What is the Authentic Buddhism?

One of the questions I love to hear from new Buddhist practitioners and those just curious about Buddhism is, “which is the real Buddhism?” or “is this authentic Buddhism?” It doesn’t matter which tradition they are asking about, the question is always there. People are curious but skeptical.

If only so many serious practitioners to Buddhism were as critical in their investigation. Just as the Buddha stated in the Kalamasutta, we should not believe because of any conditioned reason but know its truth from the fruits of practice. So when we look at someone’s practice and ask if it is really authentic Buddhism, we should not judge it on its traditional authenticity but its progressive effectiveness to liberate from suffering (dukkha).

In the West (particularly the United States, we are unbound by cultural mores, tropes, and paradigms to the definition of Buddhism. We are free to choose the Buddhist traditions and practices of a particular culture or belly up to the buffet and pick and chose aspects of multiple traditions to be a part of our practice. Historically, Buddhism (unlike Christianity) integrates into local society instead of supplanting it. Many of the liturgical and ceremonial aspects of Buddhism come mainly from the local culture and not the teachings of the Buddha.

However, with such a melting pot of cultures throughout America, Buddhism in the United States has become less of an Americanized Buddhist diet but instead a pot luck or multi-cultural cuisine. Each offered meal made from the same foundation ingredients but with the local flavors added. Like authentic home cooking, each person offers what they feel is the “authentic” recipe.

But if I ask for authentic soup, and five people bring me miso, chili, tomato, clam chowder and chicken noodle; how am I to choose which is authentic? Are they all authentic? Is chili a soup or a stew? What makes a stew not soup? Who is the person who decides these answers?

The question of authenticity is the wrong question. We must look at the purpose of soup, and why we need it in our diet. What are the results of all of these “soups” and if they all yield the same results. In the same way, the traditions of Buddhism (and their authentic credibility) are not really the issue, but do they yield the results of liberations from suffering. Do they promote the successful walk along the Middle Path.

Whether it is Theravada, Mahayana, or Tibetan, the goal is the understanding of suffering and the practice to liberate from suffering. The genuine Buddhism is the one that reaps the fruits of its practice to the realizations and liberations experienced by the Buddha.

All knowledge and action that is in conducive to liberation is in accord with the teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha said himself that he was neither the originator nor the sole keeper of the dhamma. There were Buddha’s before him. He rediscovered the dhamma like a lost city in forgotten woods by a forgotten path.

To cling to the idea that there is one Buddhist practice that has more veracity and authenticity than another is to cling to a fetter of delusion. Just like members of a gym can’t claim that their exercise programs are the authentic exercises, Buddhist practitioners cannot claim that their tradition is the only true Buddhism. There are only individuals who are having more progress in their liberation than others.

In fact, to liberate from such clinging to the idea of authenticity could be argued to be one more obstacle that is removed from the path to enlightenment. If Buddhism is viewed not by tradition but by philosophy, practice and truths—there is no difficulty with most Buddhist practices being seen as “authentic.”

The evaluation of authentic Buddhist foundation is then measured by the acceptance that all conditioned phenomena are impermanent (anicca); that life contains suffering from the thirst of craving (dukkha); that all identities (being impermanent) are void of any true identity (anatta).

The evaluation of authentic Buddhist practice is the efforts put forth to reorient the mind and body to embody these statements not just as concepts but realities that inform and influence our engagement with the world.

From these truths come the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the goals and development of meditation practice, the Four Sublime States, the Three Heavenly Messengers, and list after list of Buddha’s teachings.

Each teaching steers us from nihilism and determinism and keeps us on the Middle Path. Each teaching steers us to develop our body and minds to become liberated from conditioned reality that is the soil that we cultivate our suffering. Each teaching is proven true by the transformative results in our relationship with the world.

So authentic Buddhism is not determined by a historical lineage or authorizing body of elders, but by an individual’s progress. The only true Buddhist temple is the individual who sees, hears and practices the dhamma.

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Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Four Noble Truths, IOBM, Kharma, Mahayana, Noble Eightfold Path, Theravada, Virajana

Author:Sumitta

Born Joshua Hudson, Reverend Sumitta (his ordained name) finished a twenty-year career as a military photo-journalist, and became a Licensed Social Worker with continuing studies in Mental Health, Healthcare Advocate, and Buddhist Minister. Currently, he works as the Director of Psychological Health and Primary Prevention of Violence for the U.S. Air Force. Previously, he served as the healthcare patient advocate for the Veterans Healthcare Administration, and is a License Clinical Social Worker, with a Master’s in Clinical Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh, working as a drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor, public speaker, trainer and personal/family advisor. His dharma name "Sumitta," which translates to "Good Friend" in Pali.

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4 Comments on “What is the Authentic Buddhism?”

  1. May 27, 2011 at 5:10 pm #

    When I refer to The Buddha, I am speaking of the Samma Sambuddhasa (the self enlightened one), who was once Prince Siddhartha Gautama. However, there have been many Buddhas before and after (who are often called Arahants or “those who have done the work”).

    The purpose of Buddhism is to understand the nature of dukkha (suffering or unsatisfactoriness) and how to reorient our lives to remove all unwholesome dukkha. This leads to higher and higher levels of mindfulness and awakened nature, which eventually leads to a totally awakened state totally liberated from karma and dukkha. It is in this state that we find ourselves truely living a totally mindful and engaged life in a state of blameless bliss (sukkha).

  2. Jñāna
    June 1, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Thoughtful post Sumitta.

  3. Steve
    June 23, 2011 at 4:07 am #

    Thanks, I like this article.
    I was born in Mahayana Buddhist family. I learn about Vajrayana recently, but to be honest it is quite unclear why Vajrayana is Buddhism. It teaches us about impermanence, non-self, compassion, bodhicitta just like other Buddhist tradition. Not to mention there are also a lot of Indian masters also contributed in Vajrayana texts and scriptures. I read the coming of Padmasambhava who was the founder of Tibetan Buddhism in general and particularly Nyingma lineage had been prophesied by Shakyamuni Buddha in Mahaparinirvana Sutra. However, I can find not even a single ‘Padmasambhava’ in Mahaparinirvana Sutra whether in Chinese Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra or Tibetan. It is possible those prophecies is made up? Any info would be appreciated, thank you.

    • June 23, 2011 at 10:50 am #

      Padmasambhava is considered to be a Buddha in later traditions after the Buddha Gautama. The Buddha Gautama was born in the 5th century BCE and Padmasambhava was arrived in Tibet in the 8th century CE. There is nothing in the original Pali Canon of the Buddha which would be considered prophesy that I am aware of.

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