illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
A foundational teaching is the Flower sūtra but the whole Zen lineage has been based on "direct, mind-to-mind transmission" also known as "transmission outside scriptures". I briefly mentioned it in "the basic teachings of Japanese Zen" (gplus.wallez.name/ChoZwm9mWhB).
This particular teaching makes it clear that Buddhism is not about 'bookish' knowledge, not about the accumulation of words, of kōans, of sūtras…
Unfortunately, it also created new weaknesses: the reifications of minds, the reification of an Awakened mind-state separate from the ordinary mind, and the reification of transmission. By construction, the "mind-to-mind transmission" favours the arising of an 'establishment', by implicitly denying the universality of buddha-nature and making both teacher and receiver 'special' and separate from ordinary others.
A "transmission outside of scriptures" does not mean 'oral transmission', but ultimately it does not naïvely mean "direct lineage" either!
It does not mean "mind of the teacher – mind of the student" (the number of 'reifications' in such a view is mind-blowing, one of the biggest negations of emptiness that Zen students can fall in).
It does not even mean there's actually anything transmitted (in contradiction with emptiness and thus-ness)! Dōgen made this clear. Many Zen kōans warn against the reification of mind-to-mind transmission and would regularly enquire into this idea that something, anything, is transmitted.
The "transmission beyond words" is one of the most misunderstood notion of Zen, because most people stay at the surface of words.
Typically, a Zen master 'acknowledges' the realisation of a student, i.e. the appropriation by a student of his/her own buddha-nature.
Buddha-nature is not transmitted from a master to a student: we all 'have' the potential to "see things as they are", i.e. we all 'have' buddha-nature.
It is indeed one of the signs of seniority in Zen when one stops believing that there is an 'external' solution to be received from an 'external' teacher. In other words, "if you meet the Buddha, kill him!"
This seniority is not the end of the journey though, and the kōans (with their classic attack on conventional solutions) throw the practitioner off again the next moment by asking them why are they wasting time, or what are they doing here, if there's nothing to receive!?
The teachings of Buddhism are to tear off veils that prevent us to see, not to transmit sight itself! As such the teachings never transmit the ultimate truth which can only be seen directly (a teacher cannot see it "for you"), but the teachings help nonetheless: words (oral or written) can only tear word-based veils i.e. narratives in our heads, the teachings are useful because they can do so, but all teachings are also limited to what can be 'expressed' (a subset of what can be experienced).
Like the finger pointing to the moon, no matter the quality of the finger, the teacher cannot make you look at the moon if you cling to looking at the finger… This doesn't mean the pointer is useless, just that it is context-dependent (notably audience-dependent). Non-words —actions or even silences—are equally empty, context-dependent, never directly in contact with what they point to…
So sūtras, chanting, etc. all play a role, but they also cannot —in essence— make you see. They can help, just like opening a door helps to go through the threshold, or having a raft helps to cross a river, but 'owning' a raft is not the same as 'using' it!
The "transmission beyond words" is a teaching related to the two truths (gplus.wallez.name/4gaFiv79s7d), the Middle Path which cannot be reduced to any particular one of the two truths, and about the fact that teachings ('words') from a master are never transmitting buddha-nature or insights to you, but they might still be useful teachings.
The last thing a "transmission beyond words" rejects are doctrines themselves: this is not about Zen being anti-intellectual, anti-analysis, anti-thinking…
Zen has indeed rejected some elaborations it disagreed with, but it also formalised specific teachings: Dōgen wrote much, the kōan curriculum can be rather extensive in Rinzai, the Sŏn school has polished the notion of kōan into hwadu (while avoiding the 'curriculum' or 'collection' trait), etc. Zen has specific scriptures, including sūtras (gplus.wallez.name/j6pTx1nrxJe)… Many words and shouts have been uttered (for a purpose!).
The "transmission beyond words" is about not confusing the sole conventional truth ('words') with the two truths.
It is about not confusing "arriving to valid conclusions" with "abandoning the necessity to keep looking further anyway", about not "arriving" (stopping) with "going beyond" (getting free).
It is about not confusing "receiving dharma-transmission and a certificate" ('words') with "abandoning the necessity to go beyond" —a rather common fault among so-called 'Zen masters' or roshis, which partly explains why we don't observe an exponential growth in the number of them [if each master trained two masters in the next generation, on average, the world would be filled with Zen masters since Mahākāśyapa: 25 centuries = 100 generations of 25-years, so the world would have 2^100 certified Zen masters running around, more than the world population today… if the Awakened mind could be intrinsically transmitted, Zen would rule the world ;-) ].
'Words' don't say much about your 'enlightenment', how you embody wisdom says a lot more…
Dōgen (in the Menju, or "Face-to-Face Transmission", chapter of the Shōbōgenzō) explains that what is transmitted from a master to a disciple is not only abstract theory, but also something real, including actual conduct, physical health, and intuitional wisdom… Therefore the transmission of this real something cannot be actualised solely through explanations with words, or simply by passing on some manuscript.
Nonetheless, Dōgen praises the transmission of the Dharma and insists on its importance. He links it to the historical Buddha indeed, but is it as an emanation of the Dharmakāya (which allows for universal buddha-nature and pratyekabuddhas) or as a reified Nirmāṇakāya in itself?
A "transmission beyond words" is the opposite of what it has been made through history: a "transmission beyond words" implicitly rejects the validity and relevance of lineage certificates, the reification of the past!
There is something positive in remembering and paying respect to whoever has participated in your Liberation… But don't get entangled in the chain; or the 'Liberation' is mere 'words'!
A symptom of 'entanglement' is when one needs to "show off" one's appreciation around others…
A continuous flow doesn't keep looking backward, to where it comes from! The past is past; its influence is relevant to the present, but it's done. If anything, one should care about how to act in the only space&time when action is possible (i.e. here&now). Don't let the past enchain you now, even out of appreciation!
photo: © AP Photo/Rahmat Gul