Are Lineage Holders Just Spiritual Hipsters?

Via Daniel Scharpenburg
on Aug 19, 2013
get elephant's newsletter

hipster buddhist

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.”

Like elephant Buddhadharma on Facebook.

Ed: Sara Crolick


About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg lives in Kansas City with two kids and two cats. He teaches classes in Buddhist studies at the Rime Buddhist Center, where he's starting a Zen meditation group in the near future. He's studied with a wide variety of different Buddhist teachers and is a dedicated follower of the Zen tradition. He received personal instruction from Shi Da Dao, in the Caodong (Soto) tradition, and he has served as jisha (personal attendant) to Karen Maezen Miller on a Zen retreat. He's the writer of Notes from a Buddhist Mystic Find out more about Daniel on his blog and connect with him on Facebook and  Twitter.


11 Responses to “Are Lineage Holders Just Spiritual Hipsters?”

  1. I love a great teacher, (Thich Nhat Hanh is mine) but I think having a "guru" can just become another ego attachment and an avoidance behavior. And any one who tells you they are a guru should be run from, and fast.

  2. danielschar says:

    I should note that I met a lineage holder named Karen Maezen Miller who really inspired me. But, I don't think that has anything to do with her lineage and everything to do with her own spiritual progress.

  3. Padma Kadag says:

    Why comment on buddhist lineage when you belong to none? You have no lineage masters to pray to for blessing and inspiration…you could not possibly understand. Commenting on that in a formal manner without understanding unbroken lineage from Shakyamuni is irresponsible. I would be interested in your "vajrayana" tradition.

  4. Daniel Scharpenburg says:


    It’s exactly that kind of attitude that is the reason I wrote this article.

    I don’t understand because I don’t pray? Really?

    I think questioning things is important. The Buddha said that Great Doubt is a virtue.

  5. There is no such thing as spiritual progress. There is only spiritual pretense. It's up to you to discern the difference, Daniel. Then you will never doubt your lineage.

  6. Padma Kadag says:

    yes…It is irresponsible. Your Bio mentions vajrayana twice. For what reason would you have listed vajrayana? The life blood of Vajrayana is Guru Yoga. Guru Yoga is dependent upon realization and lineage equally…lineage unbroken from Shakyamuni and all the lineage masters. Questioning is important but you ceased your questions with statements like," Sorry. So, the claims of lineage are basically false anyway". I would write more but I am afraid you would decline to post it like my previous post to the one above.

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    Furthermore, "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.” this quote from you only exemplifies the Guru/ disciple as Buddha is the Guru…teaching to monks the disciples.

  8. Daniel Scharpenburg says:

    Not because he wasn’t a guru, because he chose not to name a successor.

  9. Padma Kadag says:

    According to the Buddhadharmakoshakara-sutra, "Thus I tell you, the greatest negative action, worse than killing all sentient beings, is to teach a doctrine that leads beings astray." This is the state of "american buddhism" today as reflected in this article you have written. To write "opinions" on the buddhadharma and broadcast them is the meaning of irresponsible. If you choose to have discussions with your friends that is another thing…but here as with most of the "american buddhist" bloggers and writers there is serious wrong view and misunderstanding. Am I the consumate buddhist? Absolutey not. But I for one do not write articles pretending to know something all the while cultivating wrong view in those who show some interest in authentic buddhist lineages.

  10. danielschar says:

    I'm sure people made the exact same arguments when Mahayana and Vajrayana were developed.

  11. Simon says:

    I think the lineage can be vitally important, being able to trace back the history of the teaching down the line of specific teachers. Unfortunately most teachers are full of it despite being part of a lineage.

    There is no guarantee that a good teacher will crete good students to continue the lineage but it is quite likely that a bad teacher will attract misguided students and produce more bad teachers.

    The spiritual blessings, power and honesty that have been passed down through my lineage can be traced back several generations and I are an inspiration to me. I feel their resonance in the words and silence of my own teacher and the sense of respect they command mean that I will only represent this lineage in the highest way I can.

    There is also a consistency of teachings passed down that keeps the path pure. Without the lineage and respect for it each new teacher can add a bit of something of their own until nothing remains of the original body of knowledge. Then we may as well follow each new fad that is invented and copyrighted and make the creator rich in the process.