The Poetry of Buddhism

On November 2 of last year, I wrote about my interest in reading the Records of the Transmission of the Lamp. It has to do with the “transmission” of the essential teachings (Dharma) of Buddhism from one teacher (“patriarch”) to the next in a line of succession beginning with Siddhartha Gautama (also known as Buddha Shakyamuni), starting in India and thence into China.

Buddhism is observed by a half-billion people in the world:

Religion by Country 2020

Seated Buddha: Sarnath Museum , Sarnath, India

Christianity – 2.38 billion
Islam – 1.91 billion
Hinduism – 1.16 billion
Buddhism – 507 million
Folk Religions – 430 million
Other – 61 million
Unaffiliated – 1.19 billion

Buddhism is more of a ‘way’ than a religion. There have been many buddhas. The Buddha who is referred to most often, Buddha Shakyamuni, was not and is not a god. He is an ‘enlightened one’ who showed others how also to become enlightened. Any and each of us can become a buddha or, more precisely, realize the buddha within.

This Way has passed down to Shakyamuni’s successor patriarchs (masters, teachers), by tradition, with a gatha (four-line poem) in a formal transmission shortly before the master’s death or retirement.

Gathas of the Patriarchs, upon transmitting the Dharma to their Successors
(Death dates, where noted, are according to Japanese sources)

Shakyamuni/Gautama Buddha

Dharma’s original Dharma is no-dharma
The Dharma of no-dharma is also a dharma
When no-dharma is being transmitted
How could this Dharma of dharmas be a Dharma?

1st successor: Mahakasyapa, died 905 BCE

Each thing’s original Dharma
Is neither a Dharma, nor a non-dharma
How could there be a Dharma or a non-dharma
In any dharma?

2nd Ananda

Originally handed down is the Dharma
Having been handed down it is called no-dharma
Everyone must awaken it to themselves
Having awoken to it nothing is not Dharma

3rd Sanakavasa, died 805 BCE

Wheel of Dharma

It is neither a dharma or a heart
For neither heart nor dharmas exist
When talking of heart and dharma
This Dharma is not the heart or the dharma

4th Upagupta, died 760 BCE

Heart is Heart from the very beginning
Yet the Original Heart is not an existent dharma
Where Dharma is, there is Original Heart
Yet it is neither a heart nor an original dharma

5th Dhirtaka

Penetrating the Dharma of the Original Heart
There is neither Dharma nor no-dharma
Awakened is the same as not-yet awakened
For there is neither the Heart nor Dharma

6th Micchaka

There is no Heart, nothing to be obtained
Talk of obtained cannot be called Dharma
Understanding Heart as no-heart
Is beginning to understand the Heart of the Heart-Dharma

Forest Buddha,

7th Vasumitra, died 588 BCE

The Heart is like the realm of empty space
Revealing the quality of empty dharmas
When emptiness is experienced
There are no dharmas, neither good nor bad

8th Buddhanandi, died 533 BCE

Emptiness is without inside or outside
The Heart of the Dharma is also like this
If emptiness is understood
This permeates the principle of true Suchness

9th Buddhamitra, died 495 BCE

The True Principle originally has no name
Yet words can clarify the True Principle
On coming to the True Real Dharma
It is neither a true, nor a false one

10th Parshva, died 417 BCE

The true essence is naturally true
Being true it is said to have principle;
Real understanding of this is the True Dharma
There is no going, also no abiding

11th Punyayashas, died 401-376? BCE

Delusion and awakening are light darkness and light
Light and dark are not mutually exclusive
Now, handing over the Dharma of darkness and light
It is neither one nor is it two

12th Ashvagosha, died 332 BCE

Hidden and revealed in the Great Dharma
Awakening and ignorance are originally not-two
Now, passing on the awakened understanding of the Dharma
It is not something to take or leave

13th Kapimala, died 274 BCE

Neither a concealed nor a revealed Dharma
It expounds the region of True Reality
Awakened to this Dharma concealed and revealed
It is neither foolish nor wise

Nagarjuna and Aryadeva as Two Great Indian Buddhist Scholastics

14th Nagarjuna, died 212 BCE

To clarify the Dharma, concealed and revealed
Just the principle of liberation is spoken of
But if the Heart does not get caught up in Dharma
Then neither joy nor anger exists

15th,  Aryadeva 157 BCE

To the person actually receiving Dharma-transmission
It is spoken of as the principle of emancipation
Yet in the Dharma there is really nothing to testify to
For it is without beginning and without end

16th Rahulata, died 113 BCE

In the Dharma truly nothing is to be witnessed
It cannot be grasped or laid aside
Dharma is not a form existent or non-existent
So, how could inside and outside arise then?

17th Sanghanandi, died 74 BCE

The heart-ground is originally birthless
The causal ground arises from relative causes
Relative cause and seed do not impede each other
The flower and fruit also respond thus

18th Gayasata, died 13 BCE

There is the seed and there is the heart-ground
Primary and secondary causes can bring forth the fruit
In the secondary cause there is no obstruction
It is born ever again yet it is unborn

In Chiangmai, Thailand, 2014

19th Kumarata, died 23 CE

The True Nature is supreme, originally birthless
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?

20th Jayata, died 74 CE

To be in union with the Unborn through one word
Is to be united with the nature of the Dharma realm
If one can be liberated like this
Penetration of Relative and Absolute is complete

21st Vasubandhu, died 125? CE

Bubbles and shadows are both without obstructions
So how could there not be awakening?
The penetration of dharmas goes through their middle
There is no present, there is no past

22nd Manorhita, died 167? CE

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

Buddha’s Lesson on Forgiveness

23rd Haklena

One Dharma is all dharmas
All dharmas are units of a single Dharma
My body is neither existent nor non-existent
Why divide into so many stupas?

24th Aryasimha

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.

25th Basiasita, died 325 CE

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

26th Punyamitra

The True Nature is the treasury of the Heart-ground
It has neither head nor tail
Affinity is a condition for the transformation of things
For convenience it is called wisdom

27th Prajnatara, died 457 CE

In Heart-ground are all seeds
Due to phenomena principle also arises
Fruit ripened is Bodhi completed
The flower opens and worlds arise


28th Indian Patriarch
1st Chinese Patriarch, Bodhidharma

I originally came to this land
To transmit the Dharma and save deluded beings
To be a flower that unfolds five petals*
From which a fruit will ripen naturally

*The future five schools (houses) of Chan/Zen Buddhism

2nd Chinese Patriarch Hui-kho, died 592 CE

In the beginning because there was ground
A flower was planted then bloomed
If in the future there is no ground
Where will the flowers come from?

3rd Seng-ts’an, died 606 CE

Flower seeds need to have ground
From the ground is how flowers grow
But if a seed lacks the nature to grow
Even in the ground it won’t grow

4th Tao-sin, died 651 CE

Flower seeds have the nature to grow
They grow when they’re planted in the ground
But if karmic causes don’t come together
Nothing at all will grow

5th Hung-jin, died 673 CE

A sentient being plants a seed
An insentient flower blooms
Without sentient beings or seeds
The mind would be a barren ground


6th Hui-neng, died 713 CE

The ground of the mind contains living seeds
When the Dharma rains flowers grow
Once you find a flower’s living seeds
The fruit of enlightenment follows

Toward the end of his life Hui-neng left his followers with a verse called The Liberation of Seeing the Real Buddha in Your Nature:

The pure nature of suchness in the real buddha
The three poisons[1] of falsehood are the real mara (demon)
People who see falsely have a mara in their house
People who see truly have a Buddha as their guest.

When the Three Poisons of Falsehood appear in your nature
The king of all maras makes himself at home
When true views drive the Poisons from your mind
The mara becomes a buddha, a real one not a false one.

The transformation, realization, and the dharma body
All three bodies[2] are basically one
If you search inside you this is what you’ll find
The cause of enlightenment that leads to Buddhahood.

From the transformation body your pure nature rises
Your pure nature dwells in the transformation body
And leads you down the path of truth
Where future perfection has no limit.

— (verse omitted)

If the direct teaching makes sense to you in this life
You will understand before you is a buddha
If you try to find a buddha through your practice
I wonder where you’ll find on that’s real.

If you can find something real inside yourself
This something real is the cause of buddhahood
Don’t look for a buddha outside what is real
All those who go in search for one are fools.

This direct teaching came here from the West (India)
But liberating others is up to you to practice
I urge you students of the Way today
Don’t act so depressed when you hear this.

Here is an interpretation of this verse and commentary from The Platform Sutra, Translation and Commentary by Red Pine:

See your nature and become a buddha. Where else are we going to find a buddha? Bodhidharma put it this way: “Beyond this mind you’ll never find another buddha. To search for enlightenment or nirvana beyond this mind is impossible. The reality of your own self-nature, not something that is a cause or an effect, this is what is meant by the mind. Your mind is nirvana. You might think you can find a buddha or enlightenment somewhere beyond the mind, but such a place doesn’t exist.”[3]

[1] Delusion, greed, anger

[2] Body of realization (future and perfect body), body of manifestation (transformation body), body of reality (dharmakaya)

[3] From the Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma, p.9

NB: Translations of the gathas from Indian patriarchs are from volume 1 of Records of the Transmission of the Lamp. Translations of the gathas from Chinese patriarchs including Bodhidharma are from Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma.