Who’s Your Teacher?
Where’s your certificate?
What’s your lineage?
Are you qualified to transmit the dharma?
These questions are all too prevalent in Buddhism, and are usually asked by people who doubt or disagree with what you have to say. Unable or unwilling to trust their own judgment of whatever bits of information, wisdom, or foolishness you may have just offered, they want to know if someone else (your teacher or other certifying agency) agrees with what you say. If they have heard of this other person, or if you can sufficiently convince them of that person’s qualifications, then they may believe you and be willing to listen further. Why is this? Why are we so willing to disregard one teacher, then blindly trust another (to the point of exalting and deifying them), entirely on the basis of who did or didn’t sign their certificate? Why can’t we simply evaluate what they’ve said and trust our own insight and judgment as to its veracity?
This need for external verification of authority is most definitely not unique to Buddhism, though it is certainly antithetical to Buddhist teachings. And yet, many Buddhists formalize it, revere it and give it a special name: lineage. Rather than using our own personal experience and innate wisdom to decide if a person speaks true, we instead look to his teacher. And his teacher’s teacher. And his teacher’s teacher. And so on and on, until we come to the name of a teacher that we trust and recognize as an authority on the matter. How far back do we go – to Dogen? Rinzai? Bodhidharma? Buddha? Do we ask who the Buddha’s teacher was? Do we wonder who gave him the right and authority to teach? When the Buddha said “Be a light unto yourself”, I’m quite certain he didn’t add “so
long as you can trace that light through an unbroken line of qualified teachers back to me.”
The mistake we make is in equating teachings (or wisdom) with authority, in the process also failing to recognize the very source of authority. The Buddha addresses this himself in the Kalama Sutra. He advises us not to blindly accept teachings, but to critically examine and experiment with them, accepting them finally only if they ring true for us based on our own experience and understanding. That is to say, authority comes from within, and we should grant this authority to the teachings of others only if they accord with our own innate wisdom. Thus does a teacher gain his authority – not from his teacher, but from his student; he is a teacher if and only if he has one or more students who think that there is truth in what he has to say.
When we realize this, we see that teachers are not the sources of our authority, but simply those who have gone before us, and that the purpose of lineage is not to grant them authority, but to preserve and transmit their teachings. In this sense, it doesn’t even matter if the lineage is unbroken, or if such-and-such a teacher was in that direct line. Recalling our geometry lessons from school, a line is defined by two points – no more, no less. Additional points may fall on the same line, but only two of them are needed for the line to exist. This means that as one point of the line, you are in direct lineage with any teacher from whom you learn. You are a direct descendant of Buddha, Jesus, Bodhidharma, Meister Eckhart, Rumi, the raven in the sky, the salmon in the stream, the mountain underfoot, and the neighbor across the street. You belong to as many lineages as there are teachers, and as the center point for all these lines connecting you to the teachers of the ages, you are a veritable sunburst – truly a light unto yourself.