Records of the Transmission of the Lamp

I have the first three volumes of this 30-volume work, “consisting of putative biographies of the Chan (or Zen) patriarchs and other prominent Buddhist monks. It was produced in the Song dynasty by Shi Daoyuan.” (Wikipedia). The “Lamp” in the title refers to the Dharma, the teachings of Buddhism.

Volumes 1 to 3 are devoted to the history of Indian Buddhism; the history of Buddhism in China starts with Bodhidharma in volume 4; Volume 5 recounts the elevation of the sixth Chinese Patriarch, Huineng, and his teachings. I have just ordered these last two volumes.

Bodhidharma, Ukiyo-e woodblock print by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1887

Bodhidharma is the first Patriarch of Chan in China, and he is also the last of the 28 Indian Buddhist patriarchs. Bodhidharma traveled to China to introduce the Way of Gautama Buddha, the first ‘Enlightened One’ in India *(See Footnote).

Throughout (the Records) the standard question asked by many monks is, ‘What is the meaning of the Patriarch’s coming from the West,– meaning, ‘What is the meaning of Buddhism coming to China’ or, philosophically, ‘what is the purpose of Buddhism?’ (from the introductory ‘The Basic Structure of ‘The Records’).

The ’lamp’ continued to pass, sequentially, through other patriarchs until there was a split into two perceptions of how one may attain enlightenment. The Sixth Patriarch, Huineng, asserted that there is a way other than endless readings of the Dharma and the performance of ‘Zazen’ (sitting contemplation). He himself achieved enlightenment “suddenly.”

… on the next day, the (fifth) Patriarch secretly went to Huineng’s room and asked, “Should not a seeker after the Dharma risk his life this way?” Then he asked, “is the rice ready?” Huineng responded that the rice was ready and only waiting to be sieved. The Patriarch secretly explained the Diamond Sutra to Huineng, and when Huineng heard the phrase “one should activate one’s mind so it has no attachment,” he was “suddenly and completely enlightened, and understood that all things exist in self-nature. The Dharma was passed to Huineng at night, when the Patriarch transmitted “the doctrine of sudden enlightenment” as well as his robe and bowl to Huineng. He told Huineng, “You are now the Sixth Patriarch. Take care of yourself, save as many sentient beings as you can, and spread the teachings so they will not be lost in the future.”

Liang Kai, The Sixth Patriarch Cutting the Bamboo, Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD)

… Most of what we know about Huineng comes from the Platform Sutra, which consists of the record of a public talk that includes an autobiography of Huineng, which was a hagiography, i.e. a biography of a saint portraying him as a hero… The Sutra became a very popular text to be circulated around, attempting to increase the importance of this exclusive lineage of Huineng. As a result, the account might have been altered over the centuries. Shenhui (685-758) was the first person to claim that Huineng was both a saint and a hero. As a result of this contested claim, modifications were made to the Platform Sutra… (Wikipedia)

Despite questions about who said what, when, and for what purpose, we find this on the website of the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia:

… during the Chinese Tang Dynasty, the 6th Chinese Chan Patriarch, Hui-neng (638-713 C.E) founded the Sudden School of Chan Buddhism which paved (the way) for the subsequent development of Chan/Zen Buddhism in modern China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam and in the west today… The Buddha-nature, an Ultimate Truth, is discerned when the insubstantiality or selflessness of person, and that of all phenomena, are intuited or insightfully perceived. All forms of substantialism are rejected. The sharpness of Sudden teaching is that the Ultimate Truth is perceived directly instead of the conventional gradual method of progressive cultivation…

Many of us in the West have grown to respect and admire Buddhism but find it mysterious. It is not logical.


*Footnote: Upon reading further since this posting I find that Gautama Buddha (AKA Shakyamuni or Siddhartha) was the 4th Buddha of this kalpa (era). Nonetheless, he is the Buddha after whom all other Indian Buddhas are counted, Nos. 1-28, the last being the first Patriarch of Chinese Buddhism, namely Bohidharma.

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Chan, Dharma, Sudden Enlightenment, Zen and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Records of the Transmission of the Lamp

  1. Indeed many of have come to respect its basic teachings. A mixture of the basic premise of Zen Buddhism and Taoism is a fine way to live your life.

    As with all philosophies, ways of life, or religion, I suppose one must take a view on how literally to interpret their gospels and canons. I prefer to take their spirit to heart rather that their literal content.

    I don’t know whether you have ever read The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People?

    I have no idea whether it is still the practice, but as a young undergraduate reading history at Oxford, we had to read the book in Latin and then be tested on it to prove our worth at the end of our first term. Or was it year? I can’t recall.

    In any event there was some stunning wisdom to be found as well as some abject nonsense. I love Bede’s parable of the sparrow in the mead hall for instance. What I found amusing then and today have come to accept as the absolute faith of that dark age were the endless tales of supposed saints. One had his head chopped off at a crossroads and lo! God made a spring rise at the site of his beheading. And so on.

    Every canon of every religion is full of such mysteries and exaggerations. Perhaps dear old Bede really believed all this stuff. Or perhaps he wrote after an excess of mead inspired inspiration.

    And thus with the Buddhists. Miraculous awakenings and enlightenments, re-births and all the fun of the fair.

    I suppose these days we view most of it as metaphor and charming antiquity.

    Nonetheless I have still learnt much from the basic wisdom of all such ancient texts.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reading books on Buddhism and blogging about it is probably a better use of one’s time than ranting about divisive outrage, as I did in my last post. A Buddhist perspective surely is of greater benefit. Anyway, the sudden enlightenment school of Buddhism seems akin, if not precisely, to Protestantism in the belief that salvation can not be earned through good works.

    This is maybe unsurprising, as both Buddhism and Judeo-Christian traditions arose in the Axial Age. I suspect many other traditions have a similar divide, such as the distinction between religious Taoism and philosophical Taoism, expressing a difference of ritualistic form vs spontaneous experience or something like that.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Vasil Georgiev says:

    Hi Ron, I admire your desire to study the Buddhism in some details. I try to follow your description of the volumes for this religion.Thank you for your blog article on this topic. Best,Vasil


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