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CH'AN (ZEN) BUDDHISM: Outside the Scriptures

THE QUESTION ARISES: Is the practice of Zen, which by its own nature explores or professes the Enlightenment experience as attained by the Buddha and the ancient masters Outside the Doctrine, in direct contrast with or violate the premises of the Buddhist concept of silabbata paramasa (Wrong Practice)? (see)

Zen adherents, when stressing a connection to Buddhism, often cite the Buddha holding up a flower at Vulture Peak and the venerable Mahakashyapa returning a smile and being Enlightened. Thus starting the concept of transmission of the Light beyond scriptures and words.

The following quote on The Transmission of the Light is from Abbot John Daido Loori, M.R.O., given during the Soto School's Tokubetsu sesshin, Spring 1995 and explains rather quickly "Transmission of the Light":

Moreover, the really wonderful thing about the transmission of the light is that it has nothing to do with something going from A to B. We use the word "transmission" but it is a little misleading. The first words out of the Buddha's mouth when he realized himself were: "All sentient beings possess the Tathagatha's wisdom virtue." Each and every one of us. The light that is transmitted is precisely the Buddha wisdom we are born with. Transmission doesn't give us something that is different from or outside of us. It is more a process of discovery, of realizing the inherent perfection that is the life of each one of us. Transmission doesn't happen at any one point in time. The formality of it may. One day your Dharma brother or sister is walking around with a black kesa, and suddenly the next day they're wearing a brown one - but the process is endless, the practice is endless. Each time we take the bodhi seat we verify and actualize the enlightenment of the Buddha, of all Buddhas past, present and future.

See also Transmission of the Lamp: Early Masters as well as Zen Ancestors and Transmission of Spiritual Power.

Shakyamuni Buddha

Ancestors in India

  1. Mahakashyapa
  2. Ananda
  3. Shanavasin
  4. Upagupta
  5. Dhitika
  6. Mishaka
  7. Vasumitra
  8. Buddhanandi
  9. Buddhamitra
  10. Parshva
  11. Punyayasha
  12. Anabodhi
  13. Kipimala
  14. Nagarjuna
  15. Kanadeva
  16. Rahulabhadra
  17. Samghanandi
  18. Samghayathata
  19. Kumaralata
  20. Shayata
  21. Vasubandhu
  22. Manorata
  23. Haklenayasha
  24. Simhabodhi
  25. Bashashita
  26. Punyamitra
  27. Prajnadhara
  28. Bodhidharma

Ancestors in China

  1. Bodhidharma
  2. Hui-k'o
  3. Seng-ts'an
  4. Tao-hsin
  5. Hung-jen
  6. Hui-neng
  • Ch'ing-yüan Hsing-ssu
  • Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien
  • Yüeh-shan
  • Yün-yen
  • Dong-shan
  • Yün-chü
  • Daopi
  • Tongan
  • Liang-shan
  • Dayang
  • Tousi
  • Daokai
  • Danxia
  • Wkong
  • Zongjue
  • Zhijian
  • Rujing
  • Dogen
  • Ejo


Those who conceive of a Ch'an identity independent of Buddhist teaching do not understand that "the scriptures (ching) are the words of the Buddha, and meditation (ch'an) is the thought of the Buddha; there is no discrepancy whatsoever between what the Buddha conceives in his mind and what he utters with his mouth.

Tsan-ning (919-1001)

Although Zen is recognized as a legitimate denomination of Buddhism many people think it seeks to transmit the spirit of Buddhism without demanding allegiance to the teachings of the Buddha. It's claimed thrust is beyond the Doctrines often using not the scriptures of the Buddha, but what is called Mondo and Koans to reveal truths from within which will inturn unfold bodhi (Enlightenment). Some even bypass that. In either case it is an attempt for a direct Transmission of the Light outside the scriptures.

Many critics see Zen Buddhism as non-religious AND non-Buddhist. Zen-adherents see it as an attempt to shortcut "reaching" Enlightenment by going around all the bells and whistles, Enlightenment being the only true and actual goal of all the Buddhist precepts. As you can see from the above list, however, and regardless of what one says, if taken to be an accurate representation, there is a direct lineage from the Buddha to the Zen patriarchs. However, in so saying, the concept of lineage is not totally without controversy. Bodhidharma himself is sometimes refered to as no more that mere legend or myth. That "myth" theme is explored in T'ang Ch'an and the Myth of Bodhidharma

Zen or Ch'an Buddhism is a movement within the Buddhist religion that stresses the practice of meditation as the means to Enlightenment. The words Zen and Ch'an are, respectively, Japanese and Chinese attempts to render the Sanskrit term for meditation: Dhyana.

Zen's roots may be traced to India, but it was in East Asia, that is, China and eventually Japan, that the movement became distinct and flourished. Like other Chinese Buddhist orders, Ch'an first established itself as a lineage of masters emphasizing the teachings of a particular text, in this case the Lankavatara Sutra. Bodhidharma, the first Ch'an Patriarch in China, who is said to have arrived there from India c. 470 AD, was a master of this text. He also emphasized the practice of contemplative sitting, and legend has it that he himself spent 9 years in meditation facing a wall. See:


With the importance of lineages, Ch'an stressed the master-disciple relationship, and Bodhidharma was followed by a series of patriarchs each of whom received the Dharma (religious truth) directly from his predecessor and teacher. By the 7th century, however, splits in the line of transmission began to develop, the most important of which was between Shen-hsiu (606-706) and Hui-neng (638-713), disciples of the Fifth Patriarch, Hung-jen. According to legend, Hui-neng defeated Hung-jen in a stanza writing competition, thereby demonstrating his Enlightenment. He was then secretly named the Sixth Patriarch but had to flee south for fear of his rival's jealousy.

The split between Shen-hsiu and Hui-neng accounts for the southern and northern branches of Ch'an, which competed vigorously for prestige and state support. Hui-neng's branch dominated in the long run, and a T'ang Dynasty Imperial Decree in 796 settled the matter in his favor posthumously. By then, however, Hui-neng's branch was itself beginning to subdivide into several different schools.

The subsequent history of Ch'an in China was mixed. It suffered from the great persecution of Buddhism in 845. It recovered better than many Buddhist schools, however, partly because, in contrast to other monastic communities, Ch'an monks engaged in physical labor, which made them less dependent on state and lay support. During the Sung Dynasty (960-1279), Ch'an again prospered and was a leading influence on the development of Chinese art and neo-Confucian culture.

It was during this period that Ch'an was first established in Japan. Within 30 years of each other, two Japanese monks, Eisai (1141-1215) and Dogen (1200-53), went to China, where they trained respectively in the Lin-chi (Rinzai) and Dong-shan (Soto) schools of Ch'an. These they then introduced into Japan. Rinzai emphasizes the use of Koans, mental stumbling blocks or riddles that the meditator must solve to the satisfaction of his master. Soto lays more stress on seated meditation without conscious striving for a goal through Zazen, although Dogen's meditation method, "just sitting" or Shikantaza is in a class of its own. Both schools fostered good relations with the shoguns and became closely associated with the Japanese military class. Rinzai in particular was highly influential during the Ashikaga period (1338-1573), when Zen played an important role in propagating neo-Confucianism and infusing its own unique spirit into Japanese art and culture.

The heart of Zen monasticism is the practice of meditation; it is this feature that has been most popular in Zen's spread to the West. Zen meditation highlights the experience of Enlightenment, or Satori (Chinese: wu), and the possibility of attaining it in this life. The strict training of Zen monks, the daily physical chores, the constant wrestling with koans, the long hours of sitting in meditation, and the special intensive periods of practice (sesshin) are all directed toward this end.

At the same time, Enlightenment is generally thought of as being sudden. The meditator needs to be jolted awake, and the one who typically initiates this is the seeker's master, although there are many, many instances of Enlightenment occuring "out of the blue" that is, from hearing a sound, feeling the wind, seeing a star, etc., when "the mind is ripe." The master-disciple relationship often involves private interviews (dokusan) in which the Zen trait of unconventionality sometimes comes to the fore. The master allows no refuge in the Buddha or the sutras but demands from his disciple a direct answer to his assigned koan. Conversely, the master may goad the disciple by remaining silent or compassionately help him out, but with the constant aim of trying to cause a breakthrough from conventional to Absolute Truth.

THE QUESTION ARISES: Is the practice of Zen, which by its own nature explores or professes the Enlightenment experience as attained by the Buddha and the ancient masters Outside the Doctrine, in direct contrast with or violate the premises of the Buddhist concept of silabbata paramasa (Wrong Practice)?

For the answer to that question click HERE.

Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.








  1. Sudden or Gradual Enlightenment?

  2. ENLIGHTENMENT: Can You Do It?

  3. ZEN: Is It Buddhism?