Saturday, 27 August 2011

How to talk about Authentic Buddhism?

I posted this at my blog a couple days ago and had some interesting comments. I'd be interested in the input/feedback of all you Progressive Buddhism readers as well. (I've pasted in the comments from my blog and a short response - for the original post, see here.)

We've just finished our intensive Pali course. My next stop is the Oxford Buddhist Vihar, where I will remain in a semi-lazy individual retreat for one week. I should have time then for more updates, book reviews, and all that jazz. But for now I'll just leave you with a pithy meta-realization I had over our time here discussing Buddhism, language, culture and the rest for two wonderful weeks.  And that is that we might think of three kinds of "authenticity" in our discussions of Buddhism:
  1. Spiritual: which is not really a matter for scholars to think about.
  2. Historical: which asks if a text or practice really does come from where it is claimed to be from. Here scholars have plenty to say, much of it 'debunking' traditional views.
  3. Philosophical: which looks at the general 'coherence' of ideas or themes in Buddhism, perhaps in terms of the context of early Buddhism, or the development of the idea of emptiness. Here too, scholars can be extremely helpful in bridging traditional narratives and drawing on diverse disciplines to shed new light Buddhism.
So when we talk about the Heart Sutra not being an "authentic" teaching of the Buddha, for instance, we have to specify that we're speaking in the historical sense, based on our best evidence. Whether the text is perfectly authentic Spiritually is more a concern of traditions and individual practitioners. And the question of its philosophical authenticity is well worth debating, both within traditions and the academy.

Just a little thought. I'd be happy to hear/read yours.

Arun said...

You present a very nice breakdown here. Just as much as we talk about different types of “authenticity,” we often flip this rhetoric around to suggest different types of “inauthenticity.” So your post got me thinking about a separate question just now, perhaps the next step beyond inauthenticity—where do different people draw the lines of “heresy”?

James Roberts

I'm probably a little more extreme than most in asserting that history is not objective. The only thing that history has to say about authenticity is the subtext of your individual perspective on the narrative of the world. As far as things actually happening or not, well, a lot of people like to use history to make such statements, and all this really says is that the person making the statement wants to put forth some kind of authoritative ideology. This has happened as much in the history created by Buddhist traditions as it happens in modern scholarship, and as far as reality is concerned, the stories are just different stories. Which one is more authentic? Everyone has to choose their terms.

Pete Hoge

Yes I like the "breakdown" as well.

The 1st criteria of judgement
that I have for wisdom teachings

"Does it work"?

The last teacher/coordinator of
the sangha I had said:

"Does it cause suffering"?

Arun - Yea, I haven't thought much about "heresy" in Buddhism to be honest. I've always been taught that what you believe and say might be unskillful, but charges of heresy would seem to fit into broader philosophical polemics. I suppose monks having wildly differing views of what the Vinaya really means could be charged with "defeats" requiring expulsion along the lines of possibly causing a split in the sangha. That might be the closest actual case of "heresy" I can think of - back in the 1st/2nd Council days. I think also about the famous "Samye Debate" in Tibet, when Hoshen Mahayana was expelled from Tibet for teaching the doctrine of sudden enlightenment. No doubt similar cases abound in history. But importantly, the fatal flaw of both of those - and likely others - is that the wrong view is associated with wrong behavior. In the case of sudden enlightenment, Hoshen's opponent, Kamalashila, argued that without the gradual path, acts of morality and meditation would be useless.

James - yes, you're definitely in a bit of an extreme there. I would go so far as to say that history is always 'open' but that certain facts of history, such as the holocaust, are about as close to objectivity as we can get. Likewise with the history of Tibet as an independent nation. Well meaning people searching for the truth of the matter hopefully do not just create further ideologies, but rather evidence and understanding, plain and simple.

Pete - Yes, suffering and the path from suffering. If you get a grasp on these, you don't need much else.



  1. What does "spiritual" mean? My opinion is that it means nothing in particular and we attach to it whatever we value at the moment. We really should stop using it and just say what we mean!

    You've been learning Pāli - how would you translate "spiritual", and why? I can't think of a Pāli equivalent except maybe brahman, and that is a bit problematic, eh?

    One might ask the question - as scholar and/or practitioner - why are Buddhists so hung up on questions of authority anyway? It's a stand out feature of Buddhism, from the legends of previous Buddhas, to the made-up lineages of Chinese schools, to the present-day pissing contests over who's guru is more authentic.

    Is it because the ideal is out of reach of ordinary people and very few of us can ever experience it? Buddhism as we practice it and Buddhism as we preach it are for ever separated, so success is all about who is most "authentic". Buddhism as historical re-creation society?

    I also think that issues of authenticity have an economic dimension. Going back to the earliest days religieux competed for patronage, and the same is now true. So a western monastic will emphasise their authenticity by suffixing their ordination with the word "fully", as in "fully ordained". This is because in both the merit economy, and in the cash economy the "fully ordained" person attracts more patronage, than the novice or lay person.

    BTW the scholars who say that the Heart Sūtra was composed in China on the basis of extracts from the Large Perfection of Wisdom sūtra (primarily Jan Nattier) are not saying that it is inauthentic - that argument comes from practitioners I think. Scholars these days are seldom concerned with authenticity in that sense - or at least the one's I read. Nattier for instance appears to be indifferent to the issue in her long article which explains the reasons for thinking the Heart Sūtra was composed in China. I think she sees it as an authentic Buddhist text because it is accepted as authentic by the Buddhist tradition (is there another criteria?).

    As a scholar, like most of us, Nattier must be reasonably certain that no text anywhere is the authentic word of the Buddha - the chances of anything surviving the 3 or 4 centuries of oral tradition, translation and editorial meddling are vanishingly small. No doubt some preserve the spirit of his words to some extent, but even if we were presented with his authentic words how would we know - what criteria could be possibly have for determining their authenticity? Where/what is our yard stick?

    I wonder if you have really defined "authenticity" well enough. You taxonomy seems to assume that the meaning is clear, but in thinking more about it I'm not sure that it is a simple concept at all. What do we mean by authentic? What are the criteria? And whose criteria are they, and whose are they not?

  2. Jayarava, thanks for your extensive comments here. Let's hope others join in to add to my short reply.

    I suppose 'soteriological' might have substituted for 'spiritual' in my post, but it may be too narrow. Perhaps a close Pāli term would be kalyāṇa. I have been introduced by your Order to 'kalyāṇamitra' as a 'spiritual friend', which I find quite adequate. We might also coin a term like maggasaṃvattanika, 'conducive to the path' to try to capture what people often (though by no means always) mean by 'spiritual.'

    As for authority, yes, this is a big question in Buddhism, and I doubt we'll solve it any time soon. And yes there is surely an economic dimension to all of this - but isn't this true of all civilized life?

    For 'fully ordained,' I just came across the term in Bhikkhu Analayo's latest paper for the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, so the distinction between say a Upasampadā Sāvaka, and a novice, sāmaṇera, may date back to the Buddha's time.

    As for what else may date to the Buddha vs what historians and philologists can date to a later period, I am currently swayed by Richard Gombrich's suggestion that we may indeed find passages and perhaps a whole body of thought that *most likely* came from the historical Buddha himself. We cannot be certain, but as of now, that is the simplest explanation.

    Authenticity, like spirituality, is used as it would be in eveveryday speech and/or by a reasonable person within reach of a dictionary.

  3. Interesting post.

    I think that a fundamental reason for the importance of authority in Buddhism is it's tendency to be 'backwards-looking' in the sense that its ideals lie largely in the past. Although an individual's own awakening might lie in his or her future, the Buddha's enlightenment (the ideal which the individual hopes to emulate) lies in the far past, not only that but the current age is presented as degenerate in the cases where the myth of the 'Dharma Ending Age' is taken literally. The migration of Buddhism from Asia to the West, also contributes to this apparent need for authority, with Western Buddhists looking to imitate Asian Buddhism or at least seek its approval.

    Innovation is not sought, evidence is not sought, progress is not sought except in so far at they bring us closer to replicating the achievements of the past.

    Another factor is the very intangibility of it's claims: how easy is it to measure the ending of suffering? What about the ending of rebirths?

    I came across a very similar attitude when I practiced kung fu, where the emphasis was often on 'returning to the pure source'. Bruce Lee and the evolution of various forms of mixed martial arts blew all that out of the water of course - the ability to directly compare what actually did and did not 'work' well rendered such 'rhetoric of authenticity' redundant, except for those with an interest in preserving the legacy of these art-forms for their own sake.

  4. Your elaborating on the meaning of "authenticity" is interesting.

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