Myth in Buddhism

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Myth in Buddhism

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 07, 2013 3:34 am

Elsewhere I posited that "Dharma transmission" in Zen/Chan is a myth, and I feel my meaning was misunderstood despite attempting to clarify it.

Myth means a story or anything delivered by word of mouth that is regarded as holy, sacred, spiritual and/or endorsed by sufficient numbers of people to make it socially potent.

Let me quote the Etymology Dictionary:

    myth (n.)
    1830, from French Mythe (1818) and directly from Modern Latin mythus, from Greek mythos "speech, thought, story, myth, anything delivered by word of mouth," of unknown origin.

      Myths are "stories about divine beings, generally arranged in a coherent system; they are revered as true and sacred; they are endorsed by rulers and priests; and closely linked to religion. Once this link is broken, and the actors in the story are not regarded as gods but as human heroes, giants or fairies, it is no longer a myth but a folktale. Where the central actor is divine but the story is trivial ... the result is religious legend, not myth." [J. Simpson & S. Roud, "Dictionary of English Folklore," Oxford, 2000, p.254]

    General sense of "untrue story, rumor" is from 1840.


The latter definition here is what myth has come to mean in contemporary English. If you say that Dharma transmission is a myth, then it comes across as "Dharma transmission is untrue".

However, this is not what myth means when we are discussing religion. Again, let's consider another definition:

myth n.
1.
    a. A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society: the myth of Eros and Psyche; a creation myth.
    b. Such stories considered as a group: the realm of myth.
2.
    A popular belief or story that has become associated with a person, institution, or occurrence, especially one considered to illustrate a cultural ideal: a star whose fame turned her into a myth; the pioneer myth of suburbia.
3.
    A fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology.
4.
    A fictitious story, person, or thing: "German artillery superiority on the Western Front was a myth" (Leon Wolff).


http://www.thefreedictionary.com/myth

Myths are sacred narratives which come to have causal power. They also make people do things, refrain from things and/or charge people with institutional authority over others.

In Buddhist religions there are many such myths, many of which are provided metaphysical dimensions to justify and sanctify their existence.

One example is the theory that there is a "precept essence" that is conveyed from master to disciple when an ordination or lay precepts are given. In one Vinaya school it is understood as a "non-manifest form dharma", i.e., a material thing that is passed on down the lineage, which furthermore must be maintained through confession lest it be lost. This easily prompts real life actions and likewise sanctions authority which will be respected and comes with various perks. The males with the higher level of ordination are supposed to sit ahead of everyone else in the assembly.

This all has a function of course and has served people well, but at the end of the day we need to recognize that everything is mentally constructed. Becoming overly emotionally invested in myths is often detrimental to personal and collective well-being.

The idea of dharma transmission historically has not functioned as it has been prescribed, though many believe otherwise and don't recognize earlier and present precedents. Descriptively, it is a social construct which legitimizes institutional authority. You are are ostensibly qualified to run the show and teach if you have Dharma transmission.

As I said elsewhere, I don't believe in this myth. I would rather see a kind of meritocracy where people are judged capable by virtue of their good qualities, practice and learning.

Here's a good paper to read for further consideration:

Richard Baker and the Myth of the Zen Roshi
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby jeeprs » Sun Apr 07, 2013 4:25 am

I think it is an interesting topic. I agree that the term 'myth' is used dismissively in modern thought, to indicate something like a fairy-story. But I think that myths are often better understood as the way that moral or existential truths are encoded in the form of a story to which an audience can relate. In other words, mythical stories may not be literally true, but they often convey profound truths about the human situation that cannot be stated in purely objective or factual terms. If seen this way, whether they are literally true is besides the point - it is what the myth is saying, that is important.

In fact many traditional depictions of the Buddha's life story are embedded in a mythical narrative. Traditionally the Buddha is said to have sprung fully-formed from the side of his mother, and then taken steps in each of the 'four directions' immediately after being born. Furthermore the 'Jataka stories' which are mythical re-tellings of the Buddha's previous lives, replete with many magical events and legendary deeds, are very deeply embedded in Buddhist culture and can be traced in iconographic form to the very earliest stages. We in the west who study or learn about Buddhism, don't usually have it presented in that form. it is kind of 'de-mythologized' to accord with our generally secular outlook, but I don't know if it is really correct to say that the secularized version that we are familiar with is the authoritative or correct one. Perhaps it might be the case that it is simply a version that is more in a accord with our own cultural mythology.

Huseng wrote:This all has a function of course and has served people well, but at the end of the day we need to recognize that everything is mentally constructed. Becoming overly emotionally invested in myths is often detrimental to personal and collective well-being.


However, I don't know if I agree with the thrust of what you're saying here. I think there is definitely a gnostic element in Buddhism, which consists of imparting a deep insight into the nature of being, which people ordinarily don't have. This is why ordinarily they are called 'uninstructed worldlings' or 'puttajhana'. When they have been instructed, and, more importantly, actually seen for themselves the truth of the Buddhist teachings, this actually amounts to a conversion experience. it is a deeply transformative and life-changing experience and the introduction to a different way of being, symbolized in the Theravada with the various gradations of 'stream-winner, once-returner', and in the Mahayana as progression through the Bhumis.

The notion of 'the transmission of truth' is intrinsic to Buddhism, in my opinion. Now whilst myths may grow up around this process, I don't think it is actually mythical.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby randomseb » Sun Apr 07, 2013 4:52 am

So you are saying that you don't believe in the actual teachings of the Buddha? Doesn't that make you a new ager of some kind, and not a buddhist?

As for the essence of mind thing, its at the top level of not only most buddhist teachings, but also of most other legit religions. So it seems to be a pretty basic truth that everyone who bothers to investigate discovers for themselves. Have you bothered to investigate? If you are skeptic about spirituality, investigate quantum physics and biology, the same truth can be found here. When you've found your way around skepticism through knowledge of neurology, biology and physics, then you can put it all down, put down your book learning, your debating and thinking, and don't do anything at all. That is the start of your true investigating: personal experience.

:shrug:
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sun Apr 07, 2013 4:55 am

Huseng wrote:
Myths are sacred narratives which come to have causal power. They also make people do things, refrain from things and/or charge people with institutional authority over others.


Myths don't make people do anything.
That's just a myth.

If you take the word "myth" out of what you are trying to say,
what is it exactly that you are trying to say?
.
.
.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 07, 2013 4:56 am

jeeprs wrote:But I think that myths are often better understood as the way that moral or existential truths are encoded in the form of a story to which an audience can relate.


I agree. However, my concern is that myths can be appropriated to support and sustain all too human institutions which are concerned less with spiritual growth and liberation, and more with money and power. The myth of divine kingship is clearly one example in relatively recent western history which illustrates this point.

In other words, not all myths are conveying benevolent meaning. A skilled occult magician knows how to warp a story into a functional myth and command the masses. Even if it is not intentionally crafted as such, myths can and often are employed towards mundane ends. In Buddhism myths are often employed to affirm power structures and secure resources.


Perhaps it might be the case that it is simply a version that is more in a accord with our own cultural mythology.


I think you're quite correct. The version of Buddhadharma most appealing to someone brought up in a secularized society will likely be one sanitized of disagreeable religious and mythological elements. This helps to explain the heavily westernized form of Zen Buddhism that caught on in America and elsewhere in the latter half of the 20th century. It had already undergone a transformation via protestant and modernist influences back in Japan, thus rendering it palatable to disenchanted westerners whose God had died centuries before.



However, I don't know if I agree with the thrust of what you're saying here. I think there is definitely a gnostic element in Buddhism, which consists of imparting a deep insight into the nature of being, which people ordinarily don't have.


There is profound truth which cannot be quantified and qualified using coarse language, though I'm doubtful all those individuals claiming to be such-and-such a Dharma heir really have ascertained or realized that truth.

The Chinese Madhyamaka thinker Jizang (549-623) went to great lengths in analysing and explaining the two truths in his writings, the realization of which he admitted was beyond language, though nevertheless he never to my knowledge insisted this required some kind of abstract transmission or certification from a higher power.

Likewise, Nāgārjuna wrote the MMK, it seems, with the intent that readers could ascertain and understand the meaning of emptiness in the face of what he thought were limited perspectives. There is no seal on it forbidding people from reading it without authorization. He never says you need a higher authority as a prerequisite for liberation. It seems axiomatic that you have only to realize emptiness and attain liberation yourself for you to be a master in your own right.

This is part of the reason why I fail to see how a mythical narrative is necessary or even desirable. In view of the history behind power struggles within Buddhist religions and institutions, is it even desirable to maintain such narratives as essential?

In the days before Chan in East Asia there were nominal lineages of course, but it seems assumed in schools like Tiantai, Huayan, Sanlun and others that there was no need to affirm power struggles via mythological narratives. I don't really see how Chan/Zen is in a superior position to realize the unspeakable truth better than, say, Sanlun or Tiantai. In fact, I tend to feel the latter are superior because of their emulation of Indic methodologies in systematically explaining doctrine and practice. They're far more coherent and logical. There's less room for intuitive approach, perhaps, but then intuition motivated by emotion rather than reason is a recipe for disaster.



The notion of 'the transmission of truth' is intrinsic to Buddhism, in my opinion. Now whilst myths may grow up around this process, I don't think it is actually mythical.


Why can't that transmission be conveyed, or at least pointed to, through scripture and śāstra?
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 07, 2013 4:57 am

randomseb wrote:So you are saying that you don't believe in the actual teachings of the Buddha? Doesn't that make you a new ager of some kind, and not a buddhist?


Please reread what I just wrote and tell me how what you wrote here has to do with it.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:05 am

Huseng wrote:This all has a function of course and has served people well, but at the end of the day we need to recognize that everything is mentally constructed. Becoming overly emotionally invested in myths is often detrimental to personal and collective well-being.
You are presenting three aspects here as one:
1.everything is mentally constructed
2.Becoming overly emotionally invested in myths
3. often detrimental

"everything is mentally constructed" is moot and irrelevant.
"emotionally invested" is an undefined descriptor. What does it mean?
"often detrimental" is vague and contingent. How often is often?

If a person suffers due to their understanding (or misunderstanding) of what you refer to as a myth,
this suffering is caused by the person. Not by the myth.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby randomseb » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:05 am

Huseng wrote:
randomseb wrote:So you are saying that you don't believe in the actual teachings of the Buddha? Doesn't that make you a new ager of some kind, and not a buddhist?


Please reread what I just wrote and tell me how what you wrote here has to do with it.


You're right, you are talking about the transmission, but I read essence of mind.. Shows what a long day I have been having!

But the rest remains true, analyze, analyze, read, read, think, think.. Where is there room for steady constant practice in this?

:rolling:
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:07 am

randomseb wrote:But the rest remains true, analyze, analyze, read, read, think, think.. Where is there room for steady constant practice in this?

:rolling:


Critical thought, analysis and reading are a part of practice, just as much as meditation, generosity and confession.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby randomseb » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:15 am

They are part of the preparatory stage so you have a general idea what you should be doing, but then, it's time to put it all down and just do it!

:thumbsup:

Anyway that is off-topic \\ :oops:
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:16 am

Huseng wrote:The idea of dharma transmission historically has not functioned as it has been prescribed, though many believe otherwise and don't recognize earlier and present precedents. Descriptively, it is a social construct which legitimizes institutional authority. You are are ostensibly qualified to run the show and teach if you have Dharma transmission.


Maybe you myth the point!
:rolling:

This makes dharma transmission sound as though one has downloaded the buddhist teaching off the teacher's computer hard-drive and onto the student's. It doesn't take into consideration that there is something that a teacher recognizes that a student is ready for.

If this sounds like such a far-fetched idea, really it happens quite often.
Consider the situation of "getting the joke".
A person who has a very sublime wit cannot impart a sharing of subtle humor
to someone who just doesn't get the joke.
He tells a joke, some people in the room get it, others do not.
Similarly, the subtleties in a poem or in a piece of music, or in a painting.
A sense of appreciation has to be cultivated, or else it just doesn't come across.
Likewise, except for rare situations such as the 6th patriarch Hui Neng,
Students study for a long time in order to develop the context in which "dharma transmission" occurs.
The light goes on, but if you blink, you miss it.
There's your study, practice, etc.

Then it 's like getting your picture taken
The flash goes off, but if you blink, when you get the print, your eyes are closed.
.
.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:21 am

PadmaVonSamba wrote:Students study for a long time in order to develop the context in which "dharma transmission" occurs.
The light goes on, but if you blink, you miss it.


Formally a Zen teacher gives transmission to disciples of their choosing. It works the same in modern Chan, too.

This is unlike what you're describing, which sounds a lot like your own ideas rather than the formal notion of transmission in Chan/Zen.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:22 am

Huseng wrote:
PadmaVonSamba wrote:Students study for a long time in order to develop the context in which "dharma transmission" occurs.
The light goes on, but if you blink, you miss it.


Formally a Zen teacher gives transmission to disciples of their choosing. It works the same in modern Chan, too.

This is unlike what you're describing, which sounds a lot like your own ideas rather than the formal notion of transmission in Chan/Zen.


Yes, but Why do they choose one student and not the other?
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:24 am

PadmaVonSamba wrote:Yes, but Why do they choose one student and not the other?


It differs case by case.

In modern Japan you give it to your son who inherits your position and property which forms a tax free religious entity.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:29 am

Huseng wrote:
PadmaVonSamba wrote:Yes, but Why do they choose one student and not the other?

It differs case by case.In modern Japan you give it to your son who inherits your position and property which forms a tax free religious entity.

So, are you saying that this is a corrupt practice supported by the "myth" of transmission?
Is this tax loophole thing the focus of your concern,
or is this just one example of something you see as a bigger issue?
Can you cite other problems?
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:32 am

What I see, the problem, from you argument, though,
isn't that transmission itself is not somehow valid,
but that a claim of transmission cannot be validated
and is thus liable to fraud.

In other words, maybe something (for lack of a better word, "mystical") really occurs
but there is no way to prove it, so anyone can say it happened to them,
and nobody has a basis for disagreement.

Is this an accurate assessment of your position?
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby jeeprs » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:39 am

Huseng wrote: There is profound truth which cannot be quantified and qualified using coarse language, though I'm doubtful all those individuals claiming to be such-and-such a Dharma heir really have ascertained or realized that truth.....Why can't that transmission be conveyed, or at least pointed to, through scripture and śāstra?


It can be, and is, pointed to. (I seem to recall that in Tibetan teachings there is a category called 'pointing out instructions'). But ultimately the Buddhist insight rests on a profound inner transformation. What does 'samma sambhuddasa' mean? 'Perfectly enlightened by himself'. This is one of the unique characteristics of a Buddha. Really the whole religion is founded on that insight, or 'anchored' on it. That is one of the reasons why all the principle schools trace lineages back to the Buddha. That notion of 'the passing of the torch' or 'mind to mind transmission' is fundamental to it. I can't see any way around that.

But I do acknowledge your unease with the way in which the notion of 'transmission' can be exploited. I have read that paper by Stuart Lachs you mentioned and also his other paper on what he called the 'hagiography' of Shen Yen and Walter Nowick. I think Lachs' critical perspective is salutary, and that Zen schools can benefit from such informed criticism. But that site on which the essay is published, places a lot of emphasis on the essentially mystical nature of Zen enlightenment, and assumes a very contrarian stance with regards to modern Zen generally. So I think Lachs has, in some ways, an ax to grind, even though there's something in what he says.

All that said, I myself have yet to find a Zen school I really could bring myself to become a member of. There have been some things that really put me off it, like the dreadful succession conflict at the main Son monastery in Seoul in the early 90's. But I will always feel some kind of link or allegiance to Hui Neng, Rinzai, Suzuki et al. I think I am naturally inclined towards mysticism generally, so it just resonates with me.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 07, 2013 5:45 am

PadmaVonSamba wrote:Can you cite other problems?


This paper really details the American side of things:

http://www.academia.edu/944019/Richard_ ... _Zen_Roshi


I'm basically saying the myth of transmission is unnecessary and historically has been all too often used to legitimize and affirm power structures. Organized religion is inevitably tied up with money and power regardless of what their official party line is. The institutional form of Buddhism is seldom immune to such corrupting influences.

I know this is a sacred myth to many people, including many people on this forum, but I'm under no obligation to believe in it. The question to ask is cui bono? Who benefits? Do practitioners really benefit from this abstract notion of Dharma transmission? I don't really see the benefit of such a practice to lowly practitioners. It is a social construct and one that is unnecessary. Better that people be islands onto themselves.

Authority should be ultimately placed in scripture and fundamental Buddhist principles rather than in people. This means you judge a person's qualifications based on their good qualities, experience and learning. That also means as a Buddhist you have your own intellectual and moral autonomy to decide on matters for yourself.

I know this leads to more questions about how to judge scriptural authenticity and decide on touchy ethical issues, but I would hope people can come to their own conclusions on such things alongside whatever their institutions say.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby Indrajala » Sun Apr 07, 2013 6:32 am

jeeprs wrote:It can be, and is, pointed to. (I seem to recall that in Tibetan teachings there is a category called 'pointing out instructions').


As we know, though, buddhahood in one lifetime via tantra requires a guru. A guru is a non-negotiable prerequisite for Vajrayāna. Those who do not get initiation and practice anyway are assured their practice will go nowhere.

But ultimately the Buddhist insight rests on a profound inner transformation. What does 'samma sambhuddasa' mean? 'Perfectly enlightened by himself'. This is one of the unique characteristics of a Buddha.


I think this used to be understood as the ideal even for practitioners up until a certain point in Indian Buddhist history. In other words, a practitioner could rely on a teacher, but really realization was attained on one's own merits and not the grace of a master or higher power. There was no guru as a prerequisite.

In the early literature they often describe the authorities as being well-learned and capable of readily defeating the heterodox in debate. An authority was as such by virtue of their skills and good qualities. Less emphasis is given to their guru's credentials and their lineage, if it is even mentioned. Later on it seems there was a shift towards requiring a guru and the literature again reflects this. This same idea found its way into Chan and then Zen. You see it in the narrative about transmission all the way from the Buddha's time through Bodhidharma until now.

Interestingly, the Tibetans have strongly maintained the latter said development. It is taboo to speak ill of your guru and all manner of punishments await you in hell if you do and fail to repair your samaya, but then the same ideas are expressed in Vinaya literature, yet the Vinaya practices are not really given so much attention in Tibetan Buddhism.

Anyway, my point is that titles have limited value and becoming overly emotionally invested in them, especially when we can see historically a lot of corrupting influences, is unnecessary and undesirable. It really just perpetuates the eight worldly dharmas. I see this a lot in institutional Buddhism all over the world. Myths are used to acquire power and money, which nominally are used for the good work of spreading the Dharma, yet we can often see more mundane motivations at work. Members of such institutions have a lot to lose if enough people question the authority and money they possess. They are not just emotionally, but materially invested in their own narratives.

All that said, I myself have yet to find a Zen school I really could bring myself to become a member of. There have been some things that really put me off it, like the dreadful succession conflict at the main Son monastery in Seoul in the early 90's. But I will always feel some kind of link or allegiance to Hui Neng, Rinzai, Suzuki et al. I think I am naturally inclined towards mysticism generally, so it just resonates with me.


I used to have an interest in Zen. I even went to Japan, learnt Japanese, went into a Zen temple or two and studied at a Soto Zen University. I didn't have any specific traumatic experiences that would turn me away from Zen, but I did discover the intellectual foundations from whence a lot of Chan thought came from and then saw how the Chan and Zen schools developed over time through history.

After a lot of reading and meditation, I came to basically conclude that a lot of what people consider important now is effectively irrelevant to me and my pursuit of liberation. I've come to wonder how much of the institutional myths and social organization that surrounds something like Zen are motivated by the eight worldly dharmas? Again, look at the history and modern developments.
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Re: Myth in Buddhism

Postby Konchog1 » Sun Apr 07, 2013 6:52 am

Well, from the 50 Stanzas on Guru Devotion on down, in Tibetan Buddhism, the Guru must fulfill a long list of qualifications (would it be helpful to post them?). As while the Guru's blessings and teachings are essential, the actual meditations are your responsibility.

But yes, early Buddhism was a lot more allowing of 'an island unto yourselves'.
Equanimity is the ground. Love is the moisture. Compassion is the seed. Bodhicitta is the result.

-Paraphrase of Khensur Rinpoche Lobsang Tsephel citing the Guhyasamaja Tantra

"All memories and thoughts are the union of emptiness and knowing, the Mind.
Without attachment, self-liberating, like a snake in a knot.
Through the qualities of meditating in that way,
Mental obscurations are purified and the dharmakaya is attained."

-Ra Lotsawa, All-pervading Melodious Drumbeats
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