Many Buddhist traditions claim that they are reliable and authoritative because they inherit a lineage of realised masters dating back to prestigious teachers of the ancient past. That sounds impressive and appealing but the Buddha advised us to check out the truth of a teaching in our own experience. Perhaps the whole notion of lineage is a beguiling diversion from what Buddhist practice is really about

Authority is always a central issue in religious organisations because they ask individuals to trust them and believe their teachings. Religions cite include scripture, revelation, a teacher’s attainment or election as sources of authority. Sometimes claims are made explicitly (I am Enlightened, I know the truth), and sometimes they are implicit in the language that surrounds a religious leader, teaching or organisation: this is pure, uncontaminated, The Word of God/The Prophet/the Buddha, reality itself etc. The claims may or not be true; but the language that expresses them seeks to persuade us through its expressive power alone (that’s called rhetoric) rather than by exploring the truth for ourselves.

In this post I want to examine an authority claim that is especially important in Buddhism: lineage. These thoughts relate to my recent posts on succession issues in the NKT and the tulku system. Much else has been written, and I’ll mention a post on the Sweeping Zen blog Lineage Delusions: Eido Shimano Roshi, Dharma Transmission, and American Zen and a recent update here.

The more important authority claims based on lineage in Buddhist traditions include the following:

  • Tibetan traditions stress the continuity of teaching from one generation to another as depicted in their Refuge Trees, showing how teachers derive their authority from a lineage stretching right back to the Indian masters and the cosmic Buddhas who inspired them. This continuity is especially important when tantric practices are passed on.
  • The tulku system of reborn lamas is a unique variant within Tibetan Buddhism that avoids the difficulties of passing a teaching from one person to the next by claiming that they are, in fact the same person.
  • Zen and Ch’an teachers are authorised ritually through Dharma Transmission, in which the successor is sanctified in a tradition said to date right back to the of the essential Dharma from the historical Buddha to his disciple Mahakasyapa.
  • Monastic ordination as a bhikkhu/bhikkshu or a bhikkhuni/bhikkshuni is deemed legitimate when it is bestowed by monks who have themselves been duly ordained and are sufficiently senior, thus establishing a continuity of ordinations right back to the Buddha.

An approved lineage is, supposedly, a guarantee that a teaching is an authentic and reliable of Buddhist teachings. But here comes the paradox. When we look at the earliest sources for our understanding Buddha himself, he seems to have been wary of, or even hostile to, legitimisation through lineage. In the well-know teaching to the Kalamas the Buddha advises his listeners not to rely on anussava: (oral) tradition, repeated hearing and report; or paramparaa: succession, lineage or tradition. The mere fact that a teaching is ancient, he says, doesn’t make it true; it needs to be tested against experience. In the Discourses, the Buddha repeatedly ridicules the faith of Brahmins in their ancient lineages and tells Canki, for example, that they are like ‘a row of blind men, each holding on to the one in front of him: the first one doesn’t see, the middle one doesn’t see, the last one doesn’t see.’ (Canki Sutta MN 95). Our responsibility, he says, is to ‘safeguard the truth’ by discovering whether a teaching is associated with unskilful states of mind such as greed, hatred and ignorance, or with their absence.

Other incidents support this stance. Buddha refused to appoint a successor, not even his chief disciples, Moggallana and Sariputta, and in the account of his final days he tells Ananda that he did not even regard himself as a leader of the Sangha (DNII 101). Shortly afterwards he gives his famous advice that his followers should be self-reliant ‘islands unto themselves’.

This isn’t the whole story of the Buddha’s role in the Discourses. He is not merely a dispassionate dispenser of objective truth: he embodies it; and when he successfully communicates his insights to another person we witness an intimate and transformative meeting of minds. Many of his disciples referred their own wisdom to his own and said they were simply passing that on to others. In this way, we can see how a certain kind of lineage naturally develops. However, it’s easy to see how a lineage of inspiration and communication becomes a means of establishing institutional continuity and I think we need to distinguish the two.

The accounts of lineage that we find in the various traditions are myth, not history. As we can say nothing for certain about early Buddhist history, no one can trace their lineage back to the Buddha with certainty. We know that much of the account of the lineage linking Zen and Ch’an to Indian Buddhism is fictitious and much else is unverifiable. Referring to lineage is a way of escaping history. It is evident that the practices and teachings of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist traditions differ from those of early Buddhism. That doesn’t mean they are invalid: they may well add much that is only implicit in the early teachings. But accepting that means accepting that Buddhism changes as conditions change and insights often have to be worked out afresh.

Tibetan scholasticism is unaware that Tsongkhapa’s teachings differ from those of Indian masters or that Mahayana traditions in general differ from the teachings of the Discourses. Many followers of Japanese Buddhist traditions find themselves wedded to the view that the Lotus Sutra is the authentic teaching of the historical Buddha rather than a later composition, and they relate the effectiveness of their practices to this assertion. These views deny history. It is unsurprising when people in pre-modern societies do that, but it’s odd when westerners and others with a modern education do the same. In other contexts they would, but Faith intervenes.

I recognise the importance of ensuring that teachings aren’t watered down or fused, willy-nilly with other ideas that are actually quite different. But that requires a process of careful thought and exploration that is circumvented by ideas of lineage. Similarly, individual teachers who have realised the Buddhist teachings for themselves have always been very important, but the language of transmission (as if some ‘thing’ has literally been transmitted) elevates a teacher to an sanctified, magical super-human status, and it is hardly surprising when the feet of clay poke out beneath the robes.

It’s hard to go much further than these general comments about lineage in Buddhism because it takes so many different forms. I’ll just give a couple of examples.

Sangharakshita (my own teacher) argues in his book 43 Years Ago: Reflections on my Bhikkhu Ordination that in Theravadin Buddhism role of monks is central and the status of the monastic Order carries the authority of the past, right back to the Buddha. This is a version of lineage. However, it’s impossible to know that monks have been ordained correctly, according to the formal and technical criteria and therefore the whole basis of Theravadin spiritual life practice is compromised. He concludes that we must look beyond formal authorisation and base the spiritual life on the commitment that is expressed through going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Finally, I’ll return to the NKT whose views of their own status seem to me a rather extreme instance of what I’m discussing here. NKT literature is peppered with claims that the organisation is passing on ‘the pure tradition of Mahayana Buddhism derived from the Buddhist meditator and scholar Je Tsongkhapa’. That denies the history and contingency not only of Tsonghkhapa’s teachings, but Geshe Kelsang’s as well. Individual practitioners must adapt themselves to the unquestionable authority of the practices and teachings they learn.

That way lies dogmatism. Strong authority claims on the part of spiritual teachers and organisations often turn out to be associated with the unethical use of power and turning a blind eye to abuses (think of the Catholic Church). Yes, this has sometimes happened in the Triratna Buddhist Community: my point is that we need to avoid the grand spiritual claims that sanctify abuses, and I think the TBC has done OK here.

Used strongly, this language invites an unquestioning reliance on a lineage, a teacher or a practice. No doubt, that appeals to some (at least for a while), but it lacks the balance of receptivity and self-reliance that I find in the early records of the Buddha’s teaching or in my own experience of healthy sanghas. The Buddha knew what to call it: a ‘wrong view’.

Read more Wise Attention Posts on Tibetan Buddhism