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.

15 thoughts on “On the interpretation of Buddhist myth

  1. I’m more interest in Vesantara Jataka. This story is very popular in Buddhist countries like Thailand and Lao, Cambodia. In the Jataka, Prince Vesantare (the Bodhisatta) practiced the perfection of Generosity; for this sake, he gave away his beloved wife and children, and the children were made slavers of a very cruel Brahmin. i was shock when the first time i read that. The ethic at that time is that wives and children were treated as properties of husband. His wife was willing to do whatever he want her to for she understood his practices, but the two little children could not understand and undergone traumatic experiences at a very young age…
    I just wonder if this ethical standards influence Thai, and other SEA countries, and as a consequence, there are many young women sell themselves for the sake of their family?

    • Isn’t it better not to look at this story in such a mundane and prosaic way? It is regarded as the last Jataka chronologically — in his next human birth, the Bodhisatta was born in Lumbini and became the Buddha. It is also seen as the birth in which the Bodhisatta’s dāna pāramitā reached its culmination. Far easier to give one’s life, or one’s eyes than to give away such lovely and beloved children and such a devoted, excellent wife! As the exiled prince said in anguish, “It is not that I don’t love them but I love omniscience more.” When Maddi learned what her husband had done she approved and praised him. Later, when the king criticized Prince Vessantara, little Jali rebuked his grandfather and defended his father, saying that all means of given had been taken away when the family was forced into exile, because of Vessantara’s desire to give.
      This is a beautiful story which shows that the way to Buddhahood requires supreme effort to fulfil all ten perfections.

  2. Well exposed Bhante!

    The point you mention at the end of the post is indeed interesting.

    I never understood how could such an auspicious and free of problems birht could result in Queen Māyā dying just seven days after the birth of the Boddhissatta!

    I understand that there is a lot of insight to dig out from these fragments of the history of birth, life (last and past ones) and death of the Blessed One, as also from the narratives and myths built around it…

  3. Dear Bhante

    Nice of you to have pointed out the Medusa myth. I was scouring around for some background into the Alavaka story to see what subliminal message may be hidden therein. Medusa turns her victims to stone, while Alavaka’s victims go as soft as butter. Female Western monster = stony cold, male Asian monster = warm butter. Material ripe for dissection?

  4. This is directly reminding me of the broad strokes outlined by Joseph Campbell throughout his works on myth and myth-cycles, but to that extent I have to wonder about their role in the DhammaVinaya (not historically, but presently). I have always felt like I would have ‘simply replaced’ my childhood tales with those in the Jataka cycles if I had been born in a different country, and I can’t quite grasp their importance when I frame them this way. Help?

  5. Thanks for this illuminating explanation, Bhante. It occurs to me that it could provide an interesting way of understanding some of the differences between Buddhism and Christianity, and their (actual and potential) influence on each other. I have the impression that Christianity as it is taught today has often become “idealised and unrealistic.” The mythic power of Biblical stories often seems to be overlooked (or has become inaccessible) in favour of very literal or highly moralised modes of reading. This has, as you put it, Bhante, leached meaning from the texts, and driven a lot of people away from the Church (not to say that’s been the only factor).

    By contrast, Buddhist texts seem at first encounter much more rational and orderly than the Bible, and in many cases open to quite a straightforward, literal reading that makes pretty good sense. But at the same time, there are a lot of teachings in Buddhism that urge us to go beyond the limits of rational, conscious thinking, and cultivate an openness to experience that is not blocked by moralistic judgments. This seems like the attitude that is implicit in the mythic way of reading, and liable to preserve this aspect within Buddhism.

    These (very simplistic and schematic) impressions lead me to wonder whether the “idealised and unrealistic” Buddhism you see emerging, Bhante, might be a feature particularly of Buddhism in the West, or at least of a modern Buddhism that has been influenced by Christian culture. Conversely, it also makes me wonder whether the influence of Buddhist practices and ways of reading might be useful for renewing a live sense of the mythic in the Christian tradition, shifting it away from excessive emphasis on the ethical (or at its worst moralistic) mode.

    Regarding the story of Mahapajapati and the question of sexism, this seems tricky to me, as I think our concern with sexism and misogyny is coming from a pretty rational, ethical and also sometimes moralistical place. So to even be interrogating these texts with this question in mind seems to me not to be in the spirit of a mythic reading. If you approach the story of Mahapajapati as myth, then I don’t think it makes much sense to argue about whether it’s sexist or not, or whether as Queen Chanda she is “responsible” for the murder of her child etc. These just aren’t mythic questions. To take the image of the crying mother gathering the bloody fragments of her son to herself as a terrible image of maternal pain and sorrow, on the other hand, seems consonant with an appreciation of the power of the story as myth. The queen’s sorrow is not right or wrong, within this context it just seems inevitable. The same could be said of the jealous rage which leads the king to order the murder of his own son. In tragic stories like this, we end up feeling the pain of all the protagonists, as well as a sense that they are fatefully intertwined.

    Looking at it this way, the mythic reading might act as a kind of limit to more rational, ethical readings, especially those that look for sexism or its denunciation in Buddhist texts. Maybe one reason why it’s not legitimate to take the text that compares the entry of women into the Sangha to a crop disease as a reason to refuse women ordination today is that this is a mythic image, and mythic images don’t tell you to do or not to do anything – they just portray and evoke certain fundamental experiences. You might say this image speaks eloquently of fear of change. But it doesn’t instruct you to try to stop that change, or to judge the fear it provokes. Rather it makes both seem natural and inevitable.

    • I agree with you, Juzzeau, about the difference between the differences between different types of reading of the texts–eg. literal, moral, mythic.

      But isn’t this just the point–that what are deep and powerful mythic truths, portraying profound aspects of the psyche, are taken up, misconstrued and misused out of fear and the (often unconscious) desire to somehow control these terrifying forces instead of facing them.

      The energy and power and transformative force gets co-opted by the self desperately trying to protect itself and control that which is awe-ful, life and death, the power of creation and destruction. This leads to blame, moralizing, suppressing, literalizing, reductionsim… which get acted out in our views and projections (especially in what we view as “other” or threatening) , how we relate to ourselves and others, how we create structures and organize ourselves socially and communally, etc.

    • Thanks for this Linda – I see the truth in what you say. The more I think about these questions, the more I come back to something I wrote earlier, which is that stories and myths have a kind of ambiguous charge that can’t easily – or ever finally – be resolved, and that’s what makes them so powerful and fascinating. No one way of reading ever gives you the “key” that unlocks the single definitive, “correct” meaning which has the power to block or overwhelm all others – there are always other possibilities.

      And as you point out, it’s hard to keep different ways of reading separate. Mythic readings get taken up by ethical (or unethical!) ones. I guess that’s why the work of interpretation is important – and never complete. Though I also have a sense that the interpretations and their agendas can obscure the story you started with – there’s that classic thing of how people who do a lot of academic study of literature say they lose the ability to just relax and lose themselves in a novel. So at least some of the time it’s also good to stop worrying about what the story means, or how it “should” be read, and just let it move you. And now I think my own argument requires me to stop yabbering away on this blog and go and read a good book (or maybe even write one :).

  6. Dear Bhante Sujato,

    Wonderfully insightful.

    To quote: “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.”

    You go to write…

    “A close reading of the passage, preserving all its ambivalence, shows that it forms part of a developmental history, a spiritual biography of Mahapajapati.”

    Oh so correct…

    The development of the myth comes full circle when the Blessed One states that the responsibility for the endurance of his dispensation rests with the monks themselves. When he declares before he passed away, in response to a question put by the recluse Subhadda, the last monk to be ordained by the Blessed One himself:

    ‘If these monks were to live rightly, the world might not be empty of arahats.’

    (Digha Nikaya II 152)

    With Metta.

  7. Dear Bhante,
    Another very interesting post–thank you.

    By analogy, I think of the lyric poet, Sappho of Lesbos. As scholarship indicates, because so little is actually known about her and her life, her life has been subject to various interpretations (read projections) since the 6th-century BCE. While in our era most people think of her as the prototypical female homosexual, the ancients believed she killed herself because of an requited love of a man.

    It seems that people justify all kinds of behavior by using the cultural norms of the time to interpret texts: Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, et al.

  8. I love it!!! This fits with the sort of insights I have been having during or following meditation lately. really seeing the place of craving & violence. seeing how selfishness can be transformed to selflessness gives me a new respect and compassion and gentle attitude towards that selfishness.

  9. I notice that the number of responses to this post is comparatively low. I think I’ve realised that, since about my mid-20s, I came to regard things predominantly within a psychological/emotional framework. Before that I saw things more often existentially. It’s quite refreshing but demanding to go there again, like using a muscle that hasn’t had much exercise for a long time.

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