Hey I’m glad you’re here. So, last week I posted a video called “Tradition?“. In that video we tried to talk a little bit about what it means to be faithful to tradition, what it means to honor tradition, and what it means to betray tradition or to rebel against tradition.
We talked about how Buddhism is founded upon a kind of rejection of tradition, that it’s a tradition of rebelling against tradition, a tradition opposing tradition. And thus, one of the ways in which to faithfully honor the Buddhist tradition is to continue the work questioning tradition and rebelling against tradition when and where it’s necessary, even and especially when it’s in regards to the tradition of Buddhism itself.
With that in mind I can’t help but think about the question of ‘Authority’ in the same way – what does it mean to respect authority and what does it mean to reject authority? So let’s talk about it right now, come on let’s go.
So, to recap just little bit, as I mentioned in last week’s video I just finished reading Huston Smith’s book Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. In the book Smith highlights that “Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition” and thus “He encouraged his followers, therefore, to slip free from the past’s burden.” The Buddha said:
“Do not go by what is handed down, nor on the authority of your traditional teachings. When you know of yourselves: ‘These teachings are not good: these teachings when followed out and put in practice conduce to loss and suffering’—then reject them.” When it came to tradition and even when it came to his own teachings the Buddha seemed to emphasize a kind of provisional pragmatism rather than the staunch rigidity of traditionalism.
What’s interesting as that not only addresses the Buddha’s relationship to tradition but, it also implicitly addresses the Buddha’s relationship to authority. In other words, the Buddha not only said to Question tradition but, also to question authority. In this regard, Hustom Smith points out that, just as the Buddha preached a religion devoid of tradition, in the same way “Buddha preached a religion devoid of authority.”
Smith goes on to say that “Buddha challenged each individual to do his or her own religious seeking and rational investigation.” He didn’t expect anyone to take him at his word. He didn’t want or expect to be viewed as a figure of absolute authority, nor did he want his teachings to be seen as unquestionably authoritative. He wanted to be questioned, he wanted his teachings to be probed, to be tested, to be investigated, and he encouraged his followers to do so based upon their own authority rather than anyone else’s.
Elsewhere the Buddha said, “When you yourself know [these teachings] lead to harm or ill, abandon them; when you yourself know [these teachings] lead to benefit and happiness, adopt them.” Do what works, throw away what doesn’t.
The Buddha said “Be lamps unto yourselves. Those who, either now or after I am dead, shall rely upon themselves only and not look for assistance to anyone besides themselves, it is they who shall reach the topmost height.”
A few weeks ago I posted I video called “Zen Teachers?” and in that video we talked about the role of a Zen teacher. We often think of Zen and/or Buddhist teachers as authoritative figures, yet, as my Zen teacher suggests “the role of a teacher is more about reflecting you back at yourself rather than being above you”. Similarly, Brad Warner writes that “A good Buddhist teacher can be your mirror.” Perhaps, then, you could say that if a Zen teacher is authoritative it is only to the extent that they are a reflection of your own authority, or that they reflect your authority back to you rather demonstrate their own.
In my opinion, what the Buddha taught and what I’ve learned from studying and practicing Zen is that, they provide us with guidelines not rules. In other words, the aim is guidance not indoctrination. They act out of advisement and aid rather than authoritarianism. They provide counsel rather than control, and direction rather than dominance. It’s so easy to get caught up in the supposed sovereignty and supremacy of teachers and teachings, to try and follow them to the letter, to try and do exactly what Bodhidharma said, or to try and do precisely what Dogen said to do but, as my Zen teacher recently pointed out to me “we aren’t pursuing Bodhidharma’s awakening or Dogen’s awakening. We’re each pursuing our own.” “Just do whatever works”
The Buddha, himself, said that “Buddhas only point the way. Work out your salvation with diligence.”
Perhaps, this is where my religious studies background is going to show itself some but, when I read the Buddha’s instruction to diligently work out your salvation for yourself, I can’t help but think of a passage from the New Testament that says to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.
The Greek word phobos translated as ‘Fear’ doesn’t just mean terror or dread. It also means reverence and respect. But, what about “trembling?” This comes from the Greek word tromos which is used to describe the anxiety of one who distrusts. In this verse, the instruction is to Work out your salvation with Fear and trembling, with reverence and distrust. Perhaps one could say that here Reverence is demonstrated through distrust, respect is given through skepticism, and honor given through doubt.This salvation is worked out with a reverent distrust, a skeptical submission, a questioning surrender, and a doubting devotion. this seems to be that same kind of pragmatic provisionality that the Buddha advocated.
I’ve been reading a book called “Manage You Day-to-Day“, in one of the essays in that book, Scott Belsky writes “Listen to your gut as much as you listen to others…don’t let yourself be persuaded by the volume of the masses. Nothing should resonate more loudly than your own intuition.”
Perhaps the best way in which to faithfully honor tradition is to recognize that you are not strictly beholden to it, and perhaps the best way in which to respect authority is to realize that its ultimate source is your own.