Who Is The Ultimate Authority?

The concept of authority in Buddhism shouldn’t be complicated — yet it is. Many of us are already familiar with the Kalama Sutta‘s talk about how we shouldn’t rely on outside authorities but weigh what we’re told against our own experience. For many here this was one of the first reasons we became interested in Buddhism, because we heard that the Buddha didn’t want to us to take his teachings on faith, but look for evidence we could see right in our own lives, here and now. Any system that asks us to question, and to check how well it matches up to reality would seem to be a big improvement over most of the world’s religions, to those of us who have rejected them for reason.

The question of authority gets more complicated than we might think at first glance for a good reason, though. It’s because there are at least two different kinds of “authority” to be considered, and though they are distinct, they intertwine and affect each other.

First of all, there is the classic question of who is the authority for each of us in our practice. As mentioned in the opening paragraph, it’s fairly clear to everyone that the ultimate authority for each of us is none other than our own selves (such as those selves are). This is one of those intricate little conundrums of Buddhism: even though we are not perfect, we are charged with the ability to perfect ourselves (or at least improve, heading toward perfection). Most religions seem to be telling us that goodness/perfection comes only through outside sources, insisting we rely on forces beyond us to get that goodness. Buddhism, on the other hand, puts the responsibility squarely on each one of us as individuals, saying that we already have what it takes within, we just need to move the obscuring confusion out of the way to get to it, and that we can do this with a little bit of guidance to see where the confusion begins.

And it’s that element of guidance that is the connection between the first “ultimate authority” (yourself, in your practice) and the second, which is all about who is giving us that guidance.

A traditional Buddhist might say that the guide is indisputably the Buddha, but you and I know that we don’t have the Buddha here to tell us what he thinks we need to know, in terms that we can understand. What we have is a set of very old texts, which are based on even older oral works, written in a foreign language describing talks that were given in a different time, place, and social context. These can’t be as effective at telling us what the originator of the ideas wanted us to know, as the actual originator would be “live and in person”. Aside from those ancient works, what we have is a bunch of people telling us what those texts mean.

If we have tentatively accepted the possibility that a system that begins by saying, “Come and test what I’m saying against your own experience” might be a system that is actually useful in practice, because it rests on visible effects in the world instead of imagination and speculation, then we are going to want to know more about that system. We don’t have the originator of the system living now, who could tell us more about it with accuracy.

So, when we are considering the question of this second sort of authority, we actually have two sets of answers. The first answer is the answer to the first question: you are the authority on what the Buddha taught, because the Buddha told us that what he is talking about is something you can see for yourself, and — in fact — you *must* see for yourself, because that insight is really the whole point. But we know how easy it is for us humans to delude ourselves (that too is the point), which is why the Kalama sutta doesn’t actually tell us to *dismiss* outside opinions, but tells us to also “listen to the wise“, it only tells us not to *rely* on them, particularly by not accepting their views in favor of our own experience. (<– This is a key point; please remember it.)

The answer, then, of who, aside from ourselves, can give us good information about what the Buddha actually taught, is going to be the trickiest one we have to deal with.

The traditional answer is, of course, traditional monastics. Without thinking much about it our first instinct is going to be to accept that the teachers who have been handing down this wisdom for two thousand-odd years are going to have an accurate view; of course they are the authorities. But let’s think about this a moment.

In our first encounters with Buddhism we probably had the impression that there was just that: Buddhism. Most of us don’t get introduced at the start to a Buddhism that has many, many schools and approaches; if we’re lucky we learn early enough on that there are, and so get to explore several — or get another kind of lucky and have a really good encounter with just one lineage and get to know it very well before learning of and exploring others with an open mind. Question: What is the difference between these lineages? Why are there so many? Which one is the ultimate authority? Do we suppose that any one of them has a perfect understanding of what the Buddha taught? Knowing what we know about what humans do with information and understanding, is it reasonable to expect perfect understanding after 2,500 years? I know I don’t. I expect lots of changes in understanding occurred at many different points — the same text could be interpreted in many different ways over time — and I would hope that some of the changes will have actually brought about improvements in the system or at least in the ways it is explained and expressed. But I certainly don’t expect that any one tradition has a perfect grasp of what the Buddha said.

Which means that the traditions are ultimate authorities on their understanding of what the Buddha taught — and authorities on what is in their texts. There can be no living ultimate authorities on what the Buddha actually taught until we invent time travel. As far as I can see, the closest we can come to an authority on what the Buddha taught is to accept that the closest approach we have is through the oldest versions we have of the suttas (at this point that is mostly the Theravadan Pali suttas, Chinese agamas, and some very old pieces written on birchbark found in Gandhara), so the ultimate authority on the Buddha of the suttas is the Buddha of the suttas.

If we accept that the insights in these texts are valuable and want to learn more, we can, of course, go to the monastics who disagree among themselves about what is being said, or we can go to the texts, or try a combination approach. Having tried the first approach first, and the last approach afterward, I am now reminded that even when I have a fairly reliable outside source for further guidance, it is still necessary to test my understanding of what I’m being told (or coming to understand) that he is saying, against my own experience. If for you, as for me, one of the foundational reasons for investigating this approach is that we are supposed to be able to see what’s being taught for ourselves, then we must never forget that the Buddha says this: you can see it for yourself! And further — back to the key point above — that we are told to favor our experience over what we are told. In at least one sutta the Buddha makes it clear that when he says this, he means *no matter how authoratative you think the person is who is telling you what he teaches* (see NOTE below).

My question, then, is this: when we talk about authority in Buddhism, and some of us point out that perhaps some of the texts have been misunderstood because we are told they are saying things that we don’t see in evidence ourselves, why is the answer — even among secular Buddhists — so often that “The Traditions are correct in telling us what the Buddha taught and you seem to be bending what he’s saying to fit your perception of reality”? Pretty much, my perception of reality, folks, is *your* perception of reality — naturalist? not a believer in gods or supernatural powers? you know the perception I’m talking about, right?

There’s a major contradiction here. The acid test for whether we’re correctly understanding the Buddha’s teaching — the acid test according to the man himself, in the greatest authority we have on his teaching, those early texts — is whether we can see what we think he’s saying in our own lives. If I point out to you that some of what the traditional monastics are saying the Buddha meant *isn’t* in evidence in our lives, and that there is an extremely consistent way of interpreting those texts that sticks to just the things that *are* in evidence in our lives, what would make you think that the monastics understood him correctly and I certainly must be the one that’s wrong? Other than, perhaps, allegiance to the ways of religious orthodoxy and great confidence in how accurately humans pass on ideas? You, of course, all accept that religions that have survived thousands of years pass everything on with perfect accuracy, right? (Surely you don’t.)

I understand that quite often the perception is that the Buddha was deluded — so caught up in his own time that he could not free himself from views about the cosmos and rebirth — so he actually believed things that happened when he was in altered states of consciousness. I find it odd that people are willing to follow a man who teaches us how to free ourselves from delusion whom they believe was himself deluded, but even aside from that, what this comes down to is a situation in which its adherents would rather believe that the founder of the system they follow was actually crazy, and 100 generations of monks carried that message forward without distorting it in any significant way, than accept the possibility that maybe the King of Seeing Through Delusion actually did see through it all, and some few of those 100 generations of monastics screwed it up a bit, and the rest just perpetuated the error. Knowing what you know about human nature, which scenario do you think is more likely? One person got it right and some few out of a hundred got it wrong? Or the founder got it wrong and everyone else got it right?

Why, in this skeptical bunch, is there so much confidence in the Theravadan understanding of the Buddha’s teachings? Why so much resistance to even the idea of questioning it, of taking a fresh look at what is in the Pali canon, to see if a bit of confusion crept in? Why doesn’t it give us pause when we notice that the Buddha repeatedely and explicitly says “You can see my dhamma in your own life”, and this is at odds with him teaching about things we don’t see? Surely this can’t come solely out of the (admittedly very human) tendency to be so invested in the understanding we have achieved through our efforts in reading books and going to talks and so on that we then just cannot open our minds up to any other way of looking at it? It can’t be just ego-investment in what we’ve learned so far, can it? What other factors go into certainty that the traditions know with great accuracy what the Buddha meant by all those words even when they preach that he contradicted himself with great frequency? Especially when it flies in the face of what he said most clearly: we can see what he teaches for ourselves. Where’s the rebirth? I’m not seeing it.

When I am told that the way I am interpreting the suttas is “bent to match my worldview” and I contemplate the number of times the Buddha is telling me I am actually understanding him correctly if I can actually see, in the world, what he is saying, I am continually amused and perplexed by the inherent contradiction there, and by the view of the speaker, that our understanding of what the Buddha is saying should be anything other than a match for “our worldview”. Once we come to understand even a little of what he is saying, the two should come into closer and closer alignment over time.


While we’re on the subject, I’d like to make just one last (personal) point about “authority” — not really to do with the two questions above, but to do with “deference to authority” or “appeals to authority”. I quite often cite examples of what the Buddha has to say, and sometimes this causes people who aren’t paying attention to think I’m making an appeal to his authority, when I’m actually doing quite the opposite. What I am, quite often, saying is that “I can see this happening in my own life and — whoa! cool! — the Buddha talked about it too.” I am not saying, “We should see it this way because he did.” I am saying, “We can see this in our lives and — see, he was not deluded! because — he saw the same things you and I see.”

I sometimes get mistaken for a Buddha-worshipper; I get accused of seeing him as absolutely correct in everything, and deferring to his authority, but that is so far from what is happening that it gives me that dizzy feeling of dissonance between my view of the world, and the view others have of my view of the world.

As I pointed out in a rant on this subject elsewhere, recently, I don’t actually give a damn whether the Buddha was an historical person or not, whether he did the things described in the suttas, or not, or whether he was perfect or not (he was not!). In my investigations of the texts, the only thing I am really concerned with is getting the most out of the insights that are in there, because I do find wisdom in them. The insights have “authority” not because they belong to the Buddha, but because I have investigated them and found them to be valid. I keep pointing these valid insights out not as an appeal to authority, but as supporting evidence for the Buddha of the suttas having insights we can see for ourselves.

As it happens, recognizing the possibility that there was an historical person who became known to us as the Buddha, and seeing evidence that supports the texts as actually having originated with one person, makes it easier to understand the way the texts got to us in the shape they are in — and to see a uniform message against the interference of what would seem to be other (probably later) voices. But it is the text and the message that are my prime interest, not the Buddha himself.

When I do approach the Buddha as any kind of an authority, I am seeing him in something like the way an adult child sees a parent. When I was very young, I thought my parents knew everything. When I was a teenager, I thought my parents knew nothing. When I went out on my own, I found myself sometimes calling back home to ask for advice, and began to discover that my parents did know things after all. Does their insight into life — arrived at through long experience — make them “an authority” to me? Do I do what they say just because they say to do it? No, I listen to what they say, and measure it against my own knowledge, and if it seems at all likely, I try it out to see if it works. I respect what they have to say because I have seen how often it works for me. This makes a fairly good parallel to my relationship with the Buddha of the suttas.


NOTE: The Buddha speaks of comparing what we are told to what is in the suttas (which means we should also compare what we are told to the many, many times he points out that we can see his dhamma for ourselves — he doesn’t make this point just the time it appears in the Kalama Sutta, but many times in many ways). In this sutta (DN 16) he talks about “monks who say they heard (whatever) first-hand”, or from a someone who heard it from a group, or from a well-established group, or from an individual — I do believe he’s trying to say *from anyone no matter what they give as their authority*. A translation of the sutta can be found at the following link:


and you can locate the relevant portion by searching on the phrase:

4.8. ‘Suppose a monk were to say: “Friends, I heard and received this from the Lord’s own lips