On the interpretation of Buddhist myth
We have had some discussion and different approaches in interpreting Buddhist myth. I started writing a response to one of the comments, but it grew so big that I made it into its own post.
We have seen some readings given for some Buddhist myths that are very beautiful and powerful in their own way. But it is still not how I see the ultimate reach of these tales.
In one way, of course, there are just personal interpretations, and no right way of seeing. But in another sense, from a historical perspective, there seems to me to be a definite direction in mythology.
Take the story of Hārītī, one of many child-devouring monstresses of the early Buddhist tradition. She was the goddess of smallpox, who devoured the children of Rajagaha, untile she was converted by the Buddha. She was raised to a higher level of ethical consciousness by the reflection that the other women were mothers just as she was, and so just as she loved her children, she should not take theirs (= the Golden Rule). From then on her shrine was incorporated in the Buddhist temple, where the people would come and make offerings to her – but she no longer demanded human flesh.
This story is one of a whole genre of myths that speak of the ethicization of religion. This is, in fact, a major or the major theme of axial age mythology everywhere, and tells of the emergence of a religious consciousness in humanity that is based on compassion. This is an amazing and crucial part of the story of our humanity.
And yet it does not exhaust the story, or plumb its meaning. For it leaves unasked and unexamined the question of who Hariti was, really. We focus on the wondrous power of the Buddha to effect transformation, and do not ask, ‘Who was she before she was tamed, before she became a middle-class, respectable protector of children?’
She was a mother who eats children – and this is a fundamentally horrific and terrifying notion to us, alien to any ethical consciousness. So any attempt to interpret this story in terms of ‘ethics’ and ‘compassion’ as we experience them is going to turn away from this unacceptable reality. And this is, I humbly submit, precisely what we have seen repeatedly from different interpreters.
Like all axial age religions, Buddhism inherited a range of beliefs, ideas, stories, and customs from the culture and history around it, and tried, with general success, to adapt these to its own principles. But in some cases this adaption was only skin deep, and the power of the old taboos lives on. In interpreting stories older than itself – such as many of the Jatakas – modern Buddhists almost always simply continue the process of rationalizing and ethicizing the tales. And for Buddhists in traditional cultures, who are interested to tell good stories so as to inculcate proper values in their children, that’s exactly what they should be doing.
This process is widespread and has been going on for a long time. The Grimms’ fairy tales were progressively watered down and prettied up for a middle class audience. The same tendency happened in the ‘high’ culture of Buddhism; for example, in Borobudur, the panels depict many scenes from the Jatakas and so on, but carefully avoid any of the more lurid and violent content.
But I’m a grown up, and I don’t need the PG version. I know that killing babies is wrong. I know that a mother’s love for her child is a very great thing. And when I look at these stories, and listen to the voices that tell me that that these stories are meant to convey such messages – and nothing else – I am far from satisfied.
If we give up our efforts to ethicize and rationalize – just for a moment! – and look at the images and ideas these stories present, what we are seeing is the presentation of violence and death within a religious parable of compassion and wisdom. This has an impact on the mind, regardless of the context it is in. The end result is the dramatic juxtaposition of elements – murder and compassion, grief and fury, and so on. These all occupy the same narrative ‘space’. If we were to draw them as an image, they would appear side by side, or in sequence.
Whereas an ethical interpretation wants to favor one side and oppose the other – Devadatta is evil! Buddha is good! – on a mythic or existential level these depict equally valid realities. Ethically, death is worse than life; but existentially, they are equally real.
Deep myth depicts this situation, the coextensive existence of death and life, murder and love. It lies prior to and indifferent to our moral judgements. In Hinduism, the goddess of Death is the most compassionate of all deities, since she makes it possible for new life. This is why all so-called ‘primitive’ religions include elements that, to the axial, ethicized mind, seem bizarre, irrational, and cruel.
There is a terrific essay on this by Michael Taussig, called “Transgression”, ch. 20, pg. 349 of Critical terms for religious studies by Mark C. Taylor. You can read most of it thanks to Google books here. We have the book at Santi. He points out that while modern moralizing religions position themselves as opposed to transgression, it is often in specifically religious contexts that the most extreme ‘transgressions’ of ordinary morality take place. This article, by the way, is not for the faint-hearted…
There is a pervasive mytheme that embodies what I am trying to say here. In the story of Hariti, the most crucial aspect is that in the end, a shrine for her is set up in the monastery. This shows that the new order did not reject and destroy the old, but transformed and assimilated it. This idea is found everywhere, for example the head of the Medusa cut off by Perseus later became part of Athena’s shield. The old goddess of death and devouring is assimilated by the new goddess of reason.
I think modernist Buddhism has forgotten this old wisdom. I think we have become so caught up the idea of Buddhism as a rational, compassionate religion, that we deny and try to pretend that irrational, uncompassionate things could ever be a part of ‘real Buddhism’. And in doing so, we render ourselves incapable of any interesting or useful way of understanding or dealing with the demonstrably irrational forces that we find, for example in the objections to bhikkhuni ordination.
So, for example, in interpreting the story of Mahapajapati, we find two basic approaches. One is the apologist approach, to try to explain that its not really sexist, but things that might appear unfair were in fact meant as a test, or were culturally necessary. The second approach is to dismiss the text as inauthentic, a later interpolation by misogynist monks. In both cases we avoid dealing with the distressing and disturbing imagery of the text itself, which says that the entry of women into the Sangha will destroy Buddhism, like a flood, or like a disease on the crops.
What I would say is this: such imagery is shared in common with a whole spectrum of ideas and associations of the feminine across practically all cultures and times. To assume that these associations have nothing to do with the meaning of this text is the least plausible interpretation I can imagine. On the contrary, it is clear that this passage expresses a highly ambivalent response to the presence of women, and this response is found widely across all societies, and is present in very strong form in the current Theravadin Sangha.
A close reading of the passage, preserving all its ambivalence, shows that it forms part of a developmental history, a spiritual biography of Mahapajapati. In that story arc, she appears as an initially ambivalent character, who, like Hariti, is transformed and accepted within the Sangha. This arc mirrors both the process of individual spiritual development, and the evolution of religions as a whole.
To deny the negative and problematic aspects of this arc is to render a human being back into a two-dimensional fantasy. And to deny the archetypal significance of her role as the ambivalent mother is to cut Buddhism off from one of the deepest and most important of all religious and psychological themes.
In such approaches, we leach meaning from our texts, and end up with a Buddhism that is idealized and unrealistic. It becomes like the imagined birth of the Buddha: without pain, without blood, without humanity.