Thoughts on Authority

Hello all,

I am new here and so you will have to forgive my ignorance.

Can you help me understand on what authority the Buddha claimed to speak?

I know that if I was to present a new message (different to those before me) then it would be right for those who are listening to ask ‘on whose authority do you speak?’

But if I do not have authority (or if I only speak for myself) then you would have every reason to ignore what I have to say as being nothing more than opinion.

I am sure that many Buddhist teachers do not refer to their own authority, but to that of the teachings and even of Buddha himself.

If the Buddha only spoke on his own authority then it would be hard to argue that he has the authority to talk on behalf of everyone and everything when he does not have power over it.

Hi Paul and welcome.

It’s not really about ‘opinion’ and ‘authority’. What we have here is rather ‘discovery’ and ‘sharing’.

See for example sn12.65:

Suppose a person was walking through a forest. They’d see an ancient path, an ancient route traveled by humans in the past. Following it along, they’d see an ancient city, an ancient capital, inhabited by humans in the past. It was lovely, complete with parks, groves, lotus ponds, and embankments. Then that person would inform a king or their minister: ‘Please sir, you should know this. While walking through a forest I saw an ancient path, an ancient route traveled by humans in the past. Following it along I saw an ancient city, an ancient capital, inhabited by humans in the past. It was lovely, complete with parks, groves, lotus ponds, and embankments. Sir, you should rebuild that city!’ Then that king or their minister would have that city rebuilt. And after some time that city was successful and prosperous, populous, full of people, attained to growth and expansion. In the same way, I saw an ancient path, an ancient route traveled by fully awakened Buddhas in the past.

And what is that ancient path, the ancient route traveled by fully awakened Buddhas in the past? It is simply this noble eightfold path, that is: right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right immersion. This is that ancient path, the ancient route traveled by fully awakened Buddhas in the past.

Following it along, I directly knew old age and death, their origin, their cessation, and the practice that leads to their cessation. Following it along, I directly knew rebirth … continued existence … grasping … craving … feeling … contact … the six sense fields … name and form … consciousness … Following it along, I directly knew choices, their origin, their cessation, and the practice that leads to their cessation.

Having directly known this, I told the monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen. And that’s how this spiritual life has become successful and prosperous, extensive, popular, widespread, and well proclaimed wherever there are gods and humans.”

Dhp276 suggests:

You yourselves must do the work,
the Realized Ones just show the way.

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Why did the Buddha need “authority” to speak?

Ah! MN 100 is about exactly this!

https://suttacentral.net/mn100/en/nyanamoli-thera

A very simple concept concerning “authority” is that of the “Lion’s roar”. There is a sutta about it; one of the Buddha’s “Lion’s roar” (and even one of Sariputta’s “Lion’s roar”). It’s relevant for the asker for authority … :slight_smile:

Indeed. He addressed this in his very first teaching, where the ascetic Upaka asked this exact question (eg. MN 26).

While I was traveling along the road between Gayā and Bodhgaya, the Ājīvaka ascetic Upaka saw me and said, ‘Reverend, your faculties are so very clear, and your complexion is pure and bright. In whose name have you gone forth, reverend? Who is your Teacher? Whose teaching do you believe in?’

I replied to Upaka in verse:

‘I am the champion, the knower of all, unsullied in the midst of all things. I’ve given up all, freed through the ending of craving. Since I know for myself, whose follower should I be?

I have no teacher. There is no-one like me. In the world with its gods, I have no rival.

For in this world, I am the perfected one; I am the supreme Teacher. I alone am fully awakened, cooled, extinguished.

I am going to the city of Kāsi to roll forth the Wheel of Dhamma. In this world that is so blind, I’ll beat the deathless drum!’

‘According to what you claim, reverend, you ought to be the Infinite Victor.’

‘The victors are those who, like me, have reached the ending of defilements. I have conquered bad qualities, Upaka—that’s why I’m a victor.’

When I had spoken, Upaka said: ‘If you say so, reverend.’ Shaking his head, he took a wrong turn and left.

His authority stems purely from his own realization. This is reiterated in the so-called “first sermon” which actually follows the teaching above, where he says that the truths he learned did not come from another.

Absolutely. Part of the Buddha’s authority initially came from his personal charisma: he made a deep impression on people. But charisma is not a reliable guide, and what matters is that people heard the teachings, thought they made sense, and starting applying them. That’s the only real test.

That is very much correct.

There’s always a tension in any tradition, and in Buddhism no less than others. On the one hand, as a teacher in a tradition I have a responsibility to represent my teacher accurately. Hence SuttaCentral! At the same time, no person is or should be just a stamped out iteration of a textual ideal. That kind of fundamentalism is inhuman. We are people, with our own beliefs, values, and life experiences, which guide and inform our response to the suttas.

So we try to stay honest. If it says something in the suttas, I don’t say, “That’s the absolute truth”, I say, “It says that in the suttas”. If it’s my experience I say, “It’s my experience”. For this, see eg. MN 27.


A word of friendly advice if I may. When someone asks a reasonable question, assume good faith and try to answer it. :pray:

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I thought I had and was. Hey ho

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For what it’s worth, I thought your answer was perfectly reasonable. Whether it will be accepted by the original poster is up to that person.

I kind of had the same question in a different thread. If someone claims they have attained nibbana, how does one respond? I think @Khemarato.bhikkhu gave a great answer which is “please tell us how you have achieved it?”

So ultimately the “authority” of the Buddha’s teachings rests in our own direct experience as we try to follow it. We can then individually confirm or deny the validity.

When I was first exposed to the Buddha’s teachings, they made sense to me (well most, the “non-self” bit was really perplexing as I did think I had a self, and I was very much wishing it was eternal). But eventually I accepted the “non-self” as I can validate for myself that my self is not permanent but ever changing and very tied to the aggregates.

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This is exactly how I feel too. I grew up in a fairly strict religious background where the Church/God was the ‘authority’. It’s such a great thing to have a religion that encourages us to see for ourselves; gradually gaining more faith as we go along by seeing that the results we experience are in complete accordance with the ‘map’ that the Buddha has left for us to follow.

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Dear @PaulH,
Welcome to the D&D forum! We hope it and the resources here will be of benefit to you along the path. If you find yourself having any questions about the forum, feel free to contact the moderators at @moderators .
Regards,
suaimhneas (on behalf of the moderators)

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There are many aspects to authority:

1- Moral authority: he was a living example of what he preached, be it through body, speech or mind. Even if you did not live during the Buddha’s time to witness first hand how he acted, these instructions themselves are authoritative by virtue of consistency and coherence.

2- Authority of the truth: he is not known to have lost a debate, but when he discussed the dhamma with other sects, he was willing to discuss with them on the basis of truth, as if they were equal, when they are not:

“Householder, so long as you debate on the basis of truth, we can have some discussion about this.”

“I will debate on the basis of truth, sir. Let us have some discussion about this.”
MN56

3- Authority and power: While he valued peace over power, he had many powers, unparalleled by other ascetics and teachers during his time.

Then Ven. Sāriputta—having gone for alms in Vesāli, after the meal, returning from his alms round—went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As he was sitting there he said to the Blessed One, “Lord, Sunakkhatta the Licchavi has recently left this Dhamma & Vinaya. He is making this statement in the Vesāli assembly: ‘Gotama the contemplative has no superior human state, no distinction in knowledge & vision worthy of a noble one. Having hammered it out through logic, Gotama the contemplative teaches a Dhamma that follows his reasoning, his own invention. And whenever his Dhamma is taught for anyone’s sake, it leads those who act on it to the right ending of suffering & stress.’”

“Sāriputta, this worthless man Sunakkhatta is angry. Out of anger, he has made this statement, (thinking,) ‘I will speak in dispraise,’ but actually he is speaking praise of the Tathāgata. For it is in praise of the Tathāgata when anyone says, ‘And whenever his Dhamma is taught for anyone’s sake, it leads those who act on it to the right ending of suffering & stress.’

The rest of MN12 lists the powers and strengths of the Tathāgata.

4- Authority and censorship: censorship can be only meaningful when done by experts, akin to peer reviewing a scientific paper. In Pavarana sutta, the Buddha asked his Arahant disciples to censure him, and they said that they see no fault whatsoever in the Buddha. Arahants truly know the Buddha by virtue of knowing his dhamma.

5- The authority of the teacher: not all Buddhas are sammasambuddhas. Sammasambuddhas have the power to teach and establish a sangha, which naturally creates a hierarchy where the teacher is at the top.

6- Authority and authenticity: for the dhamma to be realized by the wise each by himself is not to dismiss the teacher as redundant, but to encourage healthy relationships where questioning is not only encouraged, but becomes necessary. This can also come across as letting go of unnecessary flattery and infatuation, and focusing on the message rather than the messenger.

This requires knowledge of the suttas and the Buddha instructed how to attain that:

Lending ear, he hears (reads) the Dhamma. Hearing the Dhamma, he remembers it. Remembering it, he penetrates the meaning of those dhammas. Penetrating the meaning, he comes to an agreement through pondering those dhammas. There being an agreement through pondering those dhammas, desire arises. With the arising of desire, he becomes willing. Willing, he contemplates (lit: “weighs,” “compares”). Contemplating, he makes an exertion. Exerting himself, he both realizes the ultimate meaning of the truth with his body and sees by penetrating it with discernment."

—Majjhima Nikaya 95

an agreement = the practitioner gradually adds to the meaning they already understand assisted by modern commentaries.

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It sounds like the question stems from the other question, “Can we be our own authority?”

We spend a large part of our younger years expecting authority to rule over us.

I’ve found in middle age that there isn’t anyone other than me who is going to run my life for me. So I’ve assumed my own authority.

I do recognize authorities greater than myself. But as far as my own personal conduct and as far as my fate is concerned I take responsibility over those things.

Authority stems from power. The vast majority of people in the world are “self empowered” - meaning that as young people we have generally feared others for the power and authority they wield.

This isn’t so much a testimony to any one’s lack of power or authority. It’s a common case of people going about their business in an empowered way without giving consideration to how younger, aimless people will perceive that.

And the general perception of the younger people is usually “rebellion” or “acquiescence”.

And that’s how the young people remain “green” until they gradually work their way into a position of authority. With those types of positions, one only maintains their status by wielding power.

So, the Buddha … well the Buddha repeatedly says that he had surveyed the universe and found no one to whom he should bow down to. So, if we’re going to ask about the Buddha’s “authority” we should also ask about his “power”.

Now, the Buddha has said that Mara is the most “sovereign” among beings. Mara is the “authority” of samsara. The Buddha is the “authority” of Nibbana. He searched for it, found it, and taught others how to get there. He is the authority on the Dhamma. Whereas Mara is the authority of existence and wields the most power in this realm.

It almost sounds like the question was motivated by “Only God can be the authority”. IMO God has better things to do than worry about humans. He’s got Mara to take care of that.

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The authority of samsara is the power generated by opposite polarities beginning with, but not confined to birth/death:

“That’s how it is when living together in the world. That’s how it is when gaining a personal identity. When there is living in the world, when there is the gaining of a personal identity, these eight worldly conditions spin after the world, and the world spins after these eight worldly conditions: gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure, & pain.”

—Anguttara Nikaya 4.192

Therefore skillful use of opposite polarites such as calm/insight is the only option for reaching the unconditioned.

“Is the noble eightfold path fabricated or unfabricated?”

“The noble eightfold path is fabricated.”

—Majjhima nikaya 44

Samsara must be understood in order to appreciate the authority of the release from it.

On who’s authority would a Sotapanna speak, indeed the Blessed One is rightly self awakened? He has confirmed for himself that indeed ‘tanha’ is the Samudaya Sacca and so forth. Not in such words, experientially, I mean.

Still, I don’t think he expects anyone to take his word for it.

PS: I am not sure that I have understood your question correctly.

Thanks all for your time. I have tried to not rush my response and consider all that had been said.

I found MN100 quite interesting. It is apparent that the Buddha became enlightened through some sort of vision of things not normally seen by human eyes:

”thus with heavenly eyesight which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, well-behaved and ill-behaved; I understood how beings pass on according to their kammas."

I would suppose that it was this knowledge that have him confidence and from that confidence, he acted with authority.

Thankyou for sending this on. I understand that the Buddha did not learn from another, but it came from a vision of things unseen. It was from this experience that he spoke. His confidence in what he saw gave him ‘self-authority’. The vision changed the way he perceived this world and everything else stems from this.

Interesting, thanks for sharing. What I read in what you quote/write is that we should desire perfection (as manifest in a prosperous city). The path to this perfection is living a perfect life (with all the ‘rights’). This perfection is the only path out of the life/death cycle.

I may have got it completely wrong, but I think I understand.

Hello!

From what I understand, if we profess to know the truth then there must be a basis from which we speak. Without this basis, then our message has no power or authority.

I have no authority of my own in spiritual matters, hence I seek the one with knowledge/authority so that I might follow them!

No, this vision just proves the action of kamma. It will be noticed that after the description of concentration, there is a further passage describing the attainment of the four noble truths through insight. This is the actual awakening:

"With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, the monk directs and inclines it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. He discerns, as it has come to be, that ‘This is stress… This is the origination of stress… This is the cessation of stress… This is the way leading to the cessation of stress… These are mental fermentations… This is the origination of fermentations… This is the cessation of fermentations… This is the way leading to the cessation of fermentations.’

—Majjhima Nikaya 27

Bikkhu Bodhi is currently conducting a monthly online course in the sequential training described in this sutta.

The most recent talk will be publicly available in due course:

August 26: Paths to Liberation in Early Buddhism, Lecture no. 4

The sequential training–part 3 (Majjhima Nikaya 27)

This talk will cover the final sections of the sequential training according to the Sutta on the Elephant’s Footprint: the recollection of past lives, the divine eye, and the knowledge of liberation.