Buddha: the Myth and the Medicine

April 10th, 2010

This week, PBS aired a documentary (which you can view–free and legal–on their website) of the life of Buddha. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with any interest in Buddhism. It doesn’t exactly cover brand-new territory; the Buddha’s life has been the subject of many excellent books. But the perspective on it was interesting in a number of ways.

put your hands up for Bihar

The story of Buddha’s life came to us through centuries of the oral tradition, somewhere between myth and history. Any modern retelling of Buddha’s life has to make a strategic decision about how to present the parts of the legend that seem more legendary than others. Some of these are part of the birth and childhood legend–his mother had a dream foretelling his birth, he spoke moments out of the womb, a tree stopped moving its shadow to keep him protected. Others come from his life and teaching, performing miracles.

And I think this is a particularly tricky balance. For many contemporary followers of Buddhism, the core teachings are an antidote to magical thinking. You change things by changing your own habits and efforts, not relying on an angel or ghost to help you out. Buddhism’s compatibility with scientific findings is a definite plus. But sometimes this tempts us to say that we know the story of Buddha’s life obviously didn’t happen the way the myths tell us. It’s as if we know Buddha better than his contemporaries did, and it’s a little condescending to the ways of thinking that most humans have had through history.

I like the way PBS’s The Buddha dealt with this. Many parts of the Buddha’s life were shown through stylized animations, giving a sense of story-telling through cave paintings, and it spent little time refuting or confirming the myths, just letting them speak for themselves. Whether we doubt them or believe them isn’t addressed. As poet Jane Hirshfield says in the documentary, “Sitting here in a room having had a cup of coffee, having taken it out of a beautiful blue and white porcelain mug…what could be more miraculous than that? Everyday life around us is already so implausible and so glorious but what need for further miracles. And that’s the teaching of the Buddha. That’s the miraculous teaching of the Buddha.”

There’s a famous story of the Buddha in which he responds to a question about the creation of the universe. Buddha uses an analogy; imagine someone shot by a poisoned arrow. A doctor tries to remove the arrow, but the victim won’t let him. “Before you pull out the arrow,” he says, “I want to know who shot me. Was it a man or a woman? Were they old or young? Why were they shooting at me?” Buddha explained that this is our predicament when we focus too much on metaphysical questions.

I imagined a sequel to this story. After the doctor pulls the arrow out, the victim still has poison in his bloodstream. Fortunately, the doctor knows the antidote to the poison and gives it to him to drink. “Who made this antidote? Where did he live? Is it true that he worked miracles? Is it true that he could stop a rampaging elephant with his mind?”

I don’t know which parts of the Buddha’s story are true and which were added after the fact. But that makes it no different than any other story. Surely we all have stories that we tell one way, but other people who were present for the same event tell differently. Why would a story from 2600 years ago be different? And yet I also believe that these stories are part of the antidote, part of what’s been passed over the centuries to alleviate the suffering in the world. If I want the antidote, I can at least play along with the myth. I know it’s more rewarding to watch Buffy if I can play along and believe that vampires are real, and more fun to watch The Simpsons if I play along and believe that Krusty the Klown’s face is on every product ever sold to kids. So if the Buddhist path will be more rewarding–and will be a better antidote to the poisons–if I believe that business with the elephant, then I’ll go for it.

2 Responses to “Buddha: the Myth and the Medicine”

  1. Shanna says:

    I too, enjoyed the commentary (or general lack thereof) on the validity of the Buddha’s miracles. I, like you, was struck by Jane Hirshfield’s comments about the coffee in the porcelin cup. I also liked how H.H. Dalai Lama put the question of the miracles into perspective by saying that a miracle is simply something unexpected happening. He spoke of how people living a few decades ago could construe all of our current technology as miraculous. So true. The film really did do a good job of neither refuting, nor proving the storytelling surrounding the Buddha’s life, but stayed true to the storytelling itself. The animations were great and added an unexpected (miraculous as well??) lightness to the film. As you seem to be my only Buddhist sounding board, I must keep going…..I have a rudimentary knowledge of the basic tenets of Buddhism, and the four noble truths, but the way they were interpreted by those in the film really helped me to gain new insight. When they talked about the translation of the word suffering and the meaning being closer to discontent it really made sense to me. I also learned a bit more about the root of suffering/discontent. I have always had a great deal of difficulty believing that I could be able to eradicate desire, as this is a very strong emotion for me. I had an “aha” moment when H.H.D.L. said that desire is not necessarily a correct translation either, and that desire is indeed needed for a happy life…”one must have very strong desire to become like Buddha”. What I got, was that the forces in the mind prevent happiness, and that by overcoming what the mind creates (desire, jealousy, anger, etc), one can indeed escape the cycle of suffering. I finally began to grasp the simplicity and effectiveness of looking inside oneself to become enlightened. Alright, that’s enough rambling and ranting. Thanks for your commentary on the film, and thanks for providing space for me to respond!

  2. Shanna says:

    I like your sequel to the arrow analogy a great deal!

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