Mythology…or no Mythology

On the 4th, The Zennist wrote about his frustration with the de-mythologizing of Buddhism in the post-spiritual Western world. I see this situation somewhat differently. In a congregation of cradle-Buddhist Chinese Americans, there’s no need to re-mythologize, because they’ve been brought up to believe in all the superstitious aspects of the religion. If their behavior deviates from the standard (and I’m sure it does) they keep their mouths shut about it. The moral and dietary constraints of the Chinese monastery are extreme even in comparison with Islam. In the same congregation, the Westerners–and, to be honest, some of the Chinese that I’ve encountered–are scientific and technical people, atheists, agnostic ex-Catholics and ex-Jews, old hippies and various other counter-culture characters. How do you get everyone working in the same direction?
In the present educational system, the shifus–with straight faces–are teaching the mythology of Buddhism ‘whole cloth’, that is, you can take it absolutely literally, or, you can interpret it by asking “how does this apply in my own life?” And these two methods of viewing the Dharma are quite different.

Even in a very conservative or–as our Abbot has called it–‘fundamentalist’ school, I sit down to listen to a friend and they look in my blue eyes and tell me they don’t buy most of what’s being taught, or even say that “I don’t have blind faith” whatever that means. These–let me hasten to add–are people who have taken the Refuges, and in some cases all 5 of the Bodhisattva Precepts, and I find myself almost asking “If you are that ambivalent, why did you take those vows and precepts??” And the only answer I can come up with is that, at bottom, or unconsciously, when people are offered ‘salvation by works’ they will believe almost anything and jump through any hoop to get that, and they fastidiously don’t associate Buddhist salvation by works with superstition in the same way that they vilify Christian salvation by grace even though both systems insist on the ultimate complete effacement of the ego.

Now, maybe I’m being super critical here, but read the 10th chapter of the Vimalakirti Sutra and then read the Feeding of the 5000 in the New Testament and see which story appears more credible. But…it’s okay!! Ananda remembered all that stuff–including that Vim story about the conjured phantom, 9 million Buddhas, and a Buddha world made completely out of ‘fragrances’ and later it got written down and translated, right? It’s hard to swallow, and I find it impractical to attempt to swallow such stories. Right there. That’s why re-mythologization is not going to take place. Beliefs aren’t exactly “the enemy” but over and over we are told that concepts, preferences and beliefs have to be dropped before awakening can occur. It’s super easy to get attached and entangled in doctrine, or to develop pride about your understanding of doctrine, and that’s a good way to short circuit your progress. Do I have to say this?

I personally will not put another head on my head. I participate but will not take refuges, vows or precepts; I will not take on another name or identity. These things don’t work, they aren’t magic, and you gain absolutely nothing by doing them. It’s just one more deluded game. People here consider me Buddhist or a non-Buddhist, an “audit” or a student assistant or a leaf-sweeper, or a writer, or a “serious practitioner.” I could care less. Until I awaken, I am a deluded seeker–and that’s all I am.

How would you feel when you heard someone say that she believes that ‘no one here is on the path to enlightenment’?  And still, I understand what she means: most of what goes on is busy-work that is re-defined as ‘gradual cultivation.’ That option is–very cannily I must admit–offered as a flabby alternative to cultivating a single-minded serious desire to awaken and escape suffering.

I find I still have the question in mind: How many really want to awaken, and how many want to continue to play in the amusement park of delusion? Sometimes I want to grab someone and shake him and ask “Don’t you want to realize Emptiness? Understand cause and effect? Know your true mind? Be liberated from the fear of death?” Because without that desire, what is Buddhism? Just another time-waster in a day full of time-wasters.

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One Response to Mythology…or no Mythology

  1. Augustinus says:

    Very interesting and sincere post. It is good to make parallels between the Mahayana Sutras and
    the Gospels. Neither choose a litteral acceptance nor a simplistic premature rejection, but find first the golden thread and path of what is really important and in the process the Scriptures will become progressively unveiled in their genuine meaning/wisdom, for there is much more to reality then ever we can conceive at first. If I tell a Flatlander about a Cube this not forcing him believe in a Square with six sides (absurd litteralist interpreation), only that there are things beyond Squares and such things can indeed have six sides(faces).

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