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Direct transmission
April 7th, 2014

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Direct transmission

If we all already have Buddha-nature or Basic Goodness, or if we all have the potential to become paccekabuddhas  (sometimes awakened without even hearing of the Dharma), why is "direct transmission" so often advised (when not presented as essential)?

I previously addressed Buddha-nature in relation to "right effort" (, but is the "right effort" somehow constrained in relation to 'transmission'? This isn't a Western modern question, or rebellion against authority: both Buddha-nature and transmission have been heavily debated e.g. in Zen (

It is tempting to address this either from a perspective in terms of "establishment", or from an individual standpoint. Maybe we could however address from a perspective on "both" or "none".

Buddhas' activity

It is sometimes said that the Buddha was the first sentient being to Awaken in this epoch… but this is a dubious claim for two reasons: first, it relies on a rather arbitrary definition of 'epoch'. In Buddhism, we tend to focus on causal continuity and processes, and from this point of view, there's a form of continuity between Gautama Buddha and the previous buddha (who predicted the Awakening of Gautama when he was 'only' a bodhisatta). The epochs are not independent (for a start, you can 'order' them!), and the notion of 'epoch' is thus pretty ill-defined. When Gautama Buddha is the 28th buddha we 'know' of, the simultaneous claim that he's the 'first' is dubious. The other reason why the claim is dubious is that there might have been numberless paccekabuddhas  awakening prior to Gautama, around the time of Gautma, and since Gautama… but we wouldn't know about them (by definition)! What truly separated Gautama from other holy men is that he was the first to teach  the Dharma since the previous disappearance / extinction of the 'formalised' Dharma in the human realm. This is said to be one of the manifestations of his Great Compassion (and may potentially be enquired as one of the key difference with paccekabuddhas —which the Buddha could have become, since he hesitated before teaching!).

This points to an important aspect of the buddhist training. Yes, the Dharma is about the cessation of suffering, yes, the Dharma is about the Liberation… but there's a compassionate component to that, and it is best manifested by teaching the cessation of suffering to others! And in order to acquire pedagogical tools, instead of reinventing the wheel, it is beneficial to see how our seniors teach.

This then plays multiple roles: it provides a wholesome means for the practitioner to cultivate and embody loving-kindness, compassion, patience, perseverance… both as a student and as an upcoming teacher! Bluntly, it also ensures the preservation of the Dharma, for the benefit of others. And this last aspect is important: for all the controversies that might arise about the legitimacy of the "direct transmission" narrative, such approach has contributed to the teachings reaching us, and contributes to the teachings reaching the next generations… If we're unable to appreciate this tremendous benefit (without blindness to, or excuses for, the associated drawbacks of 'establishment' mentality, but also without letting the drawbacks taint everything),  we're not seeing things as they are!

'Life' is your teacher, not the 'roshi', 'venerable', 'guru' or 'lama'…

It is important to remember that no appropriation of the Dharma will ever get you Enlightened ( Zen talks of a True Self, other schools talk of appropriating the Buddha-Mind, but both refer to an emptiness of essence, to what's left after you let go of all the hindrances and views (!
The parable of the raft is crystal-clear: once on the other shore, the wise move is to leave the raft behind, not to carry it around! You could interpret it as: each buddha teaches, but is not bound by the teachings of the previous buddha, each buddha is free to create / adapt teachings so that they best respond to the situation at hand.

Sometimes, it is argued that it is extremely important not  to abandon the raft too soon though. How far from the other shore can you step out of the raft? If you're crossing an Ocean, it seems unwise to abandon the raft half-way through, but maybe you can when you're 5 meters away from the final shore… Buddhism provides a rather clear answer to this: a Stream-enterer is 'autonomous', has ceased the fetter of crippling and unhealthy doubt, and has ceased the fetter of clinging to 'rituals'. A Stream-enterer might still use the Dharma where appropriate, but has stopped 'clinging' to it. So "leaving the raft behind" isn't necessarily for arahants only: as virtually everything else, it's context-dependent! But then, what matters is that you're autonomously learning from 'life', from being mindful to what's going on, to what's experienced, to what this causal web here&now reveals (about conventions, truths, views, about causality… and about ineffability).

Having understood this, of course, you may say that the presence of a 'roshi', 'venerable', 'lama', 'teacher' in your life is part of 'life'!  'Life' is ultimately your teacher, but nothing prevents life from providing several of the lessons via a particular conduit. There's thus nothing inherently wrong in appreciating "direct transmission", but "seeing things as they are" will always show such a "direct transmission" as merely a part of a wider context, it will not associate 'magical' properties to it.
From a Mahāyāna perspective, the Dharmakāya —also known as Reality— is the ultimate teacher (beyond the conventional definition of teacher-student relationships): "seeing things as they are" requires "seeing reality", not appropriating the perspective of anyone else. This is how paccekabuddhas Awaken.
Don't start reifying / conceptualising the Dharmakāya though

It is often useful to remember that cessation of wrong views is not the repression of wrong views, nor their replacement by right views.
"Right views" are important in Buddhism, but they're a tool to bring down the barriers making the crossing to the other shore difficult. Removing barriers plays a major part in making the crossing more probable, but the two cannot be confused as one. Opening a door isn't the same as walking through the threshold (but it makes the latter much easier). Removing barriers and hindrances isn't the same as crossing over (but it makes the latter much easier). Right views are important and have causal benefits, but they're still views, and clinging to views (no matter what they are) is clinging, i.e. the root-cause of suffering. The raft has to be left behind, at some point (not too early, but there's no wisdom in carrying it around forever, perpetually thinking "maybe it's not yet the 'right' time, I'll carry it a bit longer")…

'Direct' transmission comes from seeing Reality 'directly', from Reality directly telling you what works and what doesn't!

Nothing is transmitted, however one's cessation of ignorance may be acknowledged.

Dependent Origination is a fundamental teaching in Buddhism. It is also one of the least understood.
Causality links multiple 'causes' to any specific 'effect', and multiple 'effects' to each 'cause'. Even though a logical narrative may tie one sole cause to one sole effect, this may only be achieved by hiding other causes and other effects as part of a 'context'… Once this is understood, it is clear that "with Feeling as condition, Craving arises"  does not mean "every feeling will cause craving" but solely "for craving to appear, a feeling must be present". This hardly is mechanistic  causation (for the mathematically-inclined, the 12-links chain is about "necessary conditions", not "sufficient conditions").

Similarly, one's Enlightenment isn't mechanically 'caused' by a teacher, nor by specific 'views' or particular 'efforts'. Nirvāṇa is unconditioned. However, one's Enlightenment might still relate to previous steps (e.g. the production of effort ( or the cessation of craving (without which no Enlightenment will come to be))!

Nothing is 'transmitted', as in 'caused'. What is called 'transmission' is in fact an acknowledgement of the end of a perpetuation (of unwholesome tendencies), an 'end' attained by the student (regardless of the teacher)! I previously wrote about this in relation to Zen (

Transmission is 'beyond' words, so it is 'beyond' labels of teacher and student, 'beyond' certificates, 'beyond' socially-predefined roles. The goal of holy life is the direct access to "reality as it is," without words, without concepts, and notably without concept of 'transmission' (, and without concept of 'buddha-nature' (! Without presuming that I need a teacher, nor  presuming that I don't! Dealing with life as it is, rather than with presumptions!

Finding a good teacher ( might prove helpful to remove barriers, to build a raft… and to acquire tools to manifest or embody the qualities that you desire to cultivate. This isn't about a 'perfect' or 'complete' teacher though. The teacher isn't necessarily even likeable, convenient, nor a 'person' ( and it is life. A particular person in your life might catalyse many lessons in one place, but it's still about life ( and not about this person.
And since you don't need to find 'life', "finding a good teacher" might have more to do with your attitude than with actually 'finding' anything!

Healthy doubt (or enquiry) in the face of reality, that's your best teacher
(! Any individual as a 'teacher' is merely somebody who supports you to embody the right attitude, to acquire practical skills to manifest your compassion, etc. This might be very useful. This might be valued, and appreciated. But is it strictly necessary? That is your call. Know yourself! Most people benefit from guidance, but would you (in your specific unique conditions and circumstances)? Don't presume! Enquire! Investigate! Look! Try! Take responsibility for your growth (!

#Buddhism   #Dharma  
With my renewed apologies to the supporter who asked about this, but had to wait a whole month to get this answer.
Photo: close-up of the National Treasure no. 78, gilt bronze pensive Maitreya, late sixth century. National Museum of Korea, Seoul, South Korea. By © Benjamin Shaw ( via wikipedia