Buddhist symbol for truth

Stupa seen from corner of stone wall, in deep snow with sunTalking with Rita Gross

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.sun & shadows on closeup of paths cut in deep snow 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.

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