This morning in our service we chanted our “Prayer of All Lineages”. Buddhism started from Buddha Shakyamuni and then spread throughout Asia and now is coming to Western countries as well. Buddha was a wonderfu lteacher who seems to have been able to bring out the best in people as well as help them overcome their blindnesses and become more wise and compassionate. However, each person is different and his leading disciples likewise. Each had a special talent. Shariputra was wise. Mogalana was good at meditation and yoga. Asaji was good at keeping the disciple. Ananda was kind, and so on. When new younger students came to be disciples, Buddha would allocate them to one or other of his chief disciples according to their need or talent. Thus, from the very beginning there were different schools of Buddhism, even while the sage was still alive.
As the Dharma spread far and wide this diversity continued. Although there are a variety of lineages, after Shakyamuni himself there was never really a Buddhist supreme prelate, like the pope. The nearest thing is the Dalai Lama but he is only officially the head of Tibetan Buddhism. Different schools all developed in their different ways.
In many schools of Buddhism there exist “lineage prayers” that celebrate the lineage of main teachers in that particular tradition. When I was a Zen monk, we used to recite every morning the list of eighty-five teachers from Shakyamuni down to our own present day teacher. These lineage traditions have been used to help establish the legitimacy of particular groups at various times in history, although modern scholarship has revealed various lacunae in them.
As Buddhism comes to the West it comes into a different culture with a different religious history. Here we are also used to having different denominations, but they did not mostly originate in an attempt to cater for natural human diversity so much as from conflict and disagreement. In Buddhism it is not unnatural for a person to study more than one school. In the West, however, there is a greater possessiveness about congregations and rivalry between sects. It would be a shame is this sectarian disease got too established in the new-to-the-west Buddhist religion. In our own sangha, therefore, we do not have a separate prayer, we have a “prayer of all lineages“ to celebrate the great diversity of ways in which the Dharma has been transmitted to the present day.
Reciting the prayer also gives one an appetite to study the lives and teachings of all - or at least some - of this vast collection of great Dharma ancestors.