Reading The Transmission of the Lamp got me interested in examining the Indian ancestors listed as historic masters in the Zen lineage. My curiosity was how much of this was mythical, and how much based on historical individuals.

I found some interesting information... first, here the list I compiled based on the names traditionally chanted in lineage chants in Zen, with notes:

1. Bibashi Butsu (Vipashyin Buddha) - Buddha of the previous eon
2. Shiki Butsu (Shikhin Buddha) - Buddha of the previous eon
3. Bishafu Butsu (Vishvabhu Buddha) - Buddha of the previous eon
4. Kuruson Butsu (Krakucchanda Buddha) - First Buddha of the current eon
5. Kunagonmuni Butso (Kanakamuni Buddha) - Second Buddha of the current eon
6. Kasho Butsu (Kashyapa Buddha) - Third Buddha of the current eon
7. Shakyamuni Butsu (Shakyamuni Buddha, 563 BCE - 483 BCE)
8. Makakasho (Mahakasyapa, d. ca. 452 BCE, 20 years after 1st Buddhist Council)
9. Ananda (Ananda, d. ca. 430 BCE, 20 years after Mahakasyapa)
10. Shonawashu (Shanavasa)
11. Ubakikuta (Upagupta, ca. 3rd century BCE, ca. 250 BCE, contemporary of Ashoka)
12. Daitaka (Dhritaka)
13. Mishaka (Miccaka)
14. Bashumitsu (Vasumitra, ca. 2nd century CE, linked with Kanishka)
15. Butsudanandai (Buddhanandi)
16. Fudamitta (Buddhamitra)
17. Barishiba (Parshva, ca. 2nd century CE, linked with Kanishka)
18. Funayasha (Punyayashas)
19. Anabotei (Ashvaghosha, ca. 80-150 CE, linked with Kanishka)
20. Kabimora (Kapimala)
21. Nagyaharajuna (Nagarjuna, ca. 150-250 CE)
22. Kanadaiba (Kanadeva)
23. Ragarata (Rahulata)
24. Sogyanandai (Sanghanandi)
25. Kayashata (Gayashata)
26. Kumorata (Kumarata)
27. Shayata (Jayata)
28. Bashubanzu (Vasubandhu, 4th century CE)
29. Manura (Manorhita)
30. Kakurokuna (Haklenayashas)
31. Shishibodai (Simha Bhikshu)
32. Bashashita (Basiasita)
33. Funyomitta (Punyamitra)
34. Hannyatara (Prajnatara)
35. Bodaidaruma (Bodhidharma, d. 532)

The first six Buddhas listed are purely symbolic, noting that the capacity to awaken did not begin with Shakyamuni.

Shakyamuni Buddha's birth and death dates are somewhat contested, but 563-483 BCE seem to be the most generally accepted dates.

Some biographical material I found on Buddhanet stated that Mahakasyapa and Ananda, both contemporaries of the Buddha, lived to be 100 (of course this is likely mythical). Mahakasyapa is said to have died 20 years after the First Buddhist Council, which was convened a year after the Buddha's death in an effort to preserve the Buddha's teachings. Ananda was said to have died 20 years after Mahakasyapa. I'm not sure what Buddhanet's sources are.

The next ancestor I could put a date on was Upagupta, who is recorded as a contemporary of King Ashoka and who acted as Ashoka's Buddhist teacher. This places him in the third century BCE.

The next ancestors on the list that can be dated are Vasumitra, Parshva, and Ashvaghosha, who have been placed in the court of King Kanishka, a king who ruled over a wide area spanning modern day Northern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in the second century CE. Nagarjuna was also contemporary to Kanishka's court, but dates given for him place him a bit later than the previous three, with a death date circa 250 CE.

The next dated ancestor is Vasubandhu, who wrote texts that have survived and who scholars have been able to place as contemporary to King Chandragupta I, thus active through the first half of the fourth century BCE.

The next ancestor with a date is Bodhidharma, who was active in the sixth century BCE.

Birth and death dates for the majority of the Chinese Zen ancestors appear to have been meticulously recorded.

Doing this research made me realize that there is likely more historical truth to the people in the lineage being "real" Buddhist practitioners than I would have thought. But there are also gaps that point to inaccurate or missing information.

There is only one ancestor listed between Ananda and Upagupta, and yet there is a 200 year gap between the periods when they were living. The most noteworthy gap, however, falls between Upagupta and Vasumitra--a 400 year span, but with only two ancestors listed between them! And then to bounce to the other extreme, Ancestors #14-21 are all contemporaries living alongside one another within the same 100 year period. Then there are six ancestors between Nagarjuna and Vasubandhu, who yet only have a hundred years between them. There are six ancestors listed for the 200 year gap between Vasubandhu and Bodhidharma, a plausible number.

So it seems there are likely some "missing ancestors" between Ananda and Upagupta and most certainly between Upagupta and Vasumitra. And it also seems unlikely to me, given Ancestors #14-21 all living contemporaneously to one another, that awakening was transmitted one-to-one-to-one as the myth goes. In a way it is as if there are "extra ancestors" for certain historical periods. It seems more likely that Chinese and/or Japanese Zen practitioners looking back to history created a lineage using individuals who were noted in historical accounts and/or were authors of significant Buddhist texts, and took a bit of creative license with the formation of a linear lineage.

It makes me very curious about those ancestors for whom I could find no information. Were they real people? Made up? I also have a similar curiosity for Soto Zen ancestors in the lineage after Keizan, who do not seem to have been recorded with the care and detail of the Chinese lineage before them or the Rinzai Zen lineage teachers living contemporaneously to them. I researched the lineages of Shunryu Suzuki, Dainin Katagiri, and Gudo Nishijima, and there are significant gaps in all of them in terms of birth and death dates and biographical information for any teachers between 1350 to 1900. I will make another post to cover this period...