94 - Buddha's Teachings 13 - The Five Hindrances - Part 3
96 - A Zazen Pamphlet: Essential (and Brief) Instructions for the Practice of Zazen

In many forms of Buddhism, particularly in Zen, we have the concept of “lineage:” the essential aspects of our collective religious tradition have been passed down through the generations from one real, live person to another, teacher to a student. However, lineage isn’t just about preserving a collective tradition, it’s a valuable part of our practice – self-attachment and pre-conceived notions get challenged as the individual aligns her/himself with the collective tradition.

 

 

Quicklinks to Content:
Maintaining a Tradition Through Lineage
Lineage as the Intersection Between Individual and Collective
The Value of a Collectively-Held Tradition
How Lineage Preserves the Tradition – But Also Keeps It Alive
How Aligning with Lineage Is Valuable Training for the Individual
Aligning with Lineage Is Essential for Dharma Teachers

 

Maintaining a Tradition Through Lineage

In many forms of Buddhism, particularly in Zen, we have a concept called “lineage.” The idea is that the essential aspects of our collective religious tradition have been passed down through the generations from one real, live person to another – from a teacher to a student, who then becomes a teacher and passes the tradition on to their students.

A Zen Lineage Chart with red “bloodline” and names of all ancestors from Shakyamuni on

At least in Zen, we keep careful track of these face-to-face relationships, tracing our Buddhist lineages back through time all the way to Shakyamuni Buddha. I mean this quite literally: In Zen chanting services, done daily or at least weekly, we recite the lineage from the Buddha all the way through the last teacher in our particular lineage who is no longer alive. “Shakyamuni Buddha, Great Teacher; Great Teacher Makakashō; Great Teacher Ananda; Great Teacher Shōnawashu,” and so on, through a list of over 80 names. In doing so, we not only honor those who have made it possible for us to encounter Buddhism, but also establish the legitimacy of our practice.

It’s important to note that lineage isn’t simply a matter of an individual acknowledging their sources of inspiration or learning, like a scholar might mention various influences on how they approach a particular subject. A key part of “transmission” in a lineage tradition is an explicit recognition on the part of the teacher that the student is ready and able to pass on the essentials of the tradition, and on the part of the student that they are willing to do so.

Lineage transmission also involves the apprenticeship model of training common in many traditional crafts and disciplines, where someone practices under the close direction of a master for a prolonged period. An apprentice may someday be recognized as a journeyman, or even a master, of the discipline – if they put in sufficient time as a trainee, show themselves devoted to their particular craft or discipline, conduct themselves in a way that maintains respect for their tradition, and demonstrate the skills and aptitude necessary to be held up as an example, or function as a teacher for others. (I describe the Soto Zen system of lineage transmission in detail in Episodes 51 and 52: Profound, Practical, Mutable: Dharma Transmission in Zen. In those episodes I also offer a caveat to the whole concept of lineage, admitting how in some senses it’s a mythology, and how it has, at times, served sectarian purposes. In this episode I’m focusing on the practice of lineage, so I won’t say more about the history.)

When it comes to passing Buddhism down through the generations, the lineage and apprenticeship model is far from perfect. It isn’t a guarantee against the worst-case-scenario of people functioning as teachers or leaders who subsequently cause harm, or depart from their tradition in crazy ways. The lineage model is simply the best system we have, given the inherent messiness of human life. I’ll explain my reasons for saying this in a little bit, but first I want to make a point I think is often missed in discussions about the value of the lineage approach: Lineage isn’t just about making sure a particular tradition survives more or less intact over time. There’s also a benefit to the training of an individual when they practice aligning themselves with a lineage.

Lineage as the Intersection Between Individual and Collective

To frame our discussion, I offer this definition: Lineage is a vital place of intersection between the individual practitioner and the collective tradition. Buddhism is a practice we have to do as individuals, and a lineage is composed of individuals. However, a lineage is not just a list of mavericks who recognized one another’s unique and quirky enlightenment. The individuals in a lineage have – at least to some extent – learned to give up some of their personal preferences, and compromise some of their individual quirkiness. They did this in the course of their training in order to learn and embody a collective tradition that has evolved to benefit many different kinds of people.

For example, maybe I don’t really like Buddhist chanting and it’s never really done much for my practice, but if I’m a lineage holder I include chanting in the practice I share with people because there are plenty of people who love it and benefit from it. Who knows, I may appreciate it more myself someday. Or maybe I read an inspiring non-Buddhist self-help book and think about sharing it with my students. If I decide to do so, I’ll consider carefully how to do it, looking for ways to ground the presentation in the Buddhist tradition, or even find Buddhist teachings and practices that offer a similar message and present those instead.

The examples I just mentioned have to do with being a Buddhist teacher and maintaining a collective tradition to share with others, but the same kind of thing can apply to any of us as practitioners. Maybe you’re like me, and when you first encountered Buddhism you grooved on the Buddha and the Dharma, but wondered why on earth you’d need a Sangha – community – to practice with. We’re always free to practice the way we want to, but if we decide to align ourselves with the collective tradition, we check out the phenomenon of Sangha even if we’re not naturally drawn to do so. Perhaps certain Buddhist teachings are off-putting to us at first, but we’re willing to study them anyway and see if we learn anything valuable. Maybe certain people in our practice community rub us the wrong way, but we stay involved because we realize there are going to be annoying people as part of any collective endeavor. All of these are small ways of allowing the lineage tradition to challenge our preconceived notions and self-attachments.

The Value of a Collectively-Held Tradition

Proposing there’s some utility in an individual practitioner aligning themselves with a lineage tradition begs the question: What’s the use of a collectively-held tradition? Modern western culture is fiercely individualistic and many of us tend to be wary of submitting ourselves to the expectations of a group unless it’s family, or we’re being paid to do so. Why accept – or at least explore – a tradition’s whole “ball of wax” instead of picking what appeals to us and then doing our own thing?

Thankfully, in a society with religious freedom we’re welcome to do anything we want to, from embracing a whole religious tradition to piecing together our own brand of spiritual practice. However, the premise of Buddhism is that the Buddha, and the 80+ generations of diligent practitioners since, have created a path of practice for us that is far superior to anything we could devise on our own. Most of us find Buddhism suggests to us practices and possibilities that would otherwise have never occurred to us. It challenges and pushes us in ways we’d never have chosen to be challenged and pushed unless we were committed to the path overall. The traditional Buddhist path – with its myriad teachings, practices, and manifestations – presents a richness lacking in a spiritual path designed by personal preference or interest.

Still, it’s very valuable to observe that from the very beginning of Buddhism, there has been an acknowledgement that some people awaken to the deepest spiritual truths all on their own, in their own way, without reliance on a teacher. Such people are called Pratyekabuddhas, literally “lone buddhas” or “private buddhas.” Generally speaking, Pratyekabuddhas are considered very rare. They’re also not presented as rebels who knew about Buddhism and chose to go their own way, but as individuals who simply happened to discover the deeper truths of Buddhism on their own. The existence of Pratyekabuddhas is acknowledged, but their way of awakening is not presented as a viable choice for most of us. Pratyekabuddhas just kind of happen.

In addition, Pratyekabuddhas are also called “silent buddhas.” This is because they do not, or cannot teach – at least not in an effective way. Their path to awakening was completely individualistic and quirky. Maybe it depended on their unique personality and abilities, or on remarkable life experiences. Their path is not something that applies to others.

The other kind of Buddha – such as Shakyamuni Buddha – is called a “Teaching Buddha” in contrast to a Pratyekabuddha. In Buddhist cosmology, such a being not only awakens, but has special abilities to perceive the needs and obstacles of other people and teach them in such a way that they will also be able to awaken. According to the traditional story, Shakyamuni sat in contemplation for quite a while after his enlightenment, first of all deciding whether it would even be possible to teach what he had learned, and then deciding how to do it. His special brilliance wasn’t so much that he awakened, but the way he described and taught a path of spiritual practice that proved to be effective for many people, and has endured for millennia.

How Lineage Preserves the Tradition – But Also Keeps It Alive

The practice of lineage – whether formalized the way we do it in Zen, or in the less formal ways used in other types of Buddhism – allows the whole, collective tradition of Buddhism to be passed down through the generations and shared widely. This path includes innumerable aspects which can’t be conveyed through a book, or taught through a podcast or online course. This is why Chan Buddhism, in 7th century China, began to emphasize a “face-to-face transmission outside of the scriptures.” You might be able to glean a great deal from Buddhist texts, but you really need to talk to a teacher and other practitioners in order know whether your meditation is on track. You might adopt the morals and ideals of Buddhism, but until you’re functioning in an environment where everyone knows that, you’re probably not really going to be held accountable for your own aspirations. You might have some cool spiritual insights or openings, but until you learn a common language for describing such things you won’t be able to know where your insight fits within a larger spiritual framework, or have a sense of what you don’t yet understand.

The organic, messy, prolonged process of lineage apprenticeship and transmission preserves a rich, complex tradition with innumerable aspects. Someone who ends up being a Dharma Holder (ideally) is steeped in their tradition until they know it in and out, frontwards and backwards. Buddhism is too big for any one person to master completely, but it’s possible for us to become intimate with enough of it that we could reestablish the essential aspects of our particular tradition if we were dropped on an island where no one had ever heard of Buddhism. (Assuming, of course, the locals were interested!) The more steeped we are in our tradition, the more multi-dimensional – and therefore accessible and enduring – a practice opportunity we could offer.

At the same time, part of the Buddhist tradition involves us responding in a fresh and spontaneous way to students and seekers. Circumstances change, cultures evolve, individuals differ in terms of which teachings and practices will be useful to them. As teachers and fellow practitioners, part of our job is using creativity and – at times – innovation in order to communicate what’s valuable in Buddhism. The lineage apprenticeship model preserves what’s essential to keeping a collective tradition identifiable, coherent, and true to its roots – but also leaves room for each individual in a lineage to express themselves in a unique way.

How much unique expression or innovation is compatible with lineage, and how much signifies a break with lineage? That’s impossible to decide based on abstract principles. Instead, those of us who have been steeped in a particular tradition know a jarring departure versus a compatible innovation when we see it. And we may disagree with one another about any given circumstance. However, overall there’s a normalizing force exerted by the concept of lineage that prevents the tradition from fracturing into a whole bunch of quirky paths more closely resembling those of Pratyekabuddhas.

For example, I’m confident that I will be able to pass on my own lineage tradition pretty faithfully should a student decide to apprentice with me for 10-20 years. After all, this kind of transmission has been happening for 2,500 years and Buddhism is still a recognizable thing. On the other hand, if I decided taking psychedelic mushrooms is an excellent supplement to people’s Buddhist practice and tried to pass that on to future generations as well, the stability of my lineage would be seriously compromised. If my lineage thread survived, it would probably be because my students, or their students, decided to ditch my psychedelic innovation while staying true to aspects of the lineage that extend much further back in time.

How Aligning with Lineage Is Valuable Training for the Individual

This brings me back, finally, to what I really wanted to emphasize in this episode: There’s a benefit to the training of an individual when they practice aligning themselves with a lineage. In other words, lineage isn’t just about preserving a collective tradition, it’s a valuable part of our practice. Lineage is a vital place of intersection between the individual practitioner and the collective tradition.

First, this “vital place of intersection” acknowledges the important of the individual in Buddhist practice. If you really want to experience the insights and fruits of Buddhism, you have to do your own practice. No one can do it for you. The transformational power of Buddhist teachings lies in your direct, personal experience of them. In addition, each of us is different, and our paths will also be – to some extent – unique. If we’re going to take responsibility for the vitality and longevity of our collective tradition, we’re going to have to show up, as an individual, and be recognized by a teacher as having that capacity. A lineage, significantly, is composed of individuals.

However, as I briefly mentioned earlier, a lineage is not just a list of mavericks who have recognized one another’s unique and quirky enlightenment. The individuals in a lineage have – at least to some extent – aligned themselves with the collective tradition. When we align ourselves in this way, we willingly change, or let ourselves be changed. We do this in order to become part of something greater than ourselves, or to offer ourselves in service to it, out of gratitude.

Aligning with the collective is not a comfortable process for an individual, and every step along the way challenges our ego, self-attachments, and preconceived notions – all experiences we’re meant to seek and embrace as part of our practice! To list just a few beneficial challenges, when we align ourselves with the collective:

  • We inevitably have to let go of many preferences. We have to learn to compromise, adapt, and accept things we’d rather change.
  • We have to tone down our individuality somewhat, because it’s not all about us and our personality, opinions, brilliance, or misery.
  • We have to give up our tendencies to hide out in a group or to always have to be the center of attention.
  • We have to open ourselves to being changed and influenced in profound and sometimes scary ways. At times I’ve thought of this as “choosing to be brainwashed.” That might sound a little extreme and I don’t suggest we ever blindly surrender our sense of right and wrong, but you might think of practice as being like washing the pain and delusion out of your brain – and it often takes some faith to engage in a process when you’re not sure of the outcome.
  • We learn and respect the “party line” – the traditional teachings, practices, and interpretations of our lineage – even if we have our own opinions or approaches.

Remember, lineage is the vital place of intersection between the individual and collective, so none of these challenges are meant to be met with blind faith, or with a surrender that denies or crushes our individuality. That place of intersection is characterized by a dynamic tension, and is always shifting.

How does this alignment of the individual with the collective actually look? Many ways, of course, but the question reminds me of my practice as a junior monk. I was living at a residential Zen center. From dawn til dusk, most days of the week, I was either sitting zazen, chanting, studying, working, or socializing within the confines of a Zen community. I sat through hundreds of classes and meals where the Dharma was discussed, and I listened to thousands of responses from my teachers. Eventually, my teacher’s voices and answers would appear in my mind when someone asked me a Dharma question. I might choose to add some observations of my own, but I could infallibly give you the party line as well, and was able to distinguish between the Dharma I had received through my lineage, and what was my own interpretation or innovation. When we notice this kind of imprinting on our collective tradition in ourselves, it means we’re becoming able to share it with others.

Aligning with Lineage Is Essential for Dharma Teachers

How much you want to align yourself with a collective tradition is up to you, as a Buddhist practitioner or someone simply interested in Buddhism. However, it’s not an optional practice for anyone who is going to carry on the lineage in an explicit and formal way, as a teacher or as an ordained person. In my opinion, such a person must experience the challenges and benefits I listed earlier, which result from the individual aligning with the collective. In addition, this process (ideally) has added effects essential for any teacher or representative of the Dharma. Aligning with the collective:

  • Trains the individual to be humble and responsible.
  • Trains the individual to prioritize the best interests of the collective over their own desires (for the most part).
  • Keeps the individual accountable to the community (ethics).
  • Firmly grounds someone’s teaching in a time-tested tradition.

Typically, when those of us committed to a collective tradition hear about a Dharma teacher or leader we don’t know, the first thing we do is check that person’s lineage (or, in non-Zen forms of Buddhism, details on where, how, and how long they trained). Someone who spent a month a monastery and read a bunch of books has not aligned themselves with a tradition. They may be very realized and compassionate, but they cannot legitimately set themselves up as a teacher of Buddhism, and are unlikely to have experienced the challenges and grounding the process of alignment entails. Of course, just because someone has put in the time and jumped through the necessary hoops doesn’t mean they’re a great or trustworthy teacher, but it’s a good sign.

In closing, I want to emphasize that it’s possible for any Buddhist practitioner to practice aligning themselves with lineage, or their collective tradition. You don’t have to aspire to be a teacher or Dharma Holder. In fact, holding that as a goal is, generally speaking, not a good idea, at least not until you’re already very well steeped in your tradition. All the way along, though, you can open up to and explore our collective tradition(s), and embrace the challenges to self that happen as you do that. And, slowly but surely, you’ll end up carrying more and more of your collective tradition within you, and find yourself able model it for other people. You’ll help your tradition thrive in the present because it becomes stronger with every person who embodies it.

 

94 - Buddha's Teachings 13 - The Five Hindrances - Part 3
96 - A Zazen Pamphlet: Essential (and Brief) Instructions for the Practice of Zazen
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