Buddha Ancestors

After finishing Shinshu’s book, I was moved by some mysterious preference to pick up as my commute read the Denkoroku, Keizan’s assembles stories of the lineage of teachers from Shakyamuni to Koun Ejo, Dogen’s first successor in Japan. I have two versions of it, and this time am reading Francis Cook’s translation. In his introduction he points to reasons why Keizan might have felt it necessary to emphasise in this way the legitimacy of the Soto school as it settled in Japan amid competition and hostility from more established sects.

I was reminded of a comment Shohaku made in a Genzo-e many years ago, about how lineage was such an important concept in Chinese culture that the zen teachers, in order to appear authentic, felt they had to make one up – and indeed it is not something, as Cook observes, that features in any Indian Buddhist literature.

There was another thought that occurred to me as well: the parallels between Keizan and Sekito Kisen. The traditional Chinese lineage has one patriarch for the six generations between Bodhidharma and Hui-neng; with the controversy around Hui-neng’s designation by the Fifth Patriarch (let’s assume that there is at least some basis in reality for all of these stories, even if scholars are sceptical), and since the latter had a number of successors, there arose a kind of jostling for prominence, and flag-waving for the ‘true way’ that different teachers were espousing. This appears to be what prompted Sekito, a few decades later, to write in the Sandokai, “The way has no northern or southern ancestors.”

Similarly, Keizan, just a couple of generations after Dogen, found himself on one end of a schism in the lineage, and wanted to set his marker down for what he believed to be the true teaching. It seems that he was instrumental in enabling Soto Zen to spread from Dogen’s small community of isolated monks at Eiheiji, to be adopted by greater numbers of people. As an aside, in a small way, there has been a similar branching in the Zen Center lineage, between the ‘Mel’ and ‘Reb’ lines – those ordained by Sojun Mel Weitsman and Tenshin Reb Anderson. I wouldn’t say there was any doctrinal split, but I think the ‘family’ styles are distinct enough to those who hang around the temples long enough…

Perhaps it is an inevitable fate for any religious institution to separate into different groupings dependent on how the teachers want to convey what they believe is the essence of the teaching. And, as is pointed out in many places (when I was searching for Sekito in my archives, this post illuminates the point, as does this one), one of the essential faiths in the zen way is that we can all not just share Shakyamuni’s understanding, but we can meet him face-to-face in zazen: “The mind of the great sage of India is intimately transmitted from west to east,” as Sekito started his great poem.

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