The question of authority is not one involving only politics and the critique of concrete powers; it is also a proper philosophical problem. Through the setting of a hierarchy of authority, a community shows its capacity to put into practice its fundamental principles and maintain its heritage. Both Buddhism and Christianity encourage and rely upon a sense of responsibility from the individuals themselves, where they follow practices or partake in a community of belief not just because of forced dogmas or impeding punishments, but through a genuine, internal desire to do so. Yet, in their evolution, both traditions, like any other collective construction, have had recourse to a strong establishment of authorities.
The problem of authority in Buddhism starts with a famous paradox. While the Buddha was duly recognised as a spiritual model and inspiration through the teachings he gave during his life, one of his last words was a request to his disciples to stop considering him as an authority. To his faithful discipline Ananda, he said : “what is the community expecting from me, dear Ananda? I never wanted to manage it or to subject it to my teachings, thus I have no directives to leave it with. My life is coming to an end. After my death, be your own island, your own shelter; have no other shelter.” 1 In spite of his request, the Buddhist community would grow under two forms of authority : Buddha becoming progressively a quasi deity (in particular in Mahāyāna Buddhism), and the Buddhist community or Saṃgha emerging as a highly hierarchical and political institution. “From a semi-hermit lifestyle, the nomadic bhikshu, as Buddha lived and encouraged, monks … soon gathered in stable and strictly regulated community structures, under the lead of confirmed masters.” 2 This authority of the masters was ideally meant as a source of guidance for the Buddhist practitioners. Leaders to be were selected through two criteria : their belonging to a particular tradition of lineage, in which a master identifies his successor, and a profound personal experience of realisation, which comes to confirm the lineage selection. But this was in the ideal case : in the facts, the transfer of power was often the occasion of violent strifes between different groups. No Buddhist country avoided this sad consequence. In Tibet, the various sects competed to gain domination on the political power. In China, from Bodhidharma to Hui-Neng, the assassination attempts were common, contributing to the emergence of diverging traditions.
Political preoccupations have kept numbers of Buddhist practitioners – leaders, but also their disciples, dependent upon them – away from what could have been a more genuine and devoted practice. In Buddhism, the establishment of authority has broadly been a hindrance to the spiritual training, especially since the Buddha himself insisted upon the necessity of relying primarily upon oneself.
It is also through the Saṃgha’s relations with actual political powers that one can observe the phenomenon of authority in Buddhism. This relation started in India, with Aśoka, the self-proclaimed Buddhist and famous emperor of the 3rd century bce, who contributed greatly to the spread of Buddhism in foreign countries, and in particular in Sri Lanka, where he sent his son Mahinda, and where the Buddhist canons would later be written. In India, Kaniska, Kusana, Kumaragupta the 1st, Dharmapala and the Pallava kings in the south – that is, only a few disparate kings – would follow the Buddhist affiliation started by Aśoka, and such, in the midst of a cultural and political context by and large unfriendly towards Buddhism. Sri Lanka would grow as a nation, with Buddhism as its state religion, which did not prevent waves of violence, with kings ordering the killing of monks and monks taking their revenge. In China, Buddhism was a foreign cult, and was therefore originally persecuted by the state. Until today, China maintains a complicated relation to Buddhism. By contrast, in Japan, Buddhism was originally welcomed by the elite, but there too, later political turmoil would actually be initiated by Buddhist authorities. “Throughout almost all its history, Buddhism in Japan was a religion of power, if not a religion in power.” 3 As for Tibet, Alain Delaye talks of a proper Buddhocracy, bearing witness of a spiritual community being progressively endowed with a function surpassing by far that of mere spiritual guidance. The merging of religious and political functions, at the heart of the Saṃgha, has contributed to a diminution of its purity as a community meant to focus on spiritual growth. Political preoccupations have kept numbers of Buddhist practitioners – leaders, but also their disciples, dependent upon them – away from what could have been a more genuine and devoted practice. In Buddhism, the establishment of authority has broadly been a hindrance to the spiritual training, especially since the Buddha himself insisted upon the necessity of relying primarily upon oneself.
In Christianity, the question of authority came up from a different starting point. Jesus’s authority was not one attached to a personal experience of realisation, but to his presence as a mission on earth, and to the connection of intimacy linking him with God, his Father. This relation, first presented by Jesus himself in his teachings, came to be recognised by his relatives and disciples (John the Baptist, Simon, Andrew, James, John), and by a population that was “struck by his teachings, because he taught them as a man with an authority and not as a scribe.” 4 The authority of Jesus took an original form. He did not misuse his growing power over easily influenced disciples ; rather he went to give a voice to the unheard : children, prostitutes, Publicans (tax-collectors), fishermen, servants. “Thus, the son of man did not come to be served, but to serve and give life…” 5 Jesus explicitly rejected any social, economic, political or military power. His power was not one of a judge 6 or of a chief. 7 Just like the Buddha, he did not want to transfer his power to anyone, but his logic was different: the Kingdom of God was expected to come soon. Yet just like in Buddhism, in the meantime, the growing community would still manage to come about around certain hierarchal authorities. Some of the direct disciples of Jesus would quarrel over matters of power after Jesus’s demise, as can be seen in the contradictory versions of the different gospels. In spite of that, Christianity would remain, for its first centuries, a persecuted minority in the Roman Empire.
The turn of Christianity to political power highlighted a profound confusion on the meaning of “kingdom” : “what was forgotten then, was that for Jesus, it was not the political power but God himself who had to establish his Kingdom on earth, and that one should not confuse God with Caesar” (Alain Delaye).
Slowly but steadily, the situation would radically change : in the 2nd century ce, the community acquired a proper hierarchy with the bishops replacing the apostles. In the 4th century, Theodosius I, last emperor of the unified Roman Empire, would declare Christianity the official church in his territory. “Christendom, by becoming state religion, passed from persecuted minority to persecuting majority.” 8 The turn of Christianity to political power highlighted a profound confusion on the meaning of “kingdom” : “what was forgotten then, was that for Jesus, it was not the political power but God himself who had to establish his Kingdom on earth, and that one should not confuse God with Caesar.” 9 Thus emerged in the Eastern Roman Empire a bicephal theocracy, with the emperor being at once the political leader and the representative of God on earth, that is, the guardian of the Church. In the Western Roman Empire, Pope Zachary started in 751 the divine rights of kings with the designation of Pepin the Short, first ruler of the Franks. Parallel to the tensions between sects in growing Buddhism, Eastern and Western Church started taking some distance from each other: “an unprecedented Romanisation and jurisdictiation of the Western Church was witnessed, along with the concomitant excommunication of the Eastern Church.” 10 In the Middle Age, the crusades would not only take as enemies the Jews and Muslims, but also Orthodox Christians.
The rational spirit took “revenge”, for instance through the French Revolution of 1789: “the Roman Church appeared as enemy of the Revolution and 40.000 priests were expelled abroad. On the ideological ground, the revolutionaries set up a national civilian religion and even, for some time, a cult of the goddess Reason” (Alain Delaye).
In the 16th century, a strong authority tension would rise within the Western Church itself, giving rise to the Lutheran reform, soon followed by the Anglican schism in England. All these historical conjunctures came to put serious limits to the individual beliefs and practices of many Christians. For instance, in 1277, Thomas Aquinas would see his appeal for a return to Aristotlian doctrine condemned by Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris. It is also to non-Christian thoughts that the Church was ferociously opposed. The Enlightenment century saw the rise of rationalism with Descartes, Spinoza, Bayle, Leibniz, Hobbes, Locke, Hume or Kant, which would soon be perceived as the signs of a growing contestation of the divine powers of God, towards the valorisation of the intellect of each independent human being. In 1864, Pope Pie IX published a syllabus errorum modernorum in which many great minds of the time were blacklisted. The rational spirit took “revenge”, for instance through the French Revolution of 1789: “the Roman Church appeared as enemy of the Revolution and 40.000 priests were expelled abroad. On the ideological ground, the revolutionaries set up a national civilian religion and even, for some time, a cult of the goddess Reason.” 11 In the following decades, the Church would be slow to recognise the importance of liberalism and socialism, markers of post-Revolution Western Europe, which only contributed further to its decreasing power. Today, the Christian Church encourages a wider freedom of speech but the power of the pope is still considered as monarchal, while financial and political scandals still animate the life of the community. 12 The question of power is, as Alain Delaye writes, one of the prickly problems of the history of Christianity. Thus, neither Buddhism nor Christianity succeeded in avoiding the risk of a religious and spiritual movement turning into a merciless imperial and political power. This turn occurred in fact at the cost of the spiritual practice itself. But was this a necessary evil for the practice to reach out to more human lives? After observing the impressive rise to power of Christianity, Eugen Drewermann asks: “How to recognise in this a progress in the intelligence of Jesus’s message?” 13
Fundamental here is the ambiguity on the meanings of “power” : “patience, compassion and joy dominate the figure of the father … Whether we talk of the celestial Father … or the cosmic Buddha … the only deployed power is that of love and compassion.” 14 Indeed, even if institutionalisation and excesses of power are always two inseparable processes, Christianity and Buddhism, in spite of their spiritual richness, have arguably failed to limit the contamination of political concerns over the religious realm.
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- Dighanikaya II, quoted in Etienne Lamotte, Histoire du Bouddhisme Indien (Louvain: La Neuve, 1976), 70.
- Alain Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus (Paris: Accarias/L’Originel, 2007), 73.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 77.
- Mark 1:22.
- Matthew 20:25s.
- Matthew 7:1; John 8:15.
- Matthew 22:15s.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 82.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 83.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 86.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 92.
- See, for instance, the case of Bishop Marcinkus, who was found guilty of major money laundering in 1982.
- Eugen Drewermann, Dieu Immédiat (Desclée de Brouwer, 1995), 76.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 99.