By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei
My Dharma brother, Wayne Shi, has spent a considerable amount of time in the study of ancient Buddhist history and the Sutras 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 sift through 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 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 in this moment. 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 knowledge. The study of history, our Buddhist history, adds to our gaining wisdom, and by this act we become ready to walk with confidence the middle path to human flourishing. But there is a problem to avoid when we engage the history lessons from the past.
The Mahayana Buddhist 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 lived 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, that repeat this history as though they are reality. What historical research informs us is that these Mahayana texts gradually emerged way after the death of the Buddha. In fact, over centuries. Continue reading