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Lineage formation permeates religious traditions. Lineages are commonly found outside of religious traditions as well, to note the roles played in the origin and development of various kinds of institutions. In Buddhism, lineage serves as an important organizational framework for connecting members of specific schools, factions, or institutions. It is the natural outcome of the recognition of authority, especially given the development of sectarian differences. In Buddhism, when individual sectarian groups compiled lineages, they did so retroactively in an attempt to shape past history in ways that would enhance group status. The most common practice was to link their teachings to past authorities and ultimately to the founder of Buddhism, Śākyamuni himself, thus legitimizing their own principles and practices and shielding them from accusations of unorthodoxy. In this way, lineage in the Buddhist context was associated with such notions as identity, legitimacy, and orthodoxy. As a result, the formation and promotion of sectarian lineages must be interpreted in accordance with the contemporary aims of the sponsoring groups; lineage formation was a means to sanction their cause, and not a literal account of the actual historical record.

Concern for lineage emerged early in Buddhism. According to Étienne Lamotte, the formation of Buddhist schools in India was due mainly to the geographical extension of the community over the entire Indian territory (History of Indian Buddhism, p. 519). Given this geographical dispersion, individual Buddhist communities developed unique interests and were confronted by particular problems. One of the results of geographical fragmentation was the rise of sectarian leaders representing the interests of particular communities. The authority of the sect was usually based on a professed doctrine linked to a well-known, but often fictitious, founder, whose doctrines were in turn traced to immediate disciples of the Buddha. In this way, the Sthavīras traced themselves to MahĀkĀŚyapa, and the MahĀsĀṂghikas traced themselves to Bāṣpa. The Sarvāstivādins (Kaśyapa, Ānanda, Madhyāntika, Śāṇavāsin, Upagupta, Pūrṇa, Mecaka, Kātyāyanīputra) and Vātsīputrīyas (ŚĀriputra, RĀhula, Vatsīputra) also developed lineages based on this premise (Lamotte, p. 521). As a result, lineage formation may be deemed a feature of Buddhist sectarianism from its outset in India, where it was a function of sectarian quests for authority and legitimacy.

Lineage was particularly important in East Asian Buddhism, where it served as the primary means of ascribing identity by linking and grouping individuals on the basis of their affiliations, whether as master-disciple, as patriarchs of a particular school, or as a succession of monastery abbots. As a mechanism for conferring legitimacy, lineages were frequently constructed to assert the claims of contemporary practitioners by assuming the authority or antiquity of presumed ancestors. This practice had broad resonance throughout East Asian cultures, predicated on domestic reverence for ancestors and biological lineages. The formation of Buddhist sectarian-based dharma genealogies has structural parallels with this propensity for honoring ancestors and maintaining clan solidarity.

Lineage and ancestor veneration

The genesis of East Asian reverence for ancestors is revealed in the Chinese term zong, which informs the esteem placed on clan and lineage in both the broader cultural and specifically Buddhist contexts. The term zong is difficult to translate because it allows for a variety of connotations and nuances, depending on the context. Encyclopedic dictionaries of the Chinese language, such as the Ci yuan (The Roots of Words), provide several meanings for zong, including "ancestral hall" (zu miao), "ancestor" (zuxian, literally "patriarch-predecessor"), "clan" (zongzu), "origin" (benyuan), and "honor" or "respect" (zunchong). The character zong originally depicted an ancestral hall, where a clan's ancestor or ancestors were honored. The character is composed of two parts: The upper part depicts a roof, and the lower part depicts "a tablet for the deceased," indicating the term's original meaning of a hall where the tablets of ancestors are kept.

The term zong appears frequently in posthumous titles for Chinese emperors, as in Gaozong (High Ancestor) or Taizong (Great Ancestor), and one of the term's primary meanings in ancient China was as the progenitor of a specific clan. Zong eventually took on a concrete meaning as clan guardian or protector, a figure who was the object of ritual veneration by clan descendants. The living clan head was responsible for decisions affecting clan welfare and prosperity, for the preservation of clan identity, and for the perpetuation of its legacy. The authority of the clan head was symbolically linked to the clan progenitor. Chinese emperors naturally seized upon this symbolism, promoting themselves, as well as their own deceased ancestors, as protectors of the Chinese people, responsible for the welfare and prosperity of the country as a whole. In this sense, the imperial family represented the "grand clan" of the Chinese people, the focal point of collective as opposed to individual clan identity.

Following the Chinese predilection to ascribe individual identity on the basis of clan affiliation, Buddhists in China were officially removed from their natal clan and adopted into the "Buddhist" one using the clan name Shi. Shi is an abbreviation of the name Shijiamouni, the Chinese pronunciation of Śākyamuni, which is derived from the Buddha's clan name, Śākya, in India. Buddhist monks in China regarded their teachers as they would a father, and began to take great interest in genealogy. As in India, genealogy served as a means of validating claims, and lineage became the contested terrain of sectarian disputations. In the early fifth century, the Indian monk Buddhabhadra translated the Damoduoluo chanjing (Dharmatrāta's Meditation Scripture), with prefaces by Huiyuan and Huiguan. The scripture highlights Buddhabhadra's Sārvastivādin lineage in an attempt to establish that the meditation teaching contained in the scripture was guaranteed by direct lineal succession from the Buddha. In addition, a vinaya work translated by Buddhabhadra and Faxian in 416 to 418 c.e. provided a similar lineage of succession from the Buddha to Buddhabhadra's teacher for a supposed vinaya lineage. Another indigenous Chinese work, the Fu fazang yinyuan zhuan (Biographies of the Circumstances of Transmission of the Dharma Repository), dated 472 c.e., provided a list of lineal heirs from the Buddha to Siṃha bhikṣu.

Lineage in Chinese Buddhism

The lineages of succession in these texts provided the bases for sectarian legitimation claims of leading Chinese Buddhist traditions, such as the Tiantai school and Chan school. Based on the Fu fazang yinyuan zhuan, the Tiantai school created a list of twenty-three patriarchs of the "sūtra-transmission," to which they added a series of three Tiantai meditation masters—Huiwen, Huisi, and Zhiyi (538–597)—to claim legitimate succession from the Buddha (see Table 1). According to Zhiyi's disciple Guanding (561–632), who created the lineage, Tiantai masters were connected because Huiwen adopted the meditation promoted in the Da zhidu lun (Great Perfection of Wisdom Treatise) attributed to the famed scholastic NĀgĀrjuna (ca. second century c.e.), the thirteenth patriarch in the Fu fazang yinyuan zhuan list.

The notion of zong as clan ancestor connected to lineal descendants played a particularly important role in shaping identity in the Chan school. In Buddhist mythology, Śākyamuni Buddha was not the only Buddha, but the last in a line of seven buddhas of antiquity—Vipaśyin, Śikhin, Viśvabhū, Krakucchanda, Kanakamuni, Kāśyapa, and Śākyamuni. According to Chan school traditions, the seven buddhas are believed to have transmitted a uniform dharma, or teaching, between them. This teaching is summarized in the four line refrain: "Shunning all evil; performing every good; purifying one's mind—this is the teaching of all buddhas." As the source of all Buddhist teaching, the various tenets of Buddhism are said to spring from these verses. In this way, Śākyamuni's message was conceived as a universal teaching transmitted to him through a line of predecessors, and handed down to his immediate disciples. Early Chan relied on the lineage supplied with Buddhabhadra's translations, eventually fusing it with Tiantai assertions based on the Fu fazang yinyuan zhuan, and supplanting it with their own innovations. Like the Tiantai list of lineage succession, the Chan list was composed of two parts: a list of Indian patriarchal transmission, coupled with a


Tiantai lineage based on the Fu fazang yinyuan zhuan (Biographies of the Circumstances of Transmission of the Dharma Repository)
SOURCE: Author.
1. Mahākāśyapa14. Kāṇadeva
2. Ānanda15. Rāhulata
3. Śaṇavāsa16. Saṅghānandin
4. Upagupta17. Gayaśāta
5. Dhṛtaka18. Kumārata
6. Miccaka19. Jayata
7. Buddhanandin20. Vasubandhu
8. Buddhamitra21. Manorhita
9. Pārśva22. Haklenayaśas
10. Puṇyayaśas23. Siṃha bhikṣu
11. Aśvaghoṣa24. Huiwen
12. Kapimala25. Huisi
13. Nāgārjuna26. Zhiyi


Chan lineage based on the Baolin chuan (Transmission of the Treasure Grove)
SOURCE: Author.
1. Mahākāśyapa15. Kāṇadeva
2. Ānanda16. Rāhulata
3. Śaṇavāsa17. Saṅghānandin
4. Upagupta18. Gayaśāta
5. Dhṛtaka19. Kumārata
6. Miccaka20. Jayata
7. Vasumitra21. Vasubandhu
8. Buddhanandin22. Manorhita
9. Buddhamitra23. Haklenayaśas
10. Pārśva24. Siṃha bhikṣu
11. Puṇyayaśas25. Basiasita
12. Aśvaghoṣa26. Puṇyamitra
13. Kapimala27. Prajñātāra
14. Nāgārjuna28. Bodhidharma

transmission among native Chinese masters. The Chan list of Indian patriarchs was conventionally fixed at twenty-eight in the Baolin chuan (Transmission of the Treasure Grove), completed in 801 (see Table 2).

Only two points separate Chan's assertion of lineage succession from the earlier Tiantai one. Vasumitra is inserted as seventh in the line of patriarchal succession, a claim based on the appearance of his name in the Chanjing, mentioned above. The addition of Vasumitra effectively expands the Tiantai list from twenty-three to twenty-four. More significantly, the Chan list maintains that the transmission was suspended with Siṃha bhikṣu, as the Tiantai list had supposed, but continued on and was eventually brought physically to China in the person of Bodhidharma (ca. early fifth century). This assertion was made to lend credence to the claim that Chan represented the unbroken succession of Buddhist teaching from Śākyamuni to a series of Chinese patriarchs, including the undisputed list of six masters from Bodhidharma to Huineng (638–713) (see Table 3).

The assertion of a Chinese patriarchal tradition provoked a well-known dispute over correct lineal succession among rival Chan factions. The dispute began in 732 when a hitherto obscure monk named Shenhui (684–758) attacked the legitimacy of the imperially acknowledged representatives of Chan. In 701 or 702, an illustrious disciple of Hongren, Shenxiu (ca. 606–706), had been invited to court by Empress Wu, where he was received with great acclaim. Following Shenxiu's death, his disciples Puji (d. 739) and Yifu (d. 736) became the standard bearers of Chan at the imperial court. Until the arrival of Shenhui, Shenxiu was the undisputed sixth patriarch of Chan. Shenhui challenged that the true heir of Hongren's dharma had been his own master, Huineng, and that he himself was Huineng's heir. To substantiate his claim, Shenhui insisted Bodhidharma's robe, the symbol of legitimate transmission, had been passed by Hongren to Huineng, not Shenxiu. Shenhui branded Shenxiu's illegitimate Chan the "Northern school," in contrast to the legitimate "Southern school" teaching of his own master, Huineng. Over time, Shenhui's arguments gained favor and Huineng was officially accepted as the sixth patriarch in 816. All subsequent Chan factions traced their lineage through Huineng.

Chan and Tiantai lineage formation culminated in the Song dynasty (960–1279). While early Chan insisted on a single line of orthodox transmission through the sixth patriarch and accepted collateral lineages only with reluctance, the later tradition recognized multilineal branches. Fueled by the geographical spread of Chan throughout China, numerous groups sought legitimacy by tracing their lineage of patriarchs through Huineng. After Huineng, the principal or "trunk" lineage of Chan was presumed to bifurcate, and several branch lineages flourished. The bifurcation posited that all later Chan lineages were descended through two of Huineng's disciples, Nanyue Huairang (677–744) and Qingyuan Xingsi (d. 740). Huairang linked the flourishing movement of Mazu Daoyi (709–788) and his followers in the late eighth and early ninth centuries to the Chan tradition of Huineng, and it is clear that Huairang's record was tailored to legitimize these motivations. Xingsi's record was conceived


with similar aims, to legitimize the assertions of later lineages descended through Xingsi and Shitou Xiqian (700–790).

By acknowledging several branches, Chan was able to capitalize on its clan identity as an extended family. This framework served as the organizing principle for the classic works of Chan lineage formation compiled in the Song, the transmission histories, or lamp records (denglu): the Zutang ji (Patriarch's Hall Anthology, compiled 952); the Jingde chuandeng lu (Jingde-Era Transmission of the Lamp Record, compiled 1004); the Tiansheng guangdeng lu (Tiansheng-Era Record of the Propagation of the Lamp, compiled 1036); the Jianzhong jingguo xudeng lu (Jianzhong jingguo-Era Supplementary Lamp Record, compiled 1101); the Zongmen liandeng huiyao (Combined Lamp Record of the Chan Lineage, compiled 1183); the Jiatai pudeng lu (Jiatai-Era Universal Lamp Record, compiled 1202); and the Wudeng huiyuan (Concise Compendium of the Five Lamp [Histories], compiled 1252). The common metaphor employed throughout these works is the notion of transmitting the lamp or flame (chuandeng or zhuandeng), with the lamp representing the light of enlightenment or the teachings of Buddhism. In the Chan context, dharma transmission represents not just a particular teaching or principle, but the secret essence of the Buddha's awakening, referred to variously as "perfect wisdom," the "dharma-eye," the "mind-teaching," or the "mind-essence." The transmission of the dharma is likened to the passing of a flame from one lamp to another, representing the transmission of Buddha's enlightenment from one generation to the next.

As an organizing principle, these works share the belief in a common lineage of Chan ancestors, or patriarchs, extending from Śākyamuni and MahĀkaŚyĀpa through the series of Indian patriarchs culminating with Bodhidharma, who brought the transmission to China, initiating the series of Chinese Chan patriarchs. These transmission records are principally concerned with documenting the profusion of Chan masters following the sixth patriarch, and organizing them according to lineage. The genesis of the so-called five houses or five clans (Weiyang, Linji, Caodong, Yunmen, and Fayan) of Chan Buddhism is found in these records. Organized in this fashion, the master–disciple relation serves as a surrogate father–son relationship, linking practitioners to the larger tradition of Chan ancestors and providing identity based on specific lineages. In this way Chan came to mirror the Chinese clan system, organized around common ancestors, patrilineal style relationships, factional branch lineages, and so on. The Chan clan came to represent a set of familial style relationships. Individual monks belonging to a lineage were related vertically as spiritual fathers, sons, grandfathers, grandsons, and so on. They were related to other Chan branch lineages horizontally as would be siblings, cousins, uncles, and nephews.

The last decades of the Song dynasty witnessed the production of two works, the Shimen zhengtong (Orthodox Lineage of the Buddhist Tradition, compiled in 1237) and the Fozu tongji (Comprehensive History of the Buddhas and Patriarchs, compiled between 1258 and 1269), which presented the universal history of Buddhism from the Tiantai perspective. These works held that the essence of Buddhism was embodied in Tiantai teaching and practice, which had been faithfully transmitted from Śākyamuni through the Indian patriarchs, to the Tiantai patriarchs in China. Like their Chan counterparts, the Tiantai records were structured around the principle of patriarchal succession. However, unlike Chan, they proposed that Tiantai patriarchs and their descendants occupied the central and dominant position of Buddhism in China. As in the case of Chan lineages, the essentially congruent Tiantai lineages presented in these works cannot be accepted uncritically, but should be regarded as products of a process aimed at securing prestige, patronage, and special privilege for Tiantai during the Song period (Shinohara, pp. 524–525).

By the Song dynasty, Dharma-transmission was formalized through the granting of a dharma-scroll conferred by a master on deserving disciples. The "dharma-scroll" contained a list of names through whom the transmission had passed, from Śākyamuni down through the current master. In effect, it constituted the dharma-lineage of the particular sect in question, and authorized the recipient to teach. According to Holmes Welch (The Practice of Chinese Buddhism: 1900–1950, p. 157), this system was still practiced in China in the twentieth century. In addition to dharma-lineages, individual monastery lineages listed the names of abbots who served at them.

The notion of lineage framed in the Chinese context had great impact on the development of Buddhism throughout East Asia. Lineage as a basis for sectarian identity was promoted in Japan and Korea, where native versions of Chinese Buddhist schools prospered, and native lineages were grafted onto their Chinese predecessors. Contemporary Zen priests in Japan continue to receive dharma-scrolls or dharma-certificates as authentication of their status in a Zen lineage. Mention should also be made of the use of lineage in Tibetan Buddhism, where incarnate lamas, leaders of the Buddhist community, are assumed to be successive embodiments of leading buddhas and bodhisattvas, following a notion introduced with the first Karma pa Lama, Dus gsum mkhyen pa (Düsum Khyenpa; 1110–1193). This is the most distinctive of Tibetan hierarchical institutions, which identifies a future lama as the rebirth of his deceased predecessor. The most famous example of this is the Dalai Lama, considered to be an incarnation of Tibet's patron bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.


Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. Confucianism and Family Rituals in Imperial China: A Social History of Writing about Rites. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Faure, Bernard. The Will to Orthodoxy: A Critical Genealogy of Northern Chan Buddhism, tr. Phyllis Brooks. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Foulk, T. Griffith. "Myth, Ritual, and Monastic Practice in Sung Ch'an Buddhism." In Religion and Society in T'ang and Sung China, ed. Peter N. Gregory and Patricia Buckley Ebrey. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.

Foulk, T. Griffith. "Sung Controversies Concerning the 'Separate Transmission' of Ch'an." In Buddhism in the Sung, ed. Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Foulk, T. Griffith, and Sharf, Robert H. "On the Ritual Use of Ch'an Portraiture in Medieval China." Cahiers d' Extrême Asie 7 (1993–1994): 149–219.

Jan, Yün-hua. "Tsung-mi: His Analysis of Ch'an Buddhism." T'oung Pao 58 (1972): 1–54.

Jorgensen, John. "The 'Imperial' Lineage of Ch'an Buddhism: The Role of Confucian Ritual and Ancestor Worship in Ch'an's Search for Legitimation in the Mid-T'ang Dynasty." Papers on Far Eastern History 35 (1987): 89–133.

Lamotte, Étienne. History of Indian Buddhism: From the Origins to the Śaka Era, tr. Sara Webb-Boin and Jean Dantinne. Louvain, Belgium: Université Catholique de Louvain Institute Orientaliste; Peters Press, 1988.

Shinohara, Koichi. "From Local History to Universal History: The Construction of the Sung T'ien-t'ai Lineage." In Buddhism in the Sung, ed. Peter N. Gregory and Daniel A. Getz, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Welch, Holmes. "Dharma-Scrolls and the Succession of Abbots in Chinese Monasteries." T'oung Pao 50 (1963): 93–149.

Welch, Holmes. The Practice of Chinese Buddhism: 1900–1950. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Welter, Albert. "Mahākāśyapa's Smile: Silent Transmission and the Kung-an (Kōan) Tradition." In The Koan: Texts and Contexts in Zen Buddhism, ed. Steven Heine and Dale S. Wright. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Yampolsky, Philip B. The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1967.

Albert Welter


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lin·e·age / ˈlinē-ij/ • n. 1. lineal descent from an ancestor; ancestry or pedigree. ∎ Anthropol. a social group tracing its descent from a single ancestor.2. Biol. a sequence of species each of which is considered to have evolved from its predecessor: the chimpanzee and gorilla lineages. ∎  a sequence of cells in the body that developed from a common ancestral cell: the myeloid lineage.


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lineage XIV. — (O)F. lignage, †linage :- Rom. *līneāticum, f. L. līnea LINE2; see AGE. The sp. lineage (XVII) is due to assoc. with line; the pronunc. has followed it.


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