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Buddhistdoor View: The Path to Authenticity in Modern Buddhism

The quest for “authenticity” in modern Buddhism is a significant and multifaceted issue. As Buddhism continues to spread globally, especially in Western societies, it faces the challenge of maintaining its core teachings and practices while adapting to new cultural contexts. Today, the forms of Buddhism that are growing in popularity in many Asian countries are precisely those which have been previously popularized in the West.

This ensuing struggle for authenticity has involved reconciling past forms of belief and practice with contemporary values, practices, and interpretations. In this BDG View, we follow from some of the themes developed last time, when we looked at questions of authenticity in Chinese Buddhism.* Based on this view of authenticity, we look both at modern views of authenticity that focus on the individual and ask again if questions of institutional authenticity are worth asking.

Arguments for the importance of authenticity are numerous. In the last View, we looked specifically at notions of authenticity that are in dispute today in China. These include the authenticity of eschewing what may be described as “superstitious” practices found in one’s surrounding culture, the authenticity of determining the correct views or beliefs, and the authenticity of adhering to a full set of monastic vows, or Vinaya.

These three realms happen to correspond closely to the three-fold formulation of the Buddhist path: ethics, meditation, and wisdom. This path can be further elaborated into eight parts, but this three-fold structure forms a path that is common to nearly all who call themselves Buddhist. The Buddhist path has always been one that goes “against the stream” of broader society, stepping out of established roles in a pursuit of a supramundane goal: awakening. Nonetheless, when Buddhism has become established in various societies, it has had to offer a path to laypeople who wished to both maintain their social roles and make some meaningful progress toward awakening. The tension, arising even in the Buddha’s time, has always been about how much one can take part in ordinary activities and still make progress on the path.

For example, the Buddha set out a rule for monastics to abstain from handling money. However, in the contemporary world, many monastics travel to teach or further their education, sometimes living for years away from their monastery. These monastics often must open bank accounts, use credit cards, and otherwise breach the rule against handling money. How do they do this while living an authentically Buddhist life? Laypeople have an easier time, but often struggle with the sheer abundance of teachings available today, along with the question of how much of their time, energy, and financial resources should be devoted to Buddhist study and practice.

For both monastics and laypeople, the question of living the best possible life is itself one of authenticity. Thus, the challenge is two-fold: first, to understand oneself so as to act authentically and second, to understand the Dharma so as to work to act according to one’s ideals.

In our look at China, we saw that the second challenge was most clearly highlighted by Buddhist leaders. As we look at Buddhist modernists, we see the first challenge more clearly come to light in the lives of laypeople.

In an interview with BDG Senior Writer, Raymond Lam, Chöying Khandro describes this work to understand oneself as a path to authenticity:

Personal authenticity is everything that makes and everything allows freedom and awakening possible. It’s about ‘what is true for me in any given moment?’ Personal authenticity is also our responsibility to awaken to our deepest dimension and live to our fullest potential. To me I feel that personal authenticity is given but then lost over our lifetimes. On the spiritual path we are recovering that authenticity. It’s similar to the classical classification of the Mahamudra journey. For example, we talk about the Base, Path, and Result. The base is the same, Buddha-nature, innate freedom but it became obscured, so the path becomes the unveiling of the obscurations, becoming more and more authentic, close to freedom.**

Here, personal freedom, or awakening, is equated with authenticity. Likewise, the question of the authenticity of Buddhist traditions seems to fall away.

In an essay titled, “Buddhist Studies, Buddhist Practice and the Trope of Authenticity,” Buddhist philosopher Jay Garfield argues that setting aside questions of historical and doctrinal authenticity is precisely what is needed today. He writes that, “To put it bluntly, worrying about authenticity is at best a waste of time and at worst seriously destructive.” (2)

His reasoning is that each tradition will offer a criterion for authenticity. And according to each criterion found, that tradition will be the authentic one:

The Zen roshi has her criterion, the application of which delivers the conclusion that the Zen tradition is the only authentically Buddhist tradition. The dGe lugs geshe argues, using his criterion, that only his tradition is completely authentic. How are we to arbitrate? (4)

This is true quite often when Buddhist traditions take a polemical stance vis-à-vis other Buddhist traditions. But what is often most interesting is when we look closer, as we did in our last View, to see that even within traditions, there is concern about living up to internal criteria of authenticity.

Indeed, Garfield goes on to point to all of the multiple paths that Buddhists have taken as themselves being most authentic, while the goal they seek to attain—authentic understanding of the Dharma—is incoherent. It is possible here that Garfield is “missing the forest for the trees,” as he looks at all of the different traditions—like so many different fingers pointing at the moon—and urges us to focus on how different each finger is.

This is the tension between the insider and outsider view of Buddhism. For Buddhists, “Buddhism” is that which points toward awakening. And all of the different manifestations are in fact the same, insofar as they do this. For the scholar, “Buddhism” is often defined by the differences—the doctrines chosen, the practices, the moral precepts, and so on.

Amber D. Carpenter offers us a view into the struggle for authenticity in Mahayana Buddhist thought. She describes how thinkers early in the Mahayana movement shifted the understanding of authenticity from being tied entirely to particular texts to the meaning of the teachings of the Buddha. Carpender writes:

Just as one may not be ready to hear the no-self view without misconstruing it (SN IV.400), so no one contemporaneous with the historical Śakyamuni was ready to hear the still more unfathomable ubiquitous no-self of the prajñāpāramitā. Skilfully, the Buddha withheld these obscure but more accurate claims until the ground had been prepared. Then through reliance on and development of the distinction between ‘interpretable’ (neyārtha) and ‘definitive’ (nītārtha) expositions; through insisting that the criterion of authenticity (and for distinguishing the neyārtha from the nītārtha) was consistency of content rather than historical composition; and through heavy emphasis on the Buddha’s own skill in teaching, adopted as a hallmark of Mahāyāna self-understanding of their own ideal practice, the Mahāyāna met Śrāvaka charges of being outside the Buddhist path entirely.

(Indian Buddhist Philosophy 194)

For Mahayana Buddhists in India and countless traditions right up to modernity, justifying authenticity has been a central project. Theravadin Buddhists could anchor their claims to authenticity in their texts. But when those texts failed to connect with people, the ideas within them could be appealed to as the truly authentic teachings.

This has opened a vast doorway for adaptation and development in the Buddhist tradition. Buddhists could always make changes if they could convince listeners that their new teachings were aligned with the definitive ideas of the Buddha. And this continues to this day. What Buddhists seek is a path to awakening. What that path looks like is always changing, meaning that Buddhists must always be careful in our efforts to progress forward.

The worry that we might fall into a dogmatic notion of authenticity, eschewing the wisdom of other teachings, is warranted. Many Theravadin, Zen, Tibetan, and other teachers out there will attempt to convince us that their path is the true way for us, without taking the time to get to truly know us and our place in the world. This can lead us to follow paths that are not right for us or worse. On the other hand, it is important for Buddhists to strive for authenticity insofar as this leads us to refine our practice and understanding of the teachings. Buddhism is ever changing. And yet, the quest for authentic practice remains important as we attempt to put ancient teachings into practice in the modern world.

* Buddhistdoor View: Unfinished Dispensation – The Search for Buddhist Authenticity in China

** A Conversation with Chöying Khandro on Spiritual Authenticity and Honesty

References

Garfield, Jay. 2010. “Buddhist Studies, Buddhist Practice and the Trope of Authenticity.” Draft essay. A finalized version is available at https://jaygarfield.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/buddhist-studies-buddhist-practice-.pdf

Carpenter, Amber D. 2014. Indian Buddhist Philosophy. New York: Routledge.

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