A few weeks back I noted Jay Ford’s The Divine Quest, East and West (SUNY, 2016). Over the nest few posts, I want to offer a couple of reflections on this work, which I hasten to note I generally appreciate and find helpful for facilitating inter-religious dialogue and understanding.
In Acts 2 and 3 of The Divine Quest, East and West, Ford outlines conceptions of the ultimate found in Mahayana and Chinese Buddhisms, arguing that emptiness and Buddha-nature, respectively, serve as the Ultimate reality for these strands of Buddhist thought. In this reflection, I wish to engage the topic of textual authority and revelation within the forms of Buddhism discussed in these sections.
One of the defining characteristics of Mahayana Buddhism included the claim that a new collection of teachings offered legitimate access to the teachings of the Buddha in such a way that enlightenment could be reconceived in important ways. Ford writes that the emergence and acceptance of new sutras as authentic and effectual teachings of the Buddha was a central claim of the Mahayana school, eventually coming to define the division between the Nikaya and Mahayana schools (171). While other divergences exist between these schools of Buddhist thought, the major divisions apparently stem from disagreements concerning which textual sources could be viewed as legitimate in conceiving of the path to nirvana or Buddhahood, and indeed seem to have impacted the differing conceptions of the ultimate which arose between the Nikaya and Mahayana schools. This leads to myfirst question: how important was the clear delineation of authoritative texts for Nakaya (and Mahayana) Buddhism?
That is, was the acceptance of the proper texts seen as vital to appropriately conceiving of the ultimate, or were there mitigating concerns preceding access to textual sources that determined an ‘orthodoxy’ of belief that dictated which texts were acceptable? The importance of clearly defining which sources served as authoritative extends even to Ford’s discussion of Chinese Buddhisms, where the Tiantai, Huayan, and Chan schools of claimed different texts as the highest revelations of the Buddha, no doubt fostering their distinctiveness relative to other Buddhism schools (211). In many ways, this question parallels discussions of texts and authority in early Christianity, where determining which texts (Jewish or Christian primarily) functioned as authoritative eventually served as a hard and fast distinction between Judaism, Christianity, and other groups.
Parallel to this concern over which texts is the consideration of other sources, namely, what other forms of Buddhist revelatory experience were appealed to beyond the creation of texts? Ford helpfully notes the contingent and dependent form of concepts such as nirvana and samsara, indicating the socially malleable function of these ideas that led, in some instances at least, to the creation of new texts displaying those reconceptions (180). Apart from the creation of new texts, however, what other forms of revelation served as useful means for preconceiving of Buddhist ideas? Clearly for the Mahayana schools “certain types of meditative practices and techniques” could manifest new revelatory materials, though it seems such practices primarily led to the creation of new sutras, no doubt assisted by the advent of writing (185). The complexity of this concern increases when Ford asks how revelation impacted the conception of new ‘savior’ Buddhas and their revealed status via the eternal Buddha and notes that McQueen demonstrates that different texts provide different answers to these questions, concluding that “the door to revelation is not closed…” (192).
This too is similar to Christian concerns regarding the authority of revelation, be it oral, written, or inspired by the Holy Spirit on Sunday morning during church. In both cases, questions concerning authority seem to ask 1) how one may know a source of authority if legitimate, 2) whether the Ultimate only spoke in the past (and if so, how effectual such speaking is for today) or if the Ultimate may have spoken more recently. Certainly difference answers to these questions lead to divisions of thought and/or practice, such as can be seen in the Nikaya, Mahayana, and Chinese Buddhist conceptions of the Ultimate discussed in these sections.