineng who made it what it is today.

Contained in this text is essentially everything one needs to know about the Zen tradition. He summarized all of the teachings he received and brought them to light in a way that anyone could understand.

In chapter 47 Huineng says, “Henceforth, when you ten disciples transmit the Dharma, hand down the teaching of the Platform Sutra without losing sight of its basic principle. Unless someone has been given the Platform Sutra, they do not have my teaching. And now that you have obtained it, pass it on to later generations. For to encounter the Platform Sutra is the same as being taught by me personally” (Pine, 2006)

This is something I’d read before, but this time it struck me in a new way.

Before Huineng, the Dharma was passed physically. Each teacher gave his robe and begging bowl to his student directly. That was how the Zen tradition of the patriarchs was transmitted. That stopped with Huineng—he just transmitted the Dharma without passing on his robe and bowl.

It’s said that Huineng transmitted the Dharma to five of his students. These students ensured numerous copies of the sutra were made and that they were spread far and wide. They had students, and their students had students, and that’s how the lineage ultimately exists today; mainly monks transmitting to monks, but not always.

I want to suggest that maybe we’ve misunderstood Huineng. I’d like to interpret his transmission in a different way.

You see, the quote above is one of the things he said right before his death. Again, “To encounter the Platform Sutra is the same as being taught by me personally.”

I have come to think that this encapsulates the ’empty’ lineage that my one-time teacher told me about. Huineng didn’t pass the robe on as his teacher had because he didn’t want the Dharma to go forward in the same way.

He wanted to change things, and he really wanted to make the Zen tradition available to everyone. What if Huineng didn’t really mean to appoint a successor? What if his intent was for the transmission to pass through the Platform Sutra?

That’s what I am wondering. What if the transmission of Zen changed? If instead of passing a robe, he passed on a sutra?

It’s a text that’s well known for its completeness and clarity. It contains basically everything one needs to know to engage Zen practice. When I read it, I do feel like Huineng is speaking to me directly.

The sutra goes on to say, “After these ten monks had been so instructed, they copied out the Platform Sutra and passed it on to later generations. Those who obtain it are sure to see their true nature.”

Huineng turned Zen into a textual transmission. Copies of this sutra were disseminated far and wide. This is Huineng’s transmission.

I think Huineng didn’t want the lineage to be limited to a few individuals; he wanted to give it to everyone. So he wrote this text, this fundamental teaching of the Way that he thought anyone could understand. And we can still understand it today.

If we study the Platform Sutra and practice diligently, then maybe we are all lineage inheritors. He’s still teaching; we only have to study and practice.



Pine, R. (2006). The Platform Sutra: The Zen Teaching of Hui-neng. Berkely, CA: Counterpoint Press.

Photo: Derivation of Fading Away/Flickr

Editor: John Author