We’re in the middle of the first week of Professor Rita Gross’s retreat, “Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners.” This week’s topic is “Biographies of the Buddha.” (You can watch a short preview of this week’s talk below.) The retreat participants have asked Professor Gross a lot of diferent questions and she’s answering every one. One participant asks how we’re supposed to view these stories, and how they were viewed in the past. Professor Gross responds:
i think that in the ancient world, many of the stories we now regard as “holy” had entertainment value, among other things. it is a product of the European enlightenment that we have such low regard for the kind of truth that is found in stories. not all “truth” is empirical fact. that’s one kind of truth, but the only kind that many people value post-European enlightenment. that is very sad, and is one of the major sources of fundamentalism.
Buddhist Fundamentalism is one of her concerns, and one reason for it, she argues, is that we take the stories literally. Another participant asks how much we know of the historical Buddha’s life and how important that is. Professor Gross responds:
in terms of what good an accurate historical account of the Buddha’s life would be—I would say that knowing how little we can actually pin down historically about the Buddha’s life makes our minds much more flexible and open. there’s nothing worse for good practice than too much ideaological certainty and historical studies undercut the pious narratives of every form of Buddhism, thus leading to more open-mindedness and mental flexibility. also, as i like to say, there can only be one accurate Buddhist history that applies to all froms of Buddhism, so historical study is a great meeting place for Buddhists of different denominations.
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