By: David Xi-Ken Shi
My Dharma brother, Wayne Shi, has spent a considerable amount of time in the study of ancient Buddhist history and the Buddhist Canon in order to understand the differences between myths, magical practices, mysticism, and metaphysical principles as they are presented in the various practices within Buddhist schools and traditions. All this in order to scholarly consider how the ancient mind and our contemporary mind comes to understand the realities of the universe as we come to experience them. Ancient Buddhist traditions were nourished in the metaphysical world while the modern world has science to guide our exploration using developed Buddhist thought as our practice. How we teach Buddhism has changed a great deal from the time of the Buddha, as it should have considering the causal nature of our world. The Buddha himself would bow to this reality. There is a different character, however, between an academic study and the spiritual human dimension of contemplation that modern science is less equipped to engage.
There is an additional consideration I would like to present to you that gives meaning to how we come to study and practice the dharma. History is the key to understand how we got to where we are now within space and time. Without history we are condemned to walk in ignorance of many things that just might require us to spend a great deal of time repeating acquisition of information that can grow into knowledge. The study of history, our Buddhist history, adds to this transformation from knowledge to wisdom, and by this act we become ready to walk with confidence the middle path toward human flourishing. But there is a problem to avoid when we engage the history lessons from the past.
The Mahayana tradition is full of legends that explain how some of its history was shaped. These legends our full of images and explanations surrounding the Buddha that defy how our contemporary understanding of the natural world functions. Take for example how Buddhist history tells us that the Buddha determined that his students were not yet ready to hear the dharma, and as a result he hid his teachings in serpent-like creatures who dwell under the sea until the time came for a great master named Nagarjuna to retrieve them. Other examples in the Buddhist historical achieves tell of the magical events surrounding the conception and birth of the Buddha. These accounts, and many others, have been passed down as though they are factual history, but we know they are not of course. Yet today, we have some contemporary students, and some teachers even, that repeat this history in a way that might leave some beginning students to consider them to be real. What historical research informs us is that these Mahayana texts gradually emerged way after the death of the Buddha. In fact, over centuries.
Let me bring to your attention one of the foundational sutras in our Mahayana tradition and central to Ch’an and Soto Zen schools of practice, the Heart Sutra. Many still view this sutra as being an accurate account of the Buddha’s words. In other words, the Heart Sutra is an historical document for them. But it can’t be considered as such because history is empirical by nature and it can not be proven that the Heart Sutra is a factual narrative. The Heart Sutra, as well as the countless mystical accounts, is not to be considered as history, but a story, a lesson that points to a greater reality when our mind is ripe to engage. The word “story” is a more encompassing category than is “history”. Both are types of narrative, but historical narratives derive from validated facts, while stories are not limited by the demands of factual accuracy. In our present day literature we have various forms of story telling – novels, films, and theatrical performances for example. While these can be entirely fictional, they can still convey values and ethical teaching that gives meaning to our lives. We just have to work to find the meaning. It is the meaning of the story, not the facts as presented that we should take away and ponder. When we get caught up in the fantasy and magic we can miss the point altogether.
Some Buddhist traditions, maybe many, claim its literature, doctrines, practices, and sources come from unimpeachable authority. Some even identify Siddhartha as a Universal Teacher whose realization of the dharma is unsurpassed and perfect, staking their authority directly from the Buddha. All the Buddhist traditions, including my own, have lineage scrolls that are traced back to Siddhartha. Therefore tradition itself becomes a kind of unimpeachable source. I honor my tradition and those masters that have gone before me and as legacy teachers have passed down wonderful teachings based on their experience of encountering the dharma. All traditions have this treasure in there history. But we must not accept legacy teaching as anything other than building blocks that we now stand on to support our practice. We must avoid thinking that the sources of our study are inflexible sources that are not subject to the causal laws of the universe. As our knowledge continues to grow, we work to effect change that works to improve our understanding of how the Universe is. We have great history and stories to rely on. But we must never forget our responsibility for shaping Buddhist practice for the new century. Our technology now gives us the ability to record the historical march of Buddhism into the West. We must avoid making the mistake that myths are history, and miss the opportunity of finding the lessons within the story that is not about the story but about the reality it reflects. I am reminded of the Zen lesson that the finger pointing at the moon is not about the finger. The finger, in this case, is the tool not the lesson itself. The Buddhist canon and all the legacy teachings are fingers pointing to a greater reality. We are challenged to take the leap from the oral and written traditions in order to find the lesson. Only then will our practice stay on the path to awakening. When we are able to do this the story becomes valuable and sits in its place in Buddhist history reflecting the flexibility inherent in all Buddhist thought.