The Mind-Seal: Transmission and the Legacy of Chan

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Sometimes the mind-seal is made of gold; sometimes it is made of tofu.

Master Sheng yen

Transmission is not necessarily a clear-cut process; much depends on the circumstances between the master and the disciple, as well as on the master's and the disciple's level of attainment. When masters lack the experience and the maturity to truly recognize a worthy heir —or worse, be less than worthy themselves—the authenticity of a lineage based on shallow or false transmissions will be damaged. In the past as well as in the present, transmissions have not always been worthy of the name. There is a Chan saying that sometimes the mind-seal is made of gold; sometimes it is made of tofu (bean curd).

Despite being open to questions of authenticity, Dharma transmission has been the method through which the lineages of Chan have perpetuated since Bodhidharma. The continued vitality of the lineage attests to the fact that there have always been a small number of outstanding and worthy Chan masters who transmitted to worthy disciples.

As one can readily see, transmitting to a Dharma heir may be the single most important action that a Chan master may undertake as a teacher. For, while the master and the disciple are the proximate actors in this drama, the true benefactors are the lineage and its followers, for Dharma transmission is the means by which the lamp of Chan is passed from one Dharma generation to the next, vital and intact.