In a culture enamored of empirical proofs, it’s refreshing to read frequent contributor David Loy’s “The World Is Made of Stories.” “The idea that science and systematic reason can liberate us from the supposed unreason of myth,” he writes, “is one of today’s popular fictions.”
An irony of contemporary religious discourse is that fundamentalists and atheists alike understand religious myth to be propositional in nature—its stories are taken as literal truths, to be either clung to blindly or dismissed as improbable. Yet this thinking is relatively recent. As Buddhist scholar Dale Wright points out in “Religion Resurrected,” the propositional aspect of religion becomes central only “when the shared mythic or narrative basis of culture is broken, when a community’s understanding of what is of unsurpassable importance has been disrupted or thrown into question.”
In our own era, religious myth necessarily collapses under the entrenched bias of literalist scrutiny. Yet dismissing the mythic in favor of the literal, certainly a hallmark of modern thought, comes at a great cost: we risk stripping religion of its very essence—the guiding stories we live by.
There is another way to relate to our traditions’ foundational myths. Referring to the story of Siddhartha’s going forth, in which the future Buddha encounters the suffering of old age, sickness, and death for the first time, Loy writes: “It is not a matter of literal truth or falsity. As Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes in Letters to a Buddhist Jew, ‘All my stories are true. Some happened and some did not, but they are all true.’”
What matters, Loy says, is what happens when we try to live according to “symbolic stories.” The Buddha’s story, for instance, is a direct challenge to the stories we tell ourselves that deny our mortality, or to the stories that support the central fiction of our lives: our belief in a fixed and abiding self.
To imagine that we do not live by stories—that we are merely rational and can be motivated entirely by reason—is perhaps the biggest fiction of all. Thinking so is simply to lack awareness of the stories that do drive us, and to become prisoners of them.
Here’s a story we can all believe in: On July 6, his Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama will celebrate his 80th year! To honor him, we’ve asked some of his earliest and most enduring supporters to wish him a happy birthday. Look at our own celebration (“Happy Birthday!“) to read the birthday wishes sent by Patti Smith, Martin Scorsese, Anne Waldman, Daniel Goleman, and the Dalai Lama’s longtime translator, Thupten Jinpa Langri. On behalf of all of us at Tricycle, Happy Birthday, Your Holiness!
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