Sources of authority - Buddhist perspectives

During worship, Buddhists will bow three times to reflect their dedication to the Three Refuges, also known as the Triple Gem or the Three Treasures. The Three Refuges consist of the following sources of authority:

The monks in the Sangha see it as their responsibility to teach members of the community about Buddhism and they will be there to offer advice on any issue which concerns a member of the lay community.

The teachings of Buddhism, the words of the Buddha and the basis for the teachings of the monks, can be found in the sacred texts which are known collectively as the Tripitaka. For Buddhists, sacred texts are the most important source of authority. They contain teachings of the Buddha on how to reach enlightenment as well as teachings to help guide Buddhists in their everyday life.

The Theravada scriptures are also known as the Pali canon.

The Tripitaka

The Tripitaka is considered to be a record of the words of the Buddha. The Pali canon was written down in the first century CE. The Tripitaka contains the following sections:

  • Vinaya Pitaka – this contains the rules telling monks and nuns how to behave with each other, and within society. A summary of the rules is chanted on a regular basis to remind them of their responsibilities.
  • The Sutta Pitaka - contains the Buddha's teachings recorded mainly as sermons delivered in historical settings. It includes the Dhammapada. The Dhammapada means 'the path or verses of truth' and is the best known of all the Buddhist scriptures in the West. It also includes the Metta Sutta, a scripture in which the Buddha describes how an individual can live a life of loving-kindness.
  • Abhidhamma Pitaka – this section is the most complex and it contains teaching about the nature of life and the reasons for being.

Some Buddhists from Tibet, China, Mongolia and Nepal also read the Mahayana sutras. These are scriptures written several centuries after the the time of the Buddha, in Sanskrit language. Mahayana scriptures are often longer than the early scriptures and some contain colourful imagery and stories as well as teachings on Buddhist philosophy. Mahayana Buddhists believe these texts contain genuine teachings of the Buddha and include them in the Tripitaka. This means that Theravada Buddhists and Mahayana Buddhists have different views on what scriptures belong in the Tripitaka.