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

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  1. Mark Knickelbine on July 23, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Linda, thanks for ranting. Let me say what I think your dillema is, and then you can correct me. On one hand, your project is based on the idea that if we really understood what the suttas were intended to convey to their contemporary audience (leaving aside for a moment the possibility of our arriving at that understanding) we would see that there is a consistent and unified message in that teaching. To this extent, you and the Bhikkhus agree perfectly. On the other hand, you interpret that message as one that does not depend on supernatural concepts for its relevancy; in fact, one that subverts the supernatural concepts of ancient India precisely to present and reinforce a secular message. As a result, an audience that is willing to grant you one point is likely to be displeased by the other. What you want to do is a pretty heavy lift, so I’m not surprised you’re experiencing frustration that the folks who share your reverence for the Pali texts turn out to be some of your biggest critics, or that some secularists think you’re a “Buddha worshipper.” I think you are on the right track in putting your emphasis on your/our own personal experience. It’s hard to do, but if we can remember that any teaching, old or new, is only valuable to the extent that it helps us become fully aware of, and to embrace, the reality of our lived existance, maybe we can not only accept that the body/ mind we have is the only ultimate authority, but even become comfortable with the mysteriously undefinable nature of what the mind can teach us.

    • Linda on July 25, 2012 at 3:27 am

      Thanks, Mark. Nice observation about the accord between myself and monastic scholars of the traditions agreeing that there is a coherent message to be found; as well as clarity on where our differences lie. But I’m actually mostly surprised by the way secular types cling to certainty that the Theravadan understanding is correct about the original history and meaning, and needs no examination.

    • Ron Stillman on July 25, 2012 at 3:47 pm

      Mark, I don’t know exactly why I can edit your comments but I can (I must have the “authority :-)) so I took the liberty to replace the misspelled word with undefinable.

  2. Mark Knickelbine on July 23, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    “unfindable.” Lord I wish this thing let you edit your comments.

    • Dana Nourie on July 23, 2012 at 7:21 pm

      Ask and you shall receive. Let me know if these edit functions don’t work well.

      • Linda on July 24, 2012 at 1:33 am

        YAAAAY! (though the plugin isn’t working for me that might be because I am the OP and have different rights — that conflict? We’ll need you or Mark to try using it to see how that goes. This additition to my original cheer added via the WP Admin interface since I couldn’t do it with the plugin).

      • Mark Knickelbine on July 24, 2012 at 7:54 am

        Yeah, not working for me either — I get a “Web page not available” error.

        • Dana Nourie on July 24, 2012 at 8:18 am

          Crud. Ok, I’ll look.

        • Ron Stillman on July 25, 2012 at 3:56 pm

          Mark, I don’t know exactly why I can edit your comments but I can (I must have the “authority” 🙂 ) so I took the liberty to replace the misspelled word with undefinable.

          • Dana Nourie on July 25, 2012 at 7:31 pm

            I think the Edit comes up for everyone who posts now. I don’t see a problem with that, unless people miss behave. Then I’d remove the ability.

  3. Dana Nourie on July 23, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    Hmm, Mark, I’ll see if there is a plugin that will allow users to edit their comments.

    Uhmm Dana – it seems that I can edit other people’s comments. Not a good thing? – BTW it’s Jonckher

  4. NaturalEntrust on July 24, 2012 at 5:28 am

    Thanks Linda, this is important to me too.
    Who Is The Ultimate Authority? (In Secular Buddhism)

    Much appreciated you gave us a chance to exchange
    views on it and I trust we will get back on this topic
    even later again and again. I want to quote from
    your text so I post now and do an edit within 10 minutes

  5. NaturalEntrust on July 24, 2012 at 5:35 am

    Ooops my Linux version of FireFox 13 seems to not be able to use that software here.

    so I make the quote here instead. Linda wrote:

    “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.”

    Yes that is how I understand it too. But it also put us into a dilemma.
    If all of us are the ultimate authority then we get into a mess of very
    individual interpretations and the word “Secular” tend to get too inclusive?

    So I leave it at that. I will get back when I have good quotes or my own words for to continue and I encourage all of you to expand on your own takes of this topic. I find it very interesting but I am not good at finding words for how to express this in consistent ways.

  6. Ted Meissner on July 24, 2012 at 6:00 am

    Excellent post, Linda, and agree that having a personal reflection of this teaching is the most beneficial way to do it, rather than trusting an outside authority.

    Where we may diverge is the expectation around Gotama’s human limits. We can heap credit on him as someone seeing through *a* delusion — that we are a process, there is no monolithic thing we can identify as Self — or even a few delusions. That doesn’t mean he saw through them all, however. He *may* have not understood that compelling experiences in meditation are taken up by our pattern seeking brains and result in a false reflection of reality.

    I find that more likely given the context of his time, as one possible explanation for the inclusion of rebirth in the Pali canon. There are others, of course, as you very well describe in your writings! It’s just that my own focus is more on the people / sciency stuff lately!

  7. Mark Knickelbine on July 24, 2012 at 8:09 am

    What I think has been abundantly demonstrated is that the message at the core of the earliest Pali texts — that mind shapes our experience, and that we can intentionally shape the mind — is a basic human truth. The canonical Gotama’s use of explanatory tools like the aggregates and dependent origination provide us a methodology for understanding and directing the process of neuroplasticity. Understanding this mind/body technology in the context of the Four Enobling Truths helps us understand how our use of mindfulness can lead us to less personal suffering and more harmonious interpersonal and social relationships. However we conceive of Gotama’s historical nature or the “accuracy” of the Pali nikayas, the authority of these texts derives from their effectiveness in teaching these basic truths of human existance, which also have been discovered and confirmed in other cultural and historical contexts. As with any teaching tool, the proof is in the pudding. What works is by definition authoratative; what does not contribute to that learning is irrelevant, regardless of whether or not it represents “what the Buddha really taught.”

  8. jonckher on July 24, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    Laura, great post on authority as previous discussions has prompted me to think a bit more about it.

    The authority of interpretation/selection is one that I’m particularly interested in. Given that the core material is so extensive and covers many traditions, it’s possible for one or more committed individuals to come up with a path or school (and then subsequently add new material to it) that is particularly resonant with the times or culture.

    Happened in the past, happening now.

    The Triratna order is a particularly interesting case. And I tend to see the SBA on a similar path but much earlier on (and of course with different objectives).

    Gifted individuals (and I mean gifted in both emotional and intellectual areas) tend to then be looked on as authorities by people who are drawn to the initial vision. I see this as happening around Stephen Batchelor’s books and the writings in this site.

    This is NOT a bad thing – we all need teachers.

    The trick of course is how to empower these people who have come seeking into NOT lifting up the gifted individuals into positions of authority that mimic older traditions (gurus, lamas, etc) and thus putting in place a religious structure? The whole meme of realised beings, enlightened sages, etc means that Buddhism is particularly partial to teacher worship. Also, even though we’re all Buddhists here, the problems of teachers believing the hype and taking advantage of the situation should not be dismissed either – has happened in the past.

    I am NOT implying this is happening here – in fact I see the Secular approach here as being pretty good at minimizing the risks of the two scenarios occurring above. Especially when posts like these come up and people like Ted are so open to conversation and engagement about these topics.

    Anyway, the Life Of Brian scene where Brian is trying to tell the mob that they are all individuals comes to mind.

    kind regards

    PS: BTW, I’ve put some money where my mouth is: check

    • Linda on July 25, 2012 at 8:01 pm

      Nice site, J. Glad you’ve joined the conversation both here and by creating your own forum for commentary.

    • Ted Meissner on August 5, 2012 at 6:49 am

      Hi, J. Agree with Linda, that’s a *great* site you’ve set up, especially with Lovecraft and Six Million Dollar Man references! I just posted it to FB, very nice job, and I like the posts you’ve put up so far.

      It may be that one reason we’re so very concerned with avoiding that pitfall of becoming figureheads is that we’ve seen what that does, and it’s not what we want to have happen. All of us are getting into this for reasons totally apart from creating a livelihood from it; those that did have fallen by the wayside already and very quickly. And we are quite passionate about more flat models for how we work as a team, which is why I’m looking into ways other groups tackle this problem, from Quakers to 12 Step organizations. That enables us to move in and out as our own practice and lives present abundance or paucity of time to dedicate to it — which is really helpful to all of us in avoiding burnout.

      Ultimately, we recognize that so much of this practice is based on one’s personal efforts to change their minds, literally, which is reflected in their social engagements (by that I mean just our interactions with others, not dinner parties!). Having that sincerely in our hearts is providing a good guide to us in avoiding setting people on pedastals, we just don’t incline to that model.

      • jonckher on August 5, 2012 at 5:13 pm

        Hi Ted, Linda

        Glad you like my site. 🙂

        Also Ted, thanks for posting a link through on facebook – I was just puzzling about the sudden peak in hits when I checked out my secular buddhism comments feed.


  9. David S on July 26, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Linda, glad you’re taking on the texts to find connections that are relevant to your experience, and mine. Great to see this critique in general. It all comes down to what are any of us learning from Buddhism and what moves us to learn more. Our own words are much more important to me than the texts. Thanks.

  10. ernie on July 27, 2012 at 3:16 am

    A helpful discussion around one of the many dilemmas in the suttas, Linda. I guess the Buddha did it deliberately as a means to encourage people to investigate things for themselves.

    But as you show, the apparent dilemma between ‘don’t simply follow what your teacher says’ and ‘do things that are praised by the wise’ is not really a dilemma. Rather it is a pretty clear call to test every teaching against your own experience and against the teachings of others.

    That’s all very well, but our perspective changes as the practice progresses and we come to accept things that were previously implausible (of course this is to be expected as we clear away the dust from our eyes and cut through our delusions.) Because of this I find it tempting not to want to challenge things I hear from respected teachers even when it seems to conflict with my own experience. I find myself taking an agnostic position on some transcental features of the teachings, justified (in my mind) by the argument that when or if my practice progresses sufficiently then I will come to see what they mean.

    I have previously found this agnosticism to be quite comfortable – it doesn’t relate to the core parts of the teachings that guide my everyday behaviour, so it has seemed fine to remain on the fence. But as I begin to test some of the claims both for and against the more subtle aspects of the teachings it becomes evident that objective experience is harder and harder to find. I don’t despair of experiencing new insights that may reveal new ways of looking at things, but I am less and less confident that such insights will be independent of my conditioning at the hands of those respected teachers.

    Again, thank you for a thought-provoking blog.

    • Linda on July 27, 2012 at 6:07 am

      Hi ernie,

      I hear you saying that you find it useful to take an agnostic stance not simply from a philosophical point of view, or for the pragmatic reasons the Buddha seems to have decided to do the same (reduction in dukkha caused by reduction in clinging to views based on too little — and too hard to pin down — “evidence”) but because you are coming to suspect it is more likely that at some point in your practice the things currently not in evidence will appear. That last approach is certainly the stance the traditions take; it is the “you haven’t gotten far enough in your practice” approach that I hear as an underlying mantra of “believe… believe… believe…” that fails to mention the other half “believe! because belief is all we’ve got, we have no evidence to show you”.

      When it comes to “listening to the wise” I don’t see the Buddha asking us to listen to only Buddhist teachers. Sure, listen to them — what do they say about rebirth? — but also listen to all the rest of the wise people in the world, as well. What do they say about rebirth?

      But here’s my real question for you. You said, “But as I begin to test some of the claims both for and against the more subtle aspects of the teachings it becomes evident that objective experience is harder and harder to find.” I see this too, in my practice, the difficulty of resting any beliefs on the evidence of our experiences. It seems to me this is something the Buddha wanted us to recognize, because it is developing certainty about what experience means that leads to so much strife in the world. But if this is your experience too, why would you be leaning more and more toward accepting the possiblity that wise Buddhist leaders were correct ? What I am hearing you say in the first part of your post is that you, more and more, are willing to allow the possibility that one of these days your practice will suddenly give you evidence of rebirth that you’ll accept as solid proof. If the arc of your practice is leading you to see more and more that we can count less and less on our experience as evidence, why would you have an increasing expectation that someday it will provide that evidence? (If that is indeed what you are saying.)

  11. Mark Knickelbine on July 27, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Linda, I read Ernie’s piece the same way you did.

    My sense is that the prinicple of anatta is all about how nothing in experience is ultimately findable. Trusting emergence means learning to become comfortable living in a realm where certainties can’t be found and embracing that life just the way it is — penetrating the genjokoan, as Dogen put it. The earliest recorded teachings tell us that “giving up desire for this world or the next” is a characteristic of an awakened person. If that is so, it seems doubtful that at some point we’ll stumble upon the Ultimate Certainty of our true, transmigratable nature. In any event, it seems that Gotama, at least at first,was quite adamant about advising us not to seek or expect a reward of any kind beyond the grave.

  12. ernie on July 27, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    To Linda and Mark, I am grateful for your responses. If my post gave the impression that I am confused then that may well be because I am confused. Having spent much of my life in an environment that values definitive answers and clear explanations, it is confronting to discover that ultimate wisdom involves a very different approach. I fully accept your observation Mark, about the importance of “learning to become comfortable living in a realm where certainties can’t be found and embracing that life just the way it is”.

    But there is a subtle difference between the way you seem to have interpreted my agnosticism, Linda, and what I was trying to say. So let me try again. You said you understood that I am “willing to allow the possibility that one of these days (my) practice will suddenly give (me) evidence of rebirth that (I)’ll accept as solid proof”. Perhaps like Archimedes and his ‘eureka’ moment? Or a detective having a flash of inspiration that solves a murder mystery? No, I am firmly atheistic on the possibility of a solid proof for rebirth – at least for anything approaching a literal interpretation of rebirth.

    What I am open to is the possibility that there is a plausible interpretation of the Buddha’s rejection of both eternalism and annihilationism. In addition to the works that you have already suggested, I am looking into the works attributed to Nagarjuna. BTW, Bhikkhu Hiriko has very kindly provided a version of Clearing the Path that works on my ebook reader.

    To put it another way, for me the key is to get away from debate about rebirth – the word carries too much baggage – and to investigate the underlying concepts in the teachings. Maybe with the right paradigm shift it will all make sense. The best analogy that I can come up with is the paradigm shifts that have been experienced in the world of physics, in particular the advances in understanding that have accompanied moves away from a classical interpretation of the nature of atomic and subatomic particles.

    But maybe the key lies in accepting that this is (to use Mark’s words again) a realm where certainties can’t be found.

    Thank you for your guidance.

    • Linda on July 28, 2012 at 6:43 am

      Thanks for the clarification, ernie. I can understand that much more easily.

      As far as “the Buddha’s rejection of both eternalism and annihilationism” I hope you don’t mind me giving you my current understanding — I do not yet have as much solid documentation on this as I would like (I am working on papers to show it, thereby gathering more evidence as I work on them) — so I am not as certain of this as I am of my reading of DA. But if you are going to be reading about “these two extremes” that the Buddha talked about so much, I’d like you to keep this possibility in mind as you read.

      Remember that Nagarjuna didn’t have the long history of Vedic thinking and its development into Hinduism to study, to set context for the things the Buddha talks about. It’s actually likely that from a century or two after the Buddha, forward, that context was increasingly obscure to those who studied his words — and, no doubt they thought, increasingly irrelevant. The texts became more cloistered than the monks, which pushed the meanings further and further from the original, until it became necessary for commentators to guess what words meant, what the Buddha meant, and why he said things the way he did. Most of the time they got it right, but not all.

      Annihilationism and eternalism are two that I think we still misunderstand today. I believe they tie to many pairings of words we see “bhava” and “vibhava” (which get translated as “the craving for existence” and “the craving for non-existence”) and “rupa” and “arupa” (the realms of form, and formlessness), and others. The “bhava” terms get translated as “craving for continued existence after death” and “craving for total extermination” (aka “suicide”) by some modern teachers and I don’t find good evidence for these interpretations in the suttas. I do find good evidence outside the suttas for there being a debate going on in the wider population between those who followed a system of cyclic rebirths, and those who believed that when one died, one diffused into oneness with brahman. I believe those two are our “eternalism” and “annihilationism”. Calling “oneness with brahman” “annihilationism” is simply spin given by detractors. Both sides can be found distorting each others’ beliefs.

      The other difference I see when reading the suttas on these from what others see, is that I don’t find the Buddha saying anywhere that he rejects them *because they are not true and he knows better*. I find him saying “they are wrong” (without saying why they are wrong). And I find him saying “views are wrong because of the behavior they lead to”). They are not wrong because he has seen the way it actually is, and these are not how it is. They are wrong because they are *views* based on too little, and unsound, evidence (the objective evidence of our experiences); and because those *views* lead to dukkha.

      I spend a fair amount of time trying to get traditional Buddhists to notice the subtle difference between what they think the Buddha is saying (what they are certain he is saying) and what they can actually read in the texts. Maybe as you study, you can look and see if you can find anywhere the Buddha says “annihilationism is wrong view because it is not the way the cosmos works” — and if you do, will you let me know?

    • Ted Meissner on August 5, 2012 at 6:35 am

      To put it another way, for me the key is to get away from debate about rebirth – the word carries too much baggage – and to investigate the underlying concepts in the teachings.

      Couldn’t agree more, well said.

  13. NaturalEntrust on July 28, 2012 at 2:12 am

    I trust it is something about my brain being different to others
    but this early text then

    “The earliest recorded teachings tell us that
    “giving up desire for this world or the next”
    is a characteristic of an awakened person. ”

    What does it all mean. I can maybe get each
    single word but in the context of Buddhism
    it does not mean what it means in ordinary language.

    If you give up desire for this world then you lose all desire
    to live and you go into a depression that end with taken your life?

    So the word desire means something entirely other here.
    What is your take on what it means? I have read Buddhist
    texts aimed for the lay person public for some 50 years
    and I still fail to get it what the word desire means.

    so “giving up desire” or Letting go of desire” Let go of craving”
    what does it refer to.

    My problem is the opposite. I need to strengthen my lust or desire
    to live or else I go down in depression. I need to crave life or else
    I will not have enough desire to live.

    Could it be that Buddhism is for those who have an hyper-craving
    lust for life? Maybe Buddhism is not for us that barely survive despite
    us trying hard to find the desire for to live on?

    I don’t trust one have found good translation for what he spoke
    or Gotama did not know of anybody being depressed?

    • Linda on July 28, 2012 at 7:04 am

      I agree with you, NE.

      The problem is that the words the Buddha used don’t convey to us what they conveyed in the context of his time. We need the key to unlock the words. I believe I can provide the key, and it is related to what I was just now saying to ernie, above, about annihilationism and eternalism.

      As I understand it, annihilationism was the “attavada” folks — those who believed strongly in atta/self and what they believed was that we had to know the self — really know the self — and then we could rest in bliss with brahman after we died. This is how it gets called “annihilationism” because its detractors are saying “the self gets destroyed after death! oh no!”

      Eternalism believes that the self recycles and goes on through life after life.

      The way this applies to that quote above is that the attavada/”annihilationists” were heavily into the metaphor of the self-as-world. The story that describes their beliefs was the one where the (personification of the) universe shattered itself into a zillion pieces, splintering “atta” into, well, us. All living creation. The atta IS, therefore, the world. So when the Buddha talks about “the world” it should ALWAYS be read as he is talking about “the self” (atta).

      So in this quote:

      living heedfully, he longs for neither — this world, the next

      he is not actually talking about *worlds* one longs for at all. He is talking about longing for the self. The desire for “this world” is actually “desire for the self here and now in this world” and the desire for “the next world” is actually “desire for the continuation of the self in the next world”

      He isn’t talking about giving up desire *for life* he’s talking about giving up what is literally “selfish desire”.

      Does that make it any clearer, NE?

      • Mark Knickelbine on July 29, 2012 at 11:47 am

        Wow, Linda, that hermenutic of yours keeps producing surprising results! One can see this at work practically, as well. When I was dealing with depression, it took the form of incessantly telling myself stories about how pointless life was because I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it and when I did I invariably lost it. These stories are all about my lack of the things I desired. “What the world was like” then, was defined by my desires and how they weren’t being satisfied. Once I began to practice, I started to see that the stories were just stories, and that the reality of my lived experience was much greater and far more complex than those narratives ever accounted for. Now I find the more I can release my grasping after things, the more I see that I don’t really need much at all, and so I don’t spend a lot of time feeling unfulfilled and life doesn’t look so bleak.

      • Linda on July 29, 2012 at 12:40 pm

        This is what I keep saying: once we’ve got a grip on the structure of DA in the context of its times, so much more of the suttas — so much of what he’s saying — comes into much sharper focus. It’s not that the change means we find the Buddha saying things we don’t recognize — we’ve known all along he was talking about these things — but the structure makes what he’s saying and why he’s saying it that way so much clearer.

        And speaking of clearer, thank you for the above post, which takes what I said “in theory” and puts it in very human terms.

        • Dana Nourie on August 6, 2012 at 10:55 pm

          Yes, whenever we attach to something, we do selfing around it that is a big mistake and the process of suffering arises. See phenomena for the changing, shifting processes and impermanent things that they are, then we don’t project ourselves, don’t attach, and therefore don’t suffer from the disillusion of it all. Linda, I had not looked at “worlds” in terms of all phenomena, but that makes a lot of sense.

  14. […] new article from the Secular Buddhist Association which needs no commentary from me: Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  15. ernie on July 29, 2012 at 12:30 am

    Thanks again, Linda.

    I will indeed keep your comments in mind.

  16. JohnT on August 5, 2012 at 5:35 am

    As a possible last thought on this blog, from a Wiki link given by NE (thanks), the approach expressed in Linda’s blog was similar to that of (now retired) psychology professor George Boeree who said in 2002:

    “Many of us, easterners and westerners, have been profoundly influenced by our study of Buddhism, and yet do not find ourselves attached to any one particular sect or interpretation of Buddhism. Further, many of us, especially westerners, find the fundamental ideas of Buddhism deeply meaningful, but cannot, without being dishonest with ourselves, accept certain other ideas usually associated with Buddhism. This leaves us with a somewhat ambiguous sense of who and what we are. […]” “We are heartened by the fact that Buddha himself seems to have considered arguments about cosmology and gods and the reality of life after death as irrelevant to the more immediate concern, which is the practice of the eight-fold path. It is, of course, a little presumptuous to say which of the many sutras are the ones we should pay attention to, and which should be considered some kind of later addition or modification. We will never know exactly what the Buddha said and did not say. We can only be “lights unto ourselves” and do the best we can.” “This by no means suggests that we look down upon other Buddhist orientations or that we have a better or purer understanding of Buddhist life. We only want to acknowledge our debt to the teachings of the Buddha. For this reason, I would like to recommend the term Navayana Buddhism (”new vehicle of awakening”) to all those who wish to so identify themselves.”

    I am not sure that his proposed label is relevant or necessary but the suggested approach seems quite sound.

    • Candol on August 5, 2012 at 10:36 am

      John, Even the new vehicle will become old eventually.

  17. Linda on September 9, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    “Who me?” I say. (Never mind me, just trying to see if I can comment on a blogpost.)

  18. […] even if it came directly from the Buddha!  For the sake of space, here’s a great discussion of the Kalama sutra where the Buddha addresses these issues most directly.  Personally, I love the Zen Buddhist […]

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