The Transmission of Freedom

In the Zen school, there is a concept called “face-to-face transmission of dharma”. It is the principal means by which a teacher passes on knowledge, tradition and lineage and confirms a student’s theoretical and direct (non-conceptual) understanding of the Buddhist teachings as passed down through the Zen schools. The story goes that this practice goes all the way back to the original buddhist sangha: 

The Buddha was up on vulture peak with an assembly of monks, presumably to preach a sermon. Everyone was waiting around for him to say something. There was probably one of those extended awkward silences you get in group meetings. Instead of talking the Buddha picked up a flower and held it before the monks. Nobody reacted except the monk Mahakashyapa who broke out in what I imagine was a big dumb smile. The Buddha smiled back. He told the assembly that Mahkashyapa is the only person here who got the joke. After the Buddha’s death, Mahakasyapa went on to lead the Sangha for many years, presiding over the first Buddhist Council in 483 BCE.

Thus the mythology of the transmission of zen teachings began. What followed was the development of koans, collections of paradoxical statements, dialogues, riddles, encounters and jokes between zen yogis throughout the ages which are used as meditation objects for helping students wake up.

This lineage is almost certainly mythological, made up by later Zen monks to give their school an “authentic” lineage which would legitimize them in the eyes of their citics and connect their students to early Buddhism, but the verifiable authenticity is not so important in my opinion. It likely originated in ancient China and tagged on the list of Indian masters in the lineage. Lots of Mahayana texts claim to have been direct teachings of the Buddha even if all the evidence points to them being composed centuries after his death. This isn’t such a big deal to me because one would assume that if the people writing these texts had awakened using the buddhist method, their knowledge should be about as good as the historical Buddha’s (and likely more relevant to people in their spacetime coordinates). The Mahayana goal is for all sentient beings to “become” buddhas, so it makes sense that some people actually succeed and then come up with novel theories and ways of teaching. Sometimes you need to fill in the gaps to tell a good story. There have almost certainly been times where transmission is not continuous, as buddhists fortunes wax and wane with the times. 

The important point here is that Buddhism often reproduces itself at the most basic level by a one on one relationship between spiritual friends, usually called “students” and “masters”, but with varying degrees of formality or hierarchy between them. This occurs as in the Zen example above, but is also central, perhaps even more so, in the Vajrayana traditions of Tantras (I would write on that as well but I haven’t studied and understood Vajrayana as well as Theravada and Mahayana yet). Often the number of people holding such lineages was very very small, and yet some have still survived mostly intact until now. 

Despite vast bodies of commentarial and original literature, at its core  living buddhism is still an oral tradition, held in the minds of persons and collectives and passed from generation to generation. Transmission is the encounter where the torch of liberated mind is passed on. Zen master Dogen insisted that the encounter must be face to face, not some bureaucratic formality (Later clerics have done their best to ignore this advice). On the ultimate level, face-to-face means something other than just being in the room. It is meant to be a meeting of capital-M Mind with Mind, with the face and expression of one liberated being reflected in the other. Student and Teacher cease to be present. The “Original Face” of enlightenment faces itself beyond concepts and boundaries. A deep and mysterious encounter with the Way, as idealized in the zen koan tradition. Functionally it legitimizes zen teachers, formalizes the sect’s “family tree” and aims to ensure that good teachings are passed on far into the future, even if only to a small number of people. This also comes with many problems of exclusion and prejudice, as noted by Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams

Transmission is not the end point of the path, it is more like a beginning. Much more work must be done after to qualify as an Osho (teacher) and deepen and mature one’s insight. Perhaps it could be seen as a zen ceremony recognizing a path-fruition attainment such as stream-entry? I’m sure many zen people would hate the idea of recognizing attainment. But comparing the two traditions it seems like a student’s initial kensho is much like the first path fruition experience as described in vipassana literature. Then again, it may be something quite different, considering that as a Mahayana sect, zen yogis vow to eschew nibbana in favor of the bodhisattva path, and that attainment of stream entry sets one on the path towards the arhat path of parinibbana, and therefore extinction, in a finite number of lifetimes following the attainment. Still don’t know how to reconcile these views/maps.

Another interesting note here is that with modernization and globalization, in some countries Buddhism has moved towards centering laypeople, encouraging them to practice meditation and teaching dharma, which were formerly reserved for the monastic clergy. As such many laypeople are now lineage holders in nearly every major Buddhist tradition. Some have called this layward shift “Buddhist Protestantism”, referring to the trend of doing away with religious intermediateries who claim a special relationship with the Divine. On the whole I think it is a good direction for the faith, making beneficial practices increasingly accessible to ordinary folks who in a previous lifetime may have had to completely leave home and enter monastic training to learn them. While this is relatively new to Buddhism it is a common model in other faiths. It is hard not to find commonalitites with the far more ancient tradition of Rabbis in Judaism. In fact so many Jews have fully or partially converted to Buddhism that one hears the term “JewBu” tossed around in some circles. Such an exchange of experience would be very beneficial, as the Rabbinical tradition has been handed down directly from teacher to student since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem at the hand of the Roman Empire. Since then the tradition has survived countless persecutions and yet remains strong to this day. Buddhists and Anarchists could both stand to learn from the struggles of the Jews to retain their history and culture, particularly the means by which the knowledge has been transmitted.

There’s lots more to read on the Zen side of things written by people who know the tradition far better than me. What I want to get into is the idea of face to face transmission and lineage in radical communities. What one generation has learned in their struggles is passed on to the next so that the movement stays strong, adaptable and living. Or at least that’s what should happen. 

Revolution, or at least the idealized one which results in a more perfect society, is not a single event, it is the whole process, from one person to millions, and it is composed of countless revolutionary events, from changes of government to shifts in public opinion on social issues. It can take many many lifetimes to accomplish and the work is never done because everything is impermanent. For a more comprehensive take on this point see this thread

 Anarchism has had a very difficult time transmitting itself from generation to generation, and, with the rest of socialist thought, is truly still in its infancy. Anarchists in the midst of fierce struggle tend to have a pretty short life expectancy. For example, Uchiyama Gudo’s career as a revolutionary lasted from about 1904-1911, ending in his execution) Or when struggle is ebbing, they jump in, make a lot of mistakes, get hurt and back out again into exile or comfortable ignominy, start voting democrat, maybe even run for city council. What might it look like for anarchists to intentionally aim for intergenerational traditions and knowledge? How would we act if we wanted anarchism to be a living practice 2,600 years from now? Books can only impart so much knowledge. The experience of being in personal relation with elders and community, learning by doing, and having their guidance and support is very rare. As the Rabbinical tradition may work as an inspiration for lay religious transmission, in the Americas the radical tradition par excellence is the Black radical tradition, which has persisted since the first slave ships landed, liberated Haiti and created the first modern republic, overthrew American chattel slavery, fired the civil rights movement and even now is the backbone of radical social movements in the US. A tradition of survival, born of necessity in resistance to the great evils of white supremacy and capitalism, persecuted ruthlessly, and giving birth to all the greatest works of art and humanity which America has to offer (What cultures white America cannot crush it takes and exploits as if it were its own). 

There is a sense of immediacy, desperation or urgency which paradoxically holds anarchists back. We face very real emergencies which threaten the continuation of our very species. We want to jump in and give 100% of ourselves to making global libertarian revolution in our lifetimes. Unfortunately, it seems like the social revolution (as opposed to political revolution, where states and territory change hands between ruling systems, parties and tyrants) doesn’t work quite like that. It’s not something any one person or group can force through. It rarely has a discernible beginning, middle or end. By the time it has advanced people already take its values as common sense. The point being that even if we all gave everything we had, it wouldn’t guarantee the results we want. That’s not to say that we can sit back and do nothing either. It is often said that social revolution is like a very long game or an endurance sport. You don’t win a marathon by sprinting right from the start. We have to find a pace which we can sustain for our whole lives if needed, and when we reach the end of our abilities, be able to pass on what we have learned so that whoever succeeds us has a stronger foundation to build on than we did. In that way radical traditions like anarchism have the potential to become stronger and more mature as time goes on. 

Finally, I have observed an implicit conceit within anarchism, foremost within myself, at my most zealous, dogmatic moments, which supposes that anarchism has nothing to learn from other cultures and movements which do not completely agree with its critique. The only result this has is to ghettoize anarchism fro the rest of social life. Rather than producing new theories and histories, anarchists get stuck endlessly analyzing our own history, assuming that the glory days are behind us. An understanding of history is very important, but unless we are willing to risk “impurity” the tradition will not live. Be it Buddhism, Judaism, the Black Radical Tradition or any other idea which people find relevant and motivating, we have to mix it up, get messy and engage with life. Of course this doesn’t always work out — not every idea under the sun is compatible with an anarchist worldview — but making sense of these things as they occur by engaging in them is one of the core responsibilities of anarchists.

I don’t believe that victory for the social revolution will be declared when we tear down just the right statue or depose the last government. Victory is when what was once radical becomes profoundly ordinary. To aim for that kind of goal we need an anarchist tradition which sees itself as fierce when fierceness is needed, gentle when gentleness is needed, and not separate from ordinary life when what we need is just need to make it to the next day, the next year, the next decade as the tides of history rise and fall. 

So what might it be like to transmit anarchism “face to face”? For one it means having permanent intentional space set aside for dialogue with one’s community — Re-centering the radical study and practice group at the heart of anarchist organization — Constantly learning and teaching, acting and theorizing to understand our oppression, the causes of our oppression, what the end of oppression could look like and how to move from here to there. People must be willing to be supported and held accountable, to support others and hold them accountable; to learn from our experiences and to share our knowledge and our methods with more and more people. We undeniably need strong, organized, militant social movements converging on the goal of social revolution, but to lay the groundwork for that we need stable, supportive and reproducible communities for the purpose of theorizing and communicating freedom.

Further reading:

Menju (Face-to-Face Transmission) by Rev. Kenshu Sugawara

I May Not Stay Here With You Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams

Buddhist Protestantism

On Judaism Martin Buber

Jewish Buddhists

Anarcho Blackness Marquis Bey

The Anarchism of Blackness Zoe Samudzi and William C. Anderson

2 thoughts on “The Transmission of Freedom

  1. “I don’t believe that victory for the social revolution will be declared when we tear down just the right statue or depose the last government. Victory is when what was once radical becomes profoundly ordinary.”

    This reminds me of a conversation I was just having with my teacher about stream entry. He told me that in some traditions, only a certain meditative insight at sufficient depth is said to “be” stream entry. But another way of looking at it is that a stream enterer is someone who, in some sense, can’t look back from the dharma, can’t take on any other paradigm that is in conflict with the dharma. Although they might forget for a time, and they still have delusions, ultimately they won’t build up more entrenched habits of ignorance and selfing. And for some people, there might not be a calendar date they can point to, but maybe a season, or a year, where in retrospect that switch seems to have taken place.

    So I imagine this analogy for our society waking up. At a certain point, maybe we’ll be able to look back on our history and say “it was those decades, or that century, where we started inclining inexorably towards greater and greater liberation in society.” May our practice serve this end.


    1. Wonderful thoughts, thank you!

      Just speculating here, but perhaps the less definitive version of stream entry your teacher mentioned is what it’s like for someone who entered the stream in a previous life remembering their path?


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