A lineage in Buddhism is a line of inheritance (usually referred to as a transmission line) of the Buddhist teachings that is said to have originated by the Buddha himself. The idea being that a person who is deemed to be a successor of a particular lineage connects to an unbroken line of teachers back to the Buddha and his deepest realizations. Many branches of Buddhism, including Chan, maintain records of their historical teachers. These records are used to confirm the legitimacy of living Dharma teachers.
The Chan lineage starts with Buddha Shakyamuni around 500 BC and ends today with all contemporary masters. The first 28 successors of Buddha were born in India, including Bodhidharma (around 500 BCE) who is one of the teachers that brought Buddhism to China. He is regarded as the first Chinese patriarch and founder of the Chan lineage.
Five more patriarchs followed, ending with Huineng (638-713), the sixth and last ancestral founder. He is the ancestor of all Chan Schools. Following Huineng, the transmission divided into five branches, of which Linji and Caodong survived. The Linji School, founded by Linji Yixuan (died 866), was also transmitted to Japan where it became the Rinzai School of Zen. The Caodong School, founded by Dongshan Liangjie (807-869), became the Soto School in Japan.
Master Sheng Yen (1931-2009) received transmission from both schools, Linji and Caodong. He was a 57th-generation Dharma heir of Linji Yixuan and a 52nd-generation Dharma heir of Dongshan Liangjie. His Linji Dharma master was Ling Yuan (1902-1988); student of the Chan patriarch of our time, Xuyun (Empty Cloud, 1840-1959). His Caodong Dharma master was Dongchu (1908-1977).
In 2006, Master Sheng Yen established Dharma Drum Mountain. He combined the teachings of the two schools he received transmission from, Caodong and Linji, and included teachings from Indian Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.
Master Sheng Yen gave Dharma transmission to twelve monks and nuns, and to the following five Western lay students: John Crook (1930-2011), Simon Child (1956-), Max Kälin (1943-), Žarko Andričević (1955-) and Gilbert Gutierrez.
1931 Born in China: Nantong
1949 Republic of China Army (10 years)
1959 Master Ling Yuan (student of Xuyun): Seeing Buddha-nature
1961 Taiwan: Solitary retreat (6 years)
1970 Rissho University Tokyo
1975 Doctor in Buddhist Literature (PhD): Rissho University, Tokyo
1975 New York, Queens: Chan Meditation Center
1976 Master Dongchu (Caodong): Dharma transmission
1978 Taiwan: Abbot of Nung Chan
1978 Master Ling Yuan (Linji): Dharma transmission
1989 Dharma Drum (integrating Linji and Caodong)
1997 New York State, Pine Bush: Dharma Drum Retreat Center
2009 Died at the age 79 years in Taiwan: Taipei
A more detailed biography of Master Sheng Yen can be found at Wikipedia.
1943 Born in Switzerland: Olten
1972 Doctor of Science (Dr.sc.nat.): ETH Zürich
1986 Doctor of Medicine (Dr.med.): University of Zürich
1988 Medical Doctor (MD): Baylor College of Medicine, Houston
1988 Geshe Gendün Sangpo: Teaching
1991 Thich Nhat Hanh: Teaching and interview
1991 Master Sheng Yen: Refuge
1991 Dalai Lama: Teaching
1991 Ajahn Sumedho: Teaching
2000 Master Sheng Yen: Yinke / Seeing Buddha-nature
2001 Master Sheng Yen: Dharma transmission (Chuan-zong Jing-chan)