Lineage (Buddhism)

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Chan and Zen Buddhism maintain records of their historical teachers who have passed the Dharma from generation to generation in an unbroken line since the time of the Buddha. This vertical line is a lineage of ancestors which provides validation of the Chan/Zen experience of the teachers of the present generation. The act of passing the dharma to a new teacher and thereby extending lineage is referred to as dharma transmission.

Some of the links in the chain have been seriously challenged by historians such as Charles Yampolsky. In particular, there is little or no other evidence linking any of Indian teachers before Bodhidharma to the Zen sect specifically. Even so the concept of lineage remains useful. Even if a lineage cannot verifiably be linked all the way back to the time of the Buddha, at least having several generations of undeniably unbroken Dharma transmission provides some validation of the consistency of the experience and teaching that is transmitted along that line.

For the Chan and Zen traditions the first Patriarch in the lineage after the Buddha was Mahakasyapa. Thereafter there were another 26 ancestors in India before Bodhidharma travelled to the East to carry the Dharma to China in the 5th century CE.

Six generations later Huineng was the famous 6th Chinese Patriarch (33rd in line from the Buddha) in the 7th century CE. As Chan subsequently flourished in China there were many branches in the lineage, some of which later died out and some of which continue unbroken to the present day.

Some of these lines were transmitted to Japan, establishing the Zen tradition. Perhaps the most famous of these transmissions to Japan was that of Dogen who travelled to China for Chan training in the 13th century CE, and after receiving Dharma transmission in the Caodong line he returned to Japan and established the Soto line. The Linji line was also tranmitted to Japan where it became known as the Rinzai line.

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