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A lineage in Buddhism is a line of transmission of the Buddhist teaching that is "theoretically traced back to the Buddha himself." The acknowledgement of the transmission can be oral, or certified in documents. Several branches of Buddhism, including Chan (including Zen and Seon) and Tibetan Buddhism maintain records of their historical teachers. These records serve as a validation for the living exponents of the tradition.
The historical authenticity of Buddhist lineage is questionable. Stephen Batchelor has claimed, speaking about specifically Japanese Zen lineage, "the historicity of this “lineage” simply does not withstand critical scrutiny." Erik Storlie has noted that transmission "is simply false on historical grounds." Edward Conze said "much of the traditions about the early history of Chan are the inventions of a later age."
In the lineage of the vinaya, the requirements for ordination as a bhikkhu ("monk") or a bhikkhuni ("nun") include the presence of at least five other monks, one of whom must be a fully ordained preceptor, and another an acharya (teacher). This lineage for ordaining bhikshunis became extinct in the Theravada school and in Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore, when śrāmaṇerikās like Tenzin Palmo wanted full ordination, she had to travel to Hong Kong.
The idea of a patriarchal lineage in Chan Buddhism dates back to the epitaph for Fărú (法如 638–689), a disciple of the 5th patriarch, Hóngrĕn (弘忍 601–674). In the Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices and the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks, Daoyu and Huike are the only explicitly identified disciples of Bodhidharma. The epitaph gives a line of descent identifying Bodhidharma as the first patriarch.
In the 6th century biographies of famous monks were collected. From this genre the typical Chan-lineage was developed:
These famous biographies were non-sectarian. The Ch'an biographical works, however, aimed to establish Ch'an as a legitimate school of Buddhism traceable to its Indian origins, and at the same time championed a particular form of Ch'an. Historical accuracy was of little concern to the compilers; old legends were repeated, new stories were invented and reiterated until they too became legends.
D. T. Suzuki contends that Chan's growth in popularity during the 7th and 8th centuries attracted criticism that it had "no authorized records of its direct transmission from the founder of Buddhism" and that Chan historians made Bodhidharma the 28th patriarch of Buddhism in response to such attacks.
The earliest lineages described the lineage from Bodhidharma to Huineng. There is no generally accepted 7th Chinese Patriarch.
The principle teachers of the Chan, Zen and Seon traditions are commonly known in English translations as "Patriarchs". However, the more precise terminology would be "Ancestors" or "Founders" (Chinese: 祖; pinyin: zǔ) and "Ancestral Masters" or "Founding Masters" (Chinese: 祖師), as the commonly used Chinese terms are gender neutral. Various records of different authors are known, which give a variation of transmission lines:
|The Continued Biographies
of Eminent Monks
Xù gāosēng zhuàn 續高僧傳
of Dàoxuān 道宣
|The Record of the Transmission
of the Dharma-Jewel
Chuán fǎbǎo jì 傳法寶記
of Dù Fěi 杜胐
|History of Masters and Disciples of the Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra
Léngqié shīzī jì 楞伽師資紀記
of Jìngjué 淨覺
(ca. 683 - ca. 650)
|The Xiǎnzōngjì 显宗记|
of Shénhuì 神会
|2||Huìkě 慧可 (487? - 593)||Dàoyù 道育||Dàoyù 道育||Dàoyù 道育|
|Huìkě 慧可 (487? - 593)||Huìkě 慧可 (487? - 593)||Huìkě 慧可 (487? - 593)|
|3||Sēngcàn 僧璨 (d.606)||Sēngcàn 僧璨 (d.606)||Sēngcàn 僧璨 (d.606)||Sēngcàn 僧璨 (d.606)|
|4||Dàoxìn 道信 (580 - 651)||Dàoxìn 道信 (580 - 651)||Dàoxìn 道信 (580 - 651)||Dàoxìn 道信 (580 - 651)|
|5||Hóngrěn 弘忍 (601 - 674)||Hóngrěn 弘忍 (601 - 674)||Hóngrěn 弘忍 (601 - 674)||Hóngrěn 弘忍 (601 - 674)|
|6||-||Fǎrú 法如 (638-689)||Yuquan Shenxiu 神秀 (606? - 706)||Huìnéng 慧能 (638-713)|
|Yuquan Shenxiu 神秀 (606? - 706) 神秀||Xuánzé 玄賾|
|7||-||-||-||Xuánjué 玄覺 (665-713)|
Eventually these descriptions of the lineage evolved into a continuous lineage from Gautama Buddha to Bodhidharma. The idea of a line of descent from Gautama is the basis for the distinctive lineage tradition of Chan.
According to the Song of Enlightenment (證道歌 Zhèngdào gē) by Yǒngjiā Xuánjué (665-713), one of the chief disciples of Huineng, Bodhidharma was the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism in a line of descent from Gautama Buddha through his disciple Mahākāśyapa:
Mahakashyapa was the first, leading the line of transmission;
Twenty-eight Fathers followed him in the West;
The Lamp was then brought over the sea to this country;
And Bodhidharma became the First Father here
His mantle, as we all know, passed over six Fathers,
And by them many minds came to see the Light.
|1||Mahākāśyapa||摩訶迦葉 / Móhējiāyè||Ma-Ha-Ca-Diếp||Makakashō||마하가섭 / Mahagasŏp|
|2||Ānanda||阿難陀 (阿難) / Ānántuó (Ānán)||A-Nan-Đà (A-Nan)||Ananda (Anan)||아난다 (아난) / Ananda (Anan)|
|3||Śānavāsa||商那和修 / Shāngnàhéxiū||Thương-Na-Hòa-Tu||Shōnawashu||상나화수 / Sangnahwasu|
|4||Upagupta||優婆掬多 / Yōupójúduō||Ưu-Ba-Cúc-Đa||Ubakikuta||우바국다 / Upakukta|
|5||Dhrtaka||提多迦 / Dīduōjiā||Đề-Đa-Ca||Daitaka||제다가 / Chedaga|
|6||Miccaka||彌遮迦 / Mízhējiā||Di-Dá-Ca||Mishaka||미차가 / Michaga|
|7||Vasumitra||婆須密 (婆須密多) / Póxūmì (Póxūmìduō)||Bà-Tu-Mật (Bà-Tu-Mật-Đa)||Bashumitsu (Bashumitta)||바수밀다 / Pasumilta|
|8||Buddhanandi||浮陀難提 / Fútuónándī||Phật-Đà-Nan-Đề||Buddanandai||불타난제 / Pŭltananje|
|9||Buddhamitra||浮陀密多 / Fútuómìduō||Phục-Đà-Mật-Đa||Buddamitta||복태밀다 / Puktaemilda|
|10||Pārśva||波栗濕縛 / 婆栗濕婆 (脅尊者) / Bōlìshīfú / Pólìshīpó (Xiézūnzhě)||Ba-Lật-Thấp-Phược / Bà-Lật-Thấp-Bà (Hiếp-Tôn-Giả)||Barishiba (Kyōsonja)||파률습박 (협존자) / P'ayulsŭppak (Hyŏpjonje)|
|11||Punyayaśas||富那夜奢 / Fùnàyèshē||Phú-Na-Dạ-Xa||Funayasha||부나야사 / Punayasa|
|12||Ānabodhi / Aśvaghoṣa||阿那菩提 (馬鳴) / Ānàpútí (Mǎmíng)||A-Na-Bồ-Đề (Mã-Minh)||Anabotei (Memyō)||아슈바고샤 (마명) / Asyupakosya (Mamyŏng)|
|13||Kapimala||迦毘摩羅 / Jiāpímóluó||Ca-Tỳ-Ma-La||Kabimora (Kabimara)||가비마라 / Kabimara|
|14||Nāgārjuna||那伽閼剌樹那 (龍樹) / Nàqiéèlàshùnà (Lóngshù)||Na-Già-Át-Lạt-Thụ-Na (Long-Thọ)||Nagaarajuna (Ryūju)||나가알랄수나 (용수) / Nakaallalsuna (Yongsu)|
|15||Āryadeva / Kānadeva||迦那提婆 / Jiānàtípó||Ca-Na-Đề-Bà||Kanadaiba||가나제바 / Kanajeba|
|16||Rāhulata||羅睺羅多 / Luóhóuluóduō||La-Hầu-La-Đa||Ragorata||라후라다 / Rahurada|
|17||Sanghānandi||僧伽難提 / Sēngqiénántí||Tăng-Già-Nan-Đề||Sōgyanandai||승가난제 / Sŭngsananje|
|18||Sanghayaśas||僧伽舍多 / Sēngqiéshèduō||Tăng-Già-Da-Xá||Sōgyayasha||가야사다 / Kayasada|
|19||Kumārata||鳩摩羅多 / Jiūmóluóduō||Cưu-Ma-La-Đa||Kumorata (Kumarata)||구마라다 / Kumarada|
|20||Śayata / Jayata||闍夜多 / Shéyèduō||Xà-Dạ-Đa||Shayata||사야다 / Sayada|
|21||Vasubandhu||婆修盤頭 (世親) / Póxiūpántóu (Shìqīn)||Bà-Tu-Bàn-Đầu (Thế-Thân)||Bashubanzu (Sejin)||바수반두 (세친) / Pasubandu (Sechin)|
|22||Manorhita||摩拏羅 / Mónáluó||Ma-Noa-La||Manura||마나라 / Manara|
|23||Haklenayaśas||鶴勒那 (鶴勒那夜奢) / Hèlènà (Hèlènàyèzhě)||Hạc-Lặc-Na||Kakurokuna (Kakurokunayasha)||학륵나 / Haklŭkna|
|24||Simhabodhi||師子菩提 / Shīzǐpútí||Sư-Tử-Bồ-Đề / Sư-Tử-Trí||Shishibodai||사자 / Saja|
|25||Vasiasita||婆舍斯多 / Póshèsīduō||Bà-Xá-Tư-Đa||Bashashita||바사사다 / Pasasada|
|26||Punyamitra||不如密多 / Bùrúmìduō||Bất-Như-Mật-Đa||Funyomitta||불여밀다 / Punyŏmilta|
|27||Prajñātāra||般若多羅 / Bānruòduōluó||Bát-Nhã-Đa-La||Hannyatara||반야다라 / Panyadara|
|28||Dharma / Bodhidharma||Ta Mo / 菩提達磨 / Pútídámó||Đạt-Ma / Bồ-Đề-Đạt-Ma||Daruma / Bodaidaruma||Tal Ma / 보리달마 / Poridalma|
Twenty-four different Zen lineages are recorded to be transmitted to Japan. Only three survived until today. Sōtō was transmitted to Japan by Dōgen, who travelled to China for Chan training in the 13th century. After receiving Dharma transmission in the Caodong school, he returned to Japan and established the lineage there, where it is called the Sōtō.
Within the context of Tibetan Buddhism, the importance of lineage extends far beyond the ordinary sense of a particular line of inheritance or descent. Lineage is a sacred trust through which the integrity of Buddha's teachings is preserved intact as it is transmitted from one generation to the next. The vital link through which the spiritual tradition is nourished and maintained is the profound connection between an enlightened master and perfectly devoted disciple. The master-disciple relationship is considered extremely sacred by all the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
The crucial, primary qualification of a spiritual mentor is stated by Naropa, "The qualification of a spiritual mentor is that he 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,[a] is the unbroken rosary of Buddhas...".
Gyatrul (b. 1924), in a purport to Karma Chagme, conveys Dilgo Khyentse's 'samaya', diligence and humility in receiving Vajrayana empowerment, lineal Dharma transmission and rlung, 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.
There are several hagiographic accounts of how chöd came to Tibet. One namtar (hagiography) asserts that shortly after Kamalaśīla won his famous debate with Moheyan as to whether Tibet should adopt the "sudden" route to enlightenment or his own "gradual" route, Kamalaśīla 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 Kamalaśīla was otherwise engaged, a mahasiddha named Dampa Sangye came across the vacant kuten or "physical basis" of Kamalaśīla. Dampa Sangye was not karmically blessed with an aesthetic corporeal form, and upon finding the very handsome and healthy empty body of Kamalaśīla, which he assumed to be a newly dead fresh corpse, used phowa to transfer his own mindstream into Kamalaśīla's body. Dampa Sangye's mindstream in Kamalaśīla'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 Kamalaśīla was unable to return to his own kuten and so was forced to enter the vacant body of Dampa Sangye.