The Three Lineages

Inspiration, innovation, institution—Reginald A. Ray looks at the different manifestations of lineage and how they maintain their awakened quality.

All religions concern themselves with questions of authenticity and legitimacy. How can we tell whether a particular teacher or teaching is a genuine and true reflection of a certain tradition? In Tibetan Buddhism, the question of legitimacy comes down to the question of lineage: Which teachers embody and transmit the authentic lineage? Which teachings and practices are legitimate reflections of genuine lineage? For that matter, what do we even mean by lineage?

In Western religious history, it has been common for institutions to determine what is religiously “legitimate” and “authentic,” and people often look to institutional leaders or hierarchies to evaluate the lawfulness of individual teachers, teachings, and practices. This kind of approach might seem particularly appropriate to the theistic religions, where truth is understood to be external to the individual, and the individual is thought to lack the capacity to judge truth or reality.

But even in the theistic traditions, there is some irony to this institutional bias. Consider the main burden of Jesus’s teaching mission. In his time, the official Judaic establishment in charge of the Jerusalem temple and its sacrificial cult, with its network of financial obligations, requirements, and specific procedures, claimed to offer the sole access to God. Jesus, by contrast, taught that the kingdom of God was already within, and that therefore one did not require any external mediating force to attain salvation. Consider as well Martin Luther’s primary criticism of the Roman Catholicism of his time, which insisted there was “no salvation outside of the church,” with its exclusively male hierarchies, its institutions, and its undeniable politics. Luther championed the “priesthood of all believers”: that no person or institution can get between the individual and God, and that every person had his or her own unmediated relationship with the Almighty.

In a nontheistic tradition such as Buddhism, the question of authenticity has its own particular challenge. On the one hand, like all organized religions, Buddhism has its institutions, power structures, and organizational hierarchies. In some Buddhist traditions, such as Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism, these are front and center; in others, such as Zen, they sometimes stand more in the background. Given our own religious history, we Western Buddhists may find ourselves looking to these external authorities to determine what is spiritually legitimate and what is not.

On the other hand, as a nontheistic tradition, Buddhism holds that the ultimate is discovered not in any external agent, but in the innermost heart of the meditator. This leads to the obvious question of how the internal and the external “authorities” are related to one another in the various Buddhist lineages, and by what measures we can determine what is authentic.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the term “lineage” has historically been used in a variety of ways. Three specific meanings of lineage are particularly important to this discussion: lineage as “primordial lineage,” as “transmission lineage,” and as “organizational lineage.” By understanding these three ways in which the term has been used, we can arrive at some useful insights into the question of authenticity.

The Primordial Lineage

The primordial lineage is the most important of the three and is historically the most ancient, being original to Buddhism. What is the primordial lineage? It is the direct experience of the awakened state. It is what the Buddha uncovered in the moment of his enlightenment.

The Buddha discovered that within us is a totally uncompromised, immaculate awakening—right now, in this very moment. He realized that all of the trappings, ideas, practices, and paraphernalia he had encountered in his spiritual journey were, at that point, irrelevant. He found himself simply awake and present, seeing all things nakedly and directly. He experienced his life in a completely stripped down and unadorned way, beyond hope and fear, with no sense of politics whatsoever.

Completely present and direct—that’s the primordial lineage. From a certain point of view, that is what all Buddhism is about. It is discovering the primordial lineage within us and learning how to express it in our lives.

It is the primordial lineage that the Buddha principally transmitted to his own students. Shortly after his awakening, he met his five former ascetic companions in Deer Park in Benares and said a few things to them expressing his discovery. Abruptly, the mind of one of the five, Kaundinya, fell fully open and he directly realized the awakened state within. The Buddha, seeing that his friend had met the primordial lineage face-to-face, exclaimed joyfully, “Kaundinya’s got it; he’s got it.”

The various major Buddhist traditions give different names to the primordial lineage. In Theravada, it is called cessation, meaning that with which we come face-to-face when the five skandhas fall away. In the early Mahayana, it is known as prajnaparamita: the transcendent wisdom underlying all ordinary human knowing. In Zen, it is known as “no mind”: what occurs when we have utterly worn out trying to know anything and find we have lost ourselves—and found ourselves—in “don’t know mind.” And in Tibetan Buddhism, it is Mahamudra, “the great seal [of reality],” and Dzogchen, that which is the “utter and final fruition.”

As a nontheistic tradition, Buddhism holds that the primordial lineage is our ultimate and inmost essence, our buddhanature. Nevertheless, the primordial lineage is so foreign to who we think we are and to the habitual operation of our ego that we are generally not aware of it as the ground of our being. Typically, we first encounter the primordial lineage in other people who manifest it, and specifically in our revered teachers. When we do meet it in another person, it is not uncommon to feel some kind of tremendous intensity in their presence. We may experience overwhelming love and devotion, and want to be around them all the time. Or—and just as much a sign of our connection with them—we may feel terror and want to run away to the farthest corner of the universe.

In Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, for example, the primordial lineage was blazing. In his presence one felt terrified, but also incredibly and irresistibly attracted. Our feeling around teachers like this has such intensity because in them we are meeting our own deepest nature, or, in Zen terms, our “original face.” Having met our own primordiality in them, we can, over time and through meditation practice, discover it as the very foundation of who we are, the unborn awareness out of which “we” continually arise.

In looking at the most accomplished primordial lineage holders, one can sense three qualities that are particularly evident: depth, vastness, and realization of the implications of primordial awareness.

First, there is a great depth of realization. The experience of the awakened state is infinitely profound—there is a depth within the space of awareness that goes on and on. In this case, we are not talking about depth in the sense of “down,” but rather that the experience of space itself—this present moment of awareness—has layer upon layer of subtlety that call to be fathomed.

For example, our mind may be at rest and we may think, “This is it. This is the unconditioned mind.” But then, suddenly, we see that we are hanging on to some subtle concept of mind or space, and we let go into a freer, fresher, more open state of being. Then we may think, “OK, this is it,” only to discover ourselves holding on at this subtler level and needing to surrender our grasp once again. And so it goes, on and on. Perhaps there is no end to how open and unconditioned the space of the nature can be, and the question is, how completely can we abide and stay with that free-fall?

Second is breadth, or vastness. As one Tibetan text says, “The nature of mind is the great space of dharmadhatu.” This means that our awareness has no inherent boundary or limit. In fact, it is co-extensive with space itself, with the infinite reaches of space and time. So the question here is, can we surrender without reservation to this infinite vastness? Or is there a point at which we retract from it and set an artificial limit to how far our awareness extends?

Third are the implications. While the original state is beyond causes and conditions, from another viewpoint it is not isolated from them or irrelevant to them at all: it has the potential, indeed the momentum, to touch every aspect and dimension of our lives. We may think that after touching the primordial nature we can just return to our habitual patterns and business as usual. But the primordial lineage implies that there is not and never has been any discrete or substantial “self,” that any notion of personal territory is a dream, and that our habitual patterns are completely beside the point. To what extent, then, can we allow the implications of the primordial lineage to permeate our karmic history, our lives, and the persons we thought we were, so that there is no corner of a “me” left over?

A great teacher has become completely transparent to the primordial lineage, so that he or she is nothing other than the primordial awakening manifesting in an apparently human form. Such a person is known in the Buddhist tradition as a nirmanakaya, a person in whom the primordial lineage has arrived at full maturation and perfection.

Yet it would be a mistake to overemphasize the distinction between the very greatest masters and others who authentically hold the primordial lineage. As Tulku Ugyen repeatedly emphasized, it is just a matter of development. In fact, the challenge to every practitioner—indeed, the expectation—is that each of us, through a life of dedicated and devoted meditation practice, will come to hold the primordial lineage in the full and perfected sense. Such was the confidence of the Buddha himself in his disciples, and such has been the confidence and encouragement of all the great teachers down to the present day.

The Transmission Lineage

The transmission lineage comprises the various ways in which the primordial lineage, the buddha mind, is communicated and transmitted to students. Again, we can see this meaning of lineage in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. For seven weeks following his enlightenment, the Buddha remained in the vicinity of the bodhi tree. During this time, he experienced some uncertainty. Should he abide in the beatific silence of the awakened state, or should he try to communicate his realization? He wondered whether anyone would be able to receive his teaching. Nevertheless, after a certain period of time, the piteous cries of suffering beings all over the world reached the Buddha’s ears and, in response, great compassion spontaneously arose in him. At this point, the Buddha faced a challenge: how should he communicate his realization and the path to it?

The Buddha himself had followed a very circuitous path to realization. He had studied with many different teachers and followed a variety of paths, and his journey was filled with obstacle-ridden routes and dead ends of all kinds. He did not want to put his own disciples through the same kind of unguided trial and error that had marked his own path. So, beginning with his first sermon in Deer Park, the Buddha began to develop methods, often unique to his dharma, of bringing others to the primordial truth. The first teaching to his five friends marks the beginning of the transmission lineage in Buddhism.

The early texts tell us that far from settling on one method or “program” for transmitting the awakened state to others, the Buddha spent his entire teaching career developing different “gates to awakening” that reflected his disciples’ differing capacities and needs. By the time of his death, so we are told, the Buddha had developed 84,000 different methods of transmission of the awakened state.

By now, among the various Buddhist traditions, there are probably many times the original “84,000 dharmas.” Part of the genius and creativity of great teachers is the variety of ways they lead their students to the heart essence. A central concern of the practice traditions of Tibetan Buddhism has always been to maintain the full range of the transmission lineages. In particular, the renowned Rimé masters of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries sought to preserve, as living traditions, the many different transmission lineages that were in danger of dying out in their day.

The multitude of transmission lineages is important because every person has a different set of capacities, inclinations, and karmic connections through which to receive the primordial lineage. The job of the skilled teacher is to find that one teaching or practice that, at this precise moment in a student’s journey, will open his or her mind to its full depth.

In Buddhist history, different schools and lineages have tended to emphasize particular transmission lineages, or approaches. Zen, for example, awakens us through sitting, walking, oryoki, koans, interviews with the teacher, poetry, brush painting, flower arranging, and so on. All of these are examples of the transmission lineage, of gates of access to the primordial itself. Both Theravada and Tibetan Buddhism have many common and also distinctive transmission lineages. Altogether, the abundance of transmission lineages is quite extraordinary.

It is important to note that the transmission lineages do not maintain their validity and effectiveness on their own. Transmission lineages only fulfill their intended function if they are taught from the viewpoint of the primordial lineage, if they are given in a completely selfless way, and if they lead trainees more deeply into the unborn nature. If the passing on of specific practice teachings is done with other motives, such as institution building, attracting supporters, or ensuring the allegiance of students, then the transmission lineage has been co-opted to some different purpose. It doesn’t matter how traditional a practice may be; if it isn’t taught from the viewpoint of the primordial and if it doesn’t lead to awakening, then it has lost its integrity.

How may one determine the authenticity and integrity of a transmission that is being given? The most important point is that the transmission is offered from the vantage point of the primordial lineage and that it opens the way for the disciple to realize the awakened state. The person giving the transmission must be well experienced in the practice that he or she is transmitting. And the student receiving the transmission must have the proper understanding, motivation, and preparation.

First, the student needs a correct understanding of the purpose of the practice he or she is doing. The purpose of all Buddhist practice is to strip away the conceptual overlays that obscure the awakened state within. This may sound attractive in principle, but the actual process of the path, as the hagiographies of the great meditators amply show, is the most challenging and painful thing that one can ever go through. The journey clearly involves much self-confrontation, many obstacles, and more than a fair share of suffering. If we don’t understand that what is at stake is our very being, our treasured life and familiar world, then we will be unable to actually engage the practice.

In order to engage a particular practice, we also need the right motivation. This is different from an accurate understanding of the basic intention of the various practices. We may know what practice is about, on a general level, but when we actually sit down to meditate, driven by hope or fear, we may actually carry out the practice with a different aim in mind. Too often our primary motivation is to get through the present stage of practice and on to the next, with the idea that we are in the process of getting something for ourselves, in the way of practice credentials, social acceptance and prestige, approval of the teacher, or solving our problems and getting rid of our suffering. Of course, these kinds of things are always going to be somewhere in our minds, but when these are the primary motivations for practice, then the practice we are doing is not going to be authentic and is not going to lead to its intended results of openness, gentleness, and genuine care for others.

Any practice that one is doing must also be appropriate to one’s stage of maturation and temperament. Practices are not commodities that nourish all consumers in the same way. At each stage in our maturation process, we need just the right catalyst to enable us to let go more, to abandon our current false identifications and self-serving attachments to “me.”

For example, Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, is considered to be the highest Tibetan meditation, the end and epitome of all practice. There are many Western practitioners these days who have received Dzogchen teachings and are carrying out Dzogchen practices. Some of these folks have had some experience with meditation, while others are at the very beginning of their practice. However, Dzogchen corresponds to a very advanced realization of egolessness, and a very subtle and profound experience and surrender to the primordial emptiness of one’s being and one’s world. Tibetan tradition has always affirmed that Dzogchen meditation does not become accessible to anyone until they have practiced for many, many years, and have substantial retreat experience. It would seem that no matter what teaching one receives, a significant and appropriate amount of preparation in the way of meditation and solitary retreat is generally necessary for people to be able to receive and carry out genuine Dzogchen instruction, even at the simplest levels.

What is happening with Dzogchen is illustrative of a trend in the teaching of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Advanced practices are being taken out of their traditional context, and preparations on the part of the practitioner that were considered essential in the past are no longer being required, or, in some cases, even recommended. In some sense, this trend is understandable. Tibetan tradition faces a vexing and perplexing dilemma: few Westerners—and nowadays few Tibetans—can carry out the transmissions in the traditional way, and there is the legitimate concern that these transmissions may die out. Certainly, the very great teachers can and must make these kinds of adaptations for their students. But that sometimes leaves the impression that the traditional preparations are mere cultural window-dressing and serve no important function.

Finally, a practitioner can be given the best practice in the world by an accomplished teacher, but if he or she doesn’t have the benefit of informed, steady, and effective mentoring, it is going to be difficult for that practice to lead to its intended fruition. Tibetan tradition holds—and I think with much good reason—that serious practitioners need a mentor who knows them well and can be a sounding board and guide for them on their journey. Alas, although there are some notable exceptions, this kind of mentoring is difficult to come by in modern Western Buddhism.

The Organizational Lineage

The third type of lineage is the organizational or institutional lineage. A lineage holder in this sense is the person who officially holds responsibility for maintaining the organizational and institutionalized forms of the tradition. As in the cases of the primordial and transmission lineages, we also find the institutional lineage as a theme in Shakyamuni Buddha’s life, but in quite a different sense from that of the other kinds of lineage.

According to the early texts, the Buddha not only declined to set up any centralized organization or bureaucracy for his lineage, he flatly refused to do so. When the Buddha was close to death, his cousin, Devadatta, suggested that he set up a single authority, a single head, to act as supreme authority to manage and run the sangha. The Buddha explicitly and vigorously rejected this idea, saying that it would cause various problems for both individual practitioners and for the integral survival of his lineage as a whole. This goes along, of course, with the Buddha’s emphasis on developing the inner authority and the awakening of each practitioner through meditation practice. So what, then, are we to make of the development of Buddhism as a highly organized, institutionalized religion?

Writing a century ago, the father of modern sociology, Max Weber, viewed the development of institutionalized Buddhism as a betrayal of the essential teaching of the Buddha. While Weber has an important point to make, I do not think we have to subscribe to his rather extreme view. Nor do I think a “necessary evil” explanation is accurate either.

Where Buddhist institutions serve the individual path of the practitioner, they have a positive role to play. Remember that the transmission lineage is dependent for its validity on its connection to the primordial lineage, and its effectiveness in opening a gate to the unborn. Similarly, the institutional lineage depends for its legitimacy on its fidelity to the transmission and primordial lineages. At its best, the organizational lineage provides a protective container for the transmission lineages and the primordial lineage. It establishes a container within which the authentic, living lineages of practice and realization can flourish. It encourages people’s meditation practice, affirms the unique revelations that arise in practice, and encourages the flowering of the individual creativity of its practitioners.

Of course, in Buddhism, as in the other world religions, one sometimes finds that institutions get between the practitioner and the experience of the awakened state. In such a case, that institution or organizational lineage is no longer performing its intended function. It has succumbed to institutional habits and has overlaid the unbounded nature of the primordial lineage with bureaucracy and hierarchy. It has, at that point, lost the mandate of the primordial lineage and lost its own authenticity and validity.

Those who function as institutional lineage holders are in a delicate position. They must be beyond territoriality and have as their only motivation the dissemination of the dharma. Their priority must be the integrity and effectiveness of the journey of each member of the organization they oversee. This is a tall order for anyone at the head of an organization, and there have been many cases in the history of Buddhism where practitioners in this role saw the lay of the land and simply walked away from the job. And there have been cases of others who simply functioned as C.E.O.’s of their organization, losing touch with the genuine primordial and transmission lineages.

When the primordial lineage, beyond all partiality, is not held, then one’s attempt to hold the transmission or institutional lineages will ultimately be flawed. When a person holds the primordial lineage, on the other hand, then he or she can be a genuine holder of the transmission lineage and, if need be, of the institutional lineage. However, holding the primordial lineage almost requires that one constantly scrutinize and, where necessary, critique the ambitions, agendas, and activities of Buddhist institutions and organizations. In this respect, Trungpa Rinpoche once remarked, “Throughout the lineage of the practicing tradition, everyone in the lineage has been extremely sarcastic and critical of the current scenes taking place around them. They were extremely critical in the name of the dharma.”

Historically speaking, this kind of vigilance has most often emerged from the authentic devotion, practice, and realization of serious meditators. Such critiques are the spontaneous outflow, the natural flowering, of a life lived in the primordial nature. Historically, it has often been from such institutionally peripheral sources that the truly fresh and vigorous creativity of Buddhism has continued to unfold in the world.

Reginald A. Ray is professor of Buddhist studies at Naropa University. Along with his wife, Lee, he is founder and president of the Dharma Ocean Foundation in Crestone, Colorado, where he teaches dharma programs throughout the year. His recent books include Indestructible Truth, Secret of the Vajra World, and In the Presence of Masters.