A Historical-Metaphorical Approach to Buddhist Scriptures

The late Biblical scholar Marcus Borg described his method of Biblical interpretation as the historical-metaphorical approach:

By “historical approach,” I mean all the methods that are rele­vant to discerning the ancient historical meanings of biblical texts. The chief concern of the historical approach is the past‑tense question, “What did this text mean in the ancient historical setting in which it was written?”

By “metaphorical approach,” I mean most broadly a nonliteral way of reading biblical texts. A metaphorical reading does not confine itself to the literal, factual, and historical meanings of a text. It moves beyond to the question, “What does this story mean as a story, independent of its historical factuality?” p. 37f.

In modern Western culture, as mentioned in chapter 1, critical thinking is very much concerned with factuality and is thus deeply corrosive of religion in general and Christianity and the Bible in particular.

As critical thinkers in that culture, most of us no longer hear the biblical stories as true stories ‑ or at the least their truth has become suspect. Now it takes faith to believe them, and faith becomes believing things that one would normally reject.

Postcritical naivete is the ability to hear the biblical stories once again as true stories, even as one knows that they may not be factually true and that their truth does not depend upon their factuality.
http://www.msgr.ca/msgr/reading_the_bible_again_02.htm

The purpose of the historical-metaphorical approach is to find the spiritual meaning of a religious text, beyond its literal factuality.

In Theravada Buddhism, is it common to take a similar approach to the Pali suttas?

For example, what if one were to interpret Mara’s temptation of the Buddha as symbolic of the inner conflicts of the Buddha’s own psyche, rather than the temptations from an external being?

The Early Buddhist texts such as the Sutta Pitaka and the Agamas distinguish between Buddhist suttas that contain clear meaning (Pāli:Nītattha; Sanskrit: nītārtha) and those that require further interpretation (Pāli: neyyattha; Sanskrit: neyartha). This later developed into the two truths doctrine, which states there is a conventional truth and an ultimate truth. The Buddhist concept of Upaya (skillful means) is another common theme in Buddhist Hermeneutics, and holds that the Buddha sometimes taught things that were not literally true as a skillful teaching strategy, and also taught many different things to different people, depending on their ability to understand.[1]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_hermeneutics

In studying and speaking the Dharma, we especially need to be aware of the conventional (or worldly or cultural) level and the ultimate (param’attha) or spiritual or Dharma) level of teaching. The conventional language is only useful and wholesome when they point, even remotely, to the true Dharma. And at the proper time, this reference should be clarified to the follower or practitioner. The point is that the spiritual should in due course transcend the worldly and cultural.

1.2 The Neyy’attha Nīt’attha Sutta (A 2.3.5-6) records an important reminder by the Buddha on how we should approach every sutta and text, that is, we must carefully consider whether the language is conventional (based on everyday language describing causes and conditions) or ultimate (that is, Dharma language, pointing to the fact that things have no intrinsic nature or abiding essence).

Those suttas or teachings that tell stories, describe ritual acts, or that talk of “beings,” “gods,” etc, need to have their meaning drawn out (neyy’attha), as they do not directly refer to true reality. They use language and words in the form of a story or images to talk about true reality. Their meaning is indirect.
They are provisional (pariyāya) teachings, unlike say some Abhidhamma doctrines, which are said to be explicit (nippariyāyena).1
http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/2.6b_Neyyattha_Nitattha_S_a2.3.5-6_piya.pdf

This pragmatism of Buddhism is also strongly suggested by the parable
of the arrow (M.I. 429) and the parable of the raft (M. I. 134). The
parable of the arrow occurs in reference to the avyakata-theses and the
gist of it is that a man stuck with a poisoned arrow should be concerned
with removing the arrow and getting well rather than be interested in
purely theoretical questions, which have no practical utility. The moral is
that man should only be interested in truths which have a practical
bearing on his life. In the same context it was said that the avyakataquestions
were not answered because ‘it was not useful, not related to the
fundamentals of religion, and not conducive to revulsion, dispassion,
cessation, peace, higher knowledge, realization and Nirvana’ (M.I. 431).
The parable of the raft has the same motive and is intended to indicate the
utilitarian character of the teachings or the ‘truth’ of Buddhism. The
truths are useful for salvation but even they should not be clung to
however useful they may have been. It is said: ‘I preached you a
Dhamma comparable to a raft for the sake of crossing over and not
for the sake of clinging to it….’ (M.I. 134). A person intending to cross
a river and get to the other bank, where it is safe and secure makes a raft
and with its help safely reached the other bank but however useful the raft
may have been, he would throw it aside and go his way without carrying
it on his shoulders; so it is said that ‘those who realize the dhamma to
be like a raft should discard the dhamma as well, not to speak of
what is not dhamma’ (M.I. 135).
http://stylomilo.com/files/mv/BPCGAQ/BPFE102-Emergence_of_Buddhism_and_Basic_Buddhist_Teachings/GAQ%20L20%20Theory%20of%20Truth%20in%20Buddhism%20I.pdf

I think it is best to let the Buddha decide what to teach- we are the the disciples -here to listen. If so what he taught was complete at the time. All the beings who could become enlightened became so without needing anything else.

If we invent or teach completely new fundamental teachings like dharmakaya which goes against the rest of his core teachings (like not-Self) that person is making a big mistake. Due to their lack of being a sammasambuddha they cannot determine what is best to teach and what should not be taught.

My point being, that anyone who believes in dharmakaya wont even become a stream entrant- as there is some kind of a Self ‘floating out there’.

with metta

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I’m just asking about the Theravada suttas specifically, and whether Theravadins generally read them as word-for-word historical accounts, without any legendary embellishments.

98% of the time they are considered as accurately depicting the what the Buddha said (or intended, at least). That is why EBTs are considered the most authentic teachings in the Buddhist world by Buddhist scholars. It is not without embellishments and often the authors would not attempt to disguise the original, but have their creations as separate works. So it is ‘easy’ to spot the originals from the later creations as the Pali would be different as would style and content etc.

This is not to say the EBTs do not have metaphysical elements in it. They do, and they have a coherence inherent to such teaching in the EBTs. The Buddha clearly says he developed abilities to see and talk to Devas, rebirth, karma etc. So these are his description of actual events, albeit in a spiritual plane. That is quite different from coming up with one’s own fantastical creations (ie lies) to help others. I think Upaya goes a bit too far down the line, sometimes, at the risk of honesty and truthfulness.

with metta

The late Biblical scholar Marcus Borg described his method of Biblical interpretation as the historical-metaphorical approach

I found this simple clarification:

Narrative may include the metaphorical and symbolic, but it remains firmly committed to the historical. Narrative—or metanarrative—is the overarching category by which the historical community makes sense of its historical experience. If the historical community metaphorizes its self-understanding, to whatever degree (the creation stories, John?), that is fine. That is part of the narrative. But this recognition neither nullifies the historical event nor justifies the modern reduction of the story to metaphor.

So in brief, the narrative component of a narrative-historical hermeneutic has reference to the means by which the historical community interprets its experience in the light of Israel’s story. The metaphorical component of Borg’s historical-metaphorical approach has reference to how the self-understanding of the historical community is re-interpreted by people operating under an incompatible worldview (my emphases).

When e.g. Mara’s temptations are seen by modern folk as allegorical or metaphorical, this unpacks the narrative differently than how it was (very probably) originally understood. The same thing happens with rebirth these days: it’s very, very likely that the Buddha believed in this idea as a literal fact. But when modern folk interpret this as symbolic, or as momentary, or as a this-life sort of thing, then they are using a historical-metaphorical hermeneutic.

I’m still inclined to use a narrative-historical hermeneutic, however:

image

In my experience, approaches such as an historical-metaphorical one can easily end up with contemporary assertions contra early beliefs (to say nothing of confirmation bias, etc.) and I’m tired of the ad hoc sorts of reasoning this tends to generate.

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Thank you for your responses.

The purpose of a historical-metaphorical approach isn’t to interpret an entire scripture as metaphorical.

One might see the overall narrative of the suttas as historical, but with minor embellishments, such as the Buddha’s temptation by Mara.

In that story, one might attempt to draw out the meaning that is more-than-literal, more-than-factual, rather than insisting that Mara is a literal being who tempted the Buddha:

Those suttas or teachings that tell stories, describe ritual acts, or that talk of “beings,” “gods,” etc, need to have their meaning drawn out (neyy’attha), as they do not directly refer to true reality. They use language and words in the form of a story or images to talk about true reality. Their meaning is indirect.
They are provisional (pariyāya) teachings, unlike say some Abhidhamma doctrines, which are said to be explicit (nippariyāyena).1
http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/2.6b_Neyyattha_Nitattha_S_a2.3.5-6_piya.pdf

I believe in the doctrine of rebirth and I have no intent on disputing it. I’m sorry if I gave a wrong impression.

Please keep in mind that the intent of the historical-metaphorical approach isn’t to deny the literal historicity of a story. Instead, one can simply leave its literal historicity an open question, while delving into the moral and spiritual meanings of the story.

Well, this delving will in fact be relatively ahistorical, as I’ve quoted before:

The metaphorical component of Borg’s historical-metaphorical approach has reference to how the self-understanding of the historical community is re-interpreted by people operating under an incompatible worldview

The early Buddhists had texts they seem to have treated as historical-factual; it seems to me that later literary embellishments brought them into the historical-perspectival heuristic, as they updated the superiority of the Buddha to match contemporary Brahmin ideas, etc.

But then you have modern people who approach these texts in ways the composers & carriers of these texts don’t seem to have ever intended, pulling unintended meanings out of these texts and otherwise re-interpreting them:

  • historical-factual: “These things happened to me/us.”
  • historical-perspectival: “These things were meant to convey X, so we will ensure they still do.”
  • historical-metaphorical: “This is what it currently means to me/us.”

Removing the founder’s/early community’s intent strikes me as an illegitimate idiosyncracy. It requires some sort of metaphysical “ongoing revelation” to legitimize this way of reading the texts (your Mahayana upbringing will like this), but this has a whole slew of problems on its own.

Ah, well.

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The Mara concept, again probably predating the Buddha has been used in a couple of ways in EBTs- as representing inner defilements/‘demons’/DADs(!). It is also meant as an actual mischievous being (despite the scary ‘death’ meaning of its name) who tries to disrupt the practice of monks and nuns, often without much success. In one EBT I recall he disturbs the Buddha -who is by that time enlightened- hence free from defilements. In this situations it clearly would not be possible to consider this an inner defilement, but an external deva (mara is a deva or a being from a divine realm, and not from a hellish realm). Incidentally he doesn’t ask people to do evil things- he just wants them to do meritorious deeds and hang on in samsara! The implications…

with metta

So wait, just to be clear, are we saying Mara is an actual being? I don’t know, for me, that seems to be pushing the limits of adherence to these texts to an almost biblical level. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I just feel like it goes against the whole ideal the Buddha taught, of not believing things dogmatically.

This is just my understanding. No one has to believe this and it has no central or pivotal place in the teachings. In fact it is very much peripheral to attaining Nibbana. There is nothing which is dogmatic at all in the dhamma. The journey to Nibbana is very much a personal and introspective journey. No one can force anyone to do or believe anything that they don’t want. It simply doesn’t work.

With metta

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It’s from within the suttas themselves, such as The Neyy’attha Nīt’attha Sutta, that we can know the suttas have both a clear, literal meaning in certain parts, and a metaphorical meaning that must be drawn out in other parts:

Exactly. Thank you.

First, we should agree that the early Buddhists, the ones who were using the EBTs first, did in fact think of Mara as a real being. Yakkhas were seen as real, heavens and hells and Brahma and the whole kit and caboodle - all of it was seen as really-real.

But Biblical literalism is only one example of religious literalism, such as doctrinal infallibility & inerrancy. Sure it may feel like literalism to you - it is. In Buddhism it tends to emphasize ideas about the Buddha’s omniscience, for example his superior ability to assess the whole of reality such that his contemporary Iron Age cosmos is in the fact the best & most accurate cosmological description, including Mara, Brahma… the whole shebang.

In sum, if you’re going to say that Buddhist rebirth is real, you have to say either that Mara is real or else that the Buddha got these details wrong.

So, the Sutta stated that the Buddha is no more, is not to be seen. You seem to be trying to say that, due to the passage you cite, we can interpret these things however we want, without any reference to how they were seen by their composers & carriers? Is that a correct summary of your view?

Because, things are indeed this simple. You are bending over backwards trying to fit a round peg in a square hole, which is to say, getting the texts saying ‘A’ to instead say ‘not-A’. It’s very odd to me.

It might not exactly be that simple:

1.2 The Neyy’attha Nīt’attha Sutta (A 2.3.5-6) records an important reminder by the Buddha on how we should approach every sutta and text, that is, we must carefully consider whether the language is conventional (based on everyday language describing causes and conditions) or ultimate (that is, Dharma language, pointing to the fact that things have no intrinsic nature or abiding essence).

Those suttas or teachings that tell stories, describe ritual acts, or that talk of “beings,” “gods,” etc, need to have their meaning drawn out (neyy’attha), as they do not directly refer to true reality. They use language and words in the form of a story or images to talk about true reality. Their meaning is indirect.
They are provisional (pariyāya) teachings, unlike say some Abhidhamma doctrines, which are said to be explicit (nippariyāyena).1
http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/2.6b_Neyyattha_Nitattha_S_a2.3.5-6_piya.pdf

Please keep in mind that I am not denying the literal existence of Mara. What I am saying is that we can have a psychological interpretation of Mara, while leaving his literal existence an unanswered question.

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Sure we can do that… but the early Buddhists did not. And it’s not an unanswered question, it’s an assertion once fully accepted, but now seen as lacking evidence by many. This is the ‘competing worldview’ issue I’ve already mentioned.

If what the Buddha taught is the cessation of suffering, does that require believing that Mara is a literal being?

The Neyy’attha Nīt’attha Sutta (A 2.3.5-6) records an important reminder by the Buddha on how we should approach every sutta and text, that is, we must carefully consider whether the language is conventional (based on everyday language describing causes and conditions) or ultimate (that is, Dharma language, pointing to the fact that things have no intrinsic nature or abiding essence).

Those suttas or teachings that tell stories, describe ritual acts, or that talk of “beings,” “gods,” etc, need to have their meaning drawn out (neyy’attha), as they do not directly refer to true reality. They use language and words in the form of a story or images to talk about true reality. Their meaning is indirect.
They are provisional (pariyāya) teachings, unlike say some Abhidhamma doctrines, which are said to be explicit (nippariyāyena).1
http://dharmafarer.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/2.6b_Neyyattha_Nitattha_S_a2.3.5-6_piya.pdf

Please keep in mind that I have never denied the existence of Mara.

Remind yourself that the Buddha often taught people the way to heaven. Even though this isn’t the highest goal he taught, either you agree that the Buddha thought heaven was a literal place, or you think he lied to people.

So, keep using AN 2.25 as a magic wand. It’s not a guarantee of rational thought, however, nor of valid textual exegesis.

(And, no one is confused about your lack of denying the literal existence of Mara, or rebirth. That’s got nothing to do with this topic at all, so be at ease there.)

Yeah, but I think that some scholars or academics are too easily dismissive of things like a literal Mara, simply because it contradicts their worldview.

I’d rather look for the meaning beyond literal factuality than dismiss a story outright.