authority and transmission

People familiar with Buddhism in the West, particularly Zen, have often heard of Dharma transmission.

In some schools this is a certificate and a formal ceremony stating that you’re now the Dharma heir of so-and-so. It’s described as a mind-to-mind transmission that has continued uninterrupted from Sakyamuni Buddha himself, and only someone who has received this is an authentic inheritor of the Dharma.

However, Korean Buddhism has a rather different perspective on this.

In traditional Korean Buddhism, there are no certificates of transmission. After ten or twenty years, a general consensus would arise that someone was the Dharma successor of their teacher. Their authority was derived from their ability, not a piece of paper.

Likewise, people didn’t really buy into the idea of an unbroken lineage. There could be periods where there were a number of great teachers, where there was only one, and even generations where there was no particularly outstanding teachers. The Supreme Patriarch of Korean Buddhism, Hanam Sunim (1876-1951), explained why this wasn’t a problem:

It doesn’t matter whether or not you knew the previous king. If you sit on the throne, you’re now king.

That is, if you awaken to the inherent Buddha-essence within you, you are the successor of Sakyamuni.

We each this very same mind as Sakyamuni, inherent within us at every moment and every place. Our job then, is to learn to rely on this, even though it’s indistinct at first. If we can diligently do this, we will have the kinds of experiences that will confirm we are going in the right direction, and which will reveal our direction.

Continuously letting go and entrusting everything to this Buddha-mind is the path forward as well as a great Dharma protecting warrior, because in returning everything we experience, including what we know and what we don’t know, we keep letting go of “I” and “me”, and are not caught by the experiences that could serve as toeholds for pride, greed, and fear.

14 thoughts on “authority and transmission”

  1. I have a copy of Sŏn Master Seung Sahn’s Transmission certificate from Sŏn Master Ko Bong hanging on my wall. Also, if you refer to Robert Buswell’s ‘The Zen Monastic Experience’ you will note that he states that there are two types of Transmission in Korea, the one you refer to and the awarding of certificates. One is an organizational transmission and the other is a personal transmission.

    Sŏn Master Kusan also received transmission from Sŏn Master Hyobong. Kusan Sunim never transmitted to a Dharma heir so the Jogye Order appointed his successor following his death. These are just two examples of Korean Transmission.


  2. Looking at the amount of various teachings in the world and variations within one particular teaching, it is possible to notice that everybody says that they are right, so to make sure there are some guidelines in the knowledge of Dharma there are such things as official transmissions, somewhat like a doctor would recieve official recognition. In Tibetan tradition, for example, there are many teachings by itself, and nowadays there is little trust, because anybody can set up a temple and teach basics of buddhism, but if that teacher is missing the experience of ultimate knowledge, or at least some degree of it, then his/her teachings will be incomplete and can be even harmful, because they can point at the wrong direction. Even if transmission and pure liniage are important, it is recognised that it is not always necessary, because a person can get the direct knowledge from the Buddha, which would make it the most pure liniage, however since before you have the “taste” of that by yourself, it might be difficult to recognize a good and worthy teacher, whose instructions you could follow, that is why it would make sence to rely on such things as authentic transmission and pure liniage.
    Even if your mind is Buddha, it is an awfully difficult task to see it, having a teacher who has seen that and has thourough knowledge of that can be of tremendous help.
    There is a saying that without a guru Dharma is not heard.

    “people didn’t really buy into the idea of an unbroken lineage” – maybe that is the reason why Buddhism in Korea is not religion of majority, and within Korean Buddhism there are also many beurocrasies, which makes difficult for many people to recognize great teacher even if she stares them in the face.

    1. I would suggest that people not buying into the idea of an unbroken linage is what has saved Korean Buddhism. People get judged on their ability, not on rumors or authority received from others.

      1. Maybe that saved Korean Buddhism, or maybe that was the problem in the first place, you can look at it from different perspective.
        If people cannot see that ability? If they have no interest of liniages then they would just get into various teachings without discretion, and it seems that is the case.
        Once on TV I saw a young Korean man boasting of their new church in Korea for 20,000 seats… these people definitely did not buy into any idea of pure liniage…
        Another example is on the webpage of Chogye Order in FAQ, in “what is Buddhism” you can see the answer that is not the best explanation of what is Buddhism and it is the answer of a person who seem to have little respect not only for other religions, but also to any idea of pure liniage, and explanation about meditation, when did Buddha teach Hwadu? (talking about pure liniage…)

      2. I think the thought goes like this: People who have the ability and insight will naturally draw people towards them and help all they come across, even though they have no certificates.

        Whereas if someone has “official” recognition, but no true insight, then that “received authority” is just going to allow them to amplifly their mistakes. If they’re trying to be a teacher and using that authority to attact people, their mistakes and misdeeds are only going to have a bigger impact because of that authority.

        On the other hand, consider Seung Sahn Kun Sunim, (and ignore the transmission he did have). He showed up in the US with no money, no English, and was working as a dish washer. Yet his light drew out others. They came and found him nonetheless. If Daehaeng Kun Sunim had stayed in N. America, it would have been much the same.

        Even in Korea, there are enough radical things about her expression of the Dharma that in the old days, senior Jogye Order monks really didn’t like her. However, not a single one of them could argue with her insight and Dharma ability. Everyone who tried to face her was utterly defeated, and admitted so. Her own insight and awakening is her source of authority.

        In Korea today, it appears that the majority view is this: People who truly have insight will do fine without any certificates, whereas if their insight is lacking, a certificate would end up causing them and others harm.

  3. “Her own insight and awakening is her source of authority.”

    Quite. My respect for Kun Sunim is based on her teachings and what I see of those who follow her. But some kind of ‘official’ recognition is also important. I mean, I think it’s important that she belongs in the Jogye Order and that she herself had recognised teachers that then also recognised her achievements.

    Perhaps, Chong Go Sunim, you could tell us a little more about Kun Sunim’s recognition by Hanam Sunim for example and her relationship with other Korean Seon Masters?

    But, of course, at the end of the day, even Kun Sunim herself, no matter how wonderful is just another teacher, just another finger pointing at the moon, and the real teacher, the one we can fully rely on and depend on is no where but within ourselves. And the transmision we need, is the one we experience for ourselves.

    All the best,


    1. Hi Marcus,
      It’s interesting that you mentioned the “finger to the moon” analogy, because Daehaeng Sunim said something similar the other day:

      “You’re the one who has to lay each brick and apply the morter. All I can do is tell you how to do it. Even though I wanted to, I can’t lay even a single brick for you. You’re the one who has to do that part.”

      Regarding reconition by Hanam Sunim, the entire episode is in the beginning of “No River to Cross.” They exchanged a couple questions and answers, and Hanam Sunim said, “Outstanding. Now go your own way.”

      At the time, I don’t know if there was even a single witness. Perhaps Tanho Sunim was there, but Daehaeng Sunim was just a ragged little shramaneri who asked annoying questions. No one really took her seriously except for two or three very senior disciples of Hanam Sunim.
      Even this story of her time with Hanam Sunim really only had any currency with those who were already open to Daehaeng Sunim. Those who were jealous or inclined to make trouble ignored it or, after those senior disciples died, said it never happened.

  4. Muy buenas tardes a todos los hermanos.

    Realmente después de ese viaje que realizamos a Buenos Aires, y de haber visto y escuchado algunas de las Conferencias de la Gran Maestra, me sentí honrado de estar compartiendo con una Auténtica Maestra del Dharma.

    Conocí el Buddhismo por cuenta propia alrededor de hace 30 años, Cuando una siesta despues de practicar ejercicios de yoga y Artes Marciales me estaba duchando, me mire al espejo y no me conocí, y me pregunte a mi mismo ¿Quen Soy?; ¿De Donde vengo?; ¿A donde voy?; ¿Que era yo antes de venir aqui?; ¿Que seré yo despues de irme?;,

    y empece a preguntar, doce años estuve en colegio religioso cátolico y no pudieron contestarme las preguntas. Fue así, que buscando libros de artes marciales, encontre uno que decía “KUNG FU”, pero”casualmente” (o causalmente) se trataba de Buddhismo Chan y Zen. Y allí entendí muchas cosas que no entendía antes, muchas preguntas que habia hecho y que no tenian respuesta, las halle allí, y de alli comenzó mi busqueda. Me venían cuestionamientos en la mente, iba a la librería, y dejaba que mi juingong me guiara hacia lo que necesitaba.

    Tiempo despues conocí a quien fuera mi Gran Maestro, el Maestro Lee Han Chul, 9º Dan de Kuk Sool Won y Bul Moo Do, y quien fuera amigo del Venerable Maestro Kyung Bo Seo, (Seo, Kyung Bo) que a su vez le otorgo el 9º dan de la Asocación Koreana para la Investigación y Difusión de las Artes Marciales Buddhistas Koreanas Tradicionales”. Tengo una copia de su certificado en mi Dojang. Y con el comenzamos a dialogar sobre el Dharma. Luego que él desencarnó, entre´en contacto con un grupo de Buddhismo Chino Chan y Tierra Pura, pero sin dejar mi anhelo de tranmitir el Buddhismo desde sus raíces coreanas y de esa manera agradecer al Maestro. Y ahora se, que Juinggong, gracias a el pude ahora entrar en contacto con la Gran Maestra, y seguir con las enseñanzas.

    Se que el Buddhismo es Uno, y que todos somos Uno también.

    También escuche sobre la tranmisión del Dharma, y se que el Ven Maestro Sheng Yen de Buddhismo Chan chino, fue a Japon para obtener los certificados de reconocimiento de las dos ramas de Buddhismo Chan, las que en Japonés se conocen como Soto y Rinzai. (Lin Chi)

    Junto las manos en Saludo de Dharma,

    Alejandro (Mun Hye)

    Very good afternoon to all the brothers.

    Actually after that trip we make to Buenos Aires, and having seen and heard some of the conferences of the Grand Master, I was honored to be sharing with masters of the Dharma.

    Buddhism met on their own about 30 years ago, when a nap after practicing yoga and martial arts I was showering, I look in the mirror and I knew, and I ask myself What am Quen?; Do Where I come from?; dopnde I do?; What I was before coming here?; What will I go after?;,

    and started to ask, twelve years I was in catholic school and could not answer the questions. And then, the martial arts books searching, I found one that said “KUNG FU”, but “causlmente” it was Chan and Zen Buddhism And there mcuh understood I did not understand before, many questions he had done and had no response, staying there, and there began my search. I came questions in mind, going to the library, and beneath my juingong guide me to what I needed.

    Some time later I met who was my Grand Master, Master Lee Han Chul, 9 º Dan Kuk Sool Won and Bul Moo Do, and who was a friend of Venerabel Master Kyung Bo Seo, which in turn gives the 9 th dan of Asocación Koreana for Research and Dissemination of Koreana Buddhist Traditional Martial Arts “. I have a copy of your certificate to my Dojang. And to begin to talk about the Dharma. Then he disembodied, entre’en contact with a group of Chinese Buddhism Chan and Pure Land, but still my desire to tranmit Buddhism from his Korean roots and so grateful to the Master. And now that Juinggong, thanks to the now I come into contact with the Grand Master, and to proceed with teachings.

    Is that Buddhism is one, and we are all One as well.

    TRANSMISSION I also heard about the Dharma, and the Ven Master Sheng Yen of Chinese Chan Buddhism, went to Japan to obtain certificates of recognition of the two branches of Chan Buddhism, which are known as Japanese Soto and Rinzai. (Lin Chi)

    Hands together in greeting Dharma

    Alejandro (Mun Hye)

  5. Hi Chong Go,

    I was wondering if Daehaeng ever did have a dharma successor (or maybe a few)? I’ve found no information about this anywhere, but it would be good to know.


    1. No, she really didn’t like the idea of appointing someone as “successor,” because when you do that, their authority comes from what someone else said. She much prefered that people used their own judgement, based on what was helpful to them, and what seemed in tune with the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings. To that end, we have a council of senior sunims who guide the center now, with big decisions coming up for a general vote.

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