Lineage and precepts

To me precepts and linage are alive in one’s experience, not an outward “signing up for” or “belonging to”.

The sixteen bodhisattva precepts are a set of vows of ethical conduct taken by a Zen practitioner when he/she is ready to make a commitment to conduct that benefits others, and are taken by both monastic and lay practitioners. I took/take the sixteen Bodhisattva vows to express my connection and commitment to Buddhadharma. I am not concerned with outwardly belonging to a particular sect or lineage. To me, the precepts are an expression of inner realization and commitment, not some sort of credentials that make you officially belonging to a particular Buddhist lineage. Living lineage  is present when one realizes one’s true nature or essence of mind, then all the patriarchs are truly alive in your very being.  It is nothing but a concept otherwise.

Edo Shonin and William Van Gorden on the topic of lineage say the following:

What exactly is lineage?

The most well-known depictions of lineage in Buddhism refer to it as an unbroken chain of transmission that can be traced from a Buddhist teacher all the way back to the historical Buddha or to another ‘enlightened being’. Lineage is basically concerned with authenticity and preserving the spiritual potency of the Buddhist teachings. It is a means of ensuring the continuity of the true ‘Buddhadharma’. A common view held by Buddhists is that when looking for a suitable teacher, one should ensure that they are of an established Buddhist lineage. The idea is that by working with or receiving teachings from a reputable ‘lineage holder’, a practitioner can reassure themselves that they are in good hands and are getting the ‘real deal’.

According to prominent Buddhist teachers Nyoshul Khenpo and Lama Surya Das,1 a person only becomes a ‘lineage holder’ when, following sustained practise, they gradually realize the inner meaning of the transmitted teachings and infuse them with all aspects of their being. Thus, being a holder of a particular lineage doesn’t just mean that a person has received teachings or spent time with an accomplished Buddhist teacher, it means that their understanding has effectively ‘merged’ with that of the entire family of lineage forefathers within a given Buddhist tradition. In essence, authentic living lineages are those where the lineage holder has either realized their enlightened nature, or is well on the way to doing so.

Is lineage a good thing?

Asking whether or not lineage is a good thing probably seems like a strange thing to do – especially because in the above paragraph we have already argued that lineage theoretically ensures that a person has the necessary ‘credentials’ to be a Buddhist teacher. Unfortunately however, things aren’t always this simple. In modern times, it is not uncommon for lineage to be used as a kind of marketing tool in order to attract a large following of people and/or financial support. Having been trained in the Buddhist teachings by an already ‘established’ lineage holder, there are seemingly an increasing number of instances of Buddhist teachers having all of the necessary education in scholarly and ceremonial matters, but without the more subtle spiritual presence that is the mark of a genuine realized being. A more colloquial phrase that might be used to refer to a Buddhist teacher meeting this description is ‘all the gear, but no idea’. This creates an unfortunate situation where all that is passed on from teacher to student is a dry semblance of the original teachings. In such cases and as time goes by, the lineage becomes increasingly corrupted and the advocates and heads of such lineages become more and more caught up in their own importance. The Buddha’s close disciple, Ananda, talked about this in the Sandaka Sutra:

Again, Sandaka, here some teacher is a traditionalist, one who regards oral tradition as truth, he teaches a Dharma by oral tradition, by legends handed down, by the authority of the collections. But when a teacher is a traditionalist, one who regards oral tradition as truth, some is well transmitted and some badly transmitted, some is true and some is otherwise [p.624]”.2

(Quote is taken from Edo Shonin and William Gordens blog. Read more on their blog: )


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Posted in Dharma Inquiry.

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