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  • Spiritual AuthorityA Buddhist Perspective
  • Shenpen Hookham

Whom Do Buddhists Look to for Spiritual Authority?

I am taking spiritual authority in this context to refer to those to whom the tradition looks for authoritative guidance in regard to following the spiritual path. They constitute a category of people about whom, other than to recount their life stories and teachings, little has been written, even in traditional sources. Whether we call them saints, enlightened or realized people, yogins, practitioners, or gurus, who they are, exactly, is difficult to define, and yet without them the tradition is spiritually dead.

Reginald A. Ray, in his groundbreaking work Buddhist Saints in India (1999),1 points out how such people are and have always been important, both in the early tradition and in the developed tradition, even though their place has never been well defined. As we shall see in the course of this paper, it is perhaps impossible to define.

Ray chooses to talk in terms of “saints” when referring to enlightened people, since their spiritual authority stems from their exemplary lives and extraordinary spiritual knowledge and powers. There are, however, degrees of enlightenment and realization, so I am choosing to refer to the whole range as yogins, with Mahāsiddhas at the top end in terms of experience and spiritual authority and “practitioners” at the bottom. The term yogin presupposes a yogic process with a body of knowledge and experience in regard to it. “Enlightenment” or “realization,” the fruit of the yogic process, refers to insight into the true nature of reality, which those with realization embody, giving them their spiritual authority.

In this paper I shall be writing in general terms for the whole Buddhist tradition on the basis of many personal and in-depth encounters with yogins in all the main traditions. This is an area in need of much further research, and what I propose to do in this paper is to flag the issues and raise pertinent questions. My particular interest is how spiritual authority is going to work in the future, especially in the West now that the Buddhist tradition is establishing itself here. [End Page 121]

The tendency in modern scholarship has been to assume that spiritual authority in Buddhism lies with monastics (especially male monastics), who teach and are supported by laypeople who look to them for spiritual guidance. Ray challenges this assumption, pointing out that, throughout history, the most genuine spiritual authority within the tradition is found in the Buddhist saints. These are the yogins, male or female, possibly living within or outside monastic institutions, following any number of lifestyles, be it as wandering renunciates, hermits, householders, or kings. Ray, therefore, in place of the twofold model of monks and lay supporters, speaks of a need for a threefold model, which includes the saints /yogins. This puts into a broader historical perspective, the modern trend for Western Buddhists to not automatically think of themselves as a laity dependent on the spiritual authority of monks.

At the time of the Buddha, spiritual authority rested in him and his enlightened disciples. Ray refers to their lifestyle as that of wandering forest renunciates. Over time, Buddhism followed the same pattern as emerged in Brahmanic society with the forest renunciates settling near towns and villages so that a symbiotic relationship could develop between the monks and their lay supporters. As the Buddhist tradition moved from an oral to a written tradition, the monastery became the place of learning, where the texts were kept and a highly organized and ordered lifestyle could develop within and around the monastery, contrasting markedly with the freer, and presumably more diverse and spontaneous, lifestyles of the forest renunciates. Ray argues that, as the writers of texts and commentaries, the learned monks systematically rewrote the values and orientation of early Buddhism in favor of the settled, ordered, lifestyle of the monasteries, regarding the renunciate lifestyle as an exceptional, if not inferior, option. His point is that, in this way, spiritual authority moved from the enlightened wandering, renunciate teacher, such as the person of the Buddha, to scholar monks within the monastic organizational hierarchy. He argues that, in this way, the...