Mistaken literalism and how it may have messed everything up

You know, I’m reading Gombrich’s book “How Buddhism Began” right now, and unless I’m mistaken, he’s making a pretty good case for the over-literal interpretation of the EBTs. He shows how most of them we’re actually satires of the religions of the time, basically explaining the buddha’s teachings but at the same time showing allegorically that the buddha was better than everything else. Like constantly showing how the buddha was above or better than Brahma, or how the buddhist heavens you go to because of jhana are above the brahma realm, and many other examples of how things are taken from the religions at the time and just added in by the compilers to really show that the Buddha was the best. But it seems it was never meant to be taken as literally as it is.

It’s a tricky thing because almost certainly that is the case, but sometimes it’s very difficult to know what exactly was meant to be literal and what was meant to be metaphorical. I don’t know, I highly recommend reading that book though because it is excellent so far, and this guy really did his research. It’s crazy how so many things in the EBTs really cannot be fully understood without knowing what the specific texts and narratives surrounding the teachings were in response too. These facts have been lost so long ago that entirely new interpretations have been imagined just to explain certain things, when all that was needed was the historical and pedagogic context. I was wondering if anyone’s has done some real research into this kind of thing or maybe read this book I’m reading. I’m actually pretty sure the entire PDF is online if you’re interested in reading it.


Hi jimisomer,

Yes, it’s a very interesting book. But perhaps you meant to say “against the over-literal interpretation…”?

Yeah that is what I meant, but I really was just saying that he makes a case that over-literal interpretations have become mainstream.

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Perhaps under-literal interpretations too!

I think Gombrich’s book is great, and one of the few really substantial contributions to Buddhist studies in recent decades. At the same time, though, we should be careful not to over-interpret it.

One thing that I would approach differently is in calling things “satire”. To me, suttas like the Aggañña are myths, and they should be interpreted through the lens of mythology. (Insert Wikipedia here, because I am tired of explaining that “myth” means “sacred story” not “thing that isn’t true”.)

One of the key factors of myth is that they are all-embracing. They contain multitudes; or rather, they contain the unity from which multitudes spring. The Aggañña Sutta, in fact, tells precisely this kind of story of the birthing of diversity: that is one of its main points.

This process doesn’t just apply to the contents of myth, but also to its means and methods. Myth is the irreducible well of story from which all other story-forms originate. Novels, romances, satires, dramas, science-fiction, all can be traced to myth. But myths themselves emerge at a time when these distinctions did not exist. Or to put it more precisely: myths as we have them tell the story of how these different forms came to be.

Thus to say that a myth is “satire” is not to say that it isn’t serious. On the contrary, satire is a critical tool that myths use to establish a deeper truth. Myths include all of human experience, and humor is part of that experience.


This is an excellent point. Some of the things that Gombrich comments on, such as the relationship between the Vedic creation myth and the first few Dependent Origination links (in which he builds on earlier work by Jurewicz), are, I think, helpful in deepening appreciation of where the Buddha was coming from. I don’t think the intention is to dismiss the links up to around name-and-form as merely parodies of the Vedas, and therefore something to be abandoned.

People are able to find so many different interpretations of the Buddha’s life and attitudes in the suttas, each according to their taste.

The key issue for me is to read ‘in context’ vs. 'without-context-literally’
And to me the linguistic context (that Gombrich often shows) is more trustworthy than the narrative one.
The suttas are often undecided regarding their narrative, presenting similar suttas with different interlocutors etc. Whereas the linguistic context of a word is very revealing.

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So here’s the real question, how do you know what to take literally and what to take metaphorically? Gombrich seems to think that most of the buddhist cosmology is satirical, and I get the sense that he thinks even much more than that is.

There is no formula. You just have to read, and read more, and read again, and read more again, and gradually develop a sense for how expressions are being used. But even after that, it will be very hard to demonstrate your reading.

A more important question is figuring what things are true. If some passage in a sutta says the Blessed One flew from one town to another, a first question one can ask is whether the text should be taken literally. But suppose you do decide the redactors of the text meant that statement literally, and not figuratively. One then has to ask whether or not it is true that the Blessed One literally flew from one town to another. And all the textual scholarship in the world can’t answer that question for you. You have to use the entirety of your background knowledge and critical faculties.


At our current level of understanding, there’s no fail-safe way to clearly know for sure. It’d be best to stick to the formula the Buddha prescribed in AN 8.53. Other than that, it’d be short-sighted to immediately brush aside any passage that seems to defy current common knowledge. Otherwise, one’d commit the same mistake as those flat-landers in Prof. Carl Sagan’s story.


I ask myself ‘does it matter, ultimately’?

Best to obtain one’s bearings from one’s own good brain. Other people’s contemplations, not thought through, not agreed upon and not accepted by oneself, aren’t useful in furthering your path. But, of course you must read them with a open but critical/inquiring mind, and further your right contemplation (yonisomanasikara).

with metta