The Myth of a Third Zen Lineage
Kurt Spellmeyer September 24, 2015

About a month ago, Adam Tebbe, Sweeping Zen’s executive editor, asked me to write on the history of our community, the Cold Mountain Sangha, which appears to be the sole representative of Obaku Zen in the United States. He explained that many readers might want to learn more about this lesser-known third lineage. I’m happy to comply with his request. But the arrival of Obaku Zen—or its non-arrival, as I hope to show–raises larger questions about what we mean by “transmission” and “lineage,” ideas which have played such an important part in Zen for many centuries.

These terms have become so commonplace that their meaning and value might seem self-evident, but they are really much more slippery than we normally assume. As Zen students we ought to know by now that when anything seems “natural” and “real,” we should be thinking, “Beware! Beware!” If the truth is “beyond words,” as we say, then we should use these words much more skillfully than we sometimes do. That is, we should see right through them to their fundamental emptiness.

More than once, I have met people who say the word Soto with special emphasis when they talk about their practice. I’ve noticed too that the Zen groups listed in Tricycle’s Dharma Directory usually identify themselves as practitioners of a specific school: not “Zen” but “Rinzai Zen.” I understand, but all the same, this makes me uneasy.

The first Zen master I studied with–and then later left–was as kindly a person as you might ever meet, yet he told stories that cast an unflattering light on the “other school of Zen.” Describing a certain samurai’s spontaneous experience of kensho on the eve of a fateful battle, the teacher might say something like this: “As the warrior was staring at the waterfall, it just appeared to stop—the droplets and ripples frozen in midair. Transfixed, he sat motionless for hours, not knowing what had happened. Rousing himself, he went to the nearby Soto temple, but no one there could explain. They don’t know about kensho at all. But then he went to see Hakuin Zenji, the great Rinzai sage. Hakuin could explain everything!” Perhaps this teacher is an extreme case, but Japanese Buddhism has been sectarian in ways I hope we won’t imitate.

Yet even though we understand the problems it creates, lineage is a fascinating idea. People who already know about the Soto and Rinzai branches of Zen often respond quite excitedly when they hear of a mysterious third tradition. In their readings on Zen history or in their koan training, most of these people have already come across the name Obaku (Ch. Huangbo), the Tang dynasty Ch’an master. They wonder, as I would if I were in their place, how Obaku’s Zen might differ from Rinzai’s rough-and-tumble style, with its emphasis on actively cutting through psychological barriers, or from Soto’s gentler practice, shikan taza, often described as “just sitting.”

Imagining a third, unknown tradition feels a bit like going back to the early days when we first discovered Zen. In those days, the possibilities seemed limitless, or at least they did to me. Every new detail promised to open up vistas of fresh experience that could lead to enlightenment. You might recall the very first time you recited the Heart Sutra in those mysterious Japanese syllables:



Because the words meant nothing in themselves, they might have affected you quite powerfully. As you recited them, you might have felt as though your voice had become the voice of openness itself. In your ears, the meaningless syllables might have sounded like pure possibility. Maybe Obaku offers something like that, something we’ve never done before.

Or maybe it has other rituals and practices to restore our beginner’s mind. You might remember your first meal following the oryoki protocol. How you struggled with the chopsticks or tried to slow down and eat mindfully instead of shoveling rice into your mouth! Learning the proper way to bow, or hold your cup, or fold and unfold your kesa–all of these might have helped to change your life, subtly at first, then more profoundly over time.

So what hidden treasures does the Obaku school bring? Do Obaku people meditate on majestic deities like Tara or bodhisattvas like Samantabhadra? Do they hold images in their minds, which they gradually stabilize and make increasingly lifelike? Do they focus on physical sensations like Theravada practitioners, or do they fuse samadhi with the martial arts like the warrior- monks of Shao Lin?

I’m sorry to report that Obaku looks very much like the Rinzai school known to Americans already. In fact, there really is no Obaku school, at least not in the way people might suppose.

The truth is that Rinzai or Linji Zen came from China to Japan many times. The first time, or at least the one that managed to gain a little bit of traction, happened in the twelfth century when it was brought by a monk named Eisai, who had trained at the great Tendai center on Mount Hiei, northeast of Kyoto. Dissatisfied with the state of practice there, Eisai went to China to study at the temple complex on Mt. Tiantai, but on his second trip he learned about the Ch’an or Zen school, then taking China by storm. When Eisai came back to Japan for good, he wanted to import the teachings of this new school, but he faced stiff opposition from the powerful Tendai establishment which enjoyed unrivaled preeminence at the Imperial court. Still, Eisai’s lineage and others’ too, those we know much less about, continued for many generations. In some cases they might have survived until the nineteenth century, when Japanese ultra-nationalists launched an anti-Buddhist campaign that erased much of this complex heritage.

But the story of Rinzai in Japan certainly doesn’t end there. About a hundred years after Eisai, another monk, Daiō Kokushi, went to China where he received dharma transmission from a master named Xutang Zhiyu. Daiō Kokushi’s disciple, Daitō Kokushi, founded the great training temple Daitokuji, and a third generation student, Kanzan Egen, founded Myoshinji, the other major Rinzai temple in Japan, where my lineage father and grandfather both trained—even though they were both Obaku priests.

While other lines of descent have disappeared, the “Otokan lineage” founded by Daio Kokushi is supposed to be the only one that persists in Japan today. But this belief might be mistaken because Rinzai came a third time to Japan in the seventeenth century, brought by the Ming Dynasty Ch’an master Ingen Ryuki (Ch. Yǐnyuán Lóngqí). A prolific writer, brilliant poet and highly skilled calligrapher, Ingen revitalized Ch’an practice in his native Fujian province, where he created a dynamic training center on Mt. Obaku. So revered was he that his reputation soon carried over to Japan, and a prominent monk invited him to come to teach.

When Ingen and his entourage arrived, they created quite a stir. Huge crowds of lay admirers—wealthy merchants in particular–gathered to hear Ingen’s dharma talks. Even senior monks were so impressed that they tried to desert the established lineages in order to affiliate with the Chinese, whose Zen was widely perceived to be more authentic than the local one. Predictably, the Rinzai establishment reacted with alarm, employing every means at its disposal to stem the hemorrhaging of parishioners. Finally, they used their connections to the Emperor to limit the inroads of the Chinese and their Japanese disciples. The new Chinese version of Rinzai came to be known as “Obaku Zen,” named for the mountain and not for the Tang dynasty master. And strict limits were imposed on its growth. When I first read about these details, I would have found it heartening to learn that the Obaku school successfully fought back. But sadly, the conspiracy succeeded. A thwarted Obaku school managed to hold on to a small number of temples, including one presided over by Miyauchi Kanko–the teacher of my teacher, Kangan Webb–who always insisted that his lineage was really Rinzai, no matter what people might say. And now, even though it took some time, Kanko has almost won the argument. Because the Rinzai establishment no longer sees Obaku as a threat, it has warmed up to idea of embracing its estranged brother– the same establishment that looked on us as mortal enemies three hundred years ago. In fact, the two schools now even share a website which, I regret to say, will definitely not rock your world. You can see it for you yourself:

As happens so frequently, political and economic conflicts lay behind distinctions which were later justified on some other grounds. Much the same thing happened in Tibet with the outlawing of the Jonang school, which had for centuries inspired some of the country’s most brilliant scholar-practitioners, including the great Taranatha, whose thinking has some affinities with Zen. At the moment of the school’s greatest flourishing, the Jonangpa—the Jonang school—had backed the royal house of Ü-Tsang in its struggle with the Fifth Dalai Lama and his Geluk order. The historian Glenn Mullen describes the unfolding of events this way:

These monasteries were closed for political reasons, not religious ones, and their closing had nothing to do with sectarianism. They had supported the Tsangpa king in the uprising, thus committing treason. The Great Fifth believed that they should be closed in order to insure the future stability of the (Tibetan) nation, and to dissuade other monasteries from engaging in warfare.

As usual, Mullen makes a tight case, but the Gelukpas clearly tried to justify their political expediency by denouncing as heretical Jonang ideas about enlightenment. Monasteries were closed or forcibly converted to Geluk institutions. Books were burned and reputations destroyed.

And yet, today, the Dalai Lama—the Fourteenth, not the Fifth–has warmly and quite publicly embraced many Jonang teachings. The Tibetan government in exile now acknowledges the Jonang school as a legitimate Tibetan tradition, and the Dalai Lama has even appointed a Mongolian lama to lead the school as it tries to navigate through the complexities of our globalizing, neoliberal world. Even more remarkable is the news from Tibetan scholars who have “found” that a large number of Jonang monasteries have been operating for centuries under the radar of Lhasa. It’s probably the case that after the Great Fifth, many Tibetans reverted to their former live-and-let-live attitude, and they probably declined to look too closely at whatever was going on in the forty-odd monasteries where, as it turns out, the Jonang teachings have been flourishing.

Whenever we start to imagine that distinctions of lineage are real—between Rinzai, Soto and Obaku, or between the Geluk and the Jonang—we need to remind ourselves of stories like this. It’s worth remembering as well that even the supposedly enormous differences between the Theravada and Mahayana schools didn’t matter much in Buddhist India, where it appears that monks and nuns of both persuasions practiced side by side. Only later did those distinctions assume the importance they have now, intertwined as they have become with the rise of the nation-state and the hardening of ethnic identities.

As the recent violence in Myanmar illustrates—as well as the actions of the Japanese during War War II—the darkest periods in Buddhist history were those when the dharma provided cover for people motivated by a them-against-us mentality. Needless to say, this mentality is completely at odds with essential elements of the Buddha’s teaching. If the narcissism of the “me and mine” is something we can easy recognize as false and destructive, Buddhists have sometimes failed to see the celebration of “us and ours” as a form of narcissism too, a collective narcissism. Such distinctions begin with the “vanity of minor differences,” in the words of a contemporary philosopher. Then, ritualized and repeated countless times, such distinctions morph into habits of mind that can produce terrible results.

Even though Zen’s interest in lineage seems relatively innocuous and should definitely not be blamed for events like the attacks on Moslems in Arakan or the rape of Nanjing by Japanese troops, it can still contribute to the kind of conceptual hardening—the rigidification of our mental lives—that has consequences for us as individuals and for our communities. Think back to your first encounters with Zen, as I suggested you do earlier. Then, ask yourselves what it was that made those moments so powerful. The secret, I would say, was both their form and their emptiness, just as the Heart Sutra would lead us to expect. We need to formulate a “proper” way to bow, a “proper” way to drink your tea or fold your robes. We need “proper” forms of this kind because we are creatures who must live in an imaginary universe made up of words, ideas, images, symbols, myths, and metaphors. Without these, we humans have no way to shape the river of perceptions flowing through us. We have to pick and choose, accept and reject. And by doing so, we can create the illusion of permanence that makes our existence possible. But this illusion can become so real that we forget it’s not, and then we become the prisoners of our own projections. To prevent that from happening, we have to work hard to see through the forms we ourselves have made: we need to see through them to their emptiness. Then change and growth become possible. That’s the whole point of practice.

Lineage and transmission might be understood as a kind of myth—not a lie, mind you, but a myth, which is actually a special kind of truth. “Myth” might be described as the form of truth that openly acknowledges its own emptiness. It openly admits that it has been contrived as a kind of skillful means. It’s not “really real” because we know that we ourselves invented it, but we also recognize that we can’t do without a container to restrain our overflowing experience. And this is what the Heart Sutra means when it declares, “Emptiness is form, form is emptiness.”

As Roshi James Ford has pointed out, many “Zen teachers” in America are nothing of the kind. Self-taught and self-authorized, they often lack any of the accomplishments that would justify a minimum of trust. But on the other hand, lineage isn’t everything. Recent scandals in the Zen community, too numerous to rehearse here, often involved teachers who received legitimate transmissions. It’s worth remembering as well another Ch’an master of the Ming Dynasty, not Ingen this time but Han Shan, “Silly Mountain.” After his Great Awakening, Han Shan couldn’t find a teacher who was qualified to validate his experience. Han Shan had to declare himself awake, but if you read his writings, you’ll probably agree. The same story might told of Hsu Yun, who arguably qualifies as the greatest Ch’an practitioner in the last four hundred years. After reading everything I can find about his life and training, I have yet to turn up evidence that he received transmission of any kind even though he is routinely described as heir to all five Ch’an “houses” or lineages. In fact, it seems he even gave himself his own dharma name. Still, no one can doubt that HsuYun truly qualifies as a “man of Zen.”

By now, your high hopes about Obaku might be dashed. Nothing really special there. But on the other hand, I believe we still need the myth of a “third Zen lineage.” But this lineage won’t be one that comes down to us from China or Japan. Not even from ancient India. It’s the myth of a Zen that’s still emerging, a Zen still on-the-way. And if we’re very lucky, or moderately wise, it will never fully arrive but will always remain a bit ahead of us–in the realm of pure possibility. That’s the Zen I want to practice.