By Rev. Jon Turner
When we read different types of books we actually read them differently. For example, when we read a cookbook we simply follow the steps in order to get to the desired result: a cake or soup or a main dish of some sort. However, a history book is read literally while a novel is read for feeling or meaning. This switching of mindsets from book to book is so natural and effortless that we are rarely aware of it but it is actually a pretty sophisticated process. You can image how poor a cookbook would read if we read it as a novel. It would lack any sort of a plot or character development. And what would the meaning or message be if it concluded with a dozen chocolate cookies?
The mixing up of cookbooks as novels is a trivial example. It would likely never happen and the outcome of cookies instead of a conclusion is not too serious of a problem. But there is one non-trivial example where things can go quite wrong. This occurs when we read religious books as historical. These stories are often interpreted literally. As “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.”
But if the author had intended them to be read as novels, as grand myths then we are missing out on the deep emotional and spiritual truth they are trying to transmit to us. It may be that this is a modern problem. It seems that ancient people read these religious stories for how they made them feel. They may have been more concerned with the meaning of these stories rather than their historical accuracy. They read them as novels, not as history. They were true not because they described something that actually happened but because they were describing a deep spiritual truth.
I shared this bias. When I first read the Larger Sutra, I read it literally. If Amida Buddha didn’t actually exist in the Pure Land then this text was false. It wasn’t until I started watching The Power of Myth on PBS that I began to have an appreciation of myth as something that is more powerful than literal truth. Joseph Campbell was being interviewed by Bill Moyers on the importance of myth in our lives. This series is also now available on Netflix.
Joseph Campbell was a scholar of mythology and taught that all the great spiritual texts are grand myths that outline the spiritual contours of our lives. They are archetypal – they offer a spiritual template that each one of us can use to orient ourselves on our own spiritual journeys. It is as if we are reading our own personal spiritual diary. Soga Ryojin, a famous Shin Buddhist scholar, felt that we need “to see ourselves in the writings of the sages.” This was a very personal experience for Soga. He describes it in this way.
“Astonishingly enough when reading the writings of the sages, I have precisely the impression that the inner secrets of my own heart are all already perfectly revealed by the sages of the past. When reading the scriptures, I have the distinct impression of standing before Shakyamuni as a human being of 3,000 years ago; of entering a past world while transcending the present. In other words, the scriptures are a true mirror reflecting my heart, and a commentary interpreting my heart.”
When Joseph Campbell characterizes religious texts as myths he is not belittling them as not true. He is actually elevating these stories to a higher plane. He is not denying the importance of reason. He is instead redefining it and its purpose. In fact, “reason has to do with finding the ground of being and the fundamental structuring of order of the universe.”
It was only after watching all six episodes of The Power of Myth that I was able to find some traction within the Pure Land tradition. It gave me the interpretive tools necessary to engage these texts. I began to read them as novels and not as history; looking for meaning rather than facts.
It is difficult to characterize the differences between Theravadan and Mahayana Buddhism because they are both so vast and varied. But one main difference concerns the use of myth. Myth exists in Theravadan texts to some extent but in the Mahayana texts, myths are amplified to ensure that this is the only way they could be read. The Larger Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Nirvana Sutra are all wildly mythological, overwhelmingly so. They are describing a spiritual landscape in which we all inhabit. What seems distant and strange is actually very close and intimate.
We merely need to open ourselves up to the use of this type of language. One that transmits spiritual truth rather than factual truth. The former actually being more grounded in reality than the later. To realize this we merely have to change the way we engage with them.
In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner