Insight Journal: How do Western Buddhists, in spite of our many modern views, take their forms too literally?
Rita Gross: Since I often teach in a Mahāyāna setting, let me use an example from that tradition. According to Mahāyāna legend, the Buddha hid his Mahāyāna teachings in the realm of the nāgas, serpent-like creatures who dwell under the sea, because his students were not yet ready to receive them. Eventually these teachings were retrieved by the great 2nd-century master Nāgārjuna. This account has been passed down as if it were factual history, but of course it isn’t. What historical research tells us is that the Mahāyāna scriptures gradually emerged after the Buddha’s lifetime over the course of centuries.
The Heart Sutra is the charter text for many Mahāyānists, who view it as an accurate account of the words of the historical Buddha. But it cannot be considered historical if by “history” we mean, as we usually do, a factual narrative about things that happened empirically, events that a camcorder could have recorded had it existed at that time, something that could be included in a documentary. The Heart Sutra is not that but something else, which I shall simply call a story. “Story” is thus a more encompassing category than “history.” Both are types of narrative, but historical narratives are constituted from the facts as best we know them; stories are not constrained by the demands of factual accuracy. Novels, films, plays—these can be entirely fictional, yet we all know they can, nevertheless, communicate values and meaning.
Religious orthodoxy resists this perspective. Every religion, at least sometimes, claims that its forms—its literature, its doctrines, its practices—derive from a source of unimpeachable authority. This includes Buddhism. Tradition tells us that the Buddha was the World Teacher, whose realization was complete and unsurpassed and whose skillful means were perfect. Every Buddhist tradition has staked its authority on its claim to a direct link with the Buddha’s true teaching. Therefore, in Buddhism, tradition itself becomes that unimpeachable source. Many times, I have heard teachers say that since masters of the past were more accomplished than we are and knew what they were doing, we can’t tamper with established forms. That even a non-theistic religion like Buddhism tends so often to rely on an inflexible source for its forms indicates how desperately many humans long to deflect responsibility for shaping their religious life.
IJ: Your course talks about a middle way between taking stories in Buddhist texts that have supernatural elements literally, on the one hand, and dismissing them completely, on the other. Do we have to accept them as facts for them to have value for us?
RG: Religious stories do not have to be empirical history to have spiritual value. Once, when I was discussing this point at shedra (university-like school in the Tibetan tradition), one of the other senior teachers objected heatedly. She argued that since I had physically stood at the spot where it is said that the Heart Sutra was first spoken, how could I doubt the historical accuracy of the narrative? Furthermore, she said it was improper even to bring academic methods into a shrine room and that I should desist completely from teaching the history course.
I have discovered, to my shock, that Western practitioners of Buddhism can be as naively literalist in their readings of traditional Buddhist narratives as any Christian fundamentalists can be in theirs. I realized there was a need to reconcile students’ unconscious and inevitable immersion in the style of thinking engendered by the European Enlightenment with their commitments to Buddhism. This reconciliation must involve a way for Buddhists to value traditional narratives without following many adherents of Western religions into fundamentalism and literalism.
Is Buddhism harmed by giving up claims that its teachings transcend human time and space? I think not. In fact, I would claim that such a view is more in accord with foundational buddhadharma than its alternative. I say this for two reasons. First, basic Buddhist teachings, such as impermanence and interdependent origination, do not accord well with the supposition that there are eternal verities capturable in words and concepts. All things, including doctrines and rituals, should be expected to change, and those changes come about because of changing constellations of causes and conditions. In his famous work the Mulamadhyamakakārikā, Nāgārjuna says that even the appearance of a buddha occurs only by the workings of interdependent origination, by the working of the same processes that govern everything else in our human world, not as the result of something transcendent to that world.
My second reason is that in demonstrating that all religious forms—such as words, concepts, practices, and rituals—are culturally relative human constructions, the modern historical study of religion is deeply compatible with Buddhist teachings. I am always very careful in my wording of this point. I am not claiming that there is no ultimate, ineffable, transcendent dimension in human experience. What I am saying is that all the words and concepts and methods used to point to it are human constructions and should be held lightly. The great failing of any religion is always to take its own forms too seriously, to claim that they have ultimate rather than relative significance.
Buddhists are not immune to this, of course. Still, in my view, all schools of Buddhism claim that while teachings and views are necessary and helpful tools to be used on the path, ultimately they will be left behind with the dawning of true insight. Or, as many Buddhists like to say, silence is the ultimate truth—not an uninformed, unpracticed silence, but the silence born of deep contemplation. The silence of not being so attached to words, views, rituals, practices, or any religious forms is ultimately and intensely liberating. Strangely, though, for many practitioners, even very experienced ones, this understanding does not always cut one’s attachment to traditional miracle stories. Indeed, I have found it is not uncommon for some to regard themselves as much better students for not evaluating such stories critically.
IJ: You say in the course description that you will take these stories “seriously without taking them at face value.” Can you say more about what that might mean?
RG: We can distinguish between ‘story’ and ‘history.’ One of our most urgent tasks as modern dharma practitioners is to learn how to take traditional stories seriously without taking them literally. That is to say, we need to learn how to live in the frameworks of both the European Enlightenment and Buddhism, without one negating or subjugating the other. One of the wisest statements about history and story that I have ever encountered was spoken by Black Elk, a holy man of the Lakota nation during the 19th and 20th centuries. In Black Elk Speaks, he narrates one of the Lakota’s most important stories, a story about how the sacred pipe first came to the people. This story is filled with events that are difficult to take literally, such as women turning into buffaloes. At the story’s conclusion, Black Elk said, “This they tell and whether it happened so or not, I do not know; but if you think about it you can see that it is true.”
The main point made in this simple statement is that, contrary to literalist suppositions, truth is not always about observable facts or events. Truth can also reveal itself in deep contemplation of stories and symbols. The truth of a story does not depend on whether it could have been captured by a camcorder. Its truth is found in realms of imagination and contemplation, in its symbolic meanings. Even though much of his spiritual life is based on the symbolism and rituals associated with the sacred pipe, Black Elk himself is skeptical about his narrative as a factual account of its origins. Thus the same story can be regarded as both true and false: false as a factual account of an empirical event and true as the symbolic charter for one’s spirituality. But in the wake of the European Enlightenment, with its according of sole prestige and validity to facts, people have come to see things otherwise.
IJ: How has the triumph of empirical truth affected other kinds of truth?
RG: Few Western students of Buddhism, in my estimation, realize how thoroughly they have imbibed the values and outlook of the European Enlightenment, especially its definition of truth as something that is empirically verifiable. This is a materialist understanding of truth, not a Buddhist one. Nevertheless, because such students have decided that Buddhism is “true,” they conclude that anything narrated in traditional Buddhist stories must be true in the only way they understand—as something that happened in space and time just as the texts describe it. The idea that the story instead takes place in the realm of imagination and symbol challenges their notion of truth. It means to them that the story is false and is without validity. People who do not take seriously biblical stories about talking serpents offering apples are quite comfortable with a Buddhist story about texts hidden in the undersea realm of the half-human, half-serpent nāgas. If one’s sole avenue for assessing whether something is relevant and worthy of consideration is empiricism, with its reliance on facts as being alone trustworthy and valuable, literalism is the only kind of truth.
While empiricism, scientific materialism, and systematic reason—ways of thinking that characterized the European Enlightenment and thus the modern worldview—have greatly improved our way of life in many respects, the great loser in this process has been any ability to appreciate symbols, metaphors, and allegories. The assumption in this way of thinking is that symbols are much less convincing than empirically verifiable facts, and so anything valuable in a religion must be factual, not “merely” symbolic. The motto here seems to be “Either it’s a fact or it’s meaningless.” But such allegiance to fact alone as true and valuable eventually results in many people losing confidence in their faith tradition when they are no longer able to take its stories literally, when they can no longer believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead or that the historical Buddha himself taught what their tradition claims he did. Literalism and fundamentalism are toxic to a deep and profound religious life, at least among those who also live by the paradigm engendered by the European Enlightenment. For a long time, that meant those living under the cultural umbrella of the modern West, but with the modern outlook being adopted and adapted throughout the world, that view is now of global scope.
IJ: The most common way of seeing the cultural conflict with religion these days is by contrast with science. But you point out that it might be history rather than science that poses the greatest threat to literal interpretations of texts. Why is that?
RG: Religions have had a very hard time adjusting to the paradigm shift engendered by the European Enlightenment. In the West, this difficulty has most often been seen as a conflict between religion and science. In the U.S., it is repeatedly and vividly played out in the controversies about evolution versus creationism that regularly plague our school policies and politics. For various reasons, Buddhism has had fewer problems with science than have the Abrahamic religions. Many Buddhists intuitively feel that science and Buddhism can easily get along. But what about the modern study of history and Buddhism? Questions about the compatibility or conflict between traditional Buddhist narratives and modern historical studies are something that, in my view, needs far more discussion. In fact, I would suggest that, for Buddhism, and perhaps for all religions, the implications of modern methods of historical study are far more serious than is modern science.
There are at least two ways in which modern historical methods create doubt about some claims commonly made in traditional religious narratives. Obviously, historical consciousness creates skepticism about the miracle stories that one finds so frequently in religion. This is a fairly superficial level of doubt. More seriously, historical studies demonstrate, or at least claim, that religious texts, practices, and beliefs are the result of human cultural creativity. In other words, religious forms do not drop into the world, finished and complete, from some other realm; rather, they are products of historical development.
IJ: Why do miracle stories have such persistence in human culture?
RG: Historical and comparative studies of religion make it difficult to deny the conclusion that all religious forms, without exception, are human attempts to articulate and relate to our existential situations. It is impossible to adjudicate, on any rational and universal basis, among the many competing claims to the authenticity of revelations from beyond the human realm. In a situation of relative religious and cultural homogeneity—the situation that prevailed in most of the world until the age of global exploration began in earnest in the 16th century—people were much less aware of these competing claims. It is now all but impossible for any sophisticated person to avoid awareness of religious diversity and the theological adjustments that all religions need to make in light of that diversity. This knowledge and the adjustments it requires are among the great benefits of the contemporary world.
It is easy for us today, when thinking about the religious beliefs of others, to see them as products of human aspirations and foibles, and it is egotistical and perverse to exempt one’s own religion from that process. Yet, as is all too clear, religious people, like other people who are strongly invested ideologically, often do just that. I used to see this type of thinking in some of my university students. For one assignment, I asked the students to apply the statement by Black Elk that I have cited above to two traditional stories, one familiar and the other unfamiliar. One student wrote: “The Greeks had very illogical stories that they obviously made up, such as that a mare could become pregnant by turning her hindquarters to the wind. Everyone knows that’s impossible. Christians have sensible sacred stories which we didn’t make up, such as that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, had no human father, and rose from the dead.” While this type of thinking might still be common, it is based on ignoring much of our basic knowledge of the world.
IJ: Scientific discoveries these days seem to border on the miraculous themselves; how then can we rule out miracles?
RG: Buddhist texts are filled with narratives that are as unlikely as stories of mares becoming pregnant by turning their hindquarters to the wind or of a human child being conceived without a human father or of women turning into buffaloes. Miracle stories are very appealing to many religious people, and this includes many Buddhists. They seem to offer proof of the truth of their own religion, whatever that religion might be.
Recently, I attended a program on the teachings of the 7th-century sage Chandrakīrti (one of the foremost commentators on Nāgārjuna’s teachings on emptiness), led by a well-known and highly regarded dharma teacher. Time after time, after summarizing the philosophical, rational demonstrations for the cogency of Nāgārjuna’s teachings, this teacher would then try to clinch his arguments by citing a story of how Chandrakirti once extracted milk from a painting of a cow. It was hard for me to see how a story about milking a painted cow could be seen as so strongly persuasive, especially since I grew up on a farm and have milked more than my share of nonpainted cows. What’s more, if belief in the story of milking a painted cow were a requirement, I would be less likely, not more likely, to give credence to the teachings. Fortunately, the teachings on emptiness were themselves so cogent that the story of the painted cow was irrelevant.
The question remains: Why would someone think this story would be a convincing proof of anything? Clearly, miracle stories are about something other than proving the truth of religious claims, and that’s the problem. It cheapens both the philosophy and the story to try to use miracle stories to prove a philosophical or religious position. Instead, such stories must be allowed to function in their own frame of reference, as stories in which certain meanings are encoded. Then our task as practitioners is to contemplate what these stories might mean, not what they might prove.
Many of my dharma friends are troubled by this perspective. They counter by saying that many of the things we take for granted today—such as the wireless transmission of speech and documents across great distances or air travel—would surely have been seen as miraculous or magical by those who lived in earlier times. Why not assume the same about the standard Buddhist miracles, such as flying through space on one’s own power, walking through walls, milking painted cows, and the like?
But there is a big difference. Today’s technological marvels came about not by contravening the laws of the physical universe discerned by science but by working carefully within their parameters. Perhaps someday natural science will be able to account for walking through walls and the like, but to date it cannot do so. I neither affirm nor deny such stories but retain a flexible, curious mind about them. What would it take to convince me that such events occur? Repeated public demonstrations of them, such as happens whenever I use email or board an airplane.
In the Tibetan tradition, it is said that it takes advanced spiritual development to be able to perform siddhi, to have magical powers. Yet many religious traditions claim that some people can do extraordinary, unbelievable things. I think it is wiser to maintain an open mind regarding such claims than to adamantly deny that they could happen. At the same time, I think we need to be open to the possibility that such stories could be merely fabrications. A curious, questioning mind is more in accord with basic Buddhist values than either believing in such miracles in the absence of any evidence or adamantly denying their possibility on the basis of our present knowledge.
There are times and places in which stories of miracles and magic make sense to people and appeal to their deepest sensibilities. But we do not live in such a time and place, so trying to force us to take these stories as factual accounts simply makes it harder for us to take seriously the profound teachings of Buddhism or any other religious tradition. Miracle stories do not function well in the context of the modern worldview. In saying this, I am not claiming that the paradigm established by the European Enlightenment is an ultimate truth that will stand for all time. It probably will not. But we can’t help standing within it, which means we must reconcile the prevailing worldview of our culture and the teachings of Buddhism, and for this we need not try to hold onto every story and every tale of magic and miracles. I myself think that the great masters who wrote texts that include such stories would not have written them as they did if they had lived in our time and place. Today, sectarian legends or miracle stories don’t serve us as practically as I imagine they once did. I would never attempt to convince others to take up Buddhist practice because I have, say, seen it rain out of a clear blue sky at the most auspicious moment of a major Buddhist ceremony. Instead, I would rely on the Four Truths and the teachings on emptiness for that task.
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Rita M. Gross is an author, dharma teacher, and professor emerita of comparative studies in religion. Her best-known books are Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhismand A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration. She teaches workshops on meditation and buddhadharma at many meditation centers in the United States and Canada.