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


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