Scriptures & Authority

Tradition has it that the teachings of the Buddha were gathered together and agreed upon at the First Buddhist Council, shortly after the death of the Buddha. These agreed teachings were initially transmitted orally, but became texts around 1st century BCE. The Pali Canon is usually thought to represent the earliest stratum of texts. It is divided into three: the Suttas (the discourses of the Buddha), the vinaya (a code by which the Sangha should live by), and the abhidhamma / abhidharma (a systemization of the philosophy, psychology and metaphysics found in the suttas. This was built up gradually over a period of time). Mahayana Sutras appeared later and tend to hold key Mahayana ideas concerning the path of the Bodhisattva and emptiness.

The source for Buddhist doctrines and ideas is the Buddhist texts – the Pali Canon or the Mahayana Sutras. The source of these is the Buddha himself: the ideas encapsulated in the texts come directly from the Buddha and so derive their authority from him. However, the Buddha never claimed to create any doctrines or ideas himself, he simply discovered the way things really are, the knowledge of which leads to nibbana / nirvana. This means that Buddhists do not necessarily have to blindly believe in empty dogmatism since the real source for their ideas is experience. One can experience the way things really are for oneself – in Buddhism emphasis is laid on empirically testing claims when one is able. This is particularly true in the Theravadin tradition.

The authority for leadership arises in different ways for different Buddhist traditions. In the first instance, the Buddha led his sangha due to his spiritual accomplishments. Similarly the arahats / arhats who did a great deal of teaching did so because of their accomplishments. However, the Buddha tried to avoid problems of hierarchy so refused to name a leader after he died. Instead he simply based the order of speaking on seniority, meaning in practice, those who had been monks longer. The Theravadin tradition maintains this idea – so one may see a more spiritually experienced young monk still paying respect to a less experienced one simply because the latter has been in the Sangha longer. However, for the laity, any monk or nun can be viewed as a spiritual leader. Members of the Sangha have the authority to act as leaders to the laity because they are seen as more spiritually accomplished, having laid aside the lay life to become mendicants. They are viewed as more knowledgeable when it comes to the Dhamma / Dharma, so are worthy teachers. In Mahayana traditions leadership may be based on spiritual attainments or because one is believed to be the incarnation of a bodhisattva. The Dalai Lama, for example, is chosen as a child due to certain physical characteristics and information given by his predecessor. He has authority as a leader because he is believed to be the emanation of the bodhisatta / bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Finally, leaders can be hereditary, as in Japan for example, and so gain authority to lead from their family history.

In practice authority is expressed in a number of ways. The scriptures are treated reverently, with the chanting of certain texts making up a significant part of Buddhist worship. The Buddha is treated with devotion by all Buddhists. Often offerings of incense, water or food are made in front of statues of the Buddha and most Buddhist families have an image of the Buddha, which is usually stored on a high shelf (the elevated position is a mark of respect). Members of the Sangha are treated with respect and supported by devote lay Buddhists – alms food is donated, monasteries and temples are maintained etc. The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader for many Tibetan Buddhists, and as such, is always treated respectfully with his teachings followed.

While authority can be evaluated in a number of ways, it is usually based around experience. For example, the Buddha always asked his followers (or those who were able) to meditatively explore his teachings and even use their paranormal powers to psychically investigate him. Thus the Buddha said that everything he taught, including his achievements and attainments, could be experientially evaluated. The same applies to the authority of the arahats / arhats, their colleagues can use psychic powers to investigate their achievements. Authority from textual sources is derived from the beginning phrase “thus have I heard”. This indicates that the teaching came directly from the Buddha and so is stamped with his authority.

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