Deng Mng-Dao, The living

A figure drawing, for example, can touch on everything from the Venus of Willendorf to Michelangelo’s David to Willem de Kooning’s Woman V. Or if the artist is making a reference to, say, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, then we must know it. At that point, we judge against the piece of art being invoked, and we can ponder whether the new piece is a success, mere derivation, parody, or clumsy imitation. Great art emerges when the allusion is the prelude to some twist, a new beauty, or even originality. Great art cannot merely be the quoting of past pieces, but must have its own identity. We can appreciate a person for his or her lineage, but it is still the living person that matters.

The same is true of spiritual practice. We stand on the shoulders of others. So much has come from Laozi’s Daodejing and Zhuangzi. We must be able to catch the allusion as soon as someone says, “The Tao that can be known is not the true Tao” (Daodejing). A reference to the Butterfly Dream (Zhuangzi) invokes not only the original story, but all the centuries of commentaries and even jokes that have hailed from it. Knowing the tradition also helps us avoid the pitfalls—such as the fact that early attempts to find the elixir of immortality poisoned most of the alchemists.

As one learns from different teachers, one will encounter variations in how exercises or meditations are performed. Different teachers will obviously emphasize varying parts of the tradition according to their personalities, tastes, and experiences. It's important to be able to compare, to discern where different practices and philosophies arose, and sometimes it's necessary to choose one technique over another if it is more suitable.

There is a deep emphasis on lineage in many Asian spiritual traditions. Zen began when Buddha silently held up a flower to Mahakasyapa. Every Zen master is supposed to be able to trace his or her lineage back to that very moment that Mahakasyapa smiled in response to Buddha’s direct transmission. Similarly, Taoists are able to trace their lineage back through their teachers, and they assert that there is no true understanding of the Tao without the help of a qualified teacher (that is, one who is part of a lineage). The process in art history of tracing the influences in any piece of art back to their antecedents is paralleled in spiritual practice, where the lineage is in itself a vital force. Read more