I’ve heard it said that when you meet a prospective spiritual teacher, the most important question to ask is who their teacher is—to make sure they come from a genuine tradition with certified results. Otherwise, you could end up entrusting your innermost well-being to someone who just had an interesting idea…and is testing it out on you!
Each teacher inevitably puts his or her own stamp on the teachings s/he is transmitting, but it should be a question of style and not content. Even Chamgon Tai Situ Rinpoche (the “Tai Situpa” who has written several excellent books on Buddhist practice), one of the foremost Lamas of the Kagyu Lineage, when he visits the US and teaches at KTC Monastery, always warns us when he is deviating from the traditional explanation of things. He calls these moments “my own rubbish.” They are inevitably very helpful explanations from his own experience, which happens to be firmly rooted in traditions and teachings that go back in an unbroken line for 2,600 years. Calling his personal spin on it “rubbish”—that’s just how careful he is being to keep the traditional teachings completely pure and uncontaminated by someone’s bright idea—even those of a realized master.
People whose techniques don’t have the advantage of a long history of verification are often offended by the concept of lineage, and try to brush it off as some sort of outdated, closed-minded clique mentality. And of course, not having a lineage doesn’t necessarily mean your methods don’t work; they might. We just don’t know yet.
We live in a culture that seems to reserve its highest esteem for the latest thing. There’s an energy in innovation, a freshness, that is very seductive; and new things do sometimes turn out to be improved as well. But they can also get us into trouble. I spent 15 years as a medical journalist and reported on hundreds of studies of new medications and surgical procedures—some of them worked, some didn’t, and some caused irreparable harm. You don’t know until you’ve tested it out on enough patients for all the flaws to become apparent—which can take years, and leave behind a trail of permanent damage and death. Thalidomide…DES…hormone replacement therapy…Vioxx…lobotomy…if I had Google in retreat, I’d list a lot more. We always assume they’re fine until the damage is done.
Genuine lineage is insurance that methods have been thoroughly tested and that you are not a guinea pig. There are many spiritual traditions to choose from that come with this sort of quality assurance—that they are very likely to be effective if applied diligently and with the proper guidance, and very unlikely to do any harm.
And to take it a step further, just because someone claims to be part of or to represent a particular lineage doesn’t mean they do. The teachings urge us to check out a teacher thoroughly before we make a commitment; our spiritual progress and well-being depend on it.
It could be argued that the Buddha himself had no lineage—he started one. He did study with a number of teachers, but he felt their methods didn’t go far enough, and he had to forge the rest of the path on his own. If you meet a teacher who claims to be doing the same thing, and you are confident that you are putting yourself in the hands of another Buddha: by all means go for it! Meanwhile, I’m sticking with the tried and true, and hope that it continues to be preserved and handed down for many generations to come.