The Pros and Cons of Mythology

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The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby retrofuturist » Fri Jan 02, 2009 9:21 am

Greetings,

I thought it might be interesting to start a thread on the pros and cons of mythology.

One of the things that attracted me to Theravada as opposed to other Buddhist traditions was that the associated mythology was by-and-large believable. In many other traditions I saw things that seemed superstitious in nature and initially I felt quite negatively towards them thinking, "The Dhamma is so great, so effective, yet you are turning people away from the rational and straightforward teachings of the Buddha". In time I came to see that Theravada had its own mythology too, and some of it (though certainly not all) was embedded within the Pali Canon itself. I found it a little disconcerting but by this stage I had enough faith in the Dhamma that such things no longer had the power to turn me away.

How do you relate to the mythology of Theravada Buddhism? What do you believe is the most productive way to respond to scriptural mythology? How does the presence of mythology complement or distort your understanding of, and appreciation for Buddhist teachings?

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


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One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby Cittasanto » Fri Jan 02, 2009 10:25 am

Hi Retro

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings,

I thought it might be interesting to start a thread on the pros and cons of mythology.

One of the things that attracted me to Theravada as opposed to other Buddhist traditions was that the associated mythology was by-and-large believable. In many other traditions I saw things that seemed superstitious in nature and initially I felt quite negatively towards them thinking, "The Dhamma is so great, so effective, yet you are turning people away from the rational and straightforward teachings of the Buddha". In time I came to see that Theravada had its own mythology too, and some of it (though certainly not all) was embedded within the Pali Canon itself. I found it a little disconcerting but by this stage I had enough faith in the Dhamma that such things no longer had the power to turn me away.

How do you relate to the mythology of Theravada Buddhism? What do you believe is the most productive way to respond to scriptural mythology? How does the presence of mythology complement or distort your understanding of, and appreciation for Buddhist teachings?

Metta,
Retro. :)

Same for me to be honest, I found the Myths quite distracting, but I think they come in handy for expressing ideas without saying them!
if we look at the life story of the Buddha there is plenty of myth, and some quite strange names such as the Buddhas mothers (translates as great delusion) but in all honesty I doubt that the name would of been given to anyone until after Buddhism became established, come on what father would call their daughter delusion, unless it was after a significant female in history or religion?
but the myths in Theravada tell stories other than the ones plainly visible with the use of symbolism, such as Buddhas, mothers name! so it could be said (using this myth) that enlightenment is born as a result of great delusion, and on a similar thread of thought the next Buddha called Metteyya (derived from Metta - Loving Kindness) and the Buddha said that love is the root of suffering to king ? (cant remember name) so you could say the Next Buddha is the purity of love (in the sense of the Karaniya Metta Sutta)in our own hearts, but that is possibly/probably looking at it a bit too loosely?
I think with the right use myths can be useful, for the reasons I give above, but if the myths overshadow the actual practice or understanding then they become something other than a way for all to understand not just the ones who are living the practice!
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
With Metta
Upāsaka Cittasanto
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby appicchato » Sat Jan 03, 2009 12:22 pm

Manapa wrote:...the Buddha said that love is the root of suffering...


Steer me right if I'm off course here, but I was led to believe ignorance is the root of suffering...

Be well... ;)
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby Cittasanto » Sat Jan 03, 2009 9:58 pm

Hi Appicchato,
you are probably right I was quoting from memory of a story I have been told is in the suttas, so may of misquoted!
the story goes a king asks the buddha what is the root of suffering?
the buddha replies Love
the king asks again and gets the same reply so asks again
this time the buddha asks how the king would feel if his son were to be kidnapped? the king replies distrought!
then the buddha asks how the king would feel if the son of a king in the neigbouring kingdom was kidnapped?
the king replied not happy but concerned!
so the Buddha responded so you see the root of suffering is love!

I believe the story is set on the top of a tower but don't know which king and not been able to find it to look at it properly!
but you may know where it is for the correct quote?
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
With Metta
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby Jason » Sun Jan 04, 2009 1:43 am

Retro,

My approach has been to try and put things into context, understand the symbolism, etc. Take Mara, for example. It is true that in some cases, Mara is portrayed as an actual being who apparently considers himself the head of the kamavacara world. Nevertheless, in most contexts, Mara is used in reference to death, or in reference to the kilesas (defilements). In regard to the story of the Buddha being assailed by the hosts of Mara under the Bodhi tree, G. P. Malalasekera's entry in the Dictionary of Pali Names states:

    That this account of the Buddha's struggle with Māra is literally true, none but the most ignorant of the Buddhists believe, even at the present day. The Buddhist point of view has been well expressed by Rhys Davids (Article on Buddha in the Ency. Brit.). We are to understand by the attack of Mara's forces, that all the Buddha's

      "old temptations came back upon him with renewed force. For years he had looked at all earthly good through the medium of a philosophy which had taught him that it, without exception, carried within itself the seeds of bitterness and was altogether worthless and impermanent; but now, to his wavering faith, the sweet delights of home and love, the charms of wealth and power, began to show themselves in a different light and glow again with attractive colours. He doubted and agonized in his doubt, but as the sun set, the religious side of his nature had won the victory and seems to have come out even purified from the struggle."

    There is no need to ask, as does Thomas, with apparently great suspicion (Thomas, op. cit., 230), whether we can assume that the elaborators of the Mara story were recording "a subjective experience under the form of an objective reality," and did they know or think that this was the real psychological experience which the Buddha went through? The living traditions of the Buddhist countries supply the adequate answer, without the aid of the rationalists. The epic nature of the subject gave ample scope for the elaboration so dear to the hearts of the Pali rhapsodists.

As for the earthquake after Mara's defeat, to me this represents the the fact that Buddha's enlightenment was a stupendous, earth shaking event, not that the earth actually moved. A lot of people tend to take these poetic allegories literally, but I am not one of them. This is partially due to the nature of ancient Indian literature itself, which was full of allegory and symbolism. I will admit that when I first began studying the Suttas, I tended to take everything literally; but now, I have learned how to "read between the lines," as they say.

Even so, I am not saying people in ancient Indian did not believe in "supernatural" concepts, or that I do not for that matter, but I do think that not everything is meant to be taken literally. In The Celestial Key to the Vedas, for example, B. G. Sidharth notes that the Mahabharata "refers to an old lady who spins a fabric with 360 black threads and 360 white threads while a white horse stands by. The old lady is of course time. The black and white threads are night and day, and the white horse is the Sun. Incidentally, the origin of this symbolism is in the Vedic hymns of the Rig Veda. (1.64)" (53).

Of course there are myths and superstitions involved in allegories such as this, but I imagine that this would make complete sense to an ancient Indian, whereas we might not make the connections right away. The point is that one cannot simply assume that ever word is meant to be taken literally in Indian literature, or any other, which so heavily utilizes allegory and symbolism. It is easy to judge ancient cultures by our modern scientific standards, but I think that this is a mistake if and when we do not understand the subtleties of a particular culture because a lot can get lost in translation.

In the end, I think that there are many places in the Pali Canon where we can adopt a metaphorical interpretation of things that seem superstitious in nature. One can certainly have the view that ancient beliefs and myths are nothing but superstition, but it is just as possible that people did not know how to express certain ideas or experiences in any other way. Who knows. I am just offering possible explanations. Whatever the case, people such as Ajahn Buddhadasa had no trouble cutting through the superstitious aspects.

Jason
Last edited by Jason on Tue Jan 27, 2009 12:31 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby fig tree » Wed Jan 14, 2009 6:35 am

retrofuturist wrote:How do you relate to the mythology of Theravada Buddhism?

I have a preference for dealing in literal truth that is sometimes unskillful. I don't know which parts are mythological and which are not (and wish I did at least have a rough idea). In keeping with MN 60 I don't go saying I know these things are true or know these things are false.

Some of it seems to have a value especially on an emotional level; if I knew it was true, mostly it would be moving, inspiring, etc.

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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Jan 14, 2009 8:36 am

Hi Retro,

I'm curious where you think "mythology" starts? At Rebirth? At Planes of Existence? ... ?

Metta
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby retrofuturist » Wed Jan 14, 2009 8:45 am

Greetings Mike,
mikenz66 wrote:I'm curious where you think "mythology" starts? At Rebirth? At Planes of Existence? ... ?


A very good question and I don't think I can give you a categorical answer other than to say I don't include rebirth as mythology.

Generally speaking, I would include under the banner of "mythology" which:

* Seems improbable
* Does not in any way add to the Dhammic value of the lesson being taught (e.g. flying when one could walk, devas approaching the Buddha when they could have just been householders, nagas, yakkas, all the other goblins, mega-beasts etc.)

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby mikenz66 » Wed Jan 14, 2009 9:25 am

Thanks Retro,

I guess my view is that if one accepts rebirth, the Buddha's knowledge of past live and the arising and passing away of beings, and that the Path is the way out of Samsara then why would anything else in the Canon be a problem?

Metta
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby retrofuturist » Wed Jan 14, 2009 9:53 am

Greetings Mike,

mikenz66 wrote:I guess my view is that if one accepts rebirth, the Buddha's knowledge of past live and the arising and passing away of beings, and that the Path is the way out of Samsara then why would anything else in the Canon be a problem?


Well that's it, it needn't be a problem. For some people, the random assortment of creatures and phenomena I mentioned in my last post might well be an inspiration. However, I do wonder how many potential Buddhists shy away from the Dhamma because of peripheral things that were originally meant to inspire, but are now more likely to repel, if unproveable in the modern world.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby Ben » Wed Jan 14, 2009 11:27 am

My attitude is that I don't know, and for now it doesn't really matter for most of the 'mythological' stuff. I anticipate that I will be clearer about the truth of things as I develop wisdom on the path, or it is placed into its proper perspective.
That is not to say that one should not avail oneself of the diversity of opinion and scholarly interpretation in an attempt to better understand the Dhamma.
Just on the subject of alegory and metaphor in the suttas, I recommend two excellent essays by RF Gombrich in 'How Buddhism Began: the conditioned genesis of the early teachings, titled 'Debate, skill in means, allegory and literalism' and 'metaphor, allegory, satire'. They provide a thought provoking point of view.
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby genkaku » Wed Jan 14, 2009 11:57 am

Dear retro -- Perhaps you will forgive me for knowing next to nothing about Theravada approaches to mythology, but I like the questions that mythology -- which I translate as meaning suggestive stories -- pose. And so, for what it's worth ....

Everyone loves a good story. Or maybe what I mean is, I love a good story. Stories, like music, open the heart and mind. They are relaxing and that relaxation can allow the message of the story to find an easier access to anyone's life. Stories, when they are any good, are a comfortable and indirect way of seeing wider possibilities. A good story doesn't say, "You jerk! Be a Buddhist!" but instead lays out possibilities for consideration... and all from the comfort of your easy chair. This comfortable opening-up makes it easier for anyone to consider doing something about the wider possibilities in their lives. This, to my mind, is a positive development.

The downside of stories/mythology (or even religious texts, I'd say) is that anyone might try to find perpetual comfort in them ... comfort without action. In Zen Buddhism, for example, this finding of comfort is sometimes called "nesting" -- finding a secure home with secure boundaries. These boundaries lead to righteousness and bloodshed because 'my' securities will always depend on keeping 'you' and your mythologies at bay... I must protect my mythologies, my stories. When this happens, the openness that stories can provide in the first place gets stymied and stale for anyone who might simply believe them ... and then go on believing them.

Sorry if this is off-topic. It's just what I thought of.
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby Will » Wed Jan 14, 2009 3:35 pm

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings Mike,
mikenz66 wrote:I'm curious where you think "mythology" starts? At Rebirth? At Planes of Existence? ... ?


A very good question and I don't think I can give you a categorical answer other than to say I don't include rebirth as mythology.

Generally speaking, I would include under the banner of "mythology" which:

* Seems improbable
* Does not in any way add to the Dhammic value of the lesson being taught (e.g. flying when one could walk, devas approaching the Buddha when they could have just been householders, nagas, yakkas, all the other goblins, mega-beasts etc.)

Metta,
Retro. :)


Retro, Sounds like your notion of "mythology" is mainly that which is hard for you to accept as true.

A real myth is attractive to most folks because it is a tale well told with depths of meaning behind many symbols.

The psychic powers and non-human beings are real, not symbols and thus not myths, to my way of thinking.

What else is "mythic" to you?

Here is a short piece that defines mythology as not just falsities: http://www.pantheon.org/articles/m/mythology.html
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby Individual » Wed Jan 14, 2009 8:49 pm

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings,

I thought it might be interesting to start a thread on the pros and cons of mythology.

One of the things that attracted me to Theravada as opposed to other Buddhist traditions was that the associated mythology was by-and-large believable. In many other traditions I saw things that seemed superstitious in nature and initially I felt quite negatively towards them thinking, "The Dhamma is so great, so effective, yet you are turning people away from the rational and straightforward teachings of the Buddha". In time I came to see that Theravada had its own mythology too, and some of it (though certainly not all) was embedded within the Pali Canon itself. I found it a little disconcerting but by this stage I had enough faith in the Dhamma that such things no longer had the power to turn me away.

How do you relate to the mythology of Theravada Buddhism? What do you believe is the most productive way to respond to scriptural mythology? How does the presence of mythology complement or distort your understanding of, and appreciation for Buddhist teachings?

Metta,
Retro. :)

I think it's not the mythology or lack of mythology that matters, but the way that it's presented. If Buddhist teachers avoid speculating on the veracity of mythology, but merely present it as "traditional history," which might not be true, and suggesting it needs to be verified by science, that's great. But when Buddhist teachers are simply teaching mythology as fact, belittling those who disagree, slandering or distorting secular research on history, that would not be good.

To put it differently: What matters is whether the presentation of mythology is rooted in craving or non-craving, and whether the skepticism is rooted in craving or non-craving. There are many ways that completely fictional stories offer great insight into human nature and dhamma, in which non-fiction cannot, simply isn't as inspiring. But if people are unduly skeptical of Buddhist mythology and averse to it, that isn't good either. Such people would lack faith, and they shouldn't distort the Buddha's teaching by speculating he was speaking metaphorically or implying he was a liar.
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby retrofuturist » Wed Jan 14, 2009 9:00 pm

Greetings all,

Genakaku and Will ~ I'm sure I'm in the minority here because I'm not usually too fussed by 'a good story'. I don't watch movies unless I can help it. I don't read fiction any more (other than the odd bit of Buddhist fiction). I'm not really a big one for 'idle chatter' and the opportunity that gives for hearing stories. I'm not too fond on telling stories either. For all that though I don't feel I'm missing out on anything either generally, or in a Buddhist context. Much for the reasons Individual mentioned in his post... I don't really have aversion to this mythology, I just have to work out what to make of it, and if I can't get anything meaningful from it I just put it to one side. My concern though is more for newbies/skeptics who may be tired/skeptical of the stuff churned out by other religions.

Individual ~ Excellent post. I wholeheartedly agree with you. All of it.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby genkaku » Wed Jan 14, 2009 9:48 pm

Dear retro -- I agree with your caution about tale-telling. Many have been stung unnecessarily by the demand that they take various mythological tales as the god's honest truth.

But I guess I would argue as well: Everyone tells themselves stories, whether they watch TV or not. What is this ordinary mind, after all, if not a great story-teller? And to the extent that the tales told open the heart and mind to a wider landscape -- a landscape that might be worth actualizing -- then this old fabricating mind may do us a great kindness.

Still, going back to what I take as your frequency, I agree that myths as reality can cause some pretty deep wounds. As you say, perhaps it's the ego-investment that defines the scene.
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby retrofuturist » Wed Jan 14, 2009 9:55 pm

Greetings Genkaku,

In Pali there's a word called "papanca", which means mental or conceptual proliferation. Telling one's self stories would fall into the category of papanca. I've seen the dangers of papanca. When you get really agitated about something, you realise it's because your mindfulness has been lost and you've been telling yourself stores. For example... "Damn Mrs. X calling me such-and-such when she doesn't know what she's talking about. I had nothing to do with what happened, it was Mr. Y who had been doing all those things etc.etc." When the stories take over, in conjunction with negative mindstates, it's a sure road to sadness, if not depression.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


Exalted in mind, just open and clearly aware, the recluse trained in the ways of the sages:
One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby genkaku » Wed Jan 14, 2009 10:10 pm

Dear retro -- ... and simultaneously, the same mind that whines and complains and blames others is the very mind that may find comfort and sense and inspiration in The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path ... which, at the moment of admiring their wonders, would qualify as stories, I imagine... stories that may lead to a wonderful effort ... and in that effort, the story/myth/wonder drops away. If, by contrast, no effort were exerted on behalf of such stories, then the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path would remain a myth ... and we'd all be hip-deep in another religion.

Just my take obviously.
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby Will » Wed Jan 14, 2009 10:19 pm

Retro gave a couple of examples of "myths" in the Dhamma - invisible beings like devas etc. and psychic powers.

How about more specific items that anyone else feels are "mythological" ie. just plain false or highly improbable.
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Re: The Pros and Cons of Mythology

Postby genkaku » Wed Jan 14, 2009 11:04 pm

Dear Will -- Well, I think it is said that Shakymuni Buddha was born from his mother's armpit or side and that after birth he took seven steps in each of the cardinal directions and then said, with his right index finger pointed to the sky and his left index finger pointed at the ground, "Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one." I think there are variations on the tale, but it seems likely that it would qualify as a myth.
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