What is a “Lineage Holder”?

written insights Aug 18, 2021

What is a “Lineage Holder”?

by Dharma Bodhi
Jan 29th, 2020
The terms lineage, lineage holder, supreme lineage holder, etc., are terms you’ll run into regularly when reading about spiritual traditions, especially those coming from Asia.
Because there exists much confusion about these terms, and about whether someone is a bona fide “lineage holder” I will define them from the traditional perspective and talk a bit about what importance, if any, they have.


First let’s define “lineage”.
The word “lineage” in spiritual traditions simply refers to the line of succession within the tradition. Not merely that your teacher had a teacher and so on. It must be within a recognized tradition.
If you were taught by someone, who in turn was taught by someone, etc., this is a lineage. You may or may not be fully trained, or realized, but you are indeed part of the lineage.
Broken Lineage
A lineage may be unbroken or broken. A broken lineage occurs when a person who has completed training in that lineage cannot pass the complete knowledge and practices of the lineage on to anyone in the next generation. In this case, an “impaired” or slightly diluted lineage may limp on into the future until it is revived by a practitioner of extra-ordinary capacity, insight and realization down the road a bit. Then the lineage is said to be “revitalized”. This has happened over the millennia in many of the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, Bön, Śaivism, Daoism, etc. Or the lineage may be broken completely and never be revived due to any number of circumstances within the tradition or from the outside.
In an “unbroken lineage” there has never been a break in the transmission of the lineage’s complete knowledge and practices from generation to generation.
Am I from a lineage?
The key to being from a lineage is one simple thing – You have, or have had a relationship with a living guru, lama or daoshi who came from the lineage and you also took that lineage’s form of public refuge/initiation with that teacher and trained in the knowledge and practices of the lineage. This means that if you have been actively trained by a teacher from a lineage, you are “connected” to that lineage, regardless of whether you became a great practitioner, teacher or not. You can confidently say that you are training as “part” of the lineage.
Can dead teachers be gurus?...
A person who claims to be from a lineage because they have independently decided that one of the luminaries of the tradition who is now deceased is their guru, is on very shaky grounds traditionally speaking. Choosing a teacher from the past with whom they’ve had no contact, just because the teacher is a famous historical figure from times gone by, does not make that master from times gone by their guru, lama, or daoshi. And it does not make them a part of that lineage.
It does not matter how inspired the person is, or how many texts written by the dead luminary have been memorized by the person, they are not part of that teacher’s/master’s lineage until they are accepted by a living teacher and undergo training to the satisfaction of the teacher they are training under. PERIOD.
I have met people who claim Padmasambhava, Yogananda, Abhinavagupta, Ramana Maharishi, and so on as their sat-guru. Wow. I find it fascinating that so many of these “I’m a disciple of a dead guru” type of people also declare themselves teachers of that dead guru’s lineage…without having been trained! Holy Moly!
I wonder what that master would say if they were to meet?
Many lineage holders are inspired by the masters of the past and reference them as well as reverence them, but you NEVER see any reputable lama/guru/daoshi/roshi claiming they are a disciple of the dead guru, or that they were trained by them.
I see so much of this going on these days. It’s just so very convenient to have a guru that youchoose, that can’t point out your ego faults, and then of course that guru doesn’t make you do all that hard and nasty work of self-realization…”yuk…that’s for all those lower aptitude people, not me, I’m special, I have a special relationship with the master…I can sense it”. Etc.
Yeh, sure you do.


Modern people practicing eastern forms of spirituality often conflate an unbroken lineage practitioner with a fully realized master. A person from an unbroken lineage may be fully realized or not fully realized. This can create real problems for the students who are uneducated in the spiritual culture of that tradition. Not all lineage qualified teachers are fully realized.
Let me give an example from my own lineage in Yungdrung Bön. Bön is a nondual meditation, yoga and philosophy school that is native to Tibet, preceding Buddhism’s arrival there. In my main lama’s monastery there were many classes of monks and nuns. A lot of the monks were in what is called “Geshe” training, which is equivalent to an advanced degree in the western sense, like a masters or doctorate degree. When a person graduates with a geshe degree they have completed the required general curriculum and may teach independently. They may or may not have specialized in an area of study.

Here is the main point – earning the geshe degree does not confer realization on the monk, and the monks know this. This is extremely important to understand, because as I travel the world I encounter westerners speaking about their local geshe they study with as if they are a realized Buddha. They grovel before them in a way that is inappropriate and beyond respect for someone who is teaching and on the path ahead of them.
From a devotional aspect this is said to be quite good, because as the Vedas say…”That which you contemplate; you become.” So this devotional bhava can make the practices work much faster. But this is only meant to be a devotional tool.
It is all too common for westerners to actually think that the geshe or lama is fully realized. And sadly the lama also may enjoy the fame and adulation and not make clear to the students their actual stage on the path. Of course the majority of geshes I’ve encountered are very humble geshes and lamas, some of whom are of high attainment. But I want to clarify that being a graduated and an authorized teacher from an intact lineage with a long history does not make the person realized.


Now that we have a working definition of lineage, who then is a lineage holder?
A lineage holder in most simple terms is someone who has learned the core curricula of the tradition from an another authentic lineage holder. By virtue of their training and attainment they are a lineage holder. The lineage holder may or may not teach. Though they usually do. If they do teach, they have been granted the authority to teach that tradition’s curricula, though they may only focus on a small aspect of it.

Some traditions do formalize someone becoming a lineage holder with a ceremony that demonstrates the support of the lineage and is supposed to confer the Śakti or spiritual energy of the lineage. In my Indian tradition there are two forms of this ceremony.
The first is the Purnadikshabhishekham.This is the ceremony that someone undergoes in order to receive the empowerment of the lineage, again, whether they are to become a teacher or not. It is like a form of confirmation. I received this ceremony in the mid-90’s from my Śaiva Yoga Preceptor. The recipient may receive specific practices and teachings that non-lineage holders do not receive and may not know about that pertain specifically to maintaining a fresh connection to the transmission power of the lineage masters of the past.
The other ceremony is called the Mahāpurnadikshabhishekham. This ceremony is to establish the Supreme Lineage Holder, or Head of the Lineage, or the Head Teacher of the Lineage. Some lineages have this designation, others don’t. My Indian tradition does recognize and make use of this “Supreme Lineage Holder” office and title. I am not a Supreme Lineage Holder.
The question of who is or is not a lineage holder must always be asked from within that traditions “spiritual culture”. For example, in the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism, one of the 4 acknowledged schools of Tibetan Buddhism, there is no Supreme Lineage Holder office. There is usually an assumption about who that person is because those members of that sect naturally look to someone as filling that role, but they do not elect that person, nor is it an official position.

Contrast this with the Yungdrung Bön who pick a Supreme Leader through a process of oracles and votes after the previous Supreme Leader passes away.
In the famous Daśnami Orders of Sannyasin monks in India there are 10 distinct groups and four papal seats of authority. Each of the heads of the four seats are called Śankarācarya of X, Y, Z… Here we have an example of 4 Supreme Lineage Holders functioning simultaneously.
These are just a few of the examples of the way traditional groups organize themselves and apply the lineage holder terminology.
Should I study with a recognized lineage holder?
All of that was nice and clear, and now it gets muddy.
In my humble opinion, backed up by the teachings of our Oral-Practice Tradition of Trika Mahāsiddha Yoga, I believe that anyone can be a sat-guru to any student, if their practice has brought them to stage 7 or higher.
However, if the teacher is a lineage holder, meaning that they have finished the curriculum and have full knowledge as well as attainment, they will most likely be better equipped to actually teach. There are many stories of people that train with masters of high attainment for many years but achieve very little because the master wasn’t that skilled at teaching. Yes, this is a possibility…actually, more times than you would think.
Suzuki Roshi was one of the most accomplished teachers of Zen outside of Japan. Years after his death it came to light that he had no formal permission to teach Zen and didn’t actually finish the curriculum himself. That didn’t stop him from being a wonderful teacher for so many people.
Being a lineage holder also does not mean that the teacher is a good or a bad person. One would think that being a lineage holder should mean that the person is a good person, and has dedicated their every thought, feeling and action towards the welfare of the students. Unfortunately, this is not always the case as we have seen with so many cases of harm caused to students by authorized lineage holders.
Hopefully this article helps you understand more about lineage and lineage holders. I will write more on this subject at a later time as there are many aspects to be fleshed out.


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