Lineage Is About More Than Preservation

In this commentary from the Summer 2018 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Justin von Bujdoss reflects on changing the way we think about lineage.

By Justin von Bujdoss

Justin von Bujdoss teaching with Buddhist Insights in Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed. In our climate of unending gun violence, extreme rhetoric in domestic and international politics, and environmental crisis, I find myself needing to lean not only on my practice but also on my lineage for support. After all, lineage gives the dharma the familiar forms we’ve grown accustomed to.

Lately, however, my experience of lineage is bittersweet. I’ve grown increasingly aware of my lineage’s slowness to get with the times. Debates around whether it dilutes the Buddha’s teaching to address the real-life needs of those I love and serve through dharma seem so hopelessly closed-minded, as does the hesitancy to openly explore how whiteness, colonialism, and patriarchy helped form the structures through which lineage has taken root here in the West. The radical creativity that allowed the buddhadharma to survive myriad challenges and undergo cultural translation as it spread from India around the world seems lacking.

I find myself asking how my lineage can speak to the needs of people who experience trauma related to racism, gender bias, sexual orientation, and other forms of violence when the tradition itself seems at times hopelessly naïve and unwilling to speak up and act. This causes deep spiritual pain, and I often wonder why I even participate in lineage when it feels so disconnected from my core values. When lineage becomes an ineffective container for our practice, we must find ways to reengage with the radical creativity of our dharma ancestors. We must reignite the wildness, humor, passion, deep wisdom, kindness, and resilient joy that has shepherded our lineage across the expanses of space and time.

When lineage becomes rarified, an object of study rather than a living body, something gets lost.

Too often, we operate under the unexamined assumption that lineage is a completed painting, when in actuality it is a work of art that is never finished. Lineage defies assumptions, ideas, and projections. When it becomes rarified, an object of study rather than a living body, something gets lost. When we become attached to preexisting ideas of what lineage is and how it ought to appear, we display our ignorance of how it came to be. We forget that the way we know the lineage to be is a result of organic growth over hundreds of years. It was the successes and failures of individuals over time that created what we know as lineage.

The most vital aspect of the work ahead of us is coming to a recognition that the lineage flows in our veins, in our image. When our values and voices feel only distantly related to our dharma lineage, or entirely outside of it, something needs to change. We mustn’t forget our agency. Our cultural backgrounds, identities, good and bad experiences, our rough edges, and our strengths not only inform the lineage, they become the lineage. The very notion that there is something to guard or preserve is an illusion. Dharma always emerges when there is space for it to emerge. Dharma survives because it is not dependent on any set of forms for survival; it is co-emergent with form.

I am form, you are form—our cultures, our conflicts, our successes, and our failures are all form aligned with dharma. We are cocreating a container for authentic dharma to arise here in the West. The hardest act is taking those initial steps to help create the lineage we value rather than following one that feels imposed. The ground upon which each of us exists is pure. Our voices, our bodies, our minds, and the ways we express ourselves are the dynamic life force of lineage. We have the ability to act from a place of authenticity, to express our innate agency and our buddhanature. We have the power to change the way we think about lineage. Only then will we truly manifest it.

Justin von Bujdoss

Lama Justin von Bujdoss is an American vajrayana Buddhist teacher, writer, and the is a co- founder of Bhumisparsha an experimental Buddhist sangha along with Lama Rod Owens and Yangti Yoga Retreat Center with Dr. Nida Chenagtsang. He is the author of Modern Tantric Buddhism: Authenticity and Embodiment in Dharma Practice published by North Atlantic Books. Justin was ordained as a repa, a lay tantric yogin in the tradition of Milarepa, by His Eminence Gyaltsab Rinpoche, one of the heart sons of His Holiness the 16 th Karmapa and is a ngakpa in the Yuthok Nyingthik lineage.