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.

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Happy New Year

And here’s one of my favorite images; it’s the golden mistletoe that still lives while all around is bleak and grey. This was the ‘golden bough’ that Aeneas plucked as ticket for entry into the Underworld. It became the central metaphor in James Frazer’s monumental book of the same name. If you haven’t read it, you should!

The mistletoe shows that, even when we think everything is dead, life persists. The old year dies today, and from that the new is born. May this year be full of joy and the growth of wisdom for us all!

Mistletoe in Winter