Although we chant it at least once a week, for most people the Abbreviated Ancestral Line is a pretty enigmatic chant – for newcomers not much different from a Dharani, actually. Even if you stick around for a few years you won’t necessarily know that Hakuun Ryoku is Roshi Yasutani, and Daiun Sogaku is Roshi Harada. However, if you make the effort of looking more deeply into the Ancestral Line and getting familiar with those mentioned in it, you may come to feel a real connection with and gratitude to those people who transmitted the Dharma to our times. This article is meant to help you do just this – make the history of our lineage a little more accessible.
The first six names that appear in the Ancestral Line are the pre-historical Buddhas. The first three of them are said to have existed in the previous eon (known as the Adorned Eon):
They were, however, only the 3 last of a thousand Buddha’s that lived at that time. The next three were the first of our eon, called the Worth Eon (and, by the way, an eon is the same thing as a kalpa – a very long time):
They each had a wife and a son to begin with, but renounced the wordily life. After strenuous periods of meditation efforts of various lengths, and having accepted some rice milk from village girls (makes one wonder about the nutritional properties of that drink…), went on to attained supreme enlightenment sitting on grass under a tree. They lived, respectively, 4, 3 and 2 thousand years.
Shakyamuni Buddha – the first historical (yes, the historians are pretty sure that he actually existed) person in our lineage, and for some of us one of the two names – aside from Roshi Kapleau – that ring a bell in this chant. We won’t go into his story here, let us only note that he was probably born in the 6th century BC and died in the 5th and – which not everybody knows – he is also venerated as a manifestation of god in Hinduism, one of the sects of Islam and the Bahá’í Faith.
Mahakashyapa – stemming from the Brahmin caste, is the one chosen by Shakyamuni Buddha as his successor. The transmission took place during the so called Flower Sermon, when, upon Buddha holding up a flower, Mahakashyapa smiled. Then the World Honored One 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 Mahakashyapa”. Before he became a follower of the Buddha, Mahakashyapa had a wife (he married to fulfill his parents wish, although he was never drawn to the lay life) who, together with him, became an ascetic. Mahakashyapa plays an important role in the formation of Buddhism as such, having convened and lead the first Buddhist Council which gathered the teachings of the Buddha after his death. He is considered the first Ancestor of Zen.
Ananda – was a cousin, follower and attendant of the Buddha, and is said to have been born on the day of Buddha’s awakening. His name means “bliss”, and was given to him due to his extraordinary beauty. He is the one who knew all the teachings of the Buddha by heart and recited them to the First Council. The story of Ananda’s awakening is surely worth knowing: despite the fact that he knew all the teachings, after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha, Ananda had still not experienced their truth for himself. This being the case, he would not have been permitted to attend the council. Knowing this, he sat in meditation for many hours, day and night. Finally, some time around 4am on the day when the council was supposed to take place, he decided to go to bed and, right then, upon laying down, he had his great awakening experience.
Ashvaghosha – born in the second half of the 1st century AC, he is considered the first Sanskrit dramatist and a great poet. Being an expert in non-Buddhist studies, Ashvaghosha challenged Buddhist monks to meet him in debate, and if they could not defeat him, they should stop collecting their alms. Hearing about Ashvaghosha’s success, bhiksu Parsva, who figures in our Full Ancestral Line (bhiksu, by the way, means simply a fully ordained Buddhist monk) travelled from the North to meet him, fearing that Ashvagosha’s influence would seriously obstruct the spreading of the Dharma. The debate between the two took place in the presence of the king. They agreed that the winner should become a teacher of the defeated. As you can guess, Parsva won the debate, and, under his guidance, Ashvagosha himself later became a great Buddhist scholar. The legend has it that he would explain the Dharma so wonderfully, that even hungry horses, not having eaten for six days, would rather listen to him than eat their favorite food (the name Ashvagosha means “horse-cry”).
Nagarjuna – born around 150 AC – is sometimes considered to be inferior only to the Buddha himself in his understanding of the Dharma. Not much is known about his life. A Chinese story written down many years after his death states that he was born a Hindu, and even before converting to Buddhism was in possession of many supernatural forces, which later enabled him to go to the bottom of the ocean and meet with the Serpent King. What is known for sure, however, is that Nagarjuna was one of the foremost Buddhist philosophers and the author of Mūlamadhyamakakārikā (Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way) which, among other things, deals with the concept of emptiness.
Vasubandhu – born in the 4th century AC resembles Nagarjuna both in his philosophical skills and his initial hostility to the doctrine he was later to adopt. He is said to describe Mahayana Buddhism as impossibly difficult before his half-brother Asanga faked illness to trick Vasubandhu into becoming a Buddhist. In later life he is said to have gotten so involved in his meditation practice that he refused to take part in any debate – quite a contrast to his younger years.
Bodhidharma is the first Chinese Ancestor in our lineage – but to read more about him and his successors you need to go to the second part of this series.