Students often ask me about authentic Buddhism. Some Zen teachers claim that their version is the most authentic. Tibetans use the term “authentic” quite liberally when discussing their brand. Pure Land teachers sometimes make the claim as well. Of course, there is Soka Gakkai and many of the Vipassana sects that are sure they teach the only authentic Buddhism. No wonder people are confused about Buddhism when there are so many authentic Buddhist sects around teaching their own style of Buddhism that may or may not support the “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” variety teaching.
I recently ran across a blog that said, “I have been to the Maha Twin Lotus Ponds and received my initiations there, and then passed this lineage on to everyone else. This lineage – having its roots in the Maha Twin Lotus Ponds – is the nearest and the most authentic.” For those who are unaware, the name of the school this write represents is even called The True Buddha School. The Maha Twin Lotus Ponds are said to be located in the Western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. The founder of the school is a self-entitled “The Living Buddha” Lian Sheng.
In discussing who is and who isn’t a Buddha, the Blessed One said, “The Tathagata — the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one — is the one who gives rise to the path (previously) unarisen, who engenders the path (previously) unengendered, who points out the path (previously) not pointed out. He knows the path, is expert in the path, is adept at the path. And his disciples now keep following the path and afterwards become endowed with the path.” (Samyutta Nikaya 22.58, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
In search for authentic Buddhism I was directed to an article by, NaseemKhan writes that western Buddhism published in The Guardian sometimes is not viewed as “authentic.” She asks if this is true, and if so, how important is “authenticity”? I have regrets that Ms. Khan doesn’t define the term, which can mean, among other things, “trustworthy” or “factual”, “genuine”, “valid”, or “bona fide”, and “not an imitation”. I’m not actually sure what she meant by “authentic”.
Western Buddhism has been criticized for trivializing the Buddhadhamma. This assessment is not altogether unwarranted. Definitions of terms such as, “mindfulness,” “vipassana,” event “enlightenment” have been subtly distorted and diluted in recent years. Americans quite often see Buddhism as some kind of self-help program. Connecting to the teachings on a shallow plane and ditching Buddhism when it gets dull, or worse, when it becomes work. There is also the argument that there are still are too few competent and even authentic teachers available to the public that is interested. It is also true there are many proficient and devoted followers of dhamma in the West. Ms. Khan quotes Joseph Goldstein, the Vipassana teacher, who says grounding in one tradition is essential before “opening out” to change, if change is indeed called for. This seems reasonable. Ms. Khan, writing from the UK, makes the claim that cultural attitudes in the West consider the robes and chanting not “authentic”. I am not sure that this is at all true. Her statement seems to be a personal bias that she claims is a truth.
She finishes her piece with “Universality rather than authenticity is a better aim.” Again, I am not quite sure what she meant by that, but I am pretty sure that I disagree with that assessment. It makes no cogent sense in view of the Buddha’s own teaching. Besides, what does universality mean anyway? Both Islam and Christianity claim to be universal, Catholic means universal, yet they are practiced by two-sevenths of the world’s population. That is hardly universality. It’s “two-sevennthsality”. Universality is not a guarantee of accuracy, genuineness or even benefit. Turning to the Buddha once again, we find a description of what an authentic practice should accomplish. “When a monk is an arahant, his fermentations ended, who has reached fulfillment, done the task, laid down the burden, attained the true goal, totally destroyed the fetter of becoming, and is released through right gnosis, he is dedicated to six things: renunciation, seclusion, non-afflictiveness, the ending of craving, the ending of clinging/sustenance, & non-deludedness…
. . .When one’s awareness is dedicated
to renunciation, seclusion,
non-afflictiveness, the ending of clinging,
the ending of craving, & non-deludedness,
seeing the arising of the sense media,
the mind is rightly released.
For that monk, rightly released,
his heart at peace,
there’s nothing to be done,
nothing to add
to what’s done.
As a single mass of rock isn’t moved by the wind,
even so all
forms, flavors, sounds,
ideas desirable & not,
have no effect on one who is Such.
— still, totally released —
their passing away.
Anguttara Nikaya 6.55—Sona Sutta: About Sona
translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
In other words, it has to work. The disciple has to show progress. This is the proof of authenticity of both the teaching and the disciple. The disciple must be as authentic as the teaching. The teachings cannot be blamed for the student’s laziness. The teaching cannot beheld responsible for the inadequacies of the teacher.
Nārada tells us exactly what authentic Buddhism looks like. “The non-aggressive, moral and philosophical system expounded by the Buddha, which demands no blind faith from its adherents, expounds no dogmatic creeds, encourages no superstitious rites and ceremonies, but advocates a golden mean that guides a disciple through pure living and pure thinking to the gain of supreme vision and deliverance from all evil, is called the Dhamma and is popularly known as Buddhism.” (Nārada, Buddhism in a Nutshell) That seems like a good working definition of authentic Buddhism. There doesn’t seem to be much room for discussion here.