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The history, archaeology and myth of Buddhism

SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
edited August 2005 in Modern Buddhism
I have puzzled over where to put this thread. The decision to do so in this place is the result of a remark by one of my USian correspeondents who maintains that all history before 1945 has been made irrelevant.

As an (amateur) historian and archaeologist, I have puzzled over this remark. It would be all-too-easy to take the European anti-USian path and simply dismiss the remark as just another piece of imperial arrogance. But I think it demonstrates a mind-set which needs to be taken into account when discussing Buddhism, with its diverse and ancient history. Is that history relevant to us, in the West, today? Are the ancient mythic stories still resonating?

Part of the problem arises, I believe, from an interesting development in Christian theology since the Enlightenment: what Schweitzer called "The Search for the Historical Jesus". Time and again, people ask, "Is that true?" meaning 'is that an historical fact that can be verified by evidence?' Go into any church or onto any Christian discussion board and you will find such debates.

When I go and question the historicity of the "Exodus" or of "Nazareth in Galilee" because there is no archaeology to support them, I am referred back to scriptural texts as 'evidence'. If I suggest that historical fact is less important than the psycho-spiritual message of the 'desert experience' or of 'ghetto children', I am (usually) roundly abused!

In the spread of Buddhism into the West, we continue to receive traditions originating in many different cultures: Indian, Tibetan, Chinese, Burmese, Sri Lankan, Japanese, Mongolian and all their offspring. Each of these comes with its own "sacred history".

I have recently been reading up on Padmasambhava who built the first gompa in Tibet. It is just not possible (or, I believe, particularly useful) to unpick what is 'fact' and what is 'myth'. Is the belief that Guru Rinpoche was predicted by the Buddha Shakyamuni a fact? And all the other stories.

My own conclusion arises in part from my fascination with stories of the land that we tell each other. It is that Buddhism in the West will begin to accrete myth, and is already doing so: the older, first generation of teachers is passing and individual teachers are beginning to be venerated.

In addition, I note that temples are being built in places of great beauty. This gives me hope that Western Buddhisms will develop and rediscover genuine myths of the land which demonstrate what all the Buddhist stories teach us: that the unending compassion of all the Buddhas of all the ages was manifest within our own native story if we only know where to look!

Here, in the Uk and France, Germany, Spain, Greece, across the whole of the Old World, we live with places of power and lines of force which have not been abandoned for over 10,000 years. In some ways, The USA and Canada have still to learn to recognise the powers that live in the stories of Turtle Island. But it's coming!

Comments

  • LincLinc Community Instigator Detroit Moderator
    edited June 2005
    As a student of history and future teacher of it, the remark that history before 1945 is irrelevant seems very short-sighted and naive. Perhaps the Romans felt the same hubris at the peak of their civilization.

    I agree that Buddhism has in store for it a long and rich history in the West. In some ways, I think the West is waiting for it without realizing it. I have no delusions that Buddhism is perfect; it has many of the same flaws all religions do, we just don't see them in a Christian-dominated society. That said, I think it may have much to offer to students and others who are looking for something "more" like so many I've talked to through high school and here at college. As it develops its own unique history here, perhaps Western civilization will become more accepting of it as it comes to "own" its own brand of it (because we wouldn't want Americans doing something foreign, now would we? *wink)
  • edited June 2005
    Simonthepilgrim said:

    Time and again, people ask, "Is that true?" meaning 'is that an historical fact that can be verified by evidence?'
    To which I would respond: "Give me proof that I am sitting here!"

    ;)
  • edited June 2005
    I'm a classical studies major and we discuss mytho-history quite a bit. Most of the stories we take for ancient Roman history such as during the time of the kings, are actually stories borrowed from the Greeks and other cultures. While the Roman historian Livy retold many of these stories, he also made a point to, in his own way, tell the reader to take them with a grain of salt.

    Is it true? It's a reasonable question, but not as important to me as:

    How has the belief affected individuals, cultures, etc.?
    How does the continued significance of the story reflect the values of individuals, cultures, etc.?

    Does it make you think?
    Does it change the way you view other aspects of your life?
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited June 2005
    DharmaKitten,

    Your question is an important one: how far did the ancients "believe" their myths?

    By the time of Livy, the stories he was telling of the kings had certainly become legends. It was also a time of great change in the whole Roman structure: he was eithet 15 or 20 when the Divine Julius was assassinated. He saw the reign of the Divine Augustus and the start of that of the Divine Tiberius. Rome was being transformed from brick to marble and it must have been a time of great optimism after the Civil Wars. I find this optimism about the "manifest destiny" of the Roman Imperium in both Livy and, of course, Virgil, who wrote his Aeneid during the same period.

    It is in Virgil that we find the mythic: the links with the Olympian pantheon, the Cathaginian 'Moloch' and the gods of the early Latins. But the question remains: did he believe in the gods?

    Perhaps the problem lies in the question, in our understanding of belief. the stories, as in Homer are archetypal and told to teach a lesson.

    When we read and meditate on the stories of Padmasambhava or Atisha or Shantideva or or Gautama, the Buddha Shakyamuni and his previous incarnations, they are not there to be believed in the same way as we believe that a dropped object will fall. They have a different purpose: to illustrate, to illuminate, to teach and to enlighten.

    Our problem, today, is that we have broken our own myths. We have been like children who have to take the clock apart to see how it works. We try to put them back together but have bits left over and the clock will no longer run.
  • edited July 2005
    I'll throw in my $0.02 worth...

    I do not believe that history before 1945 is irrelevant. I'm a firm believer that if we do not recognize history - we are doomed to repeat it's disasters. But, I think one has to differentiate between what is myth and what is fact.

    I believe that if myth is taken for myths sake - the telling of stories that help or teach in "general" - that's fine. An example in a classroom does the same thing. The same thing with "old wives tales" - a stitch in time saves nine - and things like that. They're general stories that are applicable for teaching in many ways. They are truly not truths or facts - but they are generalizations that are true in "most" cases.

    My problem with needing to know fact is because - regarding faith or a belief system - is because our minds/souls/beings are at stake. I'll try to explain my concern in terms we may be able to deal with since Christianity is a major part of the Western world.

    So... let's say that Christ said there are 3 things we have to do to be saved from eternal death and to gain the reward of Heaven:

    1) We have to brush our teeth and tongue. Both of them. No exceptions.
    2) We have to jump up and down on one leg. No exception.
    3) We have to say "I love Jesus" on a daily basis.

    Now, these three things MUST be followed verbatim. No more, no less. It's the requirements a God is giving us to follow to be saved from death and to gain a heavenly reward

    Now, let's say that through the centuries man reviews these edicts and reads the stories in the Bible trying to come to grips with the whole "bible story" and God's laws.

    And through the many years, decades and centuries things change. Ever so slowly, but they change nevertheless.
    Now, thousands of years down the road there are people that believe - and they honestly believe this with great sincerety - after all they're salvation is at stake. But, through all these centuries, translations, myth, stories, man-made doctrines, these edicts now read:

    1) We have to brush our teeth.
    2) We have to jump up and down.
    3) We have to say "I love Jesus" on a daily basis.

    These truly are not the original edicts that were passed down by God. Now, over the course of the centuries we might have found that there is, hygenically speaking, no need ot brush our tongue. Lets just say science has told us that for some reason.
    There is no need to jump up and down on just ONE leg, because what about people that don't have any legs. It's not humane - it's not fair - it's an injustice in this age of policitally correctness.

    Just because science and human rationalization have lulled us into thinking this way does not mean that we are following the laws, edicts, requirements set down by a deity for salvation. When God first made these three laws - they had to be followed to the letter.
    Who are we to change God's laws for right, wrong, humaness, equality, or whatever.

    No matter what - we are now not following the original requirements and even though we may be thinking we are doing right and trying to the best of our ability to follow these laws - we're still not doing the original requirements and, therefore, not going to be saved. It's not what we think - it's what God decrees.

    So, my point. Removing ficiton from fact, in regards to Buddha or Buddhism is very important. If we're following Buddhism - we need to know what Buddha said and what Buddha meant. Not having a monk or teacher who is unenlightened changing things (no matter how sincere they are in their belief and desire in following Buddha), adding to and taking away from the original teachings of Buddha. Myth for myth's sake is fine. But the truth to enlightenment needs to be fact and the teachings as they were originally intended.

    Hope my ramblings make sense.

    Michael
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited July 2005
    Michael,

    You appear to cling to a "higher criticism" approach to Buddhist stories and history. Whilst that may have some value for 19th and 20th century Western Christians, it is beginning to break down in the face of scientific archaeology.

    Many of the 'events' that make up the sacred history of the ASbrahamic religions are now under scrutiny. These include:
    * the Exodus: many archaeologists are pointing to the total lack of any evidence for this massive movement of peoples;

    * the "glory" of Solomon and the Southern Kingdom: the Northern Kingdom appears to yield far more important finds than the South where there is no archaeology to uphold the biblical accounts;

    * post-Mosaic monotheism only arose later. There is significant evidence of a 'consort' for Yhwh until very late (see Jeremiah)

    * "Nazareth" in the Galilee appears not to have existed at the turn of the era.

    These, and other, 'historical' problems only arise because of the Western emphasis on historicity. Unfortunately, spiritual truths are not always to be told through 'facts'.

    In Buddhism, we have similar archaeological problems. The site of the birth and status of Gotama is disputed, for example. The tradition that he was a 'prince' is now doubted by many historians. But does it matter?

    You have, elsewhere, stated that the words spoken by the Buddha Shakyamuni were written down centuries after the Turnings of the Wheel. You appear to assume that this, somehow, makes them less true. Why is that? Do you dismiss the Gettysburg Address because it is not actually in the words that Lincoln spoke because the published version was rewritten? Are its truths any less true? Are you under the impression that the sayings (logia) of Jesus were written down verbatim? Even today, we may well find ourselves reading what is alleged to be a contemporary's speech (politicians are a good example) whereas we are only reading the pre-prepared handout.

    There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of stories about the Historical Buddha's forty years of teaching, just as there are about Jesus' life. They teach the mindset and attitudes that we want to emulate. This has always been the function of legend, story and myth. The fact that we now live in a world that blinds itself to its own myths is our tragedy.
  • edited July 2005
    Hey Simon,

    Ouch. "Higher Criticism"?

    Maybe I was sounding somewhat critizicing... that was not my intention. I should have stated that what I had written was my, and only my, opinion. Not that I was relating some "truth" and discounting what others had written.

    There are many religions out there that people practice that, and I'm sorry if I offend someone, I believe are just goofy. I can't help it. That's how I feel. But, I also feel that if that is something that brings them peace and understanding - that's very cool too. That's their decision. Just don't start telling me that there is a meteor coming past Earth and that I need to castrate myself so I can hop on board - and then expect me to take you seriously. It ain't gonna happen. If you want to believe it - that's fine - just don't require me to.

    Now, when people start stating myth in a fashion that inferes it carries more factual content than it really does - I guess that is where I really take notice. So, if that's the case, I guess I do with to cling to a "higher criticism" of Buddhism rather than cling to the myths or fairy tales of Buddhism.

    When I was a Christian, I really didn't care too much about Old Testament stuff because with the coming of Jesus and being saved by grace instead of the Jewish tradition of high priests slaying animals, the involvement of the Ark of the Covenant and having your sins "rolled" over to the next year - was over and done with.
    I didn't care about Jonah being swallowed by a whale.In fact, scientists have stated that no whales lived in any bodies of water where Jonah supposedly lived.
    I really didn't care about Moses parting the Red Sea. Which now historians and translators seem to think that this was a "mis-translation". The Red Sea should have been written the "Reed Sea" for an area that is in the middle-east, where Moses might have led people and could have been crossed by people on foot - opposed to people in chariots or on horseback. Because it is a very "reedy"/"marshy" area.
    Do the stories of the Tower of Babel or Sodom and Gomorrah or even David or Solomon, the Creation of the Earth, or the creation of the Ten Commandments really matter in Christianity? To me? No... because with the birth of Christ and his dying for people's sins did away with everything - even the law of the Ten Commandments. Yes, Thou Shalt Not Kill is still valid in our Western society - but, in Christ's teachings, if you "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", "love ye, one another" or "turning of the other cheek" - you'd never have to worry about Thou Shalt Not Kill.

    To me there are and were myths that were used for general educational purposes. But, if one who is a Christian still believes they can become a high priest, create an Ark of the Covenant and sacrifice animals and have hopes of some sort of Christian salvation - most Christians would tell you that you're wrong.

    Does it matter that Gotama was a prince? No. Not really. Does it matter if he had 3 wives instead of one? Nope... not to me. Does it matter that he might have dressed in bustles and bonnets or a sharp top hat and vest? Not really.

    Do the principles that Buddha taugh after his enlightenment matter? Yes. Isn't that what we're striving for by being a Buddhist? Isn't the importance of what Buddha experienced and his sharing of this knowledge important? What do all the myths and fairy tales amount to if you don't have that one, keen sense or statements of truth?

    You have myths and fairy tales and no chance of enlightenment.

    My point in my earlier post was not to discredit myths. I think I even said that they were good for educational purposes. I think they are great for teaching lessons.
    I am just searching for truth. And oddly enough :) it's a truth I can abide with. We all search for a truth that we can live with.
    If historians or translators or whoever - break down myths, shows falsehoods, clarify text, validate translations - is that bad? The more clearer view of Buddha's words I can get - the better.

    Peace,

    Michael
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited July 2005
    Perhaps my misunderstanding, Michael, arises from the use of the word "buddha".

    In the past years of studying and practising Buddhism, I realise that I have acquired a different vocabulary. When I speak or write about the historical figure, I refer to him as the Buddha Shakyamuni or the Tathagata, sometimes as the World-Honoured One or as the Wish-Fulfilling Jewel. He was a man who 'woke up and blew out the flame', and who went on to turn the Wheel of Dharma for us all.

    There are, however, in Buddhist thought, a number of other ways in which the word can be used, including in the term "Buddha Nature". There are many other Buddhas, historical, legendary and mythic.

    Maybe, when you write "The more clearer view of Buddha's words I can get - the better", perhaps what I need to understand is that you are speaking of the Dharma rather than the Buddha Shakyamuni.
  • edited July 2005
    I honestly have no idea what you are talking about, Simon.

    When I refer to Buddha, in my ignorance, I'm referring to the enlightened state of Gotama. I don't even know who you are referring to when you say "Buddha Shakyamuni" or "Tathagata", etc.

    So... some of your difficulty is derived by my ignorance.

    When I use the term Buddha - I'm speaking of the teachings of Gotama's enlightenment.

    My apologies if I was confusing you.

    Michael
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited July 2005
    The Buddha, Turner of the Wheel of Dhamma:

    Buddha means "Awakened one".

    His name was Siddhattha Gotama in Pali and Siddhārtha Gautama in Sanskrit

    In the Pali suttas (and some Sanskrit sutras I believe) the Buddha sometimes refers to himself as the Tathagata which means "thus-come-one" or "thus-gone-one".

    He is also commonly known as Shakyamuni or Sakyamuni which means "The sage of the Shakya clan" after his original clan of the Shakya/Sakya. The Shakya/Sakya were thought to have been a clan of Kshatriyas or members of the military or reigning order (the second ranking caste of the Indian varna system of four castes).

    In theory these are all speaking of the same person.
  • edited July 2005
    Thanks, Elohim.

    I know of Siddhattha Gotama and I know of Buddha (which is what he was called after enlightenment).

    I didn't know about the clan stuff - I didn't know if they were referring to another Buddha (since there have been others), etc.

    So... when people are talking about other people that have gained enlightenment - do they refer to them as "Buddha" or "Buddha Him" or "Buddha Her"?

    Michael
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited July 2005
    Generally they reserved the term Buddha for the first person of an Age/Aeon to realize AND teach the Dhamma to the people.

    It is believe that these teachings get forgotten and lost over time. The Dhamma (Law/Truth) is always there, we just remain ignorant of it until a Buddha (a fully self-awakened individual) arises, discovers the Dhamma (Law/Truth) again, and then teaches this Truth to the world.

    When people achieved "enlightenment" during the Buddha's time they were refered to as arahants which means "worthy one" or "pure one". This term describes a person whose mind is free of defilement.

    As for other "Buddhas" I do not have any information. I only concern myself with Siddhattha Gotama so I do not feel qualified to try and explain them.
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited July 2005
    Elohim, Dharma brother,

    You stop your explanation at the Theravada tradition. Insofar as Buddhism exists today, it demonstrates three clear divisions, wityhin which all the other lineages take their place: Theravada, Mahayana and Tantra.

    The original notion of the arahant has been enlarged by the notion of the bodhisattvas and of rigpa among other developments.

    There is not a single, normative Buddhism. Of all the developments in the understanding of the Dharma, that of the bodhisattva and the work of such enlightened teachers as Padmasambhava (known in Tibet and Mongolia as the Second Historical Buddha) and Shantideva take the words and teachings of the mere 40 years of the Buddha Shakyamuni even further. Buddhism does not stop at the perinibbana (the Buddha's physical death): that was only the start!

    This is the whole point of the Tibetan focus on the tulku who continues, in life after life, the study and practice that permitted their enlightenment, teaching each new generation, for the benefit of all beings. It makes good, logical sense that (given the belief in the possibility of conscious rebirth) great teachers should continue the work: a single life is not enough to comprehend the Dharma.
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited July 2005
    My friend,

    I respect your opinions, but I do not share all of your views. Like I have said before, I speak only about that which I know personally from my own experience and practice. My practice generally focuses around Theravada Buddhism, and I primarily read the Pali Canon with its commentaries. (Although I am reluctant to say I am strictly a "Theravada Buddhist" since I do not agree with everything in the Pali Canon and I do study other tradition's teachings.) That is what I believe is true for the most part and so that is what I undertake to study. I do not really bother to keep up on all the different "divisions".

    I try not to go into detail and describe things I am ignorant of. I do not know enough about Ch'an, Zen, Tibetan, Mahayana, Tantra, or any other school/tradition/form of "Buddhism" to speak about them with any certainty. I also do not feel it is necessary for me to do so.

    I try to keep what I know to the most "original" idea as I can possibly get. I myself do not feel the need to expand on what the Buddha taught. To me there is only one Buddha and his teachings are complete as is. It is written in the The Mahaparinibbana Sutta:

    "....the Blessed One answered him, saying: "What more does the community of bhikkhus expect from me, Ananda? I have set forth the Dhamma without making any distinction of esoteric and exoteric doctrine; there is nothing, Ananda, with regard to the teachings that the Tathagata holds to the last with the closed fist of a teacher who keeps some things back. Whosoever may think that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him, it is such a one that would have to give last instructions respecting them. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea as that it is he who should lead the community of bhikkhus, or that the community depends upon him. So what instructions should he have to give respecting the community of bhikkhus?"

    So, I will explain up to as far as I know and then I will leave the rest up to the other members of the forum to fill in/clarify. There are many members, such as yourself, that know a great deal about Tibetan, Zen, Mahayana, Ch'an, Tantra, etc. I would show my lack of knowledge if I began to attempt an explaination concerning these tradition's views. I may be a fool, but I am a fool that knows when to keep my mouth (or fingers?) shut. :)
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited July 2005
    Elohim, my friend,

    I understand and respect your position.

    My own aim is to try to ensure that the horrid sectarianism of the monotheisms is not imported into Western Buddhism. That my own practice is Dzogchen and yours Theravada and that person over there Kadampa, Zen or Burmese Forest tradition is one of the joys that I find in the Buddhist world.

    Some traditions use sound, sight and smell as part of the celebration of the Dharma, some do not. No problem.

    Some focus on personal enlightenment, some on the hero and some on the wisdom. No problem.

    As Brian has said, awakening is individual and the process will be as diverse as are individuals. Whilst a whole group of people may come to believe in the truth of the Dharma, it is only in the individual that this belief can be transformed into knowledge and what Sogyal Rinpoche calls "the View".
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited July 2005
    I definitly agree with that goal Simon.

    It is true that we can become too narrow-minded in the following of any faith and/or way of life. When we start to hold to the dogmatic limits of a sect/school/tradition we lose out on the bigger picture. Who knows if what we are strictly adhereing to is even authentic? Much of the Pali Canon may have been spoken by the Buddha himself, but it was written down long after his death. Who can say for sure what we read today is as it was 2500 years ago.

    We are encouraged by the Buddha to not believe anything without first having a good, long look at it. Blind obedience and rigid dogma were never taught by the Buddha. (AN III.65) He may have had strict rules for his monks, but that was for training, not "bragging rights". I do not think it was ever his intention to create such a stagnant state of affairs such as sectarianism. The Dhamma is alive, it moves, it breathes, it flows with all of nature.

    The Buddha laid the foundation, but it was up to each and every one of his followers to build their own practice and discover the Truth for themselves. We are no different than his followers 2500 years ago. We are expected to be our own guides and light our own way. (DN 16)
  • edited July 2005
    Elohim,

    You make another great point.

    I was going off on a post from Simon regarding authenticity and truth - while he was stating that in the West we tend to look for authenticity (possibly) too much.

    Some faiths and belief systems state "do this" or "do that" and most of these teachings were not written down by the person that actually stated them. Thus, you have the possibility for someone else to add their own lean or interpretation on them. The Gospels are of the same story - yet different in approach, areas of detail and such.

    One excellent point that you made about Buddha was that even if the teachings that were written down were somewhat different from what he actually said, the gist of the message still holds true that each person should seek out what is good and to the benefit of all and then live up to it.

    How can you go wrong?

    Michael
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited July 2005
    It is indeed wonderful that from three seemingly different view points we can all still receive the same insight.

    We all are disagreeing and in complete agreement at the same time. A good example of duality and non-duality huh?

    Dhamma is everywhere. :)
  • edited August 2005
    Matt said:

    I agree that Buddhism has in store for it a long and rich history in the West. In some ways, I think the West is waiting for it without realizing it. I have no delusions that Buddhism is perfect; it has many of the same flaws all religions do, we just don't see them in a Christian-dominated society. That said, I think it may have much to offer to students and others who are looking for something "more" like so many I've talked to through high school and here at college. As it develops its own unique history here, perhaps Western civilization will become more accepting of it as it comes to "own" its own brand of it (because we wouldn't want Americans doing something foreign, now would we? *wink)

    I think you are right. :)
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