The Indian Transmission of Zen Buddhism

A previous post examined the Zen tradition of “lineages” of teachers transmitting enlightenment person-to-person and documented the lineages of my Zen teachers down from Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an (Zen).  In this post, I examine the Zen tradition of an Indian lineage which reaches back from Bodhidharma through 27 ancestors to the the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Shakyamuni Buddha’s birth and death dates are somewhat contested, but 563-483 BCE seem to be the most generally accepted dates.

Its generally accepted among scholars and many Western Zen teachers that the Indian lineage is largely mythical, but that it does include important Indian Buddhist teachers. My brief overview of this is drawn from a quite detailed examination by Zen student Stephanie.

According to the earliest recorded sutras, Shakyamuni had two disciples, Mahakasyapa and Ananda, who became his first successors. They convened the First Buddhist Council in 482 BC to preserve the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhism was established but remained restricted to the local region until two hundred years later, in the 3rd century BC, when Upagupta became the teacher of King Ashoka. It was during this period that Buddhism started to spread more widely throughout Asia and the sutras and commentaries of the Pali canon started to be written.

Four hundred years later, Buddhism found another prominent patron in King Kanishka, ruler of the Kushan Empire in modern day Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Northern India, Pakistan, and parts of modern day China. The next ancestors on the list that can be dated are Vasumitra, Parshva, and Ashvaghosha, who were associated with King Kanishka, and played a prominent role in the Fourth Buddhist council which he convened.

Buddhism recognizes three “Great Turnings of the Wheel” of Buddhist teaching, the first of which was the early Buddhism of the Buddha’s original teachings, and considered to be represented today by the Theravada School of Buddhism, with its emphasis on liberation (nirvana) from suffering (samsara). The Second Turning is the development of the Madhyamika School, associated with the great Buddhist philosopher Nargajuna. Nagarjuna was also contemporary to Kanishka’s court, but dates given for him place him a bit later than the previous three, with a death date circa 250 CE.

For Nargajuna, the duality of nirvana and samsara was itself a subtle illusion (see Wilber 2018 for a more detailed discussion).Reality looked at through concepts and categories appears as samsara, while the same Reality looked at free of concepts and categories is nirvana. Narganjuna had discovered the “emptiness” of Reality (shunyata). This understanding of Emptiness became the foundation of the Mahayana and Vajrayana Schools of Buddhism.

The next dated ancestor is Vasubandhu, who wrote texts that have survived and who scholars have been able to place as contemporary to King Chandragupta I, thus active through the first half of the fourth century BCE. Vasubandhu founded the Yogacara School, the “Third Turning of the Wheel”, whose “mind only” doctrine later became highly influential in the development of Buddhism, Zen in particular. The Yogacara School developed a more positive concept of Emptiness as the “absence of duality between the perceiving subject and the perceived object”. As Zen would put it (in the key Zen text The Heart Sutra),

“form us no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form,
        form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form…”

The next ancestor with a date is Bodhidharma, who was active in the sixth century BCE. There is some evidence of Bodhidharma’s being a historical figure, including contemporary historical accounts of him and written works attributed to him. But some scholars argue that he is not a historical personage, instead being a mix of mythic character and amalgamation of multiple Buddhist teachers. But this is possibly true of any historical Buddhist figure.

Bodhidharma was heavily influenced by and teaches from the Lankavatara Sutra, a major sutra from the Yogacara school. Bodhidharma’s emphasis on meditation was also highly reflective of the influence of the Yogacara school, which emphasizes meditation and other yogic practices focused on direct exploration and experience of the mind and consciousness to develop insight into its true nature. Taoism certainly had a big influence on the development of Zen in China, but many of the same ideas that run through Taoism such as the direct experience of true nature through spiritual practice–were already present in Buddhism before Bodhidharma arrived in China.

Various historians now believe that the 27th Indian Ancestor, Prajnatara, was a woman. A student of Punyamitra (who was the 26th Ancestor), she moved from northern India south to the city of Kanchipuram, where Bodhidharma became her student. She allegedly directed him to travel to China following her death, to spread the dharma. For more on the Zen lineage in China and beyond, see my previous post.

Its clear from the dated Ancestors, that the Indian lineage is not historical. It has several gaps of hundreds of years with few ancestors, and some others who are all contemporaries. I tend to agree with Stephanie, that “Chinese and/or Japanese Zen practitioners looking back to history created a lineage using individuals who were noted in historical accounts and/or were authors of significant Buddhist texts, and took a bit of creative license with the formation of a linear lineage.”

Despite that, the lineage does trace the history of the development of Buddhism through various important ancestors, and tells a coherent story of the development of early Buddhism into what would later become Zen. Ken Wilber, in his book The Religion of Tomorrow, suggests that the transmission of Zen and Buddhism to the West, where it has been influenced by and integrated the Western insights of modern psychology, evolutionary psychology, and other fruits of modernity, may result in a fourth turning of the Buddhist Wheel.


Stephanie (Guest). Zen lineage chart: Indian ancestors.

Ken Wilber. The religion of tomorrow: a vision for the future of the great traditions. Shambhala, Boulder, 2018.

1 thought on “The Indian Transmission of Zen Buddhism

  1. Pingback: Zen lineages and “transmission outside the scriptures” | Mountains and rivers

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