by Andrew Sterman
A few colleague-students have recently asked about lineage in our medicine and related practices. How do we work within a lineage, and what are the healthy ways to say where we’re from?
We need to understand that as Westerners we’re not very good at understanding tradition. We suffer from the “cult of the new”. Careers are made through disruptive innovation rather than insightful development of classical mastery. Examples are all around us, from the inability to rebuild the complex timber loft of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris to the unfulfilled and nearly mystical pursuit of building a violin that approaches a Stradivarius. Our society tends to discard old knowledge without a pause, only to find it impossible to recover.
When studying any of the classical Asian arts—particularly self-cultivation practices, meditation, and the healing arts—tradition is very important. The teachings always begin with an explanation of lineage. “I am here to teach because I have received great treasures of enormous value from a long line of masters—treasures that must be preserved and must be shared—and since those great masters are not here in person, I have to do it.”
Teaching from the Asian arts always begins with the credentials of lineage, and more importantly, with responsibility. It’s common to receive teachings under the condition that we are not to teach them until we’ve received clear and specific authorization. Historically, the authorization to teach is granted with some degree of ritual and mutual commitment.
Personally, I have received many restricted teachings that are considered protected or private. I understand this tradition and accept it. Of my 35 years studying tai chi, five were spent studying in a very profound lineage under the condition that I promise not to teach it, and I have never taught it. I’ve also received many profound meditation methods with the instruction that they are too precious to teach without formal authorization based on accomplishment and relationship with the teacher. And I’ve always honored that.
But there are more sides to it. Many teachings are given with the intention that they be used broadly, such as classical medicine teachings. They are explicitly for the benefit of all people. Yet, developing skill and depth is still required for these practices to work well. And there are practices that lie somewhere between public and private. Sometimes when working with individuals, a special meditation or qigong practice is needed. I pause, go to my gut, and if it feels correct to share it, I look up and ask permission, re-check my intention, and if all’s good, I share it. In such cases progress is rapid and strong. I can’t think of a case where it hasn’t been. Lineage protections are about intention and depth. And after sharing such tools, it’s important to explain the lineage in brief and respectful terms, so that the individual feels authorized with the limited transmission they have received. The purpose of sharing lineage details is to preserve the strong benefit of the practice and to ensure that the practice is not watered down as more people engage in it.
Intention must have radical honesty. Radical honesty means that things are seen clearly as they are. Sharing an excerpt of a practice as a therapeutic treatment doesn’t grant full ownership of that practice. It is limited; it is focused on specific benefits for that individual. If we share a specific practice—or broad medical methodology—with a student who too quickly begins teaching or claiming identity with the specific lineage, we have a problem. In such cases, radical honesty requires that they are clear in their statements that they have had a profound experience with that particular practice, that they are deriving much benefit from that practice, but also that they are still just becoming acquainted with its intricacies, let alone its lineage. If they claim more, they are overstepping. Over-claiming may be a common stage in the process, but it does need correction.
Important teachers of meditation, for example, spend a lot of time explaining that early experiences are not mastery. They spend time explaining that having dreamt of Buddha doesn’t mean you are Buddha—and that experiencing ecstatic openings of understanding is just an experience, it is not equivalent to full realization. Our instruction is to come back again and again to the training and to assiduously watch that our growing experiences are not matched with a growing ego.
Traditionally, we always give credit to the individuals who introduced us to our true knowledge and practice. It is very important. Our integrity is based on the integrity of the person who introduced us to the lineage. It’s also based on the integrity that we bring to that offering, an offering that invariably is given with more generosity than we have yet earned. The teacher’s commitment is to share with everyone without judgment, but also to tune us as we develop. It’s very tricky because we mustn’t become just carbon copies of our teachers—we have different temperaments, different constitutions, different destinies. The chances of us reaching our masters’ levels may be extremely remote. Yet the lineages need to stay alive, and they need to stay alive through living people. So we do our best, and we raise our best, and we challenge ourselves, and we raise our best again. And if we succeed, we hold the bits of the tradition that particularly resonate with us in a magical combination of the essence of the tradition, the details of the tradition, and our own way of doing things—our own way of being.
Integrity is inseparable from radical honesty. If we meet a great master in a weekend workshop, it’s true that we may have had a profound weekend workshop with that master, but that’s what is true. We name them and we say that we had a great spark from a single weekend workshop, because that’s true. We are not holders of their lineage, but perhaps a spark has been lit and some great information shared. If we study with someone closely for ten years, we name them and credit ten years of close study, but we don’t claim that we started with them when we were three years old or know things in the same way. If we meet a great master for dinner, then we say that we met the great master for dinner. Our connection is that we had dinner together. If we learn a practice from one teacher, we don’t claim to have learned it from their teacher. We don’t make claims of having met that teacher many lifetimes ago, of having been pals and confidants. Because if we identify with a practice that we claim was learned from such brief encounters, transcripts, others’ notes or condensed handouts, if we falsify any part of the story, we are not living in radical honesty, and we have what is commonly known as a lineage problem.
Lineage problems dishonor ourselves, and do a dishonor to our students and patients. And none of this is necessary, because when studying an Asian legacy, the teacher always begins with lineage—it has been given to us from the very beginning. What’s needed is depth and honesty. And as we tell the truth, we honor the lineage, we maintain the lineage, we build from our personal praise and gratitude for the lineage, and we can do good in the world that exceeds all conventional expectation. But if we claim to skip our personal teacher, we’re fibbing, and we lose power.
The true teacher remains calm, but they do see how we are functioning and who is ready. And, as modern people—mostly Westerners by heritage or conditioning—we can raise our level and become lineage participants in what we have had the inspiration to seek and learn with all levels of our being. And with respect neither lacking nor falsely forward, we can be a living brick in an edifice that serves all humanity, with cornerstones laid in stunningly clear fashion by the originating men and women of our traditions.
March 22, 2023