Lineage and Liberation

Lineage and Liberation

on Oct 9, 2012 in Relationships | 0 comments

With my teacher, Vicki Shosan Austin, after jukai ceremony at San Francisco Zen Center

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) 



Maybe I’ve been picking up on the Canadian gratitude vibe lately… I don’t know, but I’ve really been feeling waves of thankfulness over the past few weeks, for so many things.

Most importantly, I’m feeling grateful for the people in my life, past and present, who have supported me to step more fully into who I am, and who have loved me and taught me in all kinds of ways.

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 Buddhist teachers, going all the way back to Shakyamuni Buddha.

There’s a lot of fairly esoteric Buddhist 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 is passed between two people. In the end, it’s really all about relationship and friendship.

Lineage is so important 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 sharing this photo):


At Upaya Zen Center, another tradition has been tagged on to this — the practice of creating one’s personal lineage chart. This is a process of remembering and then 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. The past few weeks, though, I’ve realized that there have been many people in my past (and my present) who have offered me the keys to freedom.  

So — I’m devoting this post to naming some of those people who made a huge impact on me and to whom I feel enormous gratitude. This is my blog version of a personal lineage chart.

I’m sharing this list because it’s a way for you to get to know me better, but 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, who gave me a lead role in the school play. 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 cast me as an astronaut singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” Even though I had a pretty off-key singing voice, she believed in me.

♥ Dr. Bill Dominik, my clarinet teacher at the University of the Pacific back when I was a music therapy major. Dr. Dominik was the first one to teach me that breath is life (a lesson I’d get later when I finally started meditating), and who encouraged me to let my passion come through my music. My clarinet-playing days ended a long time ago, but these lessons are still embedded deep within me.

♥ Gerri Campbell, a 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 off 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 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 my friend and mentor.

♥ In 1993, I met Roshi Joan Halifax just 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 for eight months. I realized I needed and wanted a 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.

How about you? Who’s in your personal lineage? Who are the people who have guided you to more freedom in your life?


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