A lineage in Buddhism is a record of teachers and their disciples, or students. Several branches of Buddhism, including Zen and Tibetan Buddhism maintain records of their historical teachers who, according to the traditional history of that school, have passed the Dharma, or Buddhist teachings, from generation to generation in an unbroken line since the time of theBuddha. This vertical line is a lineage of spiritual ancestors, in Zen also called patriarchs, which provides validation of the teachings. In Zen, the experience of satori is also confirmed by the lineages so that the teachers of the present generation are known to have authentic understanding of the Dharma. In the Zen lineage an example is that Bodhidharma is considered the first Zen (Ch’an) patriarch, and the twenty-eighth successor to Gautama Buddha.
The idea of lineage also occurs in other aspects of Buddhism. For example, the requirements for ordination as a bhikkhu include the presence of at least five other bhikkhus, one of whom must be a fully-ordained preceptor, and another an acharya (teacher). Thus a monastic lineage is established reaching back to the Buddha. Vajrayana Buddhism also lays great importance on the continuity of a teaching lineage. Therevada uses the term sangharaja for patriarchs. In Jodo Shinshu the term patriarch refers to seven Indian, Chinese and Japanese masters before its founder Shinran. The act of passing the Dharma to a new teacher and thereby extending lineage is referred to as dharma transmission.
Wallace, et al. (Chagmé et al., 1998: p. 22) render into English a citation of Chagmé (Wylie: karma-chags-med, fl. 17th century) that contains an embedded quotation attributed to Nāropā(956-1041 CE), thus:
The crucial, primary qualification of a spiritual mentor is stated by Naropa, “The qualification of a spiritual mentor is that [t]he[y] possesses the lineage.” The Single Meaning of the Vajra Speech [Wylie: rDo rje’i gsungs dgongs pa gcig pa] states, “There is great profundity in the connection within the lineage of the holy Dharma.” The real lineage of the realization of this Dharma, which transfer blessings, is the unbroken rosary of Buddhas…”.
Gyatrul (b.1924), in a purport to Chagmé (Wylie: karma-chags-med, fl. 17th century), conveys Khyentse’s ‘samaya‘ (Sanskrit), diligence and humility in receiving ‘wang‘ (Tibetan), linealtransmission and ‘rlung‘ (Wylie) as rendered into English by Wallace (Chagmé et al., 1998: p. 21):
With respect to oral transmission, even if the lineage is impure, it is not a problem. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche often sought out and received any oral transmission he thought was on the verge of disappearing. It made no difference who was giving it. He would receive it and, in turn, pass it on to make sure that the lineage remained unbroken.
Some of the links in the Chan/Zen transmission-chain have been seriously challenged by historians such as Philip Yampolsky. In particular, there is little or no other evidence linking any of the 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 Sōtō line. The Linji line was also transmitted to Japan where it became known as the Rinzai line.
Chinese Ch’an Buddhism was introduced during the Eighth Century to the Nyingmapa or ‘Ancient School’ of Tibetan Buddhism in three principal streams of teachings. The lineages concerned were: Master Kim, Kim Ho-shang, (Chin ho shang) 金和尚 transmitted by Sang Shi who later became an abbot of Samye Monastery in c750 CE; the lineage of MasterWu Chu, 無住 of the Pao T’ang School was transmitted within Tibet by Ye shes dbang po; and the teachings from Mo Ho Yen, 和尚摩訶衍 (Tibetan: Hwa shang Mahayana) that were a synthesis of the Northern School of Ch’an and the Pao T’ang School.
The Tibetan Dharma King Trisong Detsen (Tibetan:Khri srong lde btsan) hosted a famous two-year dharma debate from 792-794CE, known in Western scholarship as the “Council ofLhasa” (although it took place at Samye) outside the capital. As part of this debate Trisong Detsen invited the Ch’an master Mo-ho-yen (whose name consists of the same Chinese characters used to transliterate “Mahayana“) to debate with Kamalashila. Mo-ho-yen had been disseminating Dharma in the Tun-huang locale at the time. Moheyan lost the important philosophical debate on the nature of emptiness to the Indian master, and the king declared that Kamalashila’s philosophy should form the basis for Tibetan Buddhism.As a result, the Mahayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism has primarily been founded on the madhyamaka philosophy introduced by Kamalashila from India. In Tibet this is generally combined with the Vajrayana practice path introduced by Padmasambhava, also during the Eighth Century
There are several hagiographic accounts of how chöd came to Tibet. One namthar, or spiritual biography, asserts that shortly after Kamalashila won his famous debate withMoheyan as to whether Tibet should adopt the “sudden” route to enlightenment or his own “gradual” route, Kamalashila enacted phowa, transferring his mindstream to animate a corpse polluted with contagion in order to safely move the hazard it presented. As the mindstream of Kamalashila was otherwise engaged, a Mahasiddha by the name of Padampa Sangye came across the vacant kuten or “physical basis” of Kamalashila. Padampa Sangye was not karmically blessed with an aesthetic corporeal form, and upon finding the very handsome and healthy empty body of Kamalashila, which he assumed to be a newly dead fresh corpse, used phowa to transfer his own mindstream into Kamalashila’s body. Padampa Sangye’s mindstream in Kamalashila’s body continued the ascent to the Himalaya and thereby transmitted the Pacification of Suffering teachings and the Indian form of Chöd which contributed to the Mahamudra Chöd of Machig Labdrön. The mindstream of Kamalashila was unable to return to his own kuten and so was forced to enter the vacant body of Padampa Sangy