The Question of Authority In Buddhism  


6.3.1 The Question of Authority In Buddhism

Much of the Buddhist scriptures and sayings attributed to Gautama were written about four hundred y ears after his death. By the time they were written, Buddhism had split into many sects. What do we have then? Even the best scholars are not sure of the accuracy of the Buddhist scriptures. In Christianity, however, we have an accurate historical account written by eyewitnesses to Jesus and the events surrounding His life.

This explains why Buddhism is so divided in its teachings- there is no solid basis for authority, and therefore interpretations are likewise going to vary drastically. They also have evolved over time, away from their evident roots in Hinduism, because of this lack of authority. And this also explains the wide breadth of beliefs within Buddhism. Thus in history we can see that Buddhism split into two divisions, Hinayana and Mahayana. Hinayana, which was propagated by Buddha, was an agnostic religion with no God, while Mahayana evolved with the concept of a divine saviour.

The sheer volume of the Buddhist sacred writings is such that no ordinary Buddhist can sensibly be expected to read them. Initially, the writings were divided into three groups: Vinaya-pitaka, Sutta-pitaka and the Abhidhamma-pitaka. And yet later, this categorisation had to be amended to allow for the inclusion of new writings, even though the Buddha was dead. Buddhism to this day is deeply divided over that is in fact canonical- hence, the whole religion has no basis of authority. Thus the compilers of the Tibetan canon included translations of commentaries produced by Indian Buddhists, even though by Indian Buddhist standards those words are not canonical. The Chinese Buddhist tradition selected items for inclusion in the Canon on a totally different basis to the other Buddhist traditions; and the criteria for selection varied over time. Thus a book could be canonical in one century but not in another. Various councils were held to debate and decide which writings were to be canonical and which weren’t. “Research by modern scholarship has introduced serious reservations about the claims found in the accounts of the councils. It is highly questionable whether the monks who were present as the council had access to all the sermons of the Buddha. The texts themselves speak of disciples who refused to endorse the sermons…preferring instead to adhere to the form in which they had memorised them”(1). The circumstances in which the ‘true’ gathering of teachings took place are not known. Around the Christian era, the suttas of early Buddhism began to be supplemented by new works. They too claimed the authority of the Buddha, who had lived centuries beforehand, even though their teaching was different to that which they replaced. All these are reflections of the simple fact that Buddhism has no basis for authority. It is clear enough from an historical analysis of the Buddhist canon that the introduction of writing opened up the Buddhist canon to the possibility of continuing revelation, whereby roughly from the 1st century onwards Buddhism experienced a large increase in its Scriptures, all claiming to be the original words of Buddha, even though they were mutually contradictory (2).

There is no single, easily accessible document that can be read and interpreted by the lay person for themselves in order to find truth. Indeed, earlier, lay access to the sacred writings was granted for only a few selected texts. It reminds one of how the Catholic church denied lay people access to the Bible texts, and insisted on keeping them in Latin rather than the language of the people. Thus apostate Christianity and Buddhism have the same basic similarities as all false religions- power is kept by the leaders of the religion. Buddhist Monks, Catholic priests- it’s the same sad story. A Buddhist’s guru (Tibetan- lama) chooses which deity the believer is to relate to. There is no personal relationship between the one God and human beings, those whom He has made in His own image, and with whom He passionately strives for a relationship. The New Testament teaches that Christian believers are all priests (1 Pet. 2:5). We are all to study and respond to and teach God’s word. The Buddha himself only gave a limited range of his teachings to lay people. The Lord Jesus spoke His truths before crowds, in language which could be understood and benefited from by both the illiterate and the intellectual. The Buddhist writings are chanted to ward off bad fortune, touched to bring good luck, placed in a temple to make it holy…they are worshipped, but not really studied. The Bible is so different. There we have the words of a personal, living God who reaches out to us through His word. And we can see that word made flesh, the principles all lived out in reality, in the person of His Son (Jn. 1:14). And we can respond to God’s word by talking back to Him in prayer, offered in the name of our representative Jesus. God’s word is a living word, able to penetrate into the very texture of human personality (Heb. 4:12-14 RV). Yes, it is black print on white paper; but it is so much more than this. It is somehow alive, in the sense that it conveys to us the intentions and desires of the living God.

Buddhism sees karma as only one influence. One can make gifts for the benefit of relatives and friends [which gifts are the way Buddhist priests get an income, strangely enough], and these can influence their fortune in their next life. But again, on what basis? Why believe this? It is an appealing idea, but where is the evidence for this? There is none. There is not even a reliable canon of writings to justify it. When Buddhism tells us that there are 26 forms of heavenly rebirths, and that life in the lowest heaven is 9 million human years, and 84,000 “aeons” in the highest one…well, why not 10 million years? Why not 27 forms of rebirth, etc? How can one take these statements as “truth” when they are supposed sayings of a man who lived almost 2,500 years ago, which were passed down by word of mouth, with much debate as to what he actually said…with no documented evidence? Can one live their life around ideas which are so nebulous?

The Bible, By Contrast…

The Buddhist often simply assumes that his writings are right and the Bible wrong; but this is to start with a presupposition, and then seek evidence to support it. The way Old Testament Bible prophecies were so accurately fulfilled in Jesus is just too much to put down to chance. To say that the Bible has been changed by the Jews hardly seems likely - both Old and New Testaments are full of criticisms of the Jews. The texts of both Testaments have been in the possession of both Jews and Christians, so they would both have had to agree if the texts were indeed to be tampered with. For 200 years before the time of Jesus, the Hebrew Old Testament existed in Greek translation as the Septuagint, and this would have had to be changed along with the Hebrew texts, if indeed the Old Testament was changed by Christians as Christianity’s critics requires. Critics of the Bible can give no dates, no places, no names, responsible for the changing of the Bible texts which they assume happened. Their presupposition that the Bible must be wrong because it disproves the Buddhist scared writings therefore drives them to make assumptions and claims which totally lack evidence. The Dead Sea Scrolls reveal how the texts have lost virtually nothing through the generations of recopying - these manuscripts were of the Old Testament, dating from the 2nd century BC. Their correspondence with later manuscripts is exact! The Codex Alexandrinus contains the entire Septuagint and also New Testament, written on vellum dating back to at least the 4th century AD; and the Codex Siniaticus contains the New Testament written in at least the 3rd century. The Codex Vaticanus dates from the 4th century. And yet these three different manuscripts are all in substantial agreement! The first two are housed in the British Museum, London; and the third in the Vatican. So there is no way that it can be said that the text of the New Testament has been changed over at least 17 centuries! It is therefore no argument to say that over time, a manuscript must inevitably change. On this basis, we could expect the Buddhist writings to have changed too. There are at least 24,000 ancient New Testament manuscripts available for analysis - far more than for the Buddhist writings. The next most well supported book, Homer's Iliad, has only 643. And there are original fragments of John dating back to 120 AD, and of Matthew to 65 AD. The few variant readings do not affect in any way the sense of the text; and none of the variant readings contradicts anything written elsewhere in the New Testament. There were many many variant readings in the Buddhist sacred writings- because “for about 300 years after the Buddha’s death, all texts were transmitted orally” (3) . What the Buddha said was written down by various people, interpreted, and to this day there is a huge debate as to what is canonical Buddhist literature and what isn’t. The oldest original Buddhist writings that survive go back only to the 6th century AD- a marked contrast with the Bible texts. One is left wondering whether we did have the original text, and whether it hadn't been tampered with. And this question must afflict every intellectually honest Buddhist.


(1) Ulrich Pagel, The Sacred Writings Of Buddhism in Peter Harvey, Buddhism, p. 32 (London: Continuum, 2001).

(2) For evidence of these statements see E. Conze, Buddhist Scriptures (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959) and Conze E., Horner I.B., Snellgrove D. and Waley A., Buddhist Texts Through The Ages (New York: Harper and Row, 1954).

(3) Peter Harvey, Buddhism, p. 51 (London: Continuum, 2001).