Lineage and Liberation
Walking, I am listening to a deeper way.
Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.
Be still, they say. Watch and listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands.
~Linda Hogan (Native American writer)
This is the time of year when the veil between the worlds is thin… when it feels like we can almost reach out and touch those who came before us and have gone to the world beyond this one…. when the chilly winds of autumn carry the voices of ancestral wisdom in an almost palpable way.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about lineage and ancestry, and feeling into what that means. A friend recently said that our lineage carries our greatest wounds as well as our greatest gifts. There’s a lot to unpack as we look at the people we came from and what we have inherited from them.
In Zen Buddhism, the concept of lineage is very important. We talk about a “warm hand-to-warm hand” transmission that’s passed down through generations of teachers, going all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha.
There’s some esoteric language about what transmission means, but it really boils down to this: it’s when the gift of staying awake to one’s life and to reality – just as it is – is recognized and passed between two people. Most importantly, it’s about relationship, friendship, and intimacy.
Lineage is so essential in our tradition that when someone takes vows as a Buddhist (in Zen, the ceremony is called jukai), she or he spends time carefully drawing the bloodline of these past teachers and ancestors. This is called a kechimyaku and it looks like this (thanks to my dharma sister, Genju, for this photo):
At Upaya Zen Center, another tradition has been added on to this — the practice of creating one’s personal lineage chart. This is a process of remembering and documenting the people in one’s life who have contributed to our spiritual formation.
I’ve got a tendency to see my past as a constraint, to think of “ancestors” only in the sense of limitations. But I’ve come to realize that there have been many people in my past (and present) who have offered me the keys to freedom.
So as way of creating my own personal lineage chart, I want to name some of those people who made a huge impact on me and to whom I feel enormous gratitude. I’m sharing this list as a way for you to get to know me better and it’s also an invitation for you to do the same. It’s a huge gift to realize that our lineage is linked to our liberation. We don’t have to do it alone. There is no way we possibly could do it on our own.
Here are a few of my teachers and friends-along-the-path:
♥ Sister Helen (last name un-remembered) — my third grade teacher at St. Andrew’s grammar school in Pasadena, CA. At a time in my life when I was full of spunk but didn’t know quite how to communicate that to the world, Sister Helen gave me a lead role in the school play, and cast me as an astronaut singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” Even though my singing voice was off-key, she believed in me. That gave me the gift of believing in myself.
♥ Bill Dominik, my clarinet teacher at the University of the Pacific when I was a music therapy major in the 1980s. Dr. Dominik was the first one to teach me that breath is life (a lesson that came again later when I started meditating), and who encouraged me to let my passion flow through music. My clarinet-playing days ended a long time ago, but these lessons are still embedded deep within me.
♥ Gerri Campbell, music therapist at the long-gone Fairfield Hills Hospital in Newtown, CT. I was in my early 20s when I landed at the hospital as a music therapy intern. At the time, I had no real experience looking inside myself. Yet I was in a position of witnessing immense emotional and psychological suffering of other people. Gerri’s honest feedback, over and over, helped me to line up my insides with my outsides and set me on a lifelong path of self-discovery.
♥ Lisa Faithorn, co-founder of the Social and Cultural Anthropology program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). Lisa guided my work as a graduate student at CIIS and taught me how to see the world with different eyes. Among the many things that Lisa transmitted to me, one of the most precious is an unshakeable faith in life. (“Faith” is even in her name!) I’ll always remember something she said to me at a falling-apart time of my life: “This or something better.” Lisa continues to be a dear friend and mentor.
♥ I met Roshi Joan Halifax in 1993 as I was starting graduate school at CIIS. She taught a class called “Buddhism, Shamanism, and Deep Ecology.” I was hooked — both on Buddhism as well as on Roshi’s honest and transformative presence as a teacher. We continue to be dharma friends and colleagues to this day.
♥ Vicki Shosan Austin came into my life in 2001 when I lived at San Francisco Zen Center. I realized I needed a local teacher who could clearly see the progress (and the shortcomings) in my meditation practice and help me lean into it. Vicki is also a yoga teacher, and I have deeply valued the way she helps me to become more embodied in my practice. As our friendship has unfolded over all these years and as she has invited me to enter into a process of preparing to become a teacher myself, I’m coming to a deeper realization of the meaning of the phrase, “not knowing is most intimate.”
How about you? Who’s in your personal lineage? Who are the people who have guided you to more freedom in your life, and what gifts have you received from them?
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