I was having an email discussion with someone who had a more literal interpretation of one of the Buddhist sutras than I did. I was arguing that the story could be seen as a myth but that this did not lessen the “truth” that it spoke of. I was supporting my position with a passage from the introduction to David Loy’s book (co-written with Linda Goodhew) “the dharma Of Dragons And Daemons”. I thought it would be suitable to post here to explore
both the Christian and Buddhist view of stories and myths. I have paraphrased it a little, without, I hope, altering the author’s intended meaning.
“One of the ways that language makes us human is by enabling us to create and share stories about what the world is, who we are, and what we are to do while we are here. Consciously or unconsciously, stories order a complicated, often confusing, world and give us models of how to live it. They include creation myths, folk and fairy tales, legends about gods and heroes, Homeric epics and Norse sagas, Greek tragedy and Japanese Noh plays.
The best stories are more than just entertainment. Traditionally, the most important ones have been religious. According to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, religion is the metaphysics of the masses, but it is just as true to label philosophy the religion of the intellectuals. Theologians like to argue about doctrines, and religious institutions elevate those claims into dogmas, but for most of us it is chiefly stories we find meaningful, because stories speak to us and move us in ways that concepts do not. The birth of Jesus in the manger, because there was no room in the inn; the Last Supper followed by Christ’s agony on the cross; his resurrection, victorious over death – these narratives are what most Christians relate to, not the niceties of the Nicene Creed. Until recently, at least, Bible tales from the Old and New Testaments served as the “core stories” of Western civilisation. Allusions to them were embedded everywhere: Renaissance sculpture and painting, Bach’s cantatas and Handel’s oratorios, the epic poetry of Milton and Blake. The success of Me Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” reminds us that these stories have not lost their attraction.
Buddhism, too, can be seen as a collection of stories. The life of Shakyamuni Buddha forms the core, especially such crucial incidents as his leaving home and his great awakening under the Bodhi tree. According to legend, his father surrounded young Gotama with healthy youthful people, so it was utterly shocking when he eventually encountered a sick person, an old person, a corpse and finally a world-renouncer – which led him to renounce his own royal position and become a forest ascetic. The power of this story is not affected by the fact that it does not seem to be literally true. Historical or not, it remains a deeply moving myth, dramatically reminding us not to repress awareness of illness, aging and mortality, but to allow that awareness to motivate a spiritual quest for the meaning of our life and death.
What was the great awakening that crowned this quest? What did the Buddha realise that led to his liberation? The necessary ambiguity of his enlightenment, for us, makes his realisation less a doctrine than a myth, the central myth, to attempt to live to the buddha’s quest as one’s own core story.
Myths do not gain their meaning because incidents they describe actually occurred. If they are “true” it is because they invoke something essential about who we are. Paul Tillich distinguished “unbroken myth” (understood to be literally true) from “broken myth” (no longer believed to be historically true, but still held to have a deep significance). In place of broken myth, however, the former Anglican bishop, Richard Holloway has suggested that we think in terms of “breaking open a myth” (See Holloway’s “Doubts and Loves”). The meaning of myth is something contained within it, and often obscured by the details of the story, so if we want to taste its fruits we need to break through its skin. To reach the living heartwood we must penetrate the hardened bark.
We need such myths to live by, as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it. They are not crutches for those who cannot take too much reality, for we need them to figure out what is real and important about the world and our being in it. From a spiritual perspective, then, the point is not to get rid of our myths but to become more aware of what they are. Myths change us: when we live a myth, that myth is also living us. One of the most pernicious myths is the myth of a life without myth. A few people become spiritually ill because they lose their myth and do not know how to find another one, but for most people the myth of no myth means they have been captured by the dominant myths of their culture – myths so prevalent that they are unaware of them, like the fish that does not notice the water it swims in.
Buddhist teachings are full of stories. The Pali canon with the Sutras and the Vinaya, always present the context for each of the Buddha’s talks, where it occurred and who was there. “Thus I have heard…” If those stories are often no more than the occasion for a teaching, each teaching is nevertheless placed within a larger narrative involving people who gather together to hear what the Buddha has to say. When we study the earliest records of the Buddhadharma, we study stories.
Later scriptures such as the Lotus Sutra and the Avatamsaka Sutra are basically long narratives that present their teachings by embedding stories within stories, often in the form of parables. In Tibetan Buddhism there are tales from the lives of Padmasambva, Marpa, Milarepa, and many others. In Chan/Zen Buddhism there are foundational legends about Bodhidharma and the sixth patriarch. In Pureland Buddhism, we have the three Pure Land Sutras with the Larger Pure Land Sutra giving us the wonderful story of Dharmakara fulfilling his vows to become Amida Buddha,
How many of these stories are literally true? Historical scholarship raises questions about most of them, yet the basic issue, for Buddhists at least, is whether a myth inspires and empowers us to follow the Middle Path in a fruitful way”.