Buddhism: Sources of Wisdom and Authority

Buddhism maintains that the Dharma is an accurate description of reality and the path of practice that leads to the realisation of that truth. As we have learnt, those who have completed their journey along this path are considered Buddhas, enlightened ones. It is these people who form the core of Wisdom and Authority in Buddhism. This makes sense: if we wish to become enlightened, we must follow in the footsteps of those who are already enlightened.

The Example of the Buddhas

The most important example was set by Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, whose journey form luxury to enlightenment we explored in more detail when we looked at Buddhist Beliefs and Teachings. However, Siddhartha Gautama is not the only one to achieve Buddhahood, nor was he the first. Buddhist cosmology maintains that each age, or grand cycle of time, is marked by one thousand Buddhas. We know the name of the twenty-seven that immediately preceded the Buddha, as well as the name of the one who will come after; Maitreya. Maitreya is a figure that is believed to be born when the Dharma is no longer widely known or taught among sentient creatures anymore.

As we noted before, there is some disagreement about who should be referred to as Buddha. Theravada Buddhists often reserve the term for only these Buddhas who achieved enlightenment without a teacher. However, it is often used to describe anyone who has achieved enlightenment.

Regardless the use of the term, those thought to achieve enlightenment are believed to represent certain perfections of character and practice. A good example of this is Amitābha, a king from a previous age who renounced his throne after hearing the teachings of one of the Buddhas from a previous age. After achieving enlightenment, Amitābha is thought to reside in the ‘Pure Land’, a land without suffering, outside of existence, sustained by the perfections of Buddhahood. Amitābha is so highly revered in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, that even saying his name is thought to bring about the likelihood of rebirth in the ‘pure land’.


Lotus Sutra‘ is a pictoral representation of a work in the Public Domain.

The main difficulty of following the examples set by the Buddhas that have come before is that most people, throughout history, do not personally know any Buddhas. This is where Sutras, writings, come in.

The word Sutra comes from the word for thread. A Sutra is a teaching that weaves together a set of words. These words can vary in length; form a single phrase to an entire book. Buddhists, through the ages, have attempted to record the histories and teachings of the Buddhas by writing Sutras.

One of the most important collection of Sutras in Buddhism is known as The Pali Canon (also known as the Tripitaka). Canon here means that this collection is agreed upon by all Buddhists. The Pali Canon started as a collection of stories told by the earliest disciples and followers of Siddhartha Buddha soon after he achieved Nirvana. The stories and teachings were maintained orally for hundreds of years before they started to be written down at the Fourth Buddhist Council in 29 BCE.

The Canon is divided into three ‘baskets’ (Tripitaka translates as ‘Three Baskets’), this refers to the practice of keeping the manuscripts in baskets. The three sections that the Canon is broken into; the Vinaya, which focus on the rules to be followed by the Sangha; the Sutta, which focus on the teachings of the Buddha; and the Abhidhamma, which explain more about Buddhist teaching in more detail. The Sutta pitaka is the largest and is the primary source of Buddhist Wisdom. The Adhidhamma pitaka was most likely written later on as the Buddha’s followers elaborated on the Dharma.

The Pali Canon is held in higher esteem by Theravada Buddhists. Mahayana Buddhists can be said to have their own canon in the eight Prajnaparamita Sutras that are thought of as together containing the path to perfect wisdom. 

Mahayana Buddhists place special importance on one sutra in particular; the Lotus Sutra. The words of the Lotus Sutra are thought to contain the final and full verison of the teachings of the Buddha. In other words, the entire Dharma, the path to enlightenment, is contained in this one Sutra. Its influence is understandably huge, especially in East Asia. In the Nichiren tradition, for example, the words of the Sutra themselves are venerated in the form of the Gohonzon scroll.

The Sangha

Anybody who has read a Buddhist Sutra will tell you that they can be very complicated. This leads us to our final source of wisdom and authority in Buddhism: the Sangha.

As previously noted, there is some difference of opinion in Buddhism about who counts as part of the Sangha. In Mahayana Buddhism the word Sangha refers to everybody who identifies as Buddhist; monks, nuns, and lay people. In Theravada Buddhism the word Sangha is reserved for the communities of monks and nuns with the word pariṣā being used to refer to lay Buddhists.

The Sangha is important not just because it is the origin of the Sutras, the Sangha protects and preserves the teachings of the Dharma in more ways than preserving important Sutras. The Sangha is tasked with propagating the Dharma; explaining it to the rest of the world. We can see here the ways in which the Sangha and the Dharma sustain each other: the Sangha preserves and teaches the Dharma, the Dharma give shape to the Sangha in the form of rules that Buddhists need to follow.

A sizable portion of Buddhist writings are dedicated to the process of joining a Buddhist monastic order, as well as the rules that Buddhist Monks and Nuns are expected to live by. There are four monastic orders that Buddhist monks and nuns are ordained into:

  • Dharmaguptaka
  • Mulasarvastivadin
  • Theravada
  • Mahayana

The first three trace their history back to the precepts originally laid down by Siddhartha. The Mahayana order was recognised and granted later, between 822 and 827 CE. Forms of ordination vary. The general pattern is that the applicant formally requests to be taken as a novice. Then later, they become fully recognised monk or nun by requesting to be taught by a more highly ranked senior.

Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka‘ by Antan0 is licensed under CC by SA 3.0


It can be difficult for new groups to be recognised by these three groups that are seen to have lineage directly from the Buddha. A good example of a successful and large Buddhist group that has met with some controversy due to its lack of lineage is found in the UK. The Triratna Buddhist Order, also popular in India, is a large international group of Buddhists but they are not fully recognised by Theravada or Mahayana communities. They also have a different process for ordination whereby applicants first become ‘friends’ of the community before becoming fully ordained and do not live separately from the lay community. Both ‘friends’ and ordinands are expected to follow certain precepts.

The rules that monks and nuns are expected to follow are always based upon versions of the precepts and perfections that were taught by the Buddha. However, they vary depending on the community that the person wants to become a part of; this varies between traditions and countries across the globe.

A good example of this is found in Japan. Mahayana Buddhism is dominant in Japan and there are many different schools of thought. Some schools of Mahayana Buddhism see the vows of celibacy, vegetarianism, and sobriety as optional. As a result, it is not uncommon, especially in Japan, to find Buddhist monks and nuns who are married, eat meat, and drink alcohol.


Monks and Nuns play a role in the community as leaders of rituals and practices. Most commonly prayer and meditation sessions, but also funerals and other significant events. It is becoming more common, especially with Buddhist communities in the West, for lay Buddhists to perform some of the smaller duties that would fall into this category. However, this is still contested in many Buddhist groups.

Monks and Nuns follow different sets of rules and in some, especially Theravada, groups, the ordination of women is a very controversial practice. In Thailand, for example, where Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism, women are not legally allowed to be ordained as nuns.


The differences between different groups of Buddhists also extends to the leadership. As a broad difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism it can perhaps be said that in Mahayana Buddhism there is greater significance placed on the student – teacher relationship, while in Theravada Buddhism the relationship between novices and elders is just as respectful but more communal. 

In Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, Lama is an honorific title for highly respected leaders. Two of which: the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama are believed to constantly reincarnate back into Tibetan society as the leaders of the society.

Dalai Lama‘ by Lucag is licensed under CC by SA 2.5

Historical and Contemporary Figures

Alongside those who have achieved Buddhahood, canonical writings, and local Buddhist leaders and mentors; Buddhists also take inspiration and follow the example of key historical and contemporary figures. This is a list of just some of the figures that are respected by different groups of Buddhists around the world. This is a good place to start when considering contemporary Buddhist leadership across the world:

  • His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (Tibetan)
  • Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett (Order of Buddhist Contemplatives)
  • Sangharakshita (Triratna Buddhist Order)
  • Ajahn Sumedho (Thai Forest Tradition)
  • Thich Nhat Hanh (Order of Interbeing)
  • Dr Ambedkar (India)

The Ultimate Test: Buddha’s ‘Charter for free inquiry’

Finding reliable sources of wisdom and authority is always difficult. In the Kālāma Sutra we see an account of the Buddha trying to offer a solution to exactly this problem.

In the sutra, a group of people called the Kālāmas greet the Buddha as he visits their village. But they complain that they have been visited by so many wise teachers, who all say different things; making it difficult to know which teachings should be followed.

The Buddha’s answer is that all sources of wisdom; Oral History, Tradition, the News, Authoritative texts, Imaginative constructions, Logical arguments, Common Sense, Personal Opinion, Expert Opinion, and Teachers; can all be wrong. We shouldn’t blindly follow any of these.

Instead, we should constantly employ our freedom to explore the results of holding any teaching and find out whether it relieves suffering in the world. If it does, then it should be followed. This is the ultimate test in Buddhism of all sources of wisdom and authority. What this looks like in Practice will be the topic of our next page: Practices and Expressions.

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