For the next few weeks, Roshi will be focusing on a collection of koans from the “Records of the Transmission of the Lamp”
This collection of 53 koans authored by Keizan in the 12 century CE explores the enlightenment experience of great masters of the past. Roshi took pains to explain to us that this is not a 100% accurate historical record, rather its purpose is to open us to what the process of transmission actually means. The “root case” in this collection is the enlightenment experience of Shakyamuni Buddha. It is interesting to note that this is not the first case in the collection, however. This is because the historical Buddha did not invent realization and he was not the first to experience it. Roshi reminded us that when we look at our own lineage, the Buddha is not the first name on the list. There have been enlightened beings throughout the infinite past in infinite locations throughout the universe.
The Buddha reinforces this thought in his own words in the case about his realization. It is said that the Buddha saw the morning star and achieved enlightenment he said the following…
“I was, am and will be enlightened, together with the whole of the great earth and all its sentient beings, simultaneously.”
To be clear, he did not achieve realization as a separate event only for himself. He achieved it simultaneously with all beings. Simply stated, every being in the universe at all times came to the same realization. How is this possible? This is the heart of the koan!
Roshi then asked us to consider the word, “transmission.” What does it really mean? How would a teacher transmit that which cannot be described? Here Roshi was very clear – no knowledge is being transmitted – you already have it. What is critical, however, is the interpersonal relationship between student and teacher. Our tradition is the passage of the unpassable from teacher to student throughout time. Face to face – nose to nose – eyebrow to eyebrow! It is a very personal and immediate thing. There are no exams, tests, writing, and many times – no speaking. The student appears and the teacher knows that they are ready.
At this point, Roshi talked about his own teacher Ban Roshi. At this time, Japan was a poor country and it was common for parents to offer their children to Zen temples if they could not support them. This happened to Ban Roshi at the age of five. His whole life was spent in service. What did his “Zen career” look like? Did he become accomplished in Zen because he spent decades in the temple? Did realization happen suddenly? Roshi did not say, because it does not matter. It could have taken Ban two weeks or 2 decades – it does not matter. What did matter is his life of service. To monks, students, lay practitioners, and everyday people in Japan.
This topic of transmission is very fraught in the West. Here we are obsessed with credentials. Who was your teacher? Do you have a certificate or diploma proving that you are accomplished? Roshi stated that these things are an illusion. But if there are no “real” credentials, how do you know a teacher is authentic? Does their lineage matter? Is there a valid “Harvard of Buddhism?” Is there a risk that someone wakes one day and declares that they are enlightened and then opens a center? Yes, there is! Is such a person a “fake.” Who knows? Was the sixth patriarch a fake when he was instantly enlightened by simply hearing the Diamond Sutra? What is the standard of transmission? How does a teacher embody the Dharma? Does a teacher act from ego or endless compassion? Roshi was clear – THIS is the standard of transmission. He noted that the Buddha spent his entire life in contact with people. Not just arhats and monks, but everyone – from kings to farmers. It is said that everyone receives the Dharma equally. If the vow is to save all beings, it behooves one to get “out there” and be of service.
Roshi wrapped up by noting that we put far too much importance on “badges” in the West. It is far more important to embody the Bodhisattva vows than be a fully transmitted teacher. We need only to look at the scandals of the past few decades to see the validity of this. The most important moment of our path is not receiving a badge or certificate – it is when we take our vows to save all beings and then follow through.