Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Dharma Transmission--what exactly is it?

Here's an interesting article about Dharma transmission. Written by Eshu Martin, "Do You Have a License for That Dharma?" explores the nature of transmission and its role in the West. Dharma transmission is to Zen what Papal authority is to Catholicism. Transmission, according to Zen tradition, represents an unbroken line of enlightened teachers who have received "mind-to-mind" transmission of the true Dharma, tracing its origins all the way back to the Buddha himself. It's a way for teachers to pass their seal of approval to students who have demonstrated an authentic Awakening. A kind of Enlightened litmus test. It's also a way to safeguard the Dharma from charlatan teachers.

Obviously the slew of recent Zen sex scandals throws a monkey wrench into this system, for how "Enlightened" can a teacher be if he (and I mean "he," since all of these teachers are male) is sleeping with his students? Or so the questioning go.

In his article, Martin links two other articles, also worth reading. The first, "Dharma Succession," written by Erik Storlie, challenges Dharma Transmission altogether. Storlie argues that transmission is an antiquated Confucian throwback with no place in the West, a mythic cultural accretion long overdue for jettisoning. As evidence, he quotes the Buddha's famous last words: "Be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth. Look not to assistance to anyone besides yourselves."

The second article that Martin cites, "Blaming Dharma Transmission Is Like Blaming a Driver's License for an Accident," by Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson, refutes Storlie's article. As her title suggests, Schireson views transmission more like a driver's license. She writes:

Dharma transmission in the West has become a kind of credential, no different than an academic degree which
results in a Ph.D. In an academic program, you associate yourself with like minded instructors, you map out a course of study which is approved by a single advisor, and those who have already earned the credential approve of your work. Your hard earned Ph.D. degree will not stop you from writing rubbish or misbehaving.

Interesting. I don't know if I agree, but the implication of Schireson's analogy is that then Dharma transmission, like any other kind of license, can be revoked. No system is foolproof, so if someone is guilty of egregious ethical infractions, why can't their authority as a Zen teacher be withdrawn? Partially because that would call the entire transmission system into question. And the next thing you know, the whole edifice begins to crumble.

Read the articles. I think they represent a healthy and necessary dialogue for the future of Zen in the West. Conversations like these are vital, and I think we're going to see a whole lot more of them in the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment