The quotation above is a translation of the last two lines of the gatha of Dharma transmission by Punyamitra, the 26th Indian Buddhist Patriarch, given to his successor Punyatara, the 27th Patriarch, in a succession of patriarchs following the death of Shakyamuni (Gautama Buddha), the ‘enlightened one’.
The 27th Patriarch likewise, upon his imminent release, transmitted the Dharma to his successor, the 28th Indian Patriarch, Bodhidharma who ultimately left India around 500 CE to introduce the Dharma to China, as Chan Buddhism (later, Zen, in Japan). He thus became the first Buddhist patriarch of that country, and another succession of Patriarchs began there.
The present account is about the Indian Patriarchs.
I have as my main reference the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp, the first of its 30 volumes.
As I read through the book, I recorded the four-line poems purportedly enunciated shortly before the death of Shakyamuni and the succeeding Patriarchs. Before each poem, or gatha, is a record of conversation between the Patriarch and others which, many times, included other poems.
My recording of the final gathas was an attempt to get at the essence of what the Patriarchs were ‘transmitting’, both to their successors and the world.
Here are a few more quotes to take us toward an understanding of what was, and continues to be, transmitted by Buddhist teachers.
Everyone must awaken the Dharma to themselves
Having awoken to it, nothing is not Dharma
– Second Patriarch
The Heart is like the realm of empty space
– Seventh Patriarch
As it is said to one who seeks—
That since there is nothing to acquire in the Dharma
Why cherish certainties one way or another?
– Nineteenth Patriarch
The heart flows with the cycles of the ten-thousand things
These cycles are truly mysterious
Follow the flow and know,
The True Nature is without joy or sorrow
– Twenty-second Patriarch
When speaking truly about knowing-awareness
The Knowing-awareness is all Heart
Since it is heart that is Knowing-awareness,
Knowing-awareness is the present moment
– Twenty-fourth Patriarch
The sage talks of knowing awareness
In the world it is neither right nor wrong
As I realize the True Nature now
It is neither a path nor a principle
– Twenty-fifth Patriarch
In Heart-ground are all seeds
Due to phenomena principle also arises
Fruit ripened is Bodhi completed
The flower opens and worlds arise
– Twenty-seventh Patriarch
Two excerpts from the extensive text which introduces the biographies and utterances of the Patriarchs:
“Emptiness may be better understood as Relatedness… Buddhism is based on a spiritual ‘practice of relativity’ applicable in any life situation. Quite simply the practice functions as if everything were related to everything else.”
“… if everything is related to everything else, then there cannot exist a self-subsisting essence of any kind that could be called an independent, nuclear, permanent Self.”
The ending passage of the introductory remarks:
“The future would see the Chan seed transplanted to Korea and Japan, to take root and flourish there… (These 30 volumes record) the spiritual activity of a thousand sages, the life artery of the heroic Patriarchs. Some seven hundred years of practice later and still going strong, Chan became, through the Japanese scholar Daisetz T. Suzuki, a movement known world-wide as ‘Zen’. Even those with a limited interest in the Zen of our times are often familiar with Song Dynasty Chan’s great verse, the first mature proclamation of its message to the world, which appeared in 1108 and reads:
A special transmission outside the teachings
Not standing on the written word
Pointing directly to the human heart
See into its nature and become Buddha
In traditional Buddhism, there probably is a close connection between the tendency toward poetry and the view of a bundled mind. The origins of the bundled mind comes from the bicameral mind and, before that, the animistic mind. This is the foundation of the human psyche.
There is an argument that in early civilization language spoken more often happened as memorized sayings that were expressed in poetry and song. All of this is grounded in the spoken word. Even these written texts were the direct recordings of oral teachings.
The Buddhist transmission from patriarch to successor, across millennia, happened from direct teaching. These texts record that transmission, but they are not enlightenment itself. The spoken word is a living essence. That is what gets lost in our text-based egoic consciousness.
Throughout my (translated) readings I see the contradiction that True Enlightenment does not depend on reading all the texts, yet much is written. The Sixth Chinese Patriarch, Huineng, was almost illiterate, yet he achieved “sudden Enlightenment” upon hearing the words of the Fifth Patriarch. Huineng later founded the Southern School of Chan Buddhism based on his “sudden” experience.
The Sixth Chinese Patriarch, the founder of the ‘Southern school’, was almost illiterate but achieved Enlightenment upon hearing a gatha of the Fifth Patriarch, “suddenly”‘ This suddenness had nothing to do with all the written scriptures, which still bothers some Buddhists of the Northern and other schools.
(This second reply is due my thinking the first one didn’t ‘take’.
Maybe it’s not a contradiction. There are simply two mentalities that are to varying degrees overlapping and competing. The bundled mind never went away with the collapse of bicameral civilization. It simply was altered and obscured, like the orality that simultaneously gets lost and saved in being recorded.
Some of the Axial Age wisdom teachers rediscovered or resurrected insights into the bundled mind, at the very moment it was weakening. The Axial Age prophets were often illiterate themselves or at least still part of largely oral cultures, in either case meaning they taught through spoken word. The traces of the bicameral mind were still present and respected, such as the illiterate oracles.
Like those ancient oracles, neither Buddha nor Jesus wrote down their own words. In Jesus’s case, no one wrote anything about him until long after he was gone. The same was true of the Old Testament figures who were part of oral traditions that were only written down during the Axial Age. This continued with post-Axial Age prophets like Mohammad, likewise illiterate.
Their illiteracy may have been necessary, as Julian Jaynes argues, for their retaining access to the vestigial bicameral mind. These and later texts that recorded the spoken word represent the ongoing transition as oral culture receded during the Axial Age and further receded following that. In most of the world, oral culture remained dominant until quite recently and so these ancient oral traditions maintained a certain resonance.
Consider the illiterate Harriet Tubman. She was known to speak to God who spoke back to her. And the African American religiosity of the time, because of slavery, was forced to be an oral tradition. Much of this involved singing as a way of not only expressing but communicating.
That is what is being forgotten now as the last traces of traditional oral culture are eliminated from living memory. It might be harder and harder for future generations to grasp what those Axial Age prophets were saying. Or maybe new media (radio, 24/7 news, YouTube, podcasts, audiobooks, etc.) is going to cause a renaissance of the spoken word and hence oral culture.
In that case, the Axial Age teachings could become even more compelling and potent. But they also will likely be transformed with the emergent forms of the bundled mind. To detect early signs of where we are heading, one might look to developments in oral culture, specifically in poetry and music. It’s hard to know what might result from this media-induced shift.
The older generations, especially on the political right, like to criticize what they perceive as increasing relativism. These older folk were raised in a more text-based age where text creates the perception of a single truth. The writing down of oral traditions freezes wisdom and makes it a dead word, a linguistic corpse to be idolized and worshipped. That is why the literalism of fundamentalism didn’t fully take hold until literacy became widespread in modernity.
Rather than this relativity being new, it might be seen as a return of the oral mindset that tends to not seeing things as literal absolutes. In an oral worldview, there are many voices. Literate culture is where the authority of text speaks down to the reader who submissively receives without being able to talk back. But oral culture is built on living voices in conversation. And this is magnified by new media, specifically social media. There might be the return of the oral experience of a world alive with voices.
To a degree, that has already happened with how much the new media has already been internalized and normalized among the young generations who can’t imagine a single voice of authorization to which one must bow down to as the final truth. The older generations struggle with this because they don’t know how to deal with all these competing voices of authorization. A new oral culture will have to form to create order out of the perceived chaos, so as to allow for people to make sense of the cacophany.
Reading the texts from when oral traditions were written down might be quite informative to us in this moment. The uneasy relationship between spoken word and written text is coming to a new point of difficulty and possibly conflict. Notice how the ideological wars have take on the form of media wars. Even old school religion is being transformed as it gets translated into new media.
A growing divide won’t be between, for example, the religious and non-religious. Rather, whether within or outside of religion, it will be a generational gap. Even now, younger evangelicals hold very different, often progressive, views compared to older evangelicals. Could this be caused by a change in mediated experience, identity, and ways of relating? Early signs of this maybe could be seen with why a generation of Westerners raise on television were more open to embracing Eastern religious practices.
Just some thoughts, as always.
Worthy, useful thoughts, as always…
That is very much the view I have come to myself Ron. I may be quite learned by the standards of the Sixth Chinese Patriarch but enlightenment does not depend upon learning. It depends on a non learnt wisdom, a seeing through the veil. A feeling almost. The recognition that most of what you see around you is nonsense. Seeing through to the true nature of reality, abandoning human conceits and concerns except for the necessity to live in peace and harmony with all around your.
I am simplifying, unloading stuff (literally and figuratively). slowing (a function of advanced age, no doubt), pausing often to perceive the beauty around me.
Hi Ron, Thank you for the second article of yours series on Buddhism. I have read them and realized I’m too far away of this religion. Actually, when I was in Japan in 1990, and in Particular at the Department of Pharmacology, Kurume Medical University, the scientific staff of the Department was too polite to introduce me to the Buddhism ceremony at the University. I was just a attendant and watcher. That was my experience with the Buddhism in Japan. It is interesting to see that you go too deeply in studying the history of this religion. Very good brain gymnastics!As I mentioned Vassi spends his time as working from home. For this reason he uses his laptop and also the computer on which I usually work. Thus my computer time is rather limited.In the meantime I have been ill for the whole week from seasonal inflammation of the upper respiratory tract i.e. rhino-pharingo-tracheo-bronhitis. I do hope not to be COVID-19. I watch myself very carefully. I still keep the room. I have no temperature. The only treatment which I apply is inhalations with sodium bicarbonate. I haven’t taken yet the anti influenza vaccine.I wish you good health and fruitful work with Buddhism.Vas
Thanks for reading and commenting on my stuff, Vasil, even if it isn’t your cup of tea. I don’t expect any further (written) expIorations on the subject, for a while at least. I do hope your URI will dissipate quickly. No issues here except my chronic rhinitis.