Myth & truth

Following on from some comments earlier, it seems I need to expand what I said about myth and truth.

First up, see the definitions from Wiktionary:

Myth (plural myths)

  • A traditional story which embodies a belief regarding some fact or phenomenon of experience, and in which often the forces of nature and of the soul are personified; a sacred narrative regarding a god, a hero, the origin of the world or of a people, etc.
  • (uncountable) such stories as a genre

    Myth was the product of man’s emotion and imagination, acted upon by his surroundings. (E. Clodd, Myths & Dreams (1885), 7, cited after OED)

  • A commonly-held but false belief, a common misconception; a fictitious or imaginary person or thing; a popular conception about a real person or event which exaggerates or idealizes reality.
  • A person or thing held in excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration based on popular legend
    Father Flanagan was legendary, his institution an American myth. (Tucson (Arizona) Citizen, 20 September 1979, 5A/3, cited after OED)

Obviously I am using the word in the first sense, which has nothing to do with truth or falsity, but is about belief in a meaningful sacred narrative.

I am genuinely surprised that there is a difficulty in disentangling this meaning from the popular sense of myth (definition 3) as ‘thing thought to be true but in fact false’. This is quite a different thing and is not relevant for the serious study of sacred stories. Notice that this popular use is not just about story, but about any false belief, as we use in the sense of ‘urban legends and modern myths‘.

While these two meanings are distinct, they are historically related. As we study (genuine) myth, it becomes clear that many things in myth cannot be substantiated by facts, and that some things can be positively disproved. And yet this did not undermine the power that these myths had as sacred stories. So truth in any literal sense is not a necessary quality for a myth – a conclusion that is reinforced by the existence of thousands of mutually incompatible myths around the world. As this originally scholarly conclusion filtered through to the broader community, it inevitably lost its nuance and degenerated into the popular use we are familiar with today.

The problem is more acute for theistic religions. For example, Paul said that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, our faith is in vain. The myths must be literally true, or the foundations of the faith start to fall apart (This, of course, is the word of Paul, not Jesus!)

For Buddhists, the truth or otherwise of the mythology that surrounds the Buddha is, as several commenters have noted, not really the point. The four Noble Truths remain just as noble and just as true, whether or not this is sung by the devas as far as the Brahma world.

The study of mythology as such, therefore, does not concern itself with finding out whether a given story is ‘true’ or not. It inquires into the meaning and function of a story within its culture.

The job of a historian, however, is to sift the true from the false. To do so they will rely on corroboration of sources, prefer realistic rather than miraculous accounts, seek for any archaeological evidence, do text-critical studies, and so on.

One of the sources of help for a historian is the understanding of myth and its purposes. When you know what kinds of things myths typically do, it becomes possible, in some cases, to sniff out purely imaginary elements within histories.

This is what I did, for example, in Sects & Sectarianism. I treated the schism accounts of the foundation of the different schools as origin myths rather than historical accounts. But this was not done arbitrarily: it was done after considering all relevant information, and determining that the various accounts were all mutually incompatible. While it is possible that one of the accounts may be historical, the majority of them, perhaps all, must be inventions.

If one of the schism accounts is true, we had no way of knowing which one. Sometimes this can be done by comparing with additional information and determining which account best fits the overall historical picture. In this case, the historical basis is arrived at through the confirmation of certain accounts (the Sinhalese Vinaya commentaries) with the archaeological evidence. However, none of the accounts of schism fit the known history all that well (although one account, the Sariputrapariprccha, was the least bad).

Since most, probably all, of the accounts are inventions, we must then ask, ‘Why were these inventions made?’ The answer is fairly obvious: to authorize one’s school through establishing archaic authority for contemporary conditions. This is one of the basic functions of myth. Once this connection is made, it becomes clear that the accounts do not agree with the archaeologically-confirmed history, but they do agree very well with the particular mythos of each school.

We can then use the stories in a meaningful way, to contribute to our understanding of the schools that existed in Buddhism, and how they saw their place in Buddhism. As I pointed out in S&S, since most contemporary Buddhist scholars are dismissive of and hence unschooled in mythology, they tend to overlook these aspects.

Now, maybe the above reasoning turns out to be wrong. Maybe we find a new piece of evidence that shows that one of the schism accounts is in fact correct. In this case, a historian has to throw out their theory and rewrite the books – and in the process learn quite a bit about the First Noble Truth! But a mythologist would not be affected: the meaning and function of the story in its culture remain the same.

When we use this approach, it is not in order to throw things away because they are ‘myth’. It is to better understand things as they really are. We can use meaningful criteria to determine that some things in our Buddhist heritage are historical, and some things represent stories that the Buddhist community told about themselves. These are no less meaningful, but they speak of an inner truth rather than an objective truth.

Compare a modern day parallel, say a newspaper article and a fantasy novel. We can consider the newspaper article, ask whether it is true or not, compare it with known facts, and so on. We can’t do the same with a fantasy novel. Instead, we ask whether it was imaginative, fun, engaging, emotional. But the novel, for the very reason that it is dissociated from objective truth, reveals much more about the inner life of the novelist. The journalist is expected to conceal their own views as best they can and give an ‘objective’ account of the facts; while a novelist on the other hand is expected to be true to their own inner vision, and not let mundane reality weigh down their imagination. This is why novels and other imaginative works are often truer, more revealing and meaningful, than so-called ‘objective’ works.

Look around: in every culture these same forces are at play, jostling for attention; the inner and the outer, the freedom of imagination and the rigor of facts. Buddhist culture is no different.

As time goes on, however, our cultures become more specialized; the distinction between ‘myth’ and ‘history’ becomes sharper than ever before. This is why we’re having this conversation. It’s an essential process in the growth and adaptation of Buddhism.

And there are two tendencies that obstruct this process: the fundamentalist insistence that myth is history; and the secularist insistence that myth is useless. We don’t overcome these extremes by making rash sweeping judgments or defensive assertions. We do it by sympathetic inquiry and reflection.


19 thoughts on “Myth & truth

  1. This is fascinating Bhante.

    It seems to me, particularly after reading your concluding paragraph, that one cannot look to ‘hold on’ to any notion of whether or not myth is history/true or useless/false. For both views will hinder any chance of learning anything meaningful from a particular myth.

    Until your comments in the previous post, I never for a moment questioned the separateness of definitions one and three. I’m still getting my head round that one!

    I seem to keep coming back to ‘agreeing’ and ‘disagreeing’. It seems then myth can serve as a way of drawing lines between schools of thought/feeling even. To me this points to the human (?) need to have certainty; in this case, if you disagree with me, i cannot relate to you or interact with you or be around you.

    Bhante, your opening paragraph stated: “Obviously I am using the word in the first sense, which has nothing to do with truth or falsity, but is about belief in a meaningful sacred narrative.”

    I think I’m repeating myself but I’m struggling to understand better… This doesn’t mean that the ‘meaningful sacred narrative’ *is* false. The possibility – unless proved otherwise – is there, that it may be *fact*? Just as the possibility of the opposite is there.

    A lot of Buddhist Doctrine – regardless of whether we can historically verify whether the Buddha said it or not – can be viewed as sacred, meaningful and impossible to check according to ‘outer’, ‘external’ ‘facts. We are called upon to stand in the middle ground that exists between doubt and faith and verify these Teachings according to ‘internal’ ‘facts’/personal truths. So I’m referring to the narrative of the doctorines…although you cannot, strictly speaking, call these a narrative (they are perhaps better viewed as expositions, persuasions, analyses or even lists)…for example, the 4 Noble Truths as opposed to the story that the devas are singing them.

    If both the suspension and application of doubt are required in relating to the Doctorine – something that must be verified internally – then wouldn’t it serve us just as well, to relate to myth (definiion number 1) in the same way?

    Fascinating topic Bhante…

    • Whoops… it might have been better if I’d said: “in this case, if people disagree with each other, they might not wish to relate to or interact with or be around each other.”

      Instead of saying: “in this case, if you disagree with me, i cannot relate to you or interact with you or be around you.” …which sounded a bit like I was referring to you personally!!

  2. Bhante

    As usual you raise some interesting points: eg “would a purely rational, empirical Buddhism have survived? We have no examples to show that this is possible.”

    I have a query I have been meaning to run past you & I won’t be able to see you tonight (good to hear you are feeling better – we had a good sit last Friday). It indirectly relates to your quote above, so I hope you don’t mind me raising it.

    My query relates to the goals of lay as opposed to monastic practice. I know the suttas address different lay audiences with different circumstances & inclinations etc. But do the suttas see the goals (& the path) as ultimately the same?

    The reason I ask is I often come across lay teachers making these comments:

    “People nowadays, not least here in the West, seem to want to develop all their
    human capacities, not a renunciant way of life that excludes most of them.
    Nowhere did the Buddha indicate that this choice strove against the end of suffering and full awakening.”

    What do you think I should make of this? I know lays can take Buddhism on whatever level they like but can a lay teacher invoke the word of the Buddha to justify the lay practitioner’s goal should be “develop(ing) all their human capacities, not a renunciant way of life”?

    It makes you wonder if a purely secular approach (devoid of any mythology among other things) can survive another 2,500 years?

    Any of your thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks

    • The problem is there are things that the logical conscious mind or intellect haven’t grasp. Also there are things that can be grasp through going beyond thoughts.

      Let’s say we haven’t been able to logically figure out the workings behind rebirth with the intellect , therefore conclude that rebirth is a myth . When being taught that rebirth is a myth instead of truth, people will not pay much attention to it and eventually abandon it.

      In eliminating aspects of the dhamma that shouldn’t be removed will render it incomplete . Being incomplete will make it ineffective. Something made ineffective will not last long.

      Being rational and empirical does not mean that we should label things as a myth simply because we are not yet able to experience it yet. If we don’t accept things as rebirth without proof then we should also not dismiss things without proof either. I see rebirth being dismissed as a myth that was added later without anyone clearly proving that rebirth doesn’t exist. If we don’t believe on rebirth without proof then why should we believe that rebirth doesn’t exist without proof.

      Note : When saying myth, I am using this definition of the word – ” A commonly-held but false belief”.

    • Hi Geoff,

      Well, the first thing that occurs to me is that, if the Buddha didn’t believe in the renunciate life, then why was he a monk? Was the Buddha an undeveloped human being, who left most of his human capacities undeveloped due to his limited renunciate lifestyle? I suspect not. While the Buddha praised and supported spiritual practice in the lay life, on the whole he clearly regarded the renunciate life as the best option for spiritual practice. Fair enough, one might have a different opinion, but to argue otherwise based on the Buddha’s own words is simply disingenuous.

      Lifestyle affects how we live, and how we live is who we are. One word for the arahant is the bhavitatta – the one whose self is fully developed. The renunciate life does not – or at least should not – end up creating a stunted, limited person, but one with freedom to grow and be all that they can.

      I can understand that lay teachers sometimes feel defensive about their status – after all, they are piggy-backing on 2500 years of monastic culture. And it is unfortunately true that some monastics can be scornful and dismissive of lay teachers, although there are many lay teachers out there who have far more practice under their belt than most monastics.

      People have different characters and will thrive in different environments. We are like plants – some thrive in rich soil, some in sandy; some with lots of sun, some in the shade; some in the wet, some in the dry. To debate about, ‘What is the best environment for growing plants?’ is really a waste of time. What is needed is to understand the best environment for this plant, and to do what we can to provide it.

    • Dear Bhante Sujato
      The life of the renunciant is the archetype that goes with the myth. It was also the life style choice that fitted in with the position of the seeker/sage at that time and place.

      With regard to piggy-backing I do agree with you but I would say that many monastics are just as guilty of piggy-backing. Whether that be on the barami of the Buddha or on the symbolic strength of the mendicant as an archetype (the robe). The initial going forth (with the aspiration taken from the archetype/myth) ends more as a career path and as a way of living this life, which is okay I guess.

    • Dear Peter,

      many monastics are just as guilty of piggy-backing

      Ahh, yes, quite right. There’s a whole sutta about this – the Dhammadayada Sutta.

      We all rely on the Buddha and on the traditions, I guess it’s just the manner in which we do so that is important.

    • Hah, I like the simile Ajahn Mun gave, of dogs gnawing on the bones of their dead master. It’s grizzly simile, and I really like it, and it’s a simile I always try to be mindful of.

    • This is an issue that the sangha should address. Maybe it is time for a renewal in Buddhism.

      A monastery can be both a dharma university or spiritual learning center for people interested in the dhamma and a full-time meditation retreat for people who want to take their meditation practice to another level. It also enables a person to properly practice according to the practicing guidelines ( Vinaya) of the Buddha. Many practitioners can greatly benefit from a lifestyle that is conducive to their meditation practice and dhamma study. It is the people that neither study dhamma or practice meditation, nor practice according to the Vinaya while at the monastery that reflect badly on the rest of the monastics who actually make proper use of their time there. There are many monks that are dedicated to meditation and practice according to the dhamma, Vinaya ( ie.. not using money) . They work very hard to share the gift of dhamma for the welfare and happiness of countless beings without any pay at all but only eat to live. And I am grateful for dedication to the practice.

    • In the Maha-Assapura Sutta, the Buddha gave a discourse on the gradual training and how to live up to the name ‘recluse’ or samana . This is a very helpful sutta to refer to.

  3. Dear Bhante Sujato,

    Thank you for clarifying that you are using the word myth ” in the first sense, which has nothing to do with truth or falsity, “. At first glance it is easy to think that you meant ” A commonly-held but false belief”. However, ” A commonly-held but false belief” as well as the rest of the explanations in the definition indicate that the word myth is associated with untrue. For this reason, I believe it is best if we use a different word to refer to something which we are not yet able to prove as true or untrue, rather than the word “myth”. For example, rebirth and the like.

    With metta,

  4. I find it’s interesting that people think “myth” means “necessarily false”. For me, the word myth might be associated with the idea of supernatural – where what is being talked is about is probably false, but not necessarily so – it might actually be a real phenomena that we just don’t understand.

    And also, that for a large part, there is probably a strand of truth to most myths – again this is like how with the supernatural, there actually IS something there which is real, and we’re trying to explain it.

    In Buddhism, there’s quite a fuzzy zone between what is obvious real, and what is obviously a product of people’s imagination. Take for example, psychic powers – modern science doesn’t accept them, but they are talked about in such a matter of fact way in the suttas, that most who read the suttas would probably conclude they are real. Or as another example, Devas – again science has no evidence for them, but they’re talked about in such a matter of fact way we conclude they’re probably real.
    But then, in both cases, there is a lot of what is really just fanciful and an obvious products of peoples imagination. It’s hard to figure out what is real, and what is imaginary, and actually, there is no hard and fast division – these things blur together.

    I would say that Deva’s are as real as you and I, and that physic powers are as real as the ability to see, hear, speak and manipulate objects with our hands – and I would say, that these things could be experienced for oneself, if one diligently practiced the Buddha’s teachings.
    On the other hand, most of the stories involving deva’s and psychic powers – are most likely just the creations of story-tellers.

    The skeptic would say, that deva’s and psychic powers, are the product of the story-tellers, they are simply the result of the wish that the world be a more magical place than it really is. But on the other hand, it’s really just as possible that devas and psychic powers are real, and stories are spun around them because they’re amazing and out of this world.

  5. Dear Nandiya,

    Nandiya wrote: ” I find it’s interesting that people think “myth” means “necessarily false”.

    I am not too surprise that the word myth is associated with false. If we look at the dictionary definition of the word myth, it is indeed has to do with falsity. It is another myth to say that the word ” myth ” has nothing to do with truth or false. The Merriam-Webster listed ” truth ” as the antonym of “myth”.

    There are various context for the word ” myth ” in the dictionary. Just because someone personally decided that only a particular context should be the definition of the word and not other contexts, does not mean that the other contexts listed in countless dictionary should be erased or that people who use the other contexts in the dictionary should be condemned as extremist ” making rash sweeping judgements or defensive assertions”.

    • I’m still really not sure why there is an issue with this. Every single dictionary I have consulted gives the primary meaning of ‘myth’ as a traditional or sacred story of creation, the gods, etc. This is how i was using the word, and what I said was misconstrued by people who took it in its derived popular meaning. This is why I clarified how i was using the word, in accord with the primary meaning, which is the only meaning of interest in a serious study of religion. If someone wants to call a TV show ‘Mythbusters’, good on ’em, but that has nothing to do with the study and appreciation of myth.

    • Dear Bhante Sujato,

      Perhaps you misunderstood that I am excluding the explanation of the word as a story, and just accept the other three description. Sometimes I use the word myth in that context as well when it comes to mythology.

      What I am trying to point out is that 3 out of 4 description in the definition actually associate the word myth with false . Therefore, people have the right to use the other contexts included in the definition as well if they choose. And it is not the case that the word myth has nothing to do with truth or false when the word truth is considered its opposite in the dictionary also .

  6. Dear Bhante Sujato,

    I don’t think anyone here is ” insistence that myth is history” . The point is claiming that something is history requires substantial evidence. Claiming that something is a myth should requires substantial evidence ( unless one uses the word myth as Nandiya defines it : “the word myth might be associated with the idea of supernatural – where what is being talked is about is probably false, but not necessarily so – it might actually be a real phenomena that we just don’t understand ” ).

    • Dear imeditation,

      You say that “I don’t think anyone here is ” insistence that myth is history” .” – maybe not, but it is extremely common in all religions and we need to understand it.

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