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.
It 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 mind. 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