for anyone who doesn't know that is a line from a very famous zen/chan statement traditionally attributed to bodhidharma. here it is in full:
"a special transmission outside the scriptures,
not founded upon words and letters.
by pointing directly to one's mind,
It lets one see into one's own true nature and thus attain buddhahood."
it seems to imply that one can only learn zen from a teacher who has received transmission of it from someone else. does this mean that all books are utterly useless for zen training? i don't think they are, but doesn't this statement make it seem that way? as if it's something that cannot be explained in writing but only "outside the scriptures" without use of "words and letters" at all? in much of the zen tradition (especially in the past) a student is officially a master when they receive "dharma transmission" from the master. does this mean that if the student had left the master and moved across the world, reached enlightenment on his or her own and never received any transmission that it wouldn't count as "zen" enlightenment but would be a different type? does this also mean that only the student(s) that receive transmission can be enlightened and the others can never be considered enlightened (this would be something considering there have been teachers in the past with hundreds or even over a thousand students) in the zen sense?
what does everyone think?
then there is the emphasis on the flower sermon, for those who don't know this is where the buddha gathered his students for a talk and stood silently and just held up a flower. everyone was bewildered but mahakasyapa, who smiled. this signified his mental cognition of the buddha's teachings in that instant and the buddha said:
"i possess the true dharma eye, the marvelous mind of nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. this I entrust to mahakasyapa."
so again, we have the same thing. this implies zen enlightenment is transmitted from teacher to student by use of telepathy, and this supports the idea of the zen lineage going back from bodhidharma all the way to the buddha. so again, i don't believe the following to be true: but it seems that there is no such thing as zen except learning it directly from a zen master. reading sutras, books by masters, practicing things you have learned from these books, all of it is utterly pointless if you have not been given a telepathic transmission.
obviously even most zen masters don't believe these things are literally true as they wouldn't spend so much time writing the wonderful zen books that they do!
i would love to hear some peoples own ideas about what these statements means and what "transmission" is really about. it seems to me that one could re-interpret these ideas but that they do literally imply what i've written above and this is confirmed by dharma transmission ceremonies, whether only in spirit or literal understanding it still confirms that these ideas are promoted within the zen tradition.
personally i believe there are and always have been mixed feelings toward these ideas within zen at large. i think that a person could learn zen and reach enlightenment solely from reading and practicing as long as they had absurdly detailed instructions. after all, anything you can say out loud, you can write! but then that goes against this whole "outside the scriptures" thing.
and then there's the "not founded upon words..." thing, and the thing where the buddha didn't even speak and mahakasyapa got it, so it is very firmly opposed to written, or even spoken, zen as having any function or merit whatsoever and implies that any buddhism that is not this kind of telepathic transmission is not "the true dharma eye" entrusted to mahakasyapa and brought down through millennium to bodhidharma on so on.
when you pigeon hole a tradition to be only valid when it's transmitted by telepathy it seems to make things a little difficult, no? i mean if we took it literally then you would never practice without finding a master, then what are the odds of finding a truly enlightened master? how would you know? it would mean the majority of people practicing zen would be totally and utterly wasting their time. as it is only a small minority of people teaching zen are enlightened, and this is by their own admission usually, and this is fine, in the normal world you can lead someone toward enlightenment by using teachings from the past and things written down and generally accepted as valid, but with the dharma transmission logic, this is totally impossible. probably there would be no more real zen as at some point there would likely have been only one enlightened person and they could have died before transmitting it.
but again, almost all zen masters write constantly so it doesn't seem like anyone takes this seriously. in that case, why promote this idea at all?
what do we make of all this?