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August 19, 2013

Are Lineage Holders Just Spiritual Hipsters?

Are lineage holders just spiritual hipsters?

I mean no disrespect and I hope no one is offended by this post.

I think that, as Buddhists, we should be asking, “Why are we doing this?”

They might wear robes or other funny outfits, either during Buddhist events or all the time. They might go by a fake name. They might introduce themselves to you based on who their teacher is. They might claim to have a lineage of teaching that goes back to the Buddha himself (which historical accuracy would almost certainly refute). They might insist that you refer to them by their title, which could be Master or Lama or Acharya or any number of other things.

Are they better than the rest of us?

Are they more enlightened?

Do they understand the Dharma better than the rest of us?

Plenty of them are great teachers who are helpful to us on the path; but, they are human like the rest of us. Plenty of them are corrupt too. Buddhism in America has a long history of sex scandals in which lineage holders seduced their students.

Buddhism has had a unique ability to make big changes to fit into new cultures that it has encountered. Now that it’s come to the West, is the idea of lineage something that we need to maintain? Does it really matter?

The Buddha seems to have been against the idea of the Guru/Disciple model that was prevalent in Indian spirituality. He said, “Work out your own salvation with diligence.”

Did he intend for the Dharma to have leaders? It’s hard to say, but he didn’t appoint a successor before his death. Zen Masters and Rinpoches didn’t come forth to teach until much later.

I don’t think that lineage is always helpful. As much as we might wish for it, there isn’t really a line of direct teaching that goes back to the Buddha. Sorry. So, the claims of lineage are basically false anyway (although I’m sure someone will argue that point with me).

It’s something that westerners sometimes have trouble with. It can make the teacher seem distant, separate from the student. Although it can cause the student to look up to the teacher, it can also put them on a pedestal, which is dangerous and can create unrealistic expectations.

I went through some zen monk training and took the 10 vows of an Anagarika. But I decided to drop out. I didn’t want to wear robes all the time. To me, that serves to separate the monk from the world and, of course, robes look a little silly. I’m already a meditation teacher, so I wasn’t sure that ordination would really add anything. Of course, it would have been cool to be able to add ‘Sunim’ to my Buddhist name, but that’s not the best reason for ordination, I think.

I should note that there are several movements to make Buddhism fit in with western society a little better. And why not? Some have called this a watering down of Buddhism, but is it really? Was Buddhism watered down when Zen was developed and Koan practice was added to meditation? Was Buddhism watered down when Vajrayana was developed and lots of rituals were added to meditation? I don’t think so. I think it just took different forms.

I’m not going to come up with a conclusion here. I just want to ask the question: is lineage helpful? Is it dangerous? Are lineage holders spiritual hipsters?

I have high hopes that someone will write an article titled: “This is why lineage holders are really important.”

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Ed: Sara Crolick

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