Wouldn’t it be comforting to have a pope: unimpeachable, indefatigable, infallibly in charge of whatever we are supposed to do and think, a father to our childish selves to guide us on the path to god?

No such luck for the questing Buddhist, though many seek in the guru the wise father they think they never had. In the transmission of Buddhism from its Asian homelands to its Western mission grounds, no element of the tradition has become so problematic or stimulated such a fuss as the question of authority. Who is the boss of a dharma practice? Is it the guru or the disciple? How do we translate the teacher-student relationship from its Asian setting, which was conservative, hierarchical, authoritarian, monastic, collective, and mostly male, to a Western culture that values creativity, is egalitarian, democratic, hedonistic, individualistic, and coed? What is happening to lineages that have been sustained for centuries within cultural boundaries by teachers and students of common backgrounds, but have now passed into the hands of free thinkers whose worldview is so different from their teachers’? For a religion cut loose from its moorings of culture and tradition, where does authority come from? How are newcomers to evaluate authenticity? Who is in charge of the dharma in the land of the entrepreneur?

One might begin an inquiry into this twenty-first-century puzzle by asking who has ever been in charge of the evolution of the dharma? The awakening of Shakyamuni under a tree in Bodhgaya is the seminal event for all branches of Buddhism. In that realization resides the infallible, unimpeachable authority at the heart of the tradition. And it is from that space that Buddhist teachers are meant to transmit their lineage, each tradition drawing its authenticity from an unbroken chain of realization traceable back to Shakyamuni Buddha. That, in any case, is the theory.

In the final days of the Buddha’s life, as recounted in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, the Buddha had quite a bit to say about how to proceed after he has gone:

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