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Do Sutta contains lot of mythology?


#1

Do Sutta contains lot of mythology?

This question came to my mind after watching the video presentation by @ Bhante Sujato on Buddhist Mythology Course.

Sutta contains a lot of miracles performed by Buddha and Arahants such as walking on water and flying cross leg in the air. It also contains an account of Naga, fairies, etc.

Are all these Buddhist mythologies?
If not what is the basis to believe on them?


#2

You probably want to define your terms: do you mean “things that are not true” or “sacred stories”?


#3

I meant things are not true.
What do you mean by sacred stories. Are they srories like like Buddha visted Sri Lanka or do you mean Jataka stories?


#4

#5
  1. Nāgasaṃyutta
  2. Supaṇṇasaṃyutta
  3. Gandhabbasaṃyutta
  4. Valāhakasaṃyutta

These four saṃyuttas can be discussed together, as they all deal with certain classes of sentient beings that, from a modern perspective, would be considered mythological. In each the Buddha enumerates the different species into which the class can be divided and the courses of kamma that lead to rebirth into that particular mode of existence. By counting separately each type of gift given by the aspirant for rebirth into those destinies, and connecting them with the subdivisions among the beings, a large number of very short suttas are generated
SN30.1-46 Who are dragons and phoneixes? - Dhamma Wheel


#6

This is the colloquial sense of “mythological”, i.e. “something that isn’t real”. This has nothing to do with the study of mythology proper, which the study of sacred stories and their meanings to peoples. It’s really hard to talk about a topic when you can’t even get across what the words mean!


#7

These are interesting collections about early Buddhist adaptation of Vedic mythical beliefs on dragon/snake ‘naga’, bird ‘supanna’, plant deva ‘gandhabba’, and cloud deva ‘valahaka’.

They seem having close connection with monks living in the forest environment. It will be good to see a comparative study of the Pali and Chinese versions of the mythical beliefs.


#8

Hello Bhante,

Did the Buddha have anything to say about whether a story could be skillfully considered sacred even if it wasn’t true?

:anjal:


#9

Hi all

Just offering my perspective on this interesting discussion and bearing in mind that I’m a beginner Buddhist having only been introduced to the jatakas at @sujato 's recent course.

To me, ‘belief’ and ‘truth’ can be really complex.

I’m an ex-Catholic so I’ve had years of being told what to and how to believe. Christianity has incredible incidents in its stories too (and I’m totally not knocking that; I still have a lot of respect for Christianity).

Personally, I’m not looking for something to believe in. I think I just want to be a happier more useful person and I find that Buddhist practice really helps me. And I totally enjoy the literary devices in the suttas - the fairies and the mythical animals (I love a good naga story). I see them as story telling devices and I admire the authors. I just enjoy them. They make me keener to read the suttas.

The central wisdom / teachings appear and re-appear in the suttas; sometimes with fantastical events/ creatures and sometimes without. So far, I’m finding those teachings to be ‘truth’ only after I test them through experience - trying them out and seeing if they work.


#10

Interesting question. There’s quite a number of parables and stories in the suttas that come across as humorous, i doubt if they were meant to be taken literally. But remember lacking sciences of archeology and so on, there is no way of testing whether something actually happened in the past, so the distinction between history and mythology was not as clear as it is for us.

Sadhu :pray:


#11

If there’s no way to tell truth from false, and the Buddha nevertheless said about devas, past lives etc and even myths, assuming that he was known to be incapable of outright lying, he might have expected the myths to be believed as if they were true. Otherwise they won’t have the level of impact they were to have. It’s the function of a myth which seems valuable. How would ‘sacred’ be defined, and how relevant is it to a religion without divinity?!


#12

If a story is really good, I tend to worry less about whether it is “true”. :+1:


#13

I am personally not a believer in the authenticity of ‘mythology’ in the suttas. Meaning, I believe it was added later. I also think we get into all sorts of ethical problems when we start to legitimize untruthful stories in the suttas - what then is the difference in ethics compared to normal life?

If we say ‘lying is bad, unless it’s meant to be funny’ or ‘lying is bad, unless it has a good function’, or ‘lying is bad, unless you mean well’ - then we have no ethics at all because I can always twist it into one of these alternatives.

“What I said yesterday, that you’re all going to hell (Mara is going to get you…) if you don’t…, that was just a joke… it was just to motivate you” - what kind of Buddha would that be?


#14

I think you’re missing the point that people thought very differently about things back then. In order to fully understand ancient texts, you need to consider the historical and cultural context. If you only view these texts through a modern lens you will miss the point.

As a trivial comparison, compare the attitudes to cigarette-smoking now with 50 years ago.


#15

Sometimes I wonder whether there is some truth in those stories.
For instance, if we tell someone that Diansores were roaming on earth a few thousands of years ago without the evidence of the skeletons, no one would believe it.
Is it possible these are originated from Diansore fork tales?


#16

If I recall correctly, you’ve commented elsewhere that you believe the Buddha taught about rebirth and samsara and that the dhamma requires some form of rebirth. Where do you draw the line between authentic texts discussing rebirth/samsara and mythological texts?

:anjal:


#17

I agree that in detail the differences are very subtle, but on a simple level mythology is for me stories in which supernatural beings appear as characters in a narrative framework, see e.g. SN 11.1:

“Bhikkhus, once in the past the asuras marched against the devas. Then Sakka, lord of the devas, addressed Suvıra, a young deva, thus…”

This for me is implausible and I can’t believe that a teacher who otherwise insists on strict truth would just casually tell a mythological story as truth without framing it as… just a story. The ‘strict Buddha’ appears for example in MN 61: “Rahula, you should train thus: ‘I will not utter a falsehood even
as a joke’”

So how do you imagine this in practice? A monastic says

“I was fighting with Mara for hours yesterday”
“Really? What did Mara do?”
“Oh, I wasn’t really fighting with Mara. You know, I just meant it metaphorically.”
“So, who were you fighting with yesterday?”
“Actually only with my mental tendencies”
“Why didn’t you say so? For a moment I believed you suggested to have supernatural abilities”
“Friend, you seem to come from far away. Here, when we say ‘fighting with Mara’ we sometimes mean it literally, sometimes metaphorically. The Buddha was really fighting with Mara. Most other monastics fight metaphorically. By time it will be clear to you what is meant”
“So to say ‘fighting Mara’ when it’s not factually him is not lying to you?”
“No, it’s custom. When people know what you mean you don’t have to be truthful to the word”
“What about the Vinaya rule that says 'Telling a conscious lie means: the words, the utterance, the
speech, the talk, the language, the intimation, the un-ariyan statements of one intent upon deceiving with words, saying: “I have seen what I have not seen”’"?
“Yes, this rule exists, but we apply it mostly to harmful lies and spiritual attainments. We don’t apply it to cases where everyone knows that it’s meant metaphorically”
“But how do you know how everyone understands it if you can’t read their minds?”


#18

It’s like people saying ‘thank God’, when something works out. It’s culture.

Lies are with an intention of harm to others but recounting a (religious) myth is for the immediate benefit. From the point of aggregates and sense doors, everything is a lie, yet we don’t say don’t talk conventionally.


#19

If you go back just a few hundred years in Europe it was commonly believed that witches could make people and animals sick by casting spells. Seen through a modern lens this would be regarded as “superstition”, but it was very real to people at the time.
So if you were reading (say) a contemporary account of a 17th century witch trial, and wanted to properly understand it in historical context, you would need to make a conscious effort to suspend scepticism, and attempt to enter the mindset of the people living back then.
I’d suggest that a similar effort is required when translating or reading the suttas, or indeed any ancient text.


#20

The example of Mara is an interesting one. When reading the suttas, I’ve noticed that Mara is often portrayed as a real being, and there is some ambiguity here. So we have the ideas of Mara as a real being, and Mara as a metaphor, or of Mara “out there” and Mara “in here”. But I don’t think these two ideas would have been seen as mutually exclusive back then, more like different ways of thinking about the same thing.
I also suspect that with a modern western mindset we’re less likely to countenance the idea of Mara as a real entity, partly because Mara, “the evil one”, sounds rather too similar to the monotheistic Devil that many of us were told about growing up.

Again, the challenge is trying to understand the mindset of the people at the time, rather than imposing modern cultural assumptions.