Zen lineages and “transmission outside the scriptures”

I’ve mainly been doing shikantaza “just sitting” during the pandemic, but I recently started re-reading “Zen Koans: learning the language of dragons” by James Ishmael Ford. This is an excellent general introduction to Zen, the range of Zen methods of meditation, and particularly working with koans. Ford was given dharma transmission by my first Zen teacher, John Tarrant, who was the first Australian authorized to teach Zen.

Ford discusses the concept of Zen lineages in his book (pages 28-30) and this reminded me that I had collected information on the lineages of the teachers I have worked with, and inspired me to update it and turn it into a set of charts. These trace the transmission of Zen from India to China to Japan and then to my Western teachers. I’ve updated these and posted them below.

An Indian monk, Bodhidharma, brought a form of Buddhism from India into China around 527 CE, and is considered the founder of Chan (which later became Zen in Japan), a branch of practice that arose from the mingling of his Indian tradition and Chinese traditions. His teachings emphasized that “awakening” did not require the texts, lectures, sutras, and teachings of the past. Instead, “awakening” comes about through accepting circumstances, craving nothing, and being in accord with the dharma.

Unlike Indian culture, the Chinese were very concerned about parentage and ancestry and developed the concept of Chan lineage, the idea that the teachings are handed down directly from one person to the next. As Chan emerged as a distinctive school, it reported lineages reaching back to Bodhidharma, and then through 27 generations of Indian teachers to the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni (563 – 483 BCE). The Indian lineage includes historical persons but is almost certainly not historical fact. I have looked more closely at it in a subsequent post.

Its not until several “generations” after Bodhidharma with the fifth Chan ancestor, Danan Hongren, that the lineage becomes largely historical. All existing Zen lineages today derive through Hongren and his successor Huineng. Following the 20th century transmission of Zen from the East to the West, lineages became important for as signifiers of “authentic” Zen training, and legitimacy. Zen “transmission” also tended to become romanticized by some teachers and students as a quasi-magical manifestation of “mind-to-mind” transmission of enlightenment. Perhaps the best explanation of what is meant by this “transmission” is given in the commentary by on the koan Mu in the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate). He says

“When you pass through this barrier [the koan Mu]…you will walk hand in hand with all the Ancestral Teachers in the successive generations of our lineage – the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears.” 

In other words, you will experience exactly the same enlightened state as the ancestral teachers, and so you will be seeing and hearing with their eyes and ears. Zen practice itself allows each generation to rediscover the authentic “one taste” of reality. On the other hand, teaching authorization has often fallen far short of this mythologised ideal and during certain periods did not even aim for it. In a longer online post about lineage, Ford Roshi discusses how the concept of mind-to-mind transmission is entangled with the concepts of kensho and enlightenment, about which the Soto and Rinzai schools developed quite different views. It is also entangled with more mundane concerns about institutional authorization and succession. At times in both the Rinzai and Soto schools of Japan, such concerns came to dominate and the “transmission” was primarily about inheritance, institutional continuity and certification of teachers.

So can one inherit the timeless teachings of the path to enlightenment without a teacher and without “formally” being part of a Zen lineage? Yes! Of course. But there is a strong risk of ending up with someone with their own, very personal and half-baked ideas of these teachings … someone who is convinced they “figured it out” when, in the absence of an experienced teacher for guidance and checking, they may be fooling themselves …This is particularly the case for people who have not grown up in cultures immersed in Buddhist thinking.

For the same reason that I love genealogy, studying the Zen lineages of my teachers gives me a sense of the evolution of Zen practice from India to China to Japan and now to the West and of my engagement with that larger picture. It gives me the sense that the skilful means of my own teachers are based on the cumulative wisdom of around 80 generations of ancestral teachers or more. My main teacher, Hogen Yamahata, has expressed this in the following words:

“When I sit, I am the tip of an iceberg. All of my ancestors are actualizing here within me. Everything is actualizing here. So, when you experience a deep transformation, the whole cosmos is also changed: because truly there is no separation.”  The Other Shore: from the teachings of Zen Master Hogen (1996).

Sources for the lineages in these charts are listed at the end of this post.

The transmission in Japan

Daiun Sogaku Harada was a dharma heir of both Soto and Rinzai masters. Together, Harada Roshi and one of his dharma heirs, Yasutani Roshi, created a blend or reformation of Soto and Rinzai Schools, which led to the formation of the Sanbo Kyodan School in post-war Japan, and the disengagement with the Soto lineage. The school combines elements of Japanese Soto (particularly the teachings of Dogen Kigen and his Dharma grandson, Keizan Jokin) and Rinzai (especially the teachings of Hakuin Ekaku) traditions. Its ‘graduates’ constitute together the lion share of all Zen teachers currently active in US, Canada, Argentina, Australia, Austria, France, Germany, India, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Philippines and UK. I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and do sesshin with one of the first Western Zen teachers, Robert Aitken Roshi, who was initially exposed to Zen while interned in Japan during the Second World War. And to train with two of his successors, as well as successors of Maezumi Roshi, who was uniquely given transmission by not only Yasutani Roshi, but also by a Rinzai and a Soto master.

From 1993 to 1996, I was a personal student of John Tarrant Roshi, then principal teacher for the Sydney Zen Centre. In 1996, I attended a historic sesshin at Gorricks Run in NSW led by five Zen teachers including Aitken Roshi. At this sesshin, Aitken Roshi and Tarrant Roshi authorized Subhana Bargazhi to teach, and she subsequently became the main teacher for the Sydney Zen Group.

Five Zen teachers at Gorricks Run, 1996. From the left: Ross Bolleter, Robert Aitken Roshi, Subhana Bargazhi, John Tarrant and Daniel Tarragno.

. I also started attending sesshin (7 day silent retreats) with Hogen Yamahata Roshi, who was a student of Tangen Roshisama, in turn who was given transmission by Daiun Sogaku Harada. In 1998, I took jukai (lay ordination) with Hogen-san, and continued to return to Australia for sesshin with him for some years after I relocated to Geneva. He has now retired from active teaching.

Hogen-san and myself, following the Jukai ceremony, 1998.

I have summarized the Indian part of the Zen lineage in a subsequent post.


Ciolek, T. Matthew. 1997-present. Hakuin School of Zen Buddhism. Canberra: http://www.ciolek.com – Asia Pacific Research Online. http://www.ciolek.com/WWWVLPages/ZenPages/Hakuin.html

Ciolek, T. Matthew. 1995-present. Sanbo Kyodan: Harada-Yasutani School of Zen Buddhism and its Teachers. Canberra: http://www.ciolek.com – Asia Pacific Research Online. http://www.ciolek.com/WWWVLPages/ZenPages/HaradaYasutani.html

Ford, James Ishmael. Boundless Way Zen. Our Lineage. https://boundlesswayzen.org/our-lineage/

Ford, James Ishmael. Zen Koans: learning the language of dragons. Wisdom Publications: Massachusetts 2018.

Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake. A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, Boston & London: Shambhala 1992

Hogen Yamahata. The Other Shore: from the teachings of Zen Master Hogen. Ed. Kate Carne. Open Way Australia, 1996.

Pacific Zen Institute. Our Pacific Zen Lineage. https://www.pacificzen.org/ancestors-relatives-and-welcome-guests/

Schuhmacher, Stephen; Woerner, Gert, eds. (1991), The Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, translated by Michael H. Kohn, Boston: Shambala, ISBN 978-0-877-73520-5

Stephanie (Guest). Zen lineage chart: Indian ancestors. https://www.treeleaf.org/forums/showthread.php?7473-Zen-lineage-chart-Indian-ancestors

Terebess, Gabor. Zen Masters, https://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/lineage.html

Suzuki, D.T. (1949), Essays in Zen Buddhism, New York: Grove Press, ISBN 0-8021-5118-3

Wikipedia contributors. (2020, November 26). Zen lineage charts. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:40, December 17, 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen_lineage_charts

1 thought on “Zen lineages and “transmission outside the scriptures”

  1. Pingback: The Indian Transmission of Zen Buddhism | Mountains and rivers

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