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.