Lineage and History. A Roadmap of Buddhist Traditions, Lineages, and Practices.
Following Shakyamuni Buddha's passing some 2500 years ago, his teachings about how to live a worthwhile human life and train one's mind through meditation practices spread widely. At one time or another, the Buddhist world encompassed countries from Japan and China in the east, Sri Lanka and Indonesia in the south, Afghanistan in the west, and Korea and Mongolia in the north. The traditions we have today stem from particular teachings given by the Buddha at various times and places, later influenced by the characteristics and temperaments of people in the different Buddhist countries.
In the past, if you were interested in meditation or learning about the Buddha's teachings (the dharma, in Sanskrit), you simply went to the monastery nearest your village. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, easy communications, and travel, we have many choices that can feel confusing or overwhelming at the beginning.
So many lineages! so many foreign words! This simplified view of the different Buddhist traditions alive today—a roadmap of sorts—may help.
The Theravada Lineage
Following his enlightenment at Bodhgaya in India, the Buddha first taught at Sarnath, near modern Varanasi. These teachings—covering topics such as suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to cessation (the Four Noble Truths); interdependence; self- liberation from suffering; and so on—comprise the First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma.
At one time, more than twenty different schools focused on these teachings, but today only the Theravada lineage (found in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, and Vietnam) survives as an independent philosophical school. (Two other lineages survive as the monastic lineages practiced in Mahayana traditions, but not as independent schools.) These are often called the 'Hinayana' schools. Literally the word means 'lesser'—understood in the sense that their teachings focus on individuals liberating themselves from the world of suffering (samsara), which can be contrasted with other schools that emphasize liberating others.
The Theravada scriptures (the Tripitaka) are written in the Pali language, one of many Indian vernaculars of the time, and because Theravada practitioners naturally do not believe that they are doing anything 'lesser', recently scholars have introduced the term Pali Buddhism to distinguish this school from others called Sanskrit Buddhism because their Tripitakas were first written in Sanskrit before being translated into local languages. The Dhammapada, Dhammasangani, and the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification) are widely known Pali texts.
In the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, taught at Rajgir in India and elsewhere, the Buddha emphasized that both people and phenomena lack any solid, independent existence or self. These are the teachings on emptiness (shunyata) and form the philosophical basis for the Mahayana schools. Along with the view of emptiness, these schools emphasize cultivating an outlook of compassion for all beings and working for the benefit of others. The term 'Mahayana' means 'Great Vehicle'—again, 'great' in the sense that compassionate activity to benefit others is of larger scope than concern only with oneself. Mahayana lineages spread in Afghanistan, Indonesia, and other countries, and today are found in Bhutan, China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, and Vietnam. The Zenlineages (called Ch'an in China) of Soto and Rinzai are the most widely known Mahayana lineages in the West, but there are others as well. The Lotus Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, and the Prajnaparamita Sutras are widely known Mahayana texts.
Describing reality as suffering - the Hinayana view - is true and accurate, but perhaps incomplete. Describing it as empty is more complete and profound because it is a more subtle description of how things really are—without independent existence. The teachings of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma are still more subtle, examining the enlightened essence (buddha-nature, tathagatagarbha) that is spontaneously present in all sentient beings. True, all beings lack a self, but they also spontaneously possess all the qualities of enlightened beings once their confusion is clarified. Buddha-nature is discussed at length in Mahayana contexts, but assumes an even greater importance as the philosophical basis for the third broad group of Buddhist schools: the Vajrayana, orTantrayana. Having flourished for hundreds of years in India, following the demise of the dharma there, Vajrayana lineages survived in Bhutan, China, Japan (the Shingon school), Mongolia, Nepal, Tibet, and parts of northern India. Vajrayana lineages often describe themselves as operating within the broader Mahayana context but employing additional skillful means. Because buddha-nature is inherent in all beings and in all experience, anything whatsoever could become a means towards experiencing a profound moment of awakening.
This accounts for the colorful aspects of the Tibetan tradition—where music, dance, costumes, and food are used within the context of meditation practices—that seem so outlandish when contrasted with the simplicity of the Theravada. The Uttaratantra (Highest Continuum) is a widely known third-turning text. For the Multitude of Sentient Beings, a Variety of Skillful Means Are Shown.
Looking at Shakyamuni Buddha's teaching career through the perspective of the three turnings of the wheel of dharma is one way of making sense of the different lineages that have arisen since his passing. The different schools described above each have their own sets of scriptures, or Tripitaka, which they regard as complete and authentic. The Tripitakain turn is divided into three sections: the Vinaya (the rules of behavior for monks and nuns), the Sutra (meditation advice), and the Abhidharma (how an enlightened person experiences the world). The Tibetan tradition also includes another class of literature, theTantras, considered a fourth pitaka. Each of these schools includes sub-schools and particular lineages within those. This is most clearly the case in Tibet, where the four best-known present-day schools (Nyingma,Kagyu, Sakya, and Geluk) quickly branch out into numerous sub-schools and lineages. But even within the Theravada lineage, it is not the case that every teacher communicates the dharma in the same way, and particular lineages of meditation certainly have their own styles and emphases.
Why Should Lineage Matter?
Shakyamuni Buddha said clearly that his attainment, though from one point of view an extraordinary achievement, was possible for all human beings regardless of wealth, position, sex, or caste. Nevertheless, the path of meditation can be a subtle one, and it is difficult to judge one's progress for oneself. Therefore since the time of Shakyamuni himself, Buddhists have placed great value on lineage: that one fully realized master (a lineage holder) instructs students who then attain the same understanding, which the master is in a position to verify. Thus, the experience of the dharma always remains up-to-date but complete from one generation of practitioners to the next. All the schools described here trace their lineages back to the Buddha. Traditionally one does not set oneself up as a teacher, but begins teaching only after being told to by one's own master. Such authorization by a lineage holder becomes a guarantee of sorts for students: as long as new teachers work within the limits of their understanding and the authorization given by their teachers, the unbroken lineage has been maintained and new students can trust the quality of their instruction.