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.