By the 19th century, a new Buddha had taken shape in the West—the rational, humanistic, even “scientific” Buddha we’ve come to call the “historical Buddha.” This Buddha, to borrow from the Buddhist scholar Bernard Faure, more closely resembled a “British gentleman” than the omniscient, often superhuman Buddha of the texts. In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, I chatted with Faure about his latest book, The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha, in which he argues that this “historical Buddha” is every bit as much a myth as any of the Buddhas we find in the traditional literature. In fact, according to Faure, any attempt to strip the Buddha’s story down to a rational, chronologically driven biography deprives the tradition of the very mythic “juice” that has moved countless generations to adopt the way of life that the Buddha, in his many manifestations, espoused.
As in any religious tradition, it is through myth that meaning is conveyed. In this issue, Karen Armstrong writes that humans have felt compelled from the earliest times to “devise stories that enabled them to place their lives in a different setting and give them a conviction that—against all the depressing evidence to the contrary—life had some meaning and value.” This is not to dismiss the value of rational thought, or logos; it is only to argue that imaginative knowing, or mythos, is its essential complement. In her book Sacred Nature: Restoring Our Ancient Bond with the Natural World, Armstrong makes a strong case for the idea that despite its great value as a rationale for action, a welter of scientific data will not compel us to battle climate change; what will is the narrative we construct to explain why our planet is worth saving—or why our lives and our connection to Earth have meaning. In keeping with this sentiment, the climate psychologist and organizational strategist Renée Lertzman explains that “we have known for decades that information is not enough. It’s the emotional charge that comes with information that is key.” Stories—or mythic narratives—are what provide that charge.
For Buddhists, creative retellings of the Buddha’s life can have great value. In fact, Bernard Faure’s book celebrates the many stories that populate the tradition, from the earliest depictions of the Buddha to those we find in Japanese manga and in contemporary science fiction. I would add that the “historical Buddha” can have equal value, using contemporary narratives, including scientific ones, to tell a story that resonates with modern sensibilities. It’s helpful, though, to understand these narratives in their mythical dimension; they are stories developed to speak to the needs and concerns of our time.