Document of Heritage

· Teachings · ,

by Eihei Dogen

A Buddha is transmitted dharma only from a buddha, an ancestor only from an ancestor, through merging realization in direct transmission. In this way, it is the unsurpassable enlightenment. It is impossible to give the seal of realization without being a buddha, and it is impossible to become a buddha without receiving the seal of realization from a buddha. Who else, other than a buddha, can certify this realization as the most venerable, the most unsurpassable?

When you have the seal of realization from a buddha, you have realization without a teacher, realization without self. This being so, it is said, “A buddha receives realization from a buddha; an ancestor merges realization with an ancestor.” The meaning of this teaching cannot be understood by those who are not buddhas. How then can it be measured by bodhisattvas of the ten stages or even those in the stage of enlightenment equal to buddhas’?

Furthermore, how can it be discerned by masters of sutras or treatises? Even if they explain it, they still do not understand it.

Since a buddha receives dharma from a buddha, the buddha way is thoroughly experienced by a buddha and a buddha; there is no moment of the way without a buddha and a buddha. For example, rocks inherit from rocks, jewels inherit from jewels. When a chrysanthemum inherits from a chrysanthemum and a pine gives the seal of realization to a pine, the preceding chrysanthemum is one with the following chrysanthemum and the preceding pine is one with the following pine. Those who do not understand this, even when they hear the words “authentic transmission from buddha to buddha,” have no idea what it means; they do not know heritage from buddha to buddha in merged realization of ancestor and ancestor. What a pity! They appear to be a buddha family but they are not buddha heirs, nor are they heir buddhas.


Huineng, The Sixth Ancestor of Caoxi, once gave a discourse to the assembly: “There are forty ancestors from the Seven Original Buddhas to myself, and there are forty ancestors from myself to the Seven Original Buddhas.”

This is clearly the meaning of the authentic heritage of buddha ancestors. The Seven Original Buddhas include those who appeared in the last eon and those who appeared in the present eon. Nevertheless, the continuation of face-to-face transmission of the forty ancestors is the buddha way and the buddha heritage.

Thus, proceeding from Huineng to the Seven Original Buddhas is the buddha heritage of forty ancestors. And going beyond from the Seven Original Buddhas to Huineng is the buddha heritage of forty buddhas.

The buddha way, the ancestor way, is like this. Without merging realization and without buddha ancestors, there is no buddha wisdom and there is no thorough ancestral experience. Without buddha wisdom, there is no accepting buddha; without thorough experience, there is no merging of realization between ancestors.


The Forty Ancestors Here represent only recent buddhas. Furthermore, the mutual heritage between buddhas and buddhas is deep and vast, neither backing up nor turning away, neither cut off nor stopped.

This means that although Shakyamuni Buddha had realized the way before the Seven Original Buddhas, he finally received dharma from Kashyapa Buddha. Again, although he realized the way on the eighth day of the twelfth month in the thirtieth year since his birth, it is realization of the way before the Seven Original Buddhas. It is realization of the way simultaneously with all buddhas shoulder to shoulder, realization of the way before all buddhas, realization of the way after all buddhas.

Furthermore, there is an understanding that Kashyapa Buddha, in turn, received dharma from Shakyamuni Buddha. If you do not clarify this, you do not understand the buddha way. If you do not clarify the buddha way, you are not an heir of the buddha. The buddha’s heir means the buddha’s child.

Photo by Joe Watanachote

Photo by Joe Watanachote

Shakyamuni Buddha once caused Ananda to ask, “Whose disciples were all buddhas of the past?”

Shakyamuni Buddha answered, “All buddhas of the past are disciples of myself, Shakyamuni Buddha.”

The presence of all buddhas is like this. To see all buddhas, to succeed in all buddhas, to fulfill the way, is the buddha way of all buddhas. In this buddha way, the document of heritage is always given at the time of transmitting dharma. Those without dharma heritage are people outside the way who believe in spontaneous enlightenment. If the buddha way had not clearly established dharma heritage, how could it have come down to the present?

For this reason, when a buddha becomes a buddha, a document of heritage is given to a buddha’s heir buddha, and this document of heritage is given by a buddha’s heir buddha. The meaning of the document of heritage is this: you understand the sun, the moon, and stars, and inherit dharma; you attain skin, flesh, bones, and marrow, and inherit dharma; you inherit a robe or staff, a pine branch or whisk, an udumbara blossom or a brocade robe; you receive straw sandals or an arched bamboo staff.

At the time of dharma heritage, the document is handwritten with the blood of the finger or the tongue. Or, it is handwritten with oil or milk. Every one of these is a document of heritage.

Those who entrust and those who receive this heritage are both the buddha’s heirs. Indeed, whenever buddha ancestors are actualized, dharma heritage is actualized.

At the time of actualization, innumerable buddha ancestors arrive without expectation and receive dharma without seeking. Those who inherit dharma are all buddha ancestors.


In China, Since the Time Bodhidharma, the Twenty-eighth Ancestor, came from India, the principle that there is dharma heritage in the buddha way has been authentically understood. Before that time, it had never been spoken of. This is something that had never been known in India by teachers of scriptures or treatises. This is something that has never been reached by bodhisattvas or even by teachers of dharani who study the meaning of the Tripitaka. What a pity! Although they have received a human body as a vessel of the way, they are uselessly entangled by the net of scriptures; they do not understand the method of breaking through, and cannot realize the moment of leaping out. This being so, you must study the way in detail and wholeheartedly determine to thoroughly experience it.

When I was in China, I had the opportunity to bow to some documents of heritage. There were various kinds. One of those who showed me documents of heritage was Visiting Abbot Weiyi at Mount Tiantong, a former abbot of the Guangfu Monastery. He was a man from Yue, like Rujing, my late master. So Rujing would say, “Ask Abbot Weiyi about the customs of my region.”

One day Weiyi said, “Old writings worth seeing are treasures of humankind. How many of them have you seen?”

I said, “I have seen a few.”

Then he said, “I have a scroll of old writing. I will show it to you at your convenience.” He brought it to me. It was a document of heritage of the Fayan lineage that he had obtained from the articles left behind by an old master. So it was not what Weiyi himself had received.

The document said, “The First Ancestor, Mahakashyapa was awakened by Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha was awakened by Kashyapa Buddha.”

Upon seeing this, I was firmly convinced that there is dharma heritage between an authentic heir and an authentic heir. This was a teaching I had never seen before. At that moment the buddha ancestors had invisibly responded to my wish and helped me, a descendant of theirs. I had never been moved so much.



Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan after traveling to China and train- ing under Rujing, a master of the Chinese Caodong lineage.

Kazuaki Tanahashi is a master calligrapher, Zen teacher, author, and translator. His most recent book is an in-depth study of the Heart Sutra, entitled, The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism.

From Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Copyright © 2010 by the San Francisco Zen Center. Reprinted by arrrangement with The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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