Scholars and Practitioners


Throughout the history of Buddhism, most traditions have recognized and honored scholars, that is, those practitioners who have studied the canonical texts and their commentaries, and those who have written learned treatises attempting to systematize doctrine, and those who have written histories of Buddhism as a whole or of a particular lineage. Rarely, even in traditions that do not strongly emphasize the importance of the intellect as a component in the path to nirvana, does one find a dichotomy being drawn between scholars and practitioners. In Western circles, however, one frequently encounters an attitude that one can either be a Buddhist practitioner or an academic scholar of Buddhism, but one cannot easily be both. One finds this attitude both among those practitioners who have a suspicion of the academic mandate to be “objective” and among those scholars and professors who fear that their being openly identified as Buddhists could undermine their academic credibility. Adherence to the standard academic guidelines of what it means to be a scholar or researcher seems to be commonly perceived as an obstacle to cultivating the kinds of mental states that are traditionally seen as necessary to make progress towards nirvana. The academic requisite to be “objective,” for example, is often perceived as an obstacle to faith or conviction, which in turn is seen as necessary for making progress toward nirvana.

Many of these issues are explored with admirable clarity by Frank E. Reynolds, Charles S. Prebish, O'Hyun Park, Victor Sōgen Hori and others in a volume entitled Teaching Buddhism in the West [Hori et  al. 2002]. In his contribution to that volume, O'Hyun Park makes the interesting observation that the interest in Buddhist studies may be growing in the current academic environment partly for the reason that most academic disciplines have become highly specialized and operate on the principle of making more and more analytic distinctions, whereas Buddhist studies is one of the few disciplines that encourages holistic integration. In discussing the role of the teacher, Park says:

Buddhism, which is concerned with the problem of the whole, requires the wholeness of the teacher as well as the students. It will not reveal its totality when it is approached with partiality. In other words, a teacher must be a seeker, one who is not divorced from that which is sought. The seeker must go beyond merely teaching Buddhist concepts and the moral discipline found in Buddhist texts to find “that before which all words recoil.” In other words, what I am suggesting to my students is that one's interest in finding or knowing the truth should progressively diminish, even as one must become more interested in finding enlightened people and associating with realized people who are full of truth. I encourage my students to “collect” saints as their goal. [ Park 2002, p. 64]

Although some academic scholars of Buddhism might not express their mission quite so boldly, it seems to me that most of my colleagues in the field could be described as approaching their academic study and teaching of Buddhism in a way very similar to what Park recommends. Indeed, as Victor Sōgen Hori has observed, students sometimes hope that their professor of Buddhism will be one of the saints that a student can add to their collection.

Many students consider themselves Buddhists or are actively considering the possibility of declaring themselves Buddhist. They very much want to learn Buddhism not from the detached academic perspective but from the standpoint of personal commitment and lived experience. They expect class discussions to tell them “How to Be a Better Buddhist.” Far from being suspicious of the practitioner, they think that a practicing Buddhist is the only legitimate teacher of Buddhism and would like nothing better than to be a disciple to a guru. [Hori et al. 2002, p. xiv–xv]

Needless to say, professors, like gods and gurus, have feet of clay, so most students seeking to add a professor to their collection of saints stand a good chance of being disappointed, and perhaps even disillusioned. This disenchantment that so often follows on the heels of unfulfilled expectations may be part of why so many Western Buddhists seem to have an unduly negative view of academics and why they make a distinction between academics (who have disappointed them already) and gurus (who have yet to disappoint them).

Whatever the explanations may be for North America's well-documented anti-intellectualism, suffice it to say that that anti-intellectualism is live and well in North American Buddhist circles (not to mention in North American universities). It is not surprising, therefore, that a theme that has come up several times on buddha-l is that of what the relationship is and what the relationship should be between academic Buddhist studies and Dharma study and practice. The following squibs do not pretend to answer either the question of what that relationship is or the question of what it ought to be. They may, however, serve to stimulate some reflection on those questions.

Criteria of legitimacy

February 9, 1992

Here is a kōan for us all to work on together. You have been asked to teach a course in North American Buddhism. A student, eager to help you prepare your bibliography, thrusts a copy of Quietly Comes the Buddha into your hands and explains that it is the Buddha's first message to North Americans in the English language. On talking with the student, you discover that she is quite convinced that the text is an authentic instance of Buddha-dharma. What do you say to her?

Commentary:   Quietly Comes the Buddha is a book published in 1975 by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who claims to be a Messenger of God. In the preface it is explained that

Ever pursuing the goal of uniting the sacred mysteries of East and West, Gautama Buddha came quietly to the Messenger Elizabeth Clare Prophet to deliver his teachings for men and women in the Aquarian Age. As this living master meditates upon the heart of God and the heart of humanity, he sends forth through the written and spoken Word a delicate thread of light to contact the heart of every soul who would become the Christ or the Buddha by the Spirit of the living God.

Gautama Buddha, explains the preface, was also a source of inspiration to Saint John the Divine, Jesus Christ, Moses, Mohammad and Mary the Mother. Having been asked by The Darjeeling Council of The Great White Brotherhood, says one of the poems, Gautama is now revealing the principles of Cosmic Consciousness to the modern age. And so in 1975 he revealed the dharma in English, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, through the Messenger Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

The book itself contains several cantos of verse (well, sort of) such as the following:

Elizabeth Clare Prophet
I come quietly as an all-pervasive awareness
Of gentleness, of sweet caress,
Of God enfolding life with tenderness,
A thousand petals of a thousand-petaled rose
And of a lotus that blooms and grows
in the swampland of life-
Symbol of alchemy,
Of transmutation of karma,
Of life transcending cycles
Of pain and suffering.

Each verse is attributed to Gautama Buddha, since (explains the preface) all the words were his and came to be known to the Messenger when “the mind of the Buddha merged with the sphere of [her] own higher consciousness.” This can occur, because “the spherical consciousness of the mind of the Buddha is delivered simultaneously to all evolutions in the planes of Mater [sic] and to each disciple according to his evolution and to his understanding.”

One might be tempted, on reading the preface of Quietly Comes the Buddha and about a page of what is surely among the worst poetry in the history of English literature, to politely hand the book back to the eager student and say “Thank you for the information. This book is certainly North American. But it's not Buddhist. I can't put it on the bibliography.”

On the other hand, a moment's reflection by an honest scholar shows that there is nothing more outrageous about the claim that this is the word of the Buddha than about the claim that, say, the Pali Canon is the word of the Buddha. The way that this new “sūtra” supposedly came to Colorado is not a bit less credible than stories of how the Mahāyāna Sūtras were delivered to Nāgārjuna. The claims of how the Buddha's mind communicated with the Messenger are actually fairly tame compared to the kind of thing one can read in Hua-yen literature.

No appeal to literary standards can help us out. The frankly awful doggerel that the Buddha allegedly wrote through the inspired pen of Messenger Prophet is not much worse than the equally ghastly doggerel that appears in, say, the Lotus Sutra or the Laṅkāvatāra, which must be among the worst ever written in Sanskrit. The verse allegedly communicated through the Messenger may even be substantially better than some of the Pali drivel in Verses of the Brethren and the Sistren. (Let's face it: we Sanskritists all know that most arhants and bodhisattvas had better not quit their daytime jobs in the hopes of making a livelihood by writing verse.)

Admittedly, one might be tempted to dismiss the Messenger on the grounds that her religious commune in Montana is (according to a recent television documentary) protected by a substantial arsenal of Uzi machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles, rocket and grenade launchers and people trained in using them, and that former members of her movement testify that she has become a paranoid megalomaniac who cannot tolerate any form of dissension. But this would be an ad hominem argument, would it not? Besides, armed camps under the direction of paranoid megalomaniacs are certainly not without precedence in the history of Asian Buddhism, nor even in the short but already lurid history of North American Buddhism.

So on what grounds, if any, could one say that Quietly Comes the Buddha is not a legitimate new sūtra? By what criteria that have been operative in the history of Buddhism could one rule it out?

How would you explain to the student that Prophet's poetry is not Buddhism? Or would you put Prophet's book on the bibliography, along with Rajneesh's commentary on the Diamond S¯utra, the poetry of Ginsberg, the novels of Kerouac and Salinger, the musings of Krishnamurti, videotapes of Zen Master Rama talking in the squeaky voice that comes over him when Cosmic Consciousness comes to California, and half a dozen books proclaiming that the Buddha anticipated the results of quantum physics, non-Euclidean geometry and trans-personal psychotherapy?

Are there, in other words, any limits at all? Or would a course in North American Buddhism end up being a survey course in the Theory of Everything?

Unlike most of my questions, which sound serious but are in fact a joke, this question may sound like a jest but is in fact serious.

Richard Hayes

More on legitimacy

February 11, 1992

On the question of the legitimacy of self-proclaimed messengers of the Buddha, such as Messenger Elizabeth Clare Prophet, David offers this suggestion:

Canons being the constructions of religious communities, wouldn't the criterion be social: the claim for a new addition to the Buddhavacana would have to be made by someone who could make a credible claim to be a member of a/the Sangha, and his/her claim would have to be accepted by the community involved. Since there is very little chance that Elizabeth Clare Prophet's book would be accepted by any historical Buddhist community, it could not be considered Buddhavacana.

When I first thought about the matter, this approach seemed the most promising. It certainly seems to be the safest route to take, at least prima facie. But this approach does raise some important questions of its own. First of all, it assumes that there is a Buddhist community. And the problem with that assumption is that there are many Buddhist communities, each with somewhat different and often incompatible opinions as to who really belongs to the Buddhist community. This has been a contested point since around the third century B.C.E., and even in our own pluralistic and ecumenical times it is far from solved.

The Theravādin community could most easily reject Prophet without compromising their historical position; for them, she would no more be a bearer of the Buddha's words than were the Mahāyāna sūtras and the tantras. Cute stuff, maybe, but not Buddha-vacana.

Mahāyānins, on the other hand, who tend to be advocates of an open canon (which is actually a contradiction in terms, since an open canon is really no canon at all), might have a more difficult time rejecting Prophet. Even the appeal to sense of community would not serve as a criterion, since according to Mahayana doctrine the Buddhist community is by no means limited to beings that the Census Bureau would count as existent.

In his first Bhāvanākrama, for example, Kamalaśīla explains that one becomes a bodhisattva by making a solemn vow to attain omniscience in order to rescue all sentient beings from their troubles. This solemn vow should be taken in the presence of a recognized, competent preceptor who has taken and lives by the same vow. But, says Kamalaśīla, if one cannot find such a preceptor, then one may conjure up a mental image of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas and take the vow as if they were physically present. This, it is explained, is how Mañjuśrī joined the community of bodhisattvas.

According to Mahayana theory, then, one can join the community without the explicit approval of anyone else in the visible human community. In practice, too, legitimation by personae in dreams, visions and apparitions has been one way that some (admittedly few) teachers have claimed authority. I have heard that some Zen masters in the past have claimed authenticity in this way, and I know for certain of one contemporary Zen master who bases his legitimacy on having received transmission in a dream from his master several years after his master's death. There may be other similar instances of nocturnal transmission.

Elizabeth Clare Prophet says of her own encounter with the Buddha:

I applied to the enlightened ones—the ascended masters—to teach me the teaching of the law that I might give it as soul nourishment to the spiritually impoverished evolutions of earth.

In 1975, Lord Gautama Buddha came quietly to my soul to deliver me the teachings on the Ten Perfections of the Law presented in this book as the poetry of his heart's communion with the One.

So, it might be asked, if she has the authorization of Gautama Buddha himself and of the rest of the community of “ascended masters,” how much does she need the approval of the human community of Buddhists?

So now my question is: is there any theoretical or practical criterion that Mahayana Buddhists have evolved to filter out allegedly spurious claims to authenticity? (Stated in this way, this becomes essentially an historical question.)

Richard Hayes


Hori et al. 2002
Hori, Victor Sōgen, Richard P. Hayes, and James Mark Shields, editors. Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.
Park 2002
Park, O'Hyun. “Moving beyond the ‘ism’: A Critique of the Objective Approach to Teaching Buddhism.” In Hori et al., 2002. 57–68.

File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.00.
On 1 Jul 2006, 21:19.