By John Lee Pendall
Transmission has been a huge part of Zen Buddhism from the beginning.
Well, maybe not from the beginning beginning, but since it became its own school of Buddhism. Prior to that, Chan Buddhists were just Southern Chinese practitioners who had a heavy focus on meditation. They didn’t have their own doctrine or rules of conduct. But, as the centuries flew by, these meditation-centric Buddhists started coming together, eventually composing their own Canon, methods, rituals, rules and lineages.
Sorta like if the quiet kids in your high school band left to form a group with the quiet kids from others schools. The theory behind the music is the same, but the training and song selection was much different.
The Zen/Chan/Seon/Thien we have today has its roots in mythical Bodhidharma’s famous stanza:
Another transmission outside the teachings
Not dependent on words and letters
Pointing directly to the human mind
Seeing nature, becoming Buddha
“Another transmission outside the teachings,” acknowledges that there are different types of Dharma transmission, transmission being a passing along of something. This is especially evident in Vajrayana, where mantras, Tantras, Sutras, and empowerments are all “transmitted.” When Patrul Rinpoche taught and explained the Way of the Bodhisattva, that text was considered transmitted to the student, who could then pass it onto others. Many Zen teachers transmitted the Lankavatara Sutra the same way.
So, Sutra transmission was already part of Buddhism when Bodhidharma’s verse entered the scene.
It points to another type of wisdom or understanding that can be passed along. According to legend, it started with the Buddha and passed from person to person all the way to Sixth Ancestor, Huineng. Then Huineng gave it to a few of his students, and from there it infected hundreds of others, a Buddha germ that makes you feel at ease rather than like shit.
At some point, the mystical element of mind-to-mind transmission gave way to a more bureaucratic slant. Transmission started to mean that someone was able to understand the teachings, practices and rituals enough to join the Zen machine and enjoy the benefits of monastic life. One notorious teacher even sold transmission papers to people.
This is basically still the case in Modern Asia, where Zen is almost 100% about rite and rituals, despite the reforms that a few “iconoclasts” have tried to push through. It’s safe to say that if mystical transmission still exists, it’s quite rare—so rare that I don’t expect most Westerners to even believe in it. I personally have faith in it, for my own reasons.
It is entirely possible to see through subjective experience to a common ground that reaches back to Buddha’s night beneath the Bodhi Tree.
The unfortunate thing is that no, we can’t stumble on it alone anymore than we can catch a cold on our own. And if your teacher hasn’t experienced it, then they can’t help you to uncover it. If you’re looking for mystical transmission and can’t find someone who seems to shine with it, I recommend finding a book that seems to embody it like Cultivating the Empty Field, the Song of Mind, the Way of the Bodhisattva, or the Platform Sutra. If you read those texts with a calm, clear, open mind, you will pick up what they’re trying to give away.
Of these types of transmission, the only one I don’t support is the most common one—ritual transmission. Learning the chants, learning how to put on robes, drink tea and honor the ancestors means nothing without the other aspects of transmission involved as well.
The most pragmatic type of transmission, the aspect of Buddhism most suited for the West, is the passing along of the Code, the Noble Eightfold Path. In Zen, it can be summed up as, “Do only good, avoid doing evil, and purify the mind.” In some ways, that’s even more important than mystical and scriptural transmission, because it represents what they point to.
So, if you’re not looking for a mystical mind-to-mind transmission, and if you’re not interested in rituals and scriptures, finding someone to teach you the code is probably the best option. Everyone needs a code to live by.
One of the reasons the world is so fucked up right now is because we’ve collectively thrown our codes out the window.
Buddha’s promise was simple: if you live by this code, then you’ll live a good life. Unlike mystical transmission, it doesn’t require faith. Unlike scriptural transmission, it doesn’t take much learning, and unlike religious transmission it doesn’t require being subservient to a hierarchy.
The code is between you and the Buddha, and it’s outside the scriptures in that your day-to-day life isn’t something written down. It’s here and now, unfolding with each breath.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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