Years ago, at the Brooklyn Museum, I was looking at a Tibetan statue of a multi-armed figure when a middle-aged white couple stopped to view the statue, and as they did, one said to the other, “What is that about? Do you suppose they were trying to portray a freak who was born that way?” Then, before I could say anything, they moved on. As I, or anyone else familiar with the Indian cultural milieu, might have told them, the multiple arms were not intended to be a photograph-like portrait. Their intent is symbolic, not literal. They symbolize the deity’s multiple abilities and capabilities. Only if one were completely blind to symbolism could one so completely misread the meaning of the statue’s multiple arms, imagining that they were intended to be an accurate physical representation of an actual person born with many arms.

While the speculations of that couple in Brooklyn might sound, to a Buddhist audience, terribly naive, their error is really not that uncommon. Many modern Buddhists understand traditional narratives and practices in much the same way. What I mean is that for many modern Buddhists, the symbolic meanings contained in traditional forms are approached with an outlook steeped in the worldview of the European Enlightenment, in which truth and value lie mainly with empirical facts. Truth, in this case, is found as a result of impersonal, objective observation, and it can be duplicated by anyone with proper training under the same circumstances. There is little room in this view of things for affirming meaning as it is communicated through symbolic forms or for the understanding that, for some purposes, the value of symbolic meaning can override empirical facts or even that sometimes factual information is irrelevant to symbolic meaning. By the literalist standard, the only reason to sculpt a figure with multiple arms is to portray someone born with a tragic abnormality.

One finds in Buddhist tradition a distinction between “words” and “meaning,” which are often very different from one another, and we would do well to consider the traditional advice—whether we are looking at statues or interpreting teachings—to pay attention to symbolic meaning and not be limited to literal meaning. Traditional people recognize that what is known through imagination, whether or not it can observed empirically, is worthy of portrayal. We moderns, however, though we think ourselves incomparably more sophisticated than traditional people, have little understanding or appreciation of symbolic experience, and having committed ourselves to an empirical worldview, we live within its narrow confines. For us—or at least for many of us—a multi-armed deity is just a portrayal of a “freak.”

The same insights pertain to narratives. One can find in traditional narratives virtually any event one might imagine: virgin births, resurrections from the dead, interplanetary travel, simultaneous appearance of historical and nonhistorical characters, and so forth. But what did the original authors of these stories intend? Did they think they were recording factual history? I suggest that just as the sculptor of the multi-armed statue knew what he was doing, so these traditional authors knew what they were doing. These stories are primarily about communicating meaning, not recording facts. Virgin births, for example, are quite common in the stories of heroes. A virgin birth signifies an extraordinary person, someone who will accomplish great things with her or his life. That, and not the claim that the normal processes of human conception and birth have been contravened, is the main message of the story.

The modern person of a literalist mind-set will, however, focus on the unusual conception or birth and thus miss the story’s meaning. Not only that, but such a person, if religiously inclined, would likely insist that it is only by interpreting the events literally that one can be a faithful and true practitioner of that particular tradition. Often, they will even claim to be better practitioners than those who focus on the meaning of the story and who discount the likelihood that the story’s more improbable events occurred empirically. On the other hand, another kind of literalist will reject the whole story outright as worthless because it is pure fantasy. In both cases, the modern literal interpreter may well be much more naive about the main messages of such stories than are those who hear them in a traditional manner.

Religions, Buddhism included, are almost entirely about symbolic meaning rather than facts. Indeed, to have religious meaning, even a fact must become a symbol. Religious people have always known this intuitively. But in the modern context, we face a new and particular challenge, a different twist on the matter of truth. We modern people must differentiate clearly and carefully between facts and symbols, between history, which is an empirical discipline, and the traditional stories whose purpose is primarily symbolic.

Many religious people resist giving up literal interpretations of their most valued stories, because they think, erroneously, that they must either accept such stories as factual accounts or reject them entirely. But this dualistic assumption is the most dangerous conclusion people could draw regarding the relationship between fact and symbol, between narrative and history. A narrative can be both true and false at the same time—factually false yet symbolically true. It is not at all necessary either to edit traditional narratives to make them conform to modern sensibilities or to insist, against all common sense, that unless they happened literally as presented they have no truth value. We can learn to interpret traditional stories symbolically while simultaneously holding a modern attitude of discernment toward the events they recount.

It can be upsetting to hear that a treasured religious story simply is not historically accurate, but it need not be so. In our everyday lives, we routinely approach the world with a flexible attitude, knowing that the metaphors we use to communicate, while perhaps not literally true, serve well to describe things. We still say, for example, “the sun rose,” even though it has long been common knowledge that it is not the sun that rises but the earth that turns. We know what we say is not accurate, yet we also know what we mean when we say it. This same flexibility toward our descriptions of the world, which is so common a feature of everyday life that we seldom even notice it, can be easily applied to those descriptions of the world that we label “religious.” What is so difficult about that? Why doesn’t such flexibility come naturally to speech about traditional Buddhist narratives and claims?

We modern people must differentiate clearly and carefully between facts and symbols, between history, which is an empirical discipline, and the traditional stories whose purpose is primarily symbolic.

One example of how such flexibility can be applied to traditional claims concerns traditional Buddhist “flat-earth” cosmology, which is still used in ritual, and empirical geography. The traditional Buddhist map of the world describes a flat earth at the center of which is Mount Meru. Surrounding Mount Meru are four continents, each of which is flanked by two islands, and these lands are surrounded by the great oceans. All of this is encircled by a ring of iron mountains. In the absence of physical exploration of the globe, such a world-picture is not nonsense. Until it was proved that one does not fall over the edge of the world if one continues traveling in the same direction but rather eventually comes back to one’s starting point, most people simply assumed that the earth is flat. After all, it looks flat, just as it looks from our vantage point as if the sun rises above the earth’s horizon. Given that high mountains are found to India’s north, it is also easy to see why India was imagined to be the southern continent among the four, with a giant mountain to its north. All these, and many others, were at one time sensible conclusions. But once they have been proven false empirically, it is senseless to try to hold onto such assumptions.

The geographical exploration of the physical world that revealed a very different map caused consternation to Buddhists. Many Buddhists continued to hold to the traditional view, which cost some of them their trust in Buddhist teachings altogether. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Christian missionaries—who no longer believed in a flat earth even though they continued to reject more recent discoveries about the age of that earth—in Asian Buddhist countries routinely peppered their anti-Buddhist polemics with references to the fact that no explorer had ever found Mount Meru anywhere on the globe. Even while they continued to reject new European knowledge about the earth, Christian missionaries argued that if Buddhist texts were so wrong about the physical description of the earth, they must be untrustworthy in other ways as well. On such bases, Buddhists were encouraged to convert to Christianity, and some certainly did. In this case, actually both the Christian missionaries and the Buddhists continued to insist on a literal reading of their texts. But for Buddhists, that literal reading destroyed their confidence in Buddhism as a whole. Thus, we see how dangerous it can be to cling to either-or dualism regarding traditional texts, claiming that if they are not literally accurate in every way, then they are false and useless.

Tibetan Buddhists continued to accept the traditional flat-earth geography until well into the 20th century. The Buddhist teacher Ken McLeod, one of Kalu Rinpoche’s translators, tells an instructive story of accompanying a traditionally trained Tibetan lama to northern Canada during the summer. They arrived in the afternoon and settled in for the night. The next morning, the lama was troubled that during the night it had not become dark. McLeod used apples and oranges to show him how the sun does not set in the summer in northern regions because of the earth’s roundness, the way it tilts on its axis, and the way it rotates around the sun. The lama replied that he had heard the claim that the earth is round when he came out of Tibet, but he had dismissed it as another crazy Western idea, contrary to both common sense and his traditional training. McLeod recounts that though the lama was dispirited for some days, he came to accept this new information and returned to his usual cheerful demeanor. In the end, the lama’s experience of nights without darkness was more powerful than his inherited beliefs about the flatness of the earth.

Going a little further, in his book The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Lama recounts his excitement and joy at first seeing a photograph of the earth taken from space:

One of the most powerful visions I have experienced was the first photograph of the earth from outer space. The image of a blue planet floating in deep space, glowing like the full moon on a clear night, brought home powerfully to me the recognition that we are indeed all members of a single family sharing one little house.

Here there are no worries that a traditional Buddhist claim has been disproved, that the earth is not flat, and that Mount Meru is nowhere to be found. Instead, easily adjusting to a more complete, and, in this case, more accurate geography, the Dalai Lama draws out ethical implications from his new knowledge.

Flat-earth cosmology continues even in the present day to figure into Vajrayana Buddhist ritual. The traditional map of the world continues to have spiritual meaning when we understand its symbolic significance to be psychological rather than geographical. The ritual mandala offering, done daily, utilizes the traditional map of the cosmos. The short form of the liturgy reads:

The earth is anointed with perfumed water and strewn with flowers.
It is adorned with Mount Meru, the four continents, the sun and the moon.
By offering this visualized as a Buddhafield,
May all beings enjoy that pure realm.

Earlier generations of Vajrayana Buddhists would have assumed that this liturgy involves an accurate picture of the physical world. But contemporary Buddhists who do not believe the liturgy literally continue to recite it because of its spiritual meaning, which concerns primary Buddhist virtues such as generosity and the wish that all beings might prosper and be happy.

Landscape. Tibet, 1800-1899. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, NYC.
Landscape. Tibet, 1800-1899. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, NYC.

While contemporary Buddhists seem to have little trouble distinguishing between literal and symbolic meaning in some situations, in others this flexibility is less often found. People seem to really hold tight to their traditional stories, for instance, when it comes to the various accounts of how their particular school developed. These stories are often highly sectarian and historically inaccurate, yet because they speak to issues of authenticity, they retain a great deal of dogmatic power.

For example, according to Mahayana legend, the Buddha secretly preached the Mahayana teachings to only a select group of disciples who were ready to hear what is said to be a higher teaching than what had come before. As a matter of history, we know that this is simply not accurate, yet it can be very difficult for contemporary Mahayana Buddhists to accept this. This difficulty stems from the traditional but no longer plausible idea that authentic Buddhist teachings must be the direct teachings of the Buddha. If the Mahayana teachings, or any other teachings, are not those of the historical Buddha, it is feared that they are inauthentic.

From a historical perspective, Mahayana Buddhism displays many of the features of a new religious movement. There are, for example, very few references to the Mahayana in the texts of older Buddhist schools. That these Buddhists rarely bothered to refute Mahayana teachings indicates that the older schools did not perceive them to be much of a threat. Mahayana texts, however, constantly justify themselves by contrasting themselves, in a very positive light, with the older, more established schools, which they label as “Hinayana”—the inferior, cast-off yana, or vehicle. Both tendencies occur commonly when a new religious movement is emerging. Jews, for example, did not spend a lot of time or energy denouncing the new Jesus movement, but the Christian New Testament is full of claims about the inadequacy of Judaism.

Even the Mahayana account of its own origins betrays that it is a new religious movement. When it is claimed that the historical Buddha taught the Mahayana, it is also claimed that those disciples who followed the earlier teachings were greatly shocked, and the Buddha realized that his community would not be ready to hear the Mahayana dharma until it had a few hundred years to mature. The Buddha then hid the teachings among the nagas, serpent-like mythical creatures, for some 400 years, at which time they were retrieved by the great master Nagarjuna. As it happens, legend and history correspond on this point. Both agree that the Mahayana teachings appeared on the human plane about 400 years after the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. To me, this indicates that early Mahayanists may well have been fully cognizant that their dharma was something previously unheard. In fact, that is precisely what many Mahayana sutras claim. They claim that the Buddha is now teaching something that he previously had not revealed.

That the early Mahayanists felt they must attribute their teachings to the historical Buddha is not surprising. When people innovate within an established tradition, they always claim direct inspiration from the teachings of the founder. I and other Buddhist feminists, for example, often claim that if the Buddha were alive today he would surely support gender equity and equality. But it would be untenable to rewrite Buddhist history to support this claim. Similarly, it is untenable, from a historical perspective, to assert that stories told in Mahayana scriptures were actual conversations between the historical Buddha and a special group of disciples. We can though, and we should appreciate them as imagined conversations between a prototypical Buddha and his prototypical disciples on topics of import to practitioners in a new historical situation.
Even the Dalai Lama concedes that point. As he says:

When we examine the Mahayana scriptures themselves, we find statements that seem problematic in various ways. For example, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras state that they were taught by the Buddha at Vulture Peak in Rajagriha to a vast congregation of disciples. However, if you have visited the site in present-day Rajgir, it is obvious that it is impossible for more than a few people to fit onto the summit. So we have to understand the truth of these accounts at a different level, a level beyond the ordinary one confined by conventional notions of space and time.

This is precisely what I advocate. Give up on even trying to read traditional texts as factual history. Then, as separate but intertwined projects, take up discerning an accurate history of Buddhism, as much as you can, but also interpret the symbolism and meaning of traditional narratives on a level beyond ordinary space and time. But don’t conflate and confuse the two!

Seeing the difference between history and the stories of legend need not diminish the latter of their meaning and value. In fact, I believe it can enhance them. My own teacher, Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, told me as much, when she said that learning that many of her traditional beliefs were not historically accurate only made her think more deeply about their spiritual meaning. This is really the point. When we cease to confuse history and stories, when we look at traditional stories outside the context of literal truth and sectarian debate, we are freer to appreciate the imaginative truths they convey. When we fail to see the issue discerningly, such stories are spoiled in every way. They are not accurate history, but they are no longer good stories either. They become completely wooden as the attempt to take them literally robs them of all their whimsy, humor, and playfulness.

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