What is your lineage?

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What’s your lineage? This isn’t a question we usually ask each other. But in the Soto Zen tradition, chanting one’s spiritual lineage is a standard ritual. For centuries that practice has included only the names of men teachers, mostly monks. But now in some communities, women’s teachers’ names are being ritually acknowledged in the chanting. Hooray!

Chanting our lineage isn’t a practice I’ve ever encountered in the Insight Meditation tradition. Teachers are revered but not in this ritual way. But the idea of acknowledging and celebrating the mostly unsung women teachers in this tradition appeals to me. Any such accounting would go way back to the Buddha’s aunt/stepmother who became the first Buddhist nun. (Her heroic story deserves a whole post, so I won’t go into detail here.) 

Think of all the nuns who followed her, who meditated, who recited the Buddha’s words, who gained insight from the practice and cultivated wisdom and passed it on to other nuns who joined the order. We might picture the new nuns as young and inexperienced, like the young monks who were raised in monasteries, but as I understand it, many of these women were probably mature. They were widows, mothers mourning the loss of a child, or if young, likely deemed unmarriageable for whatever reason. So these were women who knew firsthand about the joys and sorrows of worldly life, and they came to this practice as a last resort but also as a refuge. Given the opportunity to meditate, to learn from the Buddha’s teachings, and to live in community, in a sangha, with other women who were, to the best of their ability, living by the ethical precepts, probably cultivated deeply compassionate wisdom.

We don’t know the names of most of those early nuns to honor them in that way. Yet we can be grateful for their practice and inspired by their dedication to ending suffering for all beings. 

When looking at any lineage it seems easier to start where we are and work back in time, first acknowledging the women we know or knew: our mothers, aunts, teachers, leaders, and other women who inspired us, mentored us, guided us, and taught us what matters in life. This inquiry sparked a rich in-class discussion and a few of us changed our Zoom names for the meeting to our mother’s name + daughter or + child. So my name became Stephanie Margaretchild. A sangha sister’s last name became Virginiadaughter. It was an act of fun but also felt very deepening and expansive. I realize that both my mother’s and my mother-in-law’s maiden names ended in ‘son’. Take a moment to play with your own matrilineal name and see how it shifts things for you. It’s not an erasure of the men in our lives. It’s an opening and acknowledging of the past erasures of women. It’s finding balance.

If a woman you consider your lineage comes to mind, what are the gifts she gave you? How did she inspire you? How did her love allow you to grow fully and fearlessly into the person you are?

Returning to my Buddhist lineage, though I have been fortunate to have a wealth of wonderful teachers, due to my proximity to Spirit Rock, my primary teacher for many years was Anna Douglas. So I looked up her bio to see who, if anyone, she acknowledges as her teacher, but no lineage was mentioned. Same thing with Sylvia Boorstein. Both have impressive credentials and were founding teachers of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, but because they didn’t mention specific teachers, I am left to imagine that Jack Kornfield was their teacher, even though he is also their colleague and co-founder. So, okay, then I look back a little further and remember that one of his most beloved teachers, and also the primary teacher of Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg, was Dipa Ma Burua.

So, she is who I would like to acknowledge here as a part of my lineage. To refresh and expand my knowledge of her, I listened again to Jack’s wonderful dharma talk about her in his audio series Transmission. I also explored her website. 

Jack shared how Dipa Ma lived with her daughter and grandson in a simple apartment under a metal grinding shop in a small rundown street in Calcutta. Born Nani Bala Barua, she was married at age 14 to a civil servant and they had three children. Her husband died and then two children died, all in a short period of time. 

Her spiritual journey, like many people’s, was born of life’s suffering. At age 40, she saw in the deepest way the inevitability of sorrow and suffering as part of life. She practiced meditation on her own, and then eventually went to Mahasi Sayadaw’s Theravadan Buddhist center in Rangoon. She had a very powerful gift for concentration and within days went to the deepest state offered at the monastery. So she returned to India and became a teacher, mostly of older women who struggled with the suffering in their own lives. Dipa Ma wasn’t a monastic. She lived in the world, dealing with all the worldly challenges of life as a widow, grandmother, and mother of her remaining daughter, Dipa. Her name ‘Dipa Ma’ means mother of Dipa.

She brought that caring motherly and grandmotherly energy to her teaching. Her young American students called her the most loving person they ever met. Her first concern every time she met with them was for their health, whether they were eating well, how they were feeling. Though she was poor, she was generous with what she had. Jack remembers that once she gave him money and told him to buy his mother a present.

One of her central teachings was to acknowledge whatever is arising in your life as your teacher and your practice, to learn from what is right there. She thought of the world as her monastery; mothering and teaching were her primary practices. She embraced family and meditation as one and refused to make divisions in life. When students told her they were too busy to meditate she instructed them to make their busyness their meditation.

This rich teaching changes everything in our practice and in our lives. It eliminates the possibility of excuses for not practicing, doesn’t it? Pause for a moment to look at your life, all your commitments, responsibilities, interests, regrets, judgments, grudges, and passions. How does it change things to recognize them as your teachers rather than obstacles to your practice? How does it change things to recognize that what you are doing, whatever you are doing, is your practice. 

Dipa Ma said, “If you are busy doing calculations, know that you are doing calculations. Meditation is always possible, at any time. If you are rushing to the office, then you should be mindful of rushing.”

If we make that shift in our own way of thinking, each of our meditations will look different, and they may be different on different days and different times of the day. Waking meditation, washing meditation, exercising meditation, eating meditation, conversation meditation, working meditation, etc. None of these activities get in the way of meditation. They are just variations of meditation if done with full attention and a full heart.

When we practice in this way, we discover the joy of being fully present, aware of the natural rising and passing away of all things. We let go of preferences and the habituated comparing mind. We bring compassionate awareness to whatever we are doing. Life is transformed by this simple shift!

Dipa Ma said, “Live your life, do the dishes, raise your children, take care of the community and make all of that your path. Follow your path with heart.”

And because sitting meditation is of such value, she offers this invitation to you if you think you have no time to meditate: “Can you meditate just five minutes with me now? Let’s sit down and do it.”

Won’t you take her up on that generous invitation? 

I feel both elated and grounded by this exploration of my spiritual lineage. My students reported after class that they were quite moved as well. Let me know what comes up for you, either from learning about Dipa Ma or from exploring your own lineage.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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