When Bodhidharma leers at you





The following is a summary of my position regarding the fictional Zen/Chan character of Bodhidharma.  I initially posted it on a Polish Buddhist forum in hopes of encouraging followers of the Kwan Um School to notice how Zen genealogies are used as rhetoric of self-display* to lure new members into the fold.  Unfortunately, the discussion was quickly blocked by the moderators and some of it was moved to the subforum reserved only for the members. It was also a prelude to my subsequent permanent ban on this forum, where to this day my nick shows with a warning: user banned.  I’m posting the piece here in a second attempt at promoting dialogue about this serious issue concerning Zen/Chan.

According to Zen/Chan tradition, the essence of Buddhism is transmitted from mind to mind between succeeding patriarchs.  Bodhidharma is known as the 28th patriarch in this succession.  He brought Buddhism from India to China and thus founded Chan.  Succession continued from China to Korea, Japan and by the 19th century, the West.  Buddhism finally came to Poland in the 1970s.

This romantic image of the mind-to-mind transmission of the pure dharma has its flaws, however.  At the beginning of the 20th century, in the Chinese town of Dunhuang, several 8th century Buddhist manuscripts were unearthed.  Some of these documents showed contradictory genealogies of the Chan patriarchs.  The ramifications of this find are expressed by Alan Cole who states, “In the decades that followed this find, it slowly became clear that the Chan genealogies that modern representatives of Chan and Zen cling to are late, clearly reworked versions of earlier efforts to write truth in the bodies of particular Chinese men.”

The phrase, “to write truth into the bodies” refers to a specific interpretation of Buddhism created by Chinese adherents in order to gain legitimacy in their homeland.  Instead of the Indian sutras being the source of Buddhist truth, it was this mind-to-mind transmission of the essence of Buddhism from Shakyamuni to the then current Chinese Chan masters.  In other words, their legitimacy came directly from Buddha himself.

The discovery at Dunhuang has led to the questioning of the historical accuracy of the traditional Chan narrative of transmission of truth through genealogy initiated with Shakyamuni.  In contrast, the Chan narrative carries a transcendental ideology aimed at luring new adherents and explaining masters’ legitimacy in teaching.

In light of this view, I posed this question to a commenter on the aforementioned internet forum:  “Assuming you agree that Bhodidharma is a fictional character and the transmission genealogies are legends, how do you explain the legitimacy of a member of your Zen family - Seung Sahn - being the 78th patriarch and Bodhidharma being the 28th? How can the essence of Buddhism be ‘transmitted’ from a fictional character? We are dealing here, of course, with the most authentic character, and no one in their right mind can challenge that. There remains only one, seemingly insignificant question, which, however, in the context of our story is strangely compelling. Namely, why actually Seung-Sahn occupies 78th place? Does it matter at all? How you, as a person associated with this school, explain to yourself this apparent inconsistency: on the one hand, on the 28th position, you find character, most likely a fictional character (Bodhidharma), that all in all is indifferent to you, and on the other hand, following down the genealogy line on 78th position you find a character, who is already historically authentic, a man who died in 2004? What do you think, what is actually the reason that twenty-first century Zen schools, such as Kwan Um, show this type of information on their official websites?” 

I did not receive an answer for this question and continue to question the use of mythological genealogies being used by Chan in the 21st century.  I was actually advised half-jokingly to contact the person who put that information on the Kwam Um website. My answer was as follows: 

This is not just a purely conventional, symbolic issue. Placing a founder of the school in the account of the legendary patriarchs constituting the traditional genealogy of Chan is primarily a maneuver legitimizing a given contemporary organization. This maneuver makes possible, that such an organization, when seen from the outside world (new students, sponsors, other competing schools) gains prestige, and it can than officially claim to be the one that passes the living Zen. All in all, it really does not matter if a founding father appears on 78th or 79th position in the pecking order. The bottom line is that he is there - that he simply appears on the list. 

Traditionally, that is, during the Chinese Song Dynasty - when the first prototypes of such Chan genealogies were manufactured - being classified in the legendary account in the line extending from Shakyamuni through Bodhidharma and down the line, accounted for the fact that the teacher, the students, and the later followers of his work gained recognition at the imperial court and among the lords sponsoring their clan. That was exactly what allowed Chan Buddhists at that time to take over state monasteries, maintained by the emperors. At last, that was what allowed them to become a hegemon among other Buddhist sects and factions. 

Finally though, the funniest thing is that the main tool to gain applause, prestige and legitimacy, that is, this unique genealogy, designed to link a particular master to Buddha Shakyamuni, presented to all concerned, as an actual record of a series of historical events that occurred in the past, is (in the light of modern historical research) only literary confabulation. Fiction, which, as it is easy to find out, is still officially used by the contemporary Zen schools to lure new acolytes and thus, getting a chance to survive. Seen from this perspective, putting Seung Sahn in the list on 78th position in direct line from Shakyamuni, seems to be a logical maneuver, which will allow to legitimately add in the future another character, the next patriarch, a vessel that can accommodate the 'essence' of the living Zen.”
Right after that, I added:
I hope that this thread will be read by future potential members of this and other similar organizations, who may not know about methods of deception and indoctrination used by such organizations."
At the end, when asked by another participant of that discussion (not declaring affiliation with Kwan Um) about what I had exactly meant by 'this and other similar organizations,' I replied: A propos 'this and other similar organizations,' it's really worth taking careful look at the rest of Zen schools operating in Poland, which in the same manner as Kwan Um, use the 'traditional' genealogical methods of legitimizing their top representatives. (Example 1, Example 2) I am convinced that the issue of the fictional 'lineage', in which their teachers are deftly inscribed, is not discussed at all within these communities.

After this comment, unfortunately, but not surprisingly, no clear answer appeared in the thread, which was shortly closed afterwards, apparently for reasons not directly related to the issue of how Zen Buddhism is promoted in Poland.

And how is it promoted worldwide? Any differently?






Nascent Speculative Non-Buddhism (see: Heuristics (p. 22))