Problems with scripture

Protestant Buddhism” inherits from Protestant Christianity the idea that scripture is the ultimate spiritual authority. Many Western Buddhists take this for granted; others dismiss it.

Authority, and the role of scripture, has passed through three phases in Buddhism:

Scripture in traditional Buddhism

Buddhism is, in theory, a text-based religion. In practice, scripture is almost entirely ignored in traditional Buddhism. Transmission of doctrine and practice is oral, instead. Mostly only monks can read, and usually only a small fraction of them. They read only a handful of selected texts, which are used to prove particular points of doctrine. The vast majority of scriptures are never read by anyone at all. Monastic institutional traditions are the ultimate spiritual authority. (This is similar to the Catholic Church before the Protestant Reformation.)

Problems with scripture as authority

Starting in the mid-1800s, Buddhism was partly reformed in imitation of Protestant Christianity. Scripture was given ultimate spiritual authority.

For this to work, all the following would have to be true:

  1. The Buddha had a complete, correct understanding
  2. The scriptures, as we have them now, are a complete, correct explanation of the Buddha’s understanding
  3. The scriptures are so clear that each Buddhist can read them and form the same complete, correct understanding

All these seem questionable.

The third is particularly unlikely, because Buddhists do not agree about how to read scriptures. There is a problem of interpretation: we know what the text says, but what does that mean? Often texts are highly obscure or ambiguous. (They also often seem insane, idiotic, ethically repugnant, or factually wrong, which needs to be explained away.)

In such cases, who gets to decide what the right interpretation is? It seems that whoever decides, gets to be the ultimate spiritual authority—rather than scripture itself.

Scriptural interpretation in Protestantism

Protestant Christianity faces the same problem with the Bible. Different Protestant Christians have developed different approaches, and this is one of the main issues that divides the Christian world today. Overall, there is no satisfactory solution.

In practice, the winning approach is to deny that there is a problem. The Bible should be read literally. “There is only one literal meaning for each sentence, and everyone can agree on what that is.” That is plainly untrue, but it seems to be the only way to hold onto the non-negotiable Protestant doctrine of scriptural authority. It’s held by most Christian conservatives (with fudges as needed to deal with the most blatant problems).

Conservative (“fundamentalist”) Christianity is doing well. Mainstream Christianity is collapsing. When everyone gets to interpret the Bible for themselves, most people implicitly replace unappealing Christian doctrines with comfortable liberal secular humanist ones. Christianity is gutted; it is reduced to a shell, an outer form whose core has been eaten away by non-Christian beliefs and practices. It has no distinct function, so everyone leaves. (Some of them put a Buddhist shell on their beliefs, and that’s Consensus Buddhism.)

Scriptural interpretation in Western Buddhism

Some Buddhists are scriptural literalists; but that’s rare.

A liberal Protestant approach to scripture dominated Western understanding of Buddhism from the late 1800s to the 1960s. Liberal Christian scholars had developed “sophisticated historical-critical textual analysis methods” which were supposed to reveal the “original meaning” of the Bible. Western Buddhist scholars applied the same methods to Buddhist scripture, expecting that this would reveal the “original intent of the Buddha,” as opposed to the ignorant misunderstandings of later Asian Buddhists. This work has significantly influenced current Western Buddhist interpretations.

In the 1960s and ’70s, many living Buddhist teachers arrived in the West, and their teaching mainly replaced Western scriptural analysis. Also, it turned out that the supposedly “sophisticated methods” were unreliable. Their conclusions have often been shown to be factually wrong using other kinds of evidence. (Some of those mistaken conclusions persist as Western Buddhist myths—but that’s a whole ’nother topic…)

So, most Western Buddhists now either take the traditional approach (Sangha elders provide the correct interpretation based on oral transmission), or believe that each Buddhist has to find a personal understanding. The Protestant approach doesn’t seem to have worked out well for Buddhism in the West.

Individualist egalitarianism

“Consensus” Western Buddhism makes each Buddhist their own ultimate spiritual authority. Everyone takes their own inner journey to find their own truth. Everyone has the right to interpret scripture as they like.

If people actually did that, it might be interesting. I’m not sure what would happen. Probably we’d get a thousand strange new forms of Buddhism, and that would be cool.

In practice, Consensus Buddhists don’t read scripture. It’s difficult, unpleasant work, and mostly a waste of time.

I’ve forced myself to read some. Almost all of it is exceedingly boring. It’s unbelievably repetitive, it takes a full page to make a simple point that could be said in a sentence, and most of it is just silly, one way or another.

And then, there’s large chunks that are hopelessly obscure. Often, oral tradition agrees that they are incomprehensible; no one claims to be sure what they mean.

Occasionally you learn something—but you have to be a masochist.

So mostly we’re back to ignoring Buddhist scripture. (Maybe tradition got that right…) Modern Buddhists’ personal interpretations of Buddhism owe little to ancient texts.

So where’s authority?

But this points up another problem. Politically correct Buddhism gives everyone the right to interpret scripture—but we can’t. The right doesn’t give you the ability. This becomes obvious if you seriously try to read scripture.

On the other hand, a competent teacher can help you make much more sense of scripture than you could figure out on your own.

And that leads to the topic of an upcoming post—the problematic role of teachers in Consensus Buddhism.