What do we mean when we talk about a “Buddhist lineage”? Simply summed up, a lineage is a line of transmission that is [theoretically] traced back to the Buddha. But what is meant by “transmission” and why is lineage important?
When we speak about transmission, we are talking about two things;
1 – the teachings having been taught (transmitted) from teacher to student.
2 – a spiritual baton (for lack of a better term) which means the student is deemed knowledgeable enough, and with enough experience and realisation, to transmit the teachings to others. This is mostly oral, but there is usually also a certificate or other documents. Having received “transmission” means one is worthy to teach others.
When we speak about lineage, we are talking about two things; 1 – an unbroken line of teacher-student relations going back to the Buddha 2 – a particular school or sect
It can be argued that only the first definition of lineage is important. However, the second definition is also important if one is claiming to belong to a particular lineage or sect. For example, if one is claiming to be a Rinzai Zen lineage priest and teaching others, and ordaining others as Rinzai Zen priests, then they are transmitting a lineage (whether consciously or not). But the question should be asked, of such a teacher, do they have permission from their teacher to teach and ordain others and carry the lineage, to literally be a “lineage holder”. But why is this so important?
Buddhism, although considered an ‘organised religion’ is essentially unregulated, especially in the west. There is no government body in the UK or the US to qualify Buddhist priests or monastics. Because of this, anyone can start up a Buddhist group, temple, or organisation, claim to be a teacher, and teach others. And this has happened many times already. Being able to trace a teachers’ lineage means that we, as the students are able, to the best of our ability, check the authenticity of the teacher. But what happens quite often, is that the teacher will try and brush off the importance of lineage, or will falsely claim to belong to a lineage that can’t be verified because they lost the certificate, or the teacher is dead, or changed their name, or wishes to remain private etc etc.
Of course, that isn’t to say there aren’t genuine criticisms of the lineage system. For example, there have been many bad teachers in the past, most of whom belong to an official lineage. So lineage can’t be taken as a guarantee. However, I don’t think this means we should throw out the lineage system entirely. There have been many bad doctors who have the necessary qualifications, but we don’t hear people saying we should bin the education system because of those few bad doctors!
I’d also like to address what I believe to be false criticisms;
Sectarian rivalry – some people argue that the only reason for lineages is to preserve a particular sect, to keep things “pure”. You see historical figures claim to have the only “true” transmission of a particular lineage and therefore a rival sect is “false”. Such things can be seen with Nichiren Buddhism, where the disciples of Nichiren split off from each other as they considered themselves to hold the only true Nichiren lineage, whilst the other party were false lineage holders. This is a sad side to the lineage system, but again, is no reason to bin the entire system. These schisms were often because of disputes over the interpretation of the teachings rather than anything else, so the lineage systems isn’t really at fault here.
Spiritual prowess – another false criticism is the idea that a lineage system is a way to measure ‘spiritual prowess’, like a pedigree of Buddhism. However, I don’t understand why this is a criticism. A teacher needs to have not only a good understanding of what they are teaching, they also need to have experience in what they are teaching. It then falls to the teachers’ teacher, or the heads of the school, to decide whether they have learnt enough and gained enough experience to pass those teachings on to others. If anyone is criticising this, they are basically saying that you don’t need knowledge or experience to teach Buddhism!
Another criticism is that lineages are simply marketing tools. Of course, lineages have been used as marketing tools, but often those using it as a marketing tool aren’t official holders of that lineage, and are jumping on the bandwagon to make a little profit or gain followers. “Tendai mikkyo is now yours to have, for a small monthly cost of £….. Why wait, gain enlightenment now!”
Because of this, those that hold an official lineage need to make it clear that they are official and have authority. This may look like a marketing tool, but it isn’t. But what often happens when someone belongs to a false lineage, is that they soon realise that their teacher is not teaching what they claim to hold. They’re façade of a lineage soon falls and the student is left distraught and untrusting of other Buddhist teachers. It then falls to people like ourselves to say that those teachers weren’t authorised to teach, or to hold that lineage. So, you can see, this is not a marketing tool, it is an attempt to pick up the pieces that the false teachers have left.
Lineage as inhibiting – Many have also said that belonging to a lineage is somehow inhibiting, rigid confining, and not allowing the student to grow, to ‘spread their wings’. However, this is far from true. A particular temple, monastery or group may have their own rules that are rigid, but this does not reflect of lineage and doesn’t hinder progress. Quite often, it is that rigidity that allows one to progress faster. Examples of this are found in Buddhism since it’s begin, such as only wearing three robes, only eating one meal a day etc. These things seem rigid, but they allow one to let go of attachments to food and clothing and spend more time in meditation. If fact, if someone is saying that lineage is inhibiting and their teaching or school isn’t (as it doesn’t hold on to a lineage) then they are appealing to our sense of ego. We like doing what we want, but like children, what we want to do is often what we shouldn’t be doing. Having a structure to stick to allows us to progress more quickly and break through the confines of our ego. How we dress, what we read, what we eat etc are all reaffirming our ego and our confirmation bias. It is a good thing if these things are challenged, to break out of these habits of appealing to our sense of “self”.
STARTING A NEW LINEAGE There have been examples where someone decides they wish to start a new lineage, or a group of likeminded Buddhists. In this case, people often assume that the previous lineages are no longer important, however this is not true. We, as students, need to know the founder of that lineage has had the necessary training, experience and has the necessary knowledge to start a new lineage. I have seen many examples of “teachers” who spend a month in this group, a month in that group, a week in this group, read a handful of sutras etc, and then decide they can do it better. Such people often bring up the example of the Buddha, who spent time with various teachers but ultimately rejected them and founded his own path. However, I think it fairly presumptuous of those “teachers” to think that they have the same wisdom and experience the Buddha had when he founded the Dharma. The Buddha spent many years studying with teachers and in seclusion. Spending but a fleeting moment in a Buddhist group and reading a hand full of sutras does not even equate. It is often said that a little knowledge can be dangerous.
CONCLUSION So, to sum things up, Lineage is our only means of judging whether a teacher is authentic, has knowledge, has experience, and has permission to transmit those teachings to others. An official lineage means one has been given permission to transmit those teachings by those with authority within a particular school or sect. A teacher, even if they have been ordained in various different schools or sects, they should be able to describe who ordained them, when, where and who gave them authority to teach others. If they can’t answer this question, it is right that they be scrutinised by the sangha. And don’t fall into a false sense of security. Even if a teacher does have authority to teach it is still important to question their personal history, their previous experiences and any other credentials. Lineage is important, but by no means the last question.