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!