Week 1 of Rita Gross’s retreat, “Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners” is finishing up today. The topic this week was “Biographies of the Buddha,” and in the video Gross explores the differences between understanding stories literally and symbolically. One retreat participant writes:

I find your delineation of history and story quite refreshing and useful. In this day and age we sometimes don’t realize the difficulty of actual documentation in very early historical times, when oral transmission was required. As we all know, it is very difficult to orally communicate to many people a story and have it remain “the same” which I believe is different than being “accurate.” As long as you read the stories understanding that they are not “the word” you can often find many more “truths” than in a verbatim account.

As with most things that we dearly care about, it is important to recognize difference between historical fact and actually understanding it at a core level. This is one of the great strengths of Buddhism and its ability to adapt to various cultures and traditions.

I also share your desire to avoid the traps of fundamentalism, which is actually a way of saying “I am right and you are wrong” one of the most common attitudes we find in our culture today. It is my hope that Buddhist teachings of non-separation can help alleviate this affliction which tears at the heart of achieving peace.

Well said.

Another participant wonders: “Rita, I’d like to hear your description of the value of having a historically accurate account of the Buddha’s life.”

Gross responds:

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 ideological 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 forms of Buddhism, so historical study is a great meeting place for Buddhists of different denominations.

If they are both done right, academic study of Buddhism and Buddhist practice are very powerful allies.

What’s the connection between story and history? What’s the difference? Another retreat participant asks the following:

You briefly mentioned the Jatakas stories, but not whether they were ‘story’ or ‘history’. If it is something the Buddha spoke about, is captured in the Pali Canon (Sutta Pitaka), and undisputed, would that fit the definition of history?

Gross replies:

I would say that the Jataka stories are definitely story not history. There are so many layers in the Pali suttas—it’s really hard to pick out what was actually said by the Buddha, nor do I think it matters that much. The authority of Buddhist teachings is that they work, that they help us negotiate life, not who said them. That’s an important principle—that we evaluate the message, not the messenger.

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