What is Lineage and How Do We Connect to It?

Buddhism takes pride in having a 2,500 year unbroken lineage stretching back to Gautama Buddha. But the passed-on knowledge of how to bake bread or construct a building like the Pantheon is also lineage.

Each of us lives at the intersection of countless lineages and without their skills and knowledge we’d be, culturally speaking, butt naked, thirsty and starving.

buddhist lineageIt is easy enough to fathom the lineages of baking or carpentry, but what is a spiritual lineage, something that seems so intangible? Buddhism as spiritual lineage is the transmission, from teacher to student, of our original or primordial mind.

Since it is innate and not external to ourselves, our original mind cannot really be “transmitted” but only pointed to.

When we recognize our original mind we become, in that moment, part of the lineage because we are sharing in the same quality of mind as the masters who preceded us.

As Chogyam Trungpa once wrote, “Father and child are one in the realm of thought” – though by “thought” what he meant was before-thought.

In order to discover lineage, Chogyam Trungpa wrote,

You have to look back, back to where you came from, back to the original state. In this case, looking back is not looking back in time, going back several thousand years. It is looking back into your own mind, to before history began, before thinking began, before thought ever occurred. When you are in contact with this original ground, then you are never confused buy the illusions of the past and future. You are able to rest continuously in nowness.

Meditation is the process in which we glimpse the moment before thought, moments of pure awareness or original Buddhist monks in Laosmind. It is in these moment of “nowness” that we join with the lineage. Similarly, seeing nature or moving works of art also brings about moments of nowness. When our mind is stopped by seeing a Caravaggio or Cezanne we become part of the lineage of these painters. When we glimpse pure awareness we become part of the lineages of Dogen, Milarapa and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Just as appreciation of a painting masterpiece brings love for the painter who created it, glimpses of the true nature of our mind brings love or devotion for the lineage. These glimpses spark a passionate relationship of longing for our teacher and the lineage of teachers who preceded us. This is one of the ways in which meditation is far more than mindfulness alone.

Without longing and devotion we cannot fathom what lineage is, much less become a bonafide part of it.

Since lineage is experienced on this inner level, its development is both linear and multidimensional. History and organization tell us something about lineage, especially in the cases when it was formally passed from one master to the next, but lineage is also an “infection” that is passed in ways that history and organizations can never fully record. Great masters touch countless people simply through their presence and we can never know how these moments of transmission become realized in the lives of their recipients.


By Bill Scheffel

5 Reasons You Might Want a Teacher

A Teacher is knowledgeable about and practiced in, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha). They can help you understand the teachings in a practical way and challenge your preconceived ideas about the world. A good teacher will also be skilled in giving meditation instruction to keep your practice on track.

A teacher is of course not required on the spiritual path. The Buddha himself was self-taught. After studying under many gurus, he discovered that his own life would be his guide. However since we have thousands of years of teachings at our disposal, we don’t have to make all the same mistakes that previous practitioners made. A teacher can mitigate useless suffering on the path and point us in the right direction.

1. Buddhism is an oral tradition

Buddhism is primarily an oral tradition, transmitted from teachers to students since the time of the Buddha. Although, many books about meditation and Buddhism are available as learning resources, most traditions emphasize the importance of hearing the Dharma directly from a teacher. Some teachings in the Tibetan tradition, for example, can only be received by hearing them from a lama or senior teacher. An instructor can help you connect to the Buddhist path on a deeper level by embodying the Dharma in their presentation of the teachings.

2. Its easy to deceive yourself

A genuine teacher will challenge your ego and keep you grounded. Without guidance it’s easy to be deceived by your thoughts or feelings. Its important to be able to check in with someone who has been practicing and teaching for awhile who can help identify what is progress and what is self deception. What might feel exciting or like a big deal during practice, may just be a thought or feeling that that has taken over. In Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mihpham Rinpoche writes about visiting a student on a three year meditation retreat. After a year on retreat, Rinpoche’s student passionately described to him all the breakthroughs and revelations he was having. “Without saying he was right or wrong, I encouraged him to keep practicing,” writes Sakyong Mipham. After the second year, his student realized he was being sucked in by a thought process. “I realized it was just a giant thought. It lasted about a year, and in the past few months I’ve just seen it for what it was a let it go.” Having a teacher to check in with will help you avoid becoming stuck or pulled in by spiritual fantasies.

3. It helps you stay committed 

It’s popular these days to do a lot of spiritual shopping. Many people put together many elements from different spiritual traditions, making their own personalized path. While its good to find a path that resonates with you, dabbling without settling down can be a way to avoid going deeper. A teacher can help clarify a path, and keep you on the strait and narrow. Meditation can be challenging and a teacher who deeply understands the dharma can help you out when things get difficult. They can’t walk the path for you, but they can help you stay committed to the practice and stay honest with yourself.

4. Its good to ask for help

It’s sometimes tempting to take an aggressive or self-disciplining attitude towards meditation practice. Many students try to do it all themselves, feeling that they can be their own teacher. However, it’s a privilege to have support along the path. Having a teacher is no different from having a mentor as a child, or a university professor as an adult.  Its hard to self teach ourselves to read, and the same applies for meditation. A good teacher can teach the dharma in a way tailored to our personal background or personality, like a good teacher would accommodate their teachings to an individual students learning style. The path of meditation can also be more complicated than it seems. It’s useful to have a guide to teach us about the Buddhist perspective on working with the mind and emotions.  Being willing to ask for support is important so we don’t give up when the going gets tough.

5. Some traditions require it 

Many Zendos require students to have a teacher guide them on the path. Shambhala Buddhism requires students have meditation instructors to help answer questions and keep them grounded on their path. Some advanced teachings require close work with a teacher. This should not be considered a neccesity, but can be useful to gain a deeper understanding of complex teachings and tame your wild mind.

Meditation & Neuroscience – 10 reasons to have a daily meditation practice

In the past decade breakthroughs in Neuroscience have revolutionized how we view the brain. Rather than hard-wired and static, scientists now see brain as having flexibility of response and the ability to adapt and heal itself. When you meditate you are actively making new neural connections. The process of sitting accelerates that process by creating space for fresh responses outside of our habitual patterns.

10. Your learning and memory will improve

In order to learn and better remember what we take in, it’s important that we train our minds to stay open to new information. When our minds are filled with what we think we know, there is little space for anything more. Meditation allows us to remain open to new information without blinding ourselves with our habitual emotional responses to new information. In a study published in Psychiatry Research, scientists found that participants who completed an 8-week Mindful based stress reduction program had increases in grey matter concentration in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory processes.

  1. Your focus will improve

flower stemThe prevalence of attention deficit disorders in our society has exploded in the past 20 years. These days, laptops and smart phones keep us glued to distracting images and videos at an almost constant rate. Sitting and slowing down, even for 10 minutes a day, can open up new neural pathways that promote calmness and focus. An Emory University study found that the process of continually bringing ones attention back to an object of focus, as one does in mindfulness practice, strengthens the neural pathways for keeping attention.

  1. 8. Daily Practice Reduces stress anxiety and depression

Recent studies have demonstrated that Stress can tax our system enough to actually change the structure of our brains. The area of the brain called the Hippocampus is covered in receptors for the stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol release can lead us into a downward spiral of anxiety and depression, turning stress into more serious chronic disorders. In a study of meditators who practiced thirty minutes a day, brain images showed increased grey matter in the Hippocampus, rebuilding this area previously damaged by stress.

  1. Decreases Pain

The practice of gently observing sensory information in our environment and body can change our relationship to physical discomfort. Often times we experience pain with a mixture of judgment that magnifies the intensity of our discomfort. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience demonstrated that after four days of mindfulness meditation training in the presence of painful stimulation, participants reported significantly reduced pain unpleasantness by 57% and pain intensity ratings by 40% when compared to the control group.

  1. Increases Positive Feelings

Meditation practice doesn’t just mitigate negative feelings; it can also give us a more positive outlook on our lives. Significant research has been done on “loving-kindness” meditation, a practice that incorporates visualizations, mantras and reflection. Resting the mind in compassionate space can disrupt what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill,” the propensity of humans remains at a stable level of happiness despite positive changes in their lives.

  1. Increases feelings of connection and empathy

Our society is becoming increasingly inter-connected by large impersonal social networks. As a result, our daily interactions with friends and coworkers are often mediated by a computer screen or smartphone. This can lead us to feel alienated from ourselves and disconnected from others. In 2008, a Stanford University study explored the effect of loving-kindness meditation on feelings of connection. After participants completed a brief guided loving kindness meditation, they were told to direct their feelings of love and compassion towards a photograph of a stranger. Participants reported significantly increased feelings of empathy and connection after the exercise.

  1. Improves creativity

Anyone who has sat a meditation retreat will tell you they experienced an increase in natural creativity after a prolonged sit. However you don’t need to sit long to experience the fresh sense of wonder that meditation practice produces. UC Santa Barbara’s Brain Research center has explored how mindfulness correlates with better insight-problem solving, our ability to creatively find solutions outside of logical reasoning.

  1. Improves our ability to Self Reflect

When we’re rushing around constantly, its difficult to tune into how we are feeling. Sitting still allows us to connect with our lives and act in our life with purpose and meaning. When we make decisions based on our habitual patterns we cannot make fresh changes in our life. Scientists have found that meditators have a greater ability to connect with their emotions, synchronizing their mind and body to help them act from the heart.

  1. Helps us establish a feeling of worthiness

Above all, meditation helps us feel worthy of being human, which may not be measurable through brain chemistry. Sitting lets us tap into that original state of being and original intelligence that we always have access to. When we feel worthy of being human, it affects our lives in more ways than we can imagine.