Commentary: Three Levels of Transmission

Photo by Penni Gladstoneby Lewis Richmond

Recently I empowered two of my senior students—Rinso Ed Sattizahn and Kuzan Peter Schireson—as full-fledged independent Zen teachers, in a weeklong ceremony we call dharma transmission in the Soto Zen tradition of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. The ceremony has many aspects, but two are paramount: lineage and precepts. As I studied these aspects of the ceremony, I found it useful to understand each of them as having three levels: outer, inner, and innermost.

Lineage means a succession of generations. Lineage was particularly important for the emerging Zen tradition of seventh-century China, which gained credibility with the more established Buddhist sects of the time by tracing an unbroken line of “mind to mind transmission” back to Buddha. This is the outer aspect of lineage, and in Zen we have a list of over ninety names, going back through Japan, China, and India, that define this succession. Modern scholars have pointed out that, particularly in India, this list is somewhat fictitious. Many of the teachers on the list did not live during the same time as those said to be their teachers, and there is a total exclusion of women. (Myoan Grace Schireson and Zoketsu Norman Fischer have been instrumental in reintroducing the women ancestors to the American Soto Zen community.)

But while the scholars may be right in a technical sense, there is still something deep and profound in lineage that cannot be denied. There is some palpable continuity in the conveyance of wisdom from teacher to disciple that is alive for us. I see this continuity as the inner meaning of lineage. We are bonded to these generations of men and women, whoever they were and whenever they might have lived.

When you spend a week immersing yourself in lineage, it becomes deeper than an idea, and you actually start to feel its presence in your body and the surrounding space. This is the innermost aspect. I would not go so far as to say that the ancestors appear in the room as ghosts or spirits, but it sometimes feels that way. Many traditional cultures feel that their ancestors are with them, providing guidance and support through dreams, visions, and intuition. Lineage in this sense is not just Buddhist; it is a primal human experience.

As for precepts, these too appear in multiple levels. In an outer sense, precepts are the ethical guidelines of sila first taught by the Buddha and kept by all Buddhist traditions. In an inner sense, precepts are the person you have become, the life you have lived, and the actions that you take. Dharma transmission ceremonially honors all of that. And in an innermost sense, precepts are the universal, transpersonal moral glue that ties everything together.

The weeklong ceremony took place at Empty Nest Zendo, a remote mountain temple led by abbess Myoan Grace Schireson, who was kind enough to host the event, since I do not have a physical temple of my own. I was assisted in the ceremony by Zoketsu Norman Fischer, another senior teacher in our Suzuki tradition. As it happens, Ed, Peter, and I all personally knew Suzuki Roshi, so the ceremony was partly a way of honoring the decades that the three of us have spent, separately and together, continuing and deepening the zazen practice that he taught us.

The ceremony is elaborate, meticulous, and rather exhausting. Nevertheless, the feeling of it is transformative and empowering, both for teacher and disciples. When I was young, I scorned ritual as something hollow and artificial; that is how ritual seems if one only perceives the outer level of the ritual. But when the inner feeling awakens—in this case expressing the intimacy between teacher and student—the ritual comes alive. And at its innermost level, dharma transmission honors the personal relationship that teacher and disciple share with the ancestors and the wisdom they have imparted. It works much like a marriage ceremony. Two people may live together for years and say marriage doesn’t matter to them, but once they seal their relationship with ritual and vow and become part of their own family tradition, things change. It’s not just about the wedding or the individuals anymore.

Ritual is the ancient language of human bond. It can be simple or complex, short or long, but it counts, and it works. In one sense, Gautama the Buddha brought rationality and careful observation into the religious sphere; he was an early pioneer of reason. But not everything in the universe is rational. There are the mysteries of love, intuition, and prophetic dreaming, for example. Like the transmission ceremony itself, the universe expresses itself in multiple ways.

I am glad transmission week is over; physically it was hard. But I also feel a lightness of being and sense of respect and gratitude to my tradition and all my teachers. When I took my priest vows with Suzuki Roshi forty years ago, I never imagined it would come to this, but now it has.

Lewis Richmond is a Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and the author of Aging as a Spiritual Practice (Gotham 2012).