In the midst of the heart-breaking news about Australia’s bushfires and the Wuhan coronavirus, I finally got one piece of good news, at least for myself individually. That was hearing the Nyingmapa decision to stop appointing a rinpoche as a head lineage holder of the Nyingma tradition.
It is worth remembering that the whole phenomenon of “lineage head” or even monastery head comes from our human need for organization, hierarchy, accountability and so on. And like all human systems, such endeavors have brought some benefits but also a lot of confusion.
In the case of Tibetan Buddhist hierarchies, the matter is complicated further by the tantric concepts of “guru” and “root guru”. As a result, many people then can’t differentiate between a personal guru and a lineage head. But the head of a lineage or tradition is not necessarily one’s root guru. So it creates enormous confusion when people mix up their spiritual journey guided by their personal guru with mistakenly thinking they have to do whatever their lineage head says.
Throughout the history of Tibetan Buddhism right until modern times, the idea of a single head of the Nyingma lineage was completely unknown. Each monastery did have its own head, and some large and powerful ones like the Kathok and Mindroling monasteries had strong spiritual and temporal influence. But it is worth noting that many of the greatest masters like Longchenpa, Jigme Lingpa, and Patrul Rinpoche, who have had the most significant influence on the Nyingma lineage, traditions and teachings, never held any seats as powerful monastic, lineage or organization heads.
The custom of a single person becoming head of the whole Nyingma lineage emerged only in the 1960s. Given the situation at that time, this innovation may have served its purpose back then. But it is increasingly evident that this new custom has forced people like me to wonder whether its previous benefits may now be greatly outweighed by the harm and confusion such a position has created in recent times.
In the days of Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the like, such masters were as immovable as mountains, as unfathomable as the ocean, and as immeasurable as the sky. And so, their reigns as lineage heads were textbook models of Sun Tzu’s general in the Art of War, who maintains unquestionable authority without ever appearing to be involved.
The chances of having such a leader in this day and age are very slim indeed. For better and for worse, as we all know, the world has changed so much in the last 25 years. While it used to take years to bring the teachings of the Buddha to eager aspirants, it now takes just a few moments to Livestream teachings to students who don’t have direct access. But likewise, things that used to take ages to degenerate and corrupt can now be corrupted in the blink of an eye.
For all these reasons, the recent decision, announced by the Nyingma Monlam Committee and inspired by the wise advice of Kyabje Shechen Rabjam Rinpoche, to discontinue the recent custom of appointing a rinpoche as lineage head is such welcome news.
For someone who is genuinely following a spiritual path for the sake of enlightenment, nothing much if anything at all is lost as a result of this decision. After all, such individual practitioners will always have their guru – who may be the simplest yogi or monk or nun – in their hearts and heads as the most supreme master.
At the same time, we have learned a lot by seeing the minimal secular benefit of having a lineage head getting greatly outweighed by the sickening jealousy, divisions, competitiveness, mistaken views, and deluded narrow-mindedness such positions can create. As a result of what we’ve witnessed, I am not the only one who now sees the need for drastic changes if we are to effectively propagate and preserve the Buddhadharma in general and Tibetan Buddhism in particular.
The changes that are needed will require tremendous courage, boldness, and open-heartedness, but I now have a little reason to be optimistic that we may actually see such changes start to happen. If we are even to embark on that huge task, then this decision by the Nyingma Monlam Committee is a very, very good beginning.