Since 2007, I have taught a course on Buddhist history during the intensive study program, orshedra, at Lotus Garden retreat center, in Stanley, Virginia, the Western center of my teacher, Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. In the second year of the course, I began a discussion of the historical origins of Mahayana Buddhism. According to Mahayana legend, the Buddha hid his Mahayana teachings in the realm of the nagas, serpent-like creatures who dwell under the sea, because his students were not yet ready to receive them. Eventually these teachings were retrieved by the great 2nd-century master Nagarjuna. This account has been passed down as if it were factual history, but of course it isn’t. What historical research tells us is that the Mahayana scriptures gradually emerged after the Buddha’s lifetime over the course of centuries.

The Heart Sutra is the charter text for many Mahayanists, who view it as an accurate account of the words of the historical Buddha. But it cannot be considered historical if by “history” we mean, as we usually do, a factual narrative about things that happened empirically, events that a camcorder could have recorded had it existed at that time, something that could be included in a documentary. The Heart Sutra is not that but something else, which I shall simply call a story. “Story” is thus a more encompassing category than “history.” Both are types of narrative, but historical narratives are constituted from the facts as best we know them; stories are not constrained by the demands of factual accuracy. Novels, films, plays—these can be entirely fictional, yet we all know they can, nevertheless, communicate values and meaning.

Religious stories do not have to be empirical history to have spiritual value. Once, when I was discussing this point at shedra, one of the other senior teachers objected heatedly. She argued that since I had physically stood at the spot where it is said that the Heart Sutra was first spoken, how could I doubt the historical accuracy of the narrative? Furthermore, she said it was improper even to bring academic methods into a shrine room and that I should desist completely from teaching the history course.

Khandro Rinpoche did not agree, I am glad to say. In fact, she has been unfailing in her support of my project of teaching a scholarly version of Buddhist history to Western practitioners, at Lotus Garden and in shorter courses at various Zen and Vipassana centers. Although I began doing this as a simple community service project, it has morphed into a major concern, as I have discovered, to my shock, that Western practitioners of Buddhism can be as naively literalist in their readings of traditional Buddhist narratives as any Christian fundamentalists can be in theirs. The project thus took on a second agenda: that of trying to reconcile students’ unconscious and inevitable immersion in the style of thinking engendered by the European Enlightenment with their commitments to Buddhism. This reconciliation must involve a way for Buddhists to value traditional narratives without following many adherents of Western religions into fundamentalism and literalism.

Few Western students of Buddhism, in my estimation, realize how thoroughly they have imbibed the values and outlook of the European Enlightenment, especially its definition of truth as something that is empirically verifiable. This is a materialist understanding of truth, not a Buddhist one. Nevertheless, because such students have decided that Buddhism is “true,” they conclude that anything narrated in traditional Buddhist stories must be true in the only way they understand—as something that happened in space and time just as the texts describe it. The idea that the story instead takes place in the realm of imagination and symbol challenges their notion of truth. It means to them that the story is false and is without validity. People who do not take seriously biblical stories about talking serpents offering apples are quite comfortable with a Buddhist story about texts hidden in the undersea realm of the half-human, half-serpent nagas. If one’s sole avenue for assessing whether something is relevant and worthy of consideration is empiricism, with its reliance on facts as being alone trustworthy and valuable, literalism is the only kind of truth.

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