The Primal Importance of Lineage in Vajrayana Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism as practiced today is a pluralistic spiritual system that encompasses a combination of effective methods for working directly with one’s own mind to create the conditions for one to realize or directly experience Buddhanature, the primal awareness common to all sentient beings that we call enlightenment. The basis for the method is the enlightenment state itself as opposed to the intellectual capacity of the Buddhist practitioner. The Teacher (or Guru or Lama), whether directly or through a monastic system or other community-like system, is responsible for guiding the student through the stages of the path utilizing transmissions or empowerments (rituals that stimulate the latent seed of enlightenment in one’s mindstream) and teachings on the meditation practices and activities that will result in the realization of enlightenment.
The manner of transmission followed by Tibetan Buddhists today is consistent with the tantric instructions of Padmasambahava, an Indian tantric master who, in the 8th century c.e., established the tantric form of Buddhism in Tibet that is practiced today. The Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism as it exists today is the direct descendent of the work of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche (Precious Teacher). There was a period of time after Padmasambhava, roughly 100 years, when Buddhism was not allowed to be practiced in Tibet. As a consequence, the transmission continued in secret carried on by lay practitioners until conditions made it possible to reemerge. Tibetan Buddhism today is organized under four main schools: Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Gelugpa. While there are minor differences in the manner in which Buddhism is practiced from school to school, these four schools represent a plurality of lineage through which the Buddhadharma is transmitted to the practitioner. Vajrayana depends on two sources of texts for its teacings, the kama, the original teachings of the Buddha with commentaries by later masters, and terma, revealed teachings originally hidden by Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal intended for a later time when they would be appropriate.
Common among these schools of Tibetan Buddhism is the recognition of the “Tulku,” or Nirmanakaya form of the Buddha, who is considered an enlightened being who consciously takes rebirth in specific places and times in order to propagate the Buddhadharma and lead beings to enlightenment. A Tulku can only be recognized by a person with authority in a particular lineage. This was the case for Alyce Zeoli who was recognized by His Holiness Penor Rinpoche in 1986 as the reincarnation of Genyenma Ahkön Lhamo, the sister of Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab, the founder of the Palyul lineage of the Nyingma School, and a saint in her own right, and who was enthroned as a Palyul Tulku in 1988.
His Holiness Penor Rinpoche was the 11th Throneholder of the Palyul lineage, which began in 1665 based on the termas (hidden teachings) revealed by Tertön (treasure revealer) Migyur Dorje. The Palyul lineage is one of the six primary lineages that comprise the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism. His Holiness Penor Rinpoche, as the throne holder of the Palyul lineage, was fully authorized to recognize and enthrone Palyul lineage Tulkus such as Ahkön Lhamo. This recognition was unique, however, in that that she is a Western woman (the first to be recognized as a Tulku) and had not studied Buddhism formally before he recognized her. Even though she had no formal training, after consultation with others in his lineage who were also qualified to recognize an individual as a Tulku, His Holiness enthroned Alyce Zeoli giving her the name Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo. In doing so he stated that she was fully qualified to teach the Buddhadharma. Other than that, he did not give her other formal responsibilities in the Palyul lineage.
As Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo’s recognition illustrates, the basic function of lineage in Tibetan Buddhism is to instill confidence in the student that what the teacher is teaching is authentic and is something the student can trust and depend on in their spiritual quest. As such it also serves to protect and safeguard the original teachings against corruption and false teachers. Lineage also provides authority. The origin of any text used, or of meditation practices taught, can be traced back through the lineage to its enlightened source. This safeguards as much as possible the validity and potency to the transmission.
Lineage can also be described as a chain of unending blessings from enlightened mind to the individual practitioner. It is, therefore, the source of all the blessings that the student receives. Without it, there are no blessings and no authentic transmission of the Buddhadharma.
It should also be pointed out that lineage is also supremely important in the other schools of Buddhism, such as Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Although these traditions never developed a Tulku system, they do consider it vital to the integrity of their tradition to trace the lineage of their teachers directly back to the Buddha himself. Thus lineage is not something peculiar to Vajrayana only but a common thread in all schools of Buddhism.
Dzogchen Lineage, History of Nyingma http://www.dzogchenlineage.org/buddhism.html
The Institute of Tibetan Classics, Central Doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism http://www.tibetanclassics.org/doctrines1.html
The Refuge Tree http://www.khandro.net/TibBud_refugetrees.htm
Trungpa, Chögyam; The Mishap Lineage: Transforming Confusion into Wisdom, Shambhala Publications (2009)
Tibetan Lama.com http://tibetanlama.com/buddhism/buddhism_in_tibet.asp
Major Events in Tibetan Buddhism http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/history/tib_timeline.htm