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  • Scriptural AuthorityA Buddhist Perspective
  • Shi Zhiru

Like gold that is melted, cut, and polished, So should monks and scholars Analyze my words [before] accepting them; They should not do so out of respect.1

As other papers in this volume have already noted, there is a crisis of authority in modern religion, particularly in the West. One defining characteristic of modernity is a deep sense of rupture from the old, from the traditional, which is compounded by a heightened awareness of the subjectivity of self.2 Therefore, in the age of modernity, or postmodernity, critical and skeptical questioning of forms of religious authority is almost inevitable. While the crisis of religious authority is certainly enhanced in modernity, I would argue that the crisis of authority has always been part and parcel of religious innovation and transmission in Buddhist history. Critical self-reflection and skepticism of scriptural authority were present already in early Buddhism; at various junctures throughout Buddhist history, attitudes toward scriptural authority were often renegotiated in connection with major religious changes that in turn were usually prompted by larger social and historical changes. As the critical theorist Jürgen Habermas points out, “the term ‘modern’ again and again expresses the consciousness of an epoch that relates itself to the past of antiquity, in order to view itself as the result of a transition from the old to the new.” 3 Defined in this manner, the bridging of the “modern” and the past is not unique to the so-called epoch of modernity or postmodernity, but has occurred repeatedly throughout different historical periods.

This paper discusses different junctures in Buddhist history when scriptural authority was problematized as part of self-reflection and criticism of the “tradition.” Rethinking the authority of scriptures often involves juxtaposing it against the authority of religious experience, and such reconsideration typically took place as part of religious change that unfolded in different sociocultural and geographical environments. It is tempting to immediately equate “religious experience” in the early Buddhist texts to the prevalent understanding of this term in the modern world, but one must caution that modern definitions and discourse on the topic are largely shaped [End Page 85] by post-Enlightenment ideals and rhetoric in Western religious history, which may not be applicable to traditional Buddhist cultures.4 Hence, it is necessary to unpack the range of premodern Buddhist understanding of “religious experience” according to its contextual references, and not hasten to assume a necessary polarity between the unmediated experience and scriptural exegesis that is generally assumed in modern discourse. Rather than a singular voice for the Buddhist position on scriptural authority, it is important to acknowledge the polyphony of voices and perspectives, sometimes even contradicting one another, in different forms of Buddhism. It is thus critical to contextualize the multiple voices within the different historical and religious circumstances that engendered a particular perspective.

It should be noted that my discussion is hardly intended to be a comprehensive survey, but focuses on three examples: early Buddhism, early Mahāyāna, and Chan Buddhism. They are chosen because they aptly illustrate how Buddhists reconceived scriptural or textual authority as part of a critical rethinking of Buddhist thought and practice. Moreover, while religious experience was regularly invoked to undermine the normative scriptural authority of the time, nevertheless, in all the examples considered in this paper, the undermining of “old” scriptural authority gave way to new scriptural or literary authorities. This prioritization of religious experience in reality rarely excludes scriptural or textual authorities, but was often adopted for polemical and rhetorical purposes. The paper concludes with an attempt to broaden the understanding of Buddhist scriptural authority by highlighting the authority of scriptures as material objects, a perspective that has been largely neglected in comparative cross-cultural studies of scriptures.5 On a cautionary note, I am using the word “scripture” in a broad sense to mean the body of sacred texts accepted as the authority by a given religious tradition. As historians of religion have noted, it is necessary to dissociate sacred texts (particularly those of Asian religions) from the concept of “scripture,” which in its literal sense, as used to discuss Abrahamic religions, means the “written word...