Friday, May 11, 2012

lineage ... again

In Buddhism, there is sometimes mention of lineage, the human links in the chain that proclaim an on-going interest in or affection for this particular spiritual persuasion. As human beings have mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, so Buddhism can point out a chain that links into the past.

Sometimes "lineage" takes on pedestal status in Buddhism, with expositors laying claim to connections that reach "all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha" (and this, by implication is both noteworthy and praiseworthy.) It's pretty nice to associate with good company even if a closer examination of lineage in Buddhism reveals some gaping holes, some missing historical links and some ingenious efforts to paper over the places where gaps occur.

But when I hear or read Zen Buddhist chums putting their money down on "lineage," it makes me wonder -- much as I might wonder about my own grandfather and grandmother. Surely it is something to notice, but turning it into a talking point or a point that brightens the place in which I stand ... well, I get edgy. Would I like to be a part of this talking-point congregation and lay claim to some 'authentic' status? Frankly, the idea gives me the creeps.

"Lineage" in Buddhism strikes me as one way to offer newcomers a point of purchase, a way to understand intellectually what has not yet taken hold in the heart. Like all advertising -- and I think all spiritual formats are by their nature just advertising -- it has a certain kindness. An advertisement for a Chevrolet is not a Chevrolet, but it does inform and perhaps support reasons why anyone might buy a Chevrolet. "Lineage" in Buddhism is like that ... a part of the format-advertising that allows theologians and scholars and just plain folks to get a handle on things. In this sense, it is a kindness ... everyone has to begin somewhere and good advertising can be an honest help.

But when I look back at my own half-hearted connections to Zen Buddhism I think: Well, yes, my experiences have brought me into contact with teachers and students and convenience-store clerks. In one sense I stand in the "lineage" of Eido Shimano, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi or Soen Nakagawa Roshi ... not that I ever got anointed by any of them or was ever a gimlet-eyed exemplar of their teachings.

My interest in Zen Buddhism has been colored by the school I hooked up with and bought into. I do see things in a certain way. I do not see things in another way. (For example, I see no other honest alternative than to assert that sentient beings are enlightened (by whatever definition) from the get-go. "Attaining enlightenment" like the issue of "lineage" is just a manner of speaking ... another way to advertise the Chevrolet.)  For descriptive purposes, I can point to teachers and teachings when defining my "lineage." That's OK, but from my point of view, that is also enough. Saying more or relying on some imagined "lineage" is too much.

Why? Because the experiences of any lifetime are the lineage that anyone might honestly lay claim to. More important, however, is the fact those experiences can not be escaped. A toaster is not an ironing board. I am the offspring of my mother and father, grandfather and grandmother. To imagine, in a practice like Zen Buddhism that encourages people to straighten out their lives by looking things in the eye, that there was something especially praiseworthy or even noteworthy about this lineage of experience (or the lineage of Buddhism) is like continuing to insist that the advertising for the Chevrolet is somehow the Chevrolet itself. And that is not just creepy. It is also, as anyone with two brain cells to rub together can attest, way off the mark.

Human beings use their own honest lineage... not because it is profound or wise or exalted but because they have no other choice. Enshrining that lineage may be a kindness to others, but to buy into the advertising, to assert some status or limelight on account of it is over the top ... human, perhaps, but diversionary and a bit silly. I have five fingers on my right hand. It cannot be helped. It can only be employed.

And who is the employer?

Fret about it all you like, wax wise as an owl if you like.

But don't ask me and don't ask some sainted lineage.

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