“Lineage” does not equal enlightenment.
One way Eastern spiritual traditions are passed on is through written sacred texts. Another important way is through lineage: a master teacher in a given tradition designates one or more of his students as “master” when they are deemed to be ready.
Knowing which students are ready is a delicate matter because spiritual understanding cannot be expressed merely in words; “enlightened” is not so much what one knows as what one is.
A master must sense into the consciousness of their students in order to perceive which ones truly comprehend, not only with their minds but in the essence of their being. When a new “master” in a recognized lineage is designated, students in that lineage can supposedly be confident that he or she can lead them to truth as well as the preceding master.
While many Eastern traditions use a system of lineage to pass on their teachings, I am most familiar with Zen. Although I left Zen practice behind long ago, I still feel there is something sacred about Zen lineage.
Perhaps this is why I’m so annoyed as I increasingly notice how half-baked teachers from other traditions—or perhaps from no tradition—apply the term “Zen Master” to themselves. Even someone who has practiced and taught Zen for years is not a Zen Master, or Roshi in Japanese, unless that person’s own Roshi has designated them as a successor.
Certainly then, someone who has scarcely ever stepped foot in a Zen center is not entitled to this designation.
My own teacher, Adyashanti, comes from Zen, but since he wasn’t appointed by a Roshi, he doesn’t call himself a “Zen Master,” or any other kind of “master,” for that matter.
Still, almost a decade ago now, after a series of awakenings inspired by Adyashanti’s presence, I became moved to research the various American Zen lineages. It seemed—and still does seem—that something incredibly precious was transmitted, and that it didn’t start with my teacher but went back thousands of years.
Maybe it’s this sense of the preciousness of transmission that causes me to feel that it’s a travesty for someone who has only the vaguest familiarity with Zen, or even with Buddhism in some cases, to refer to himself as a “Zen Master.”
Yet even those with a little knowledge of the history of Buddhism in America know that there have been legitimate dharma heirs—successors to the lineage holders in the various traditions, including Zen —who have sometimes behaved in less than enlightened ways.
So if a central purpose of lineage is to help potential students decide if a certain teacher is genuine, maybe it isn’t that helpful a guide.
This brings up the whole question of teachers and their role. In an interview in Dialogues with Emerging Spiritual Teachers, Eckhart Tolle concluded that “teachers who are awake sometimes experience return of their ego because of all of the projection from students.” In other words, when everyone thinks you’re a god, it’s hard not to buy into that view eventually.
Christianity doesn’t have that problem because the earthly manifestation of its god came to earth over 2,000 years ago and never since. But for seekers in Eastern traditions, the teacher often unconsciously represents the inner, unmanifested Buddha that is only consciously realized in awakening. This is natural but also causes much confusion.
In response to the quandary over how to find spiritual leaders of integrity, some communities based in Eastern wisdom have decided to elect their head teacher through democratic process. But this solution also raises some questions.
Given that we don’t know what enlightenment is ahead of time, how is it possible to select the right person to lead us to a goal of which we are ignorant? And how can we choose someone who will not succumb to the egotistic temptation of believing him/herself to be a great master?
I continue to think we in the West need to grapple with this issue until we find the right structures through which the teachings transmitted from the East can flourish.
Chris Beal lived in Japan for two years, during which she studied and practiced Buddhism, including Zen. She has an M.A. in English and taught at the college level for a 15 years. She now devotes herself to reading and writing about spiritual journeys—especially, but not exclusively, if they take place in Japan. She has recently completed her first novel. Among other sites, her writing appears at miracleofawakening.blogspot.com, journeystotruth.blogspot.com, and buddhistfictionblog.wordpress.com
Editor: April Hayes