What is myth and why does it matter?

In colloquial use a “myth” is something that’s false but often accepted as true. But this is quite separate from the original meaning, a sacred story.

Regarding the examples you gave, whether they are myths or not has nothing to do with whether the beings or extraordinary events actually happened. Stories that are entirely earth-bound (if you like) can be myths, although it is true that extraordinary elements are usually found in there to signify that the events transcend normal space and time. What makes something a myth, rather, is that it is a story that conveys a sense of transcendent or unifying meaning especially within a community.

In this sense, if we were to remove all the so-called “supernatural” elements from the Buddha’s life, it would still be a myth (and still embody the stages of the classic hero myth). Miracles and magic just make it more fun, like CGI in a movie. But it doesn’t change the meaning of the myth. As opposed to, say, the story of Jesus, where the resurrection is essential to the myth.

As for the specifics, some of the things you mention are elements within a mythic story, such as point 3. The miraculous birth is an essential element in the hero myth.

The Mahayana claims make up what I regard as a sectarian mythology. I discussed this in my Sects & Sectarianism, although mostly in the context of the early schools rather than Mahayana. They’re essentially a form of early propaganda, stories invented as marketing, which consciously assume the form and motifs of classical mythology in order to convey authority to their school. None of them are true, if that is what you’re asking.

But this is, and I hope you pardon me for this, all trivial. None of it gets to the heart of the matter, which, why does myth matter? What is the hold that such stories have over us?

True myth goes back to a deeper place in consciousness and in human society. It is not consciously formed, it evolves and grows. Myths are stories that are told and retold for centuries, millenia, until they lose the sense of one person’s story, and become universal. They don’t consciously set out to be anything, they grow into their own meaning. Because their origins are lost in time, they are never heard for the first time; they are part of a fabric of culture, always there, permeating it in story, ritual, image, embedded in the foundations of language.

Tolkein knew this, which is why he began by creating language, then found stories to tell in those languages. Why is it that when people see something like Aragorn being made king, it’s such an emotional and powerful moment: but we believe in democracy? Myth is contacting something deeper, more primal than we can reach with our rational mind.

The essential form of myth is the origin story. To the beginning: that is where all myths lead. Now, in part, they do this because, as stories told and retold through countless generations, they do in fact preserve accurate information about the past. But on a deeper level, they tell of a primeval past that is still alive today. As stories, they keep the past alive; and the very fact that they are still told tells us that they still mean something for us today. The present repeats the patterns and problems of the past; mythic time is cyclic time, which is why the myths “never were, but always are”.

If the essential form of myth is the origin story, the essential theme is the death of god. Consider the Bible. We are used to thinking of it as the story of Gods word’s and actions. But if you step back from it, God was right there “in the beginning”. But with every step of the way, he recedes further form the action. He stays behind in the Garden. Soon he can only be seen in the stormy clouds or in a passing shadow, or in bizarre and twisted forms. Then he can’t be seen at all: he must send his son. Who in turn leaves, and, breaking his promise, doesn’t come back. Now all we have is a dried up piece of bread. The Bible is the story of the death of God.

But this is just one example. In Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, everywhere we see the same thing. And not only that, we see the same thing right from the very beginning. The very oldest myth we have—Gilgamesh—already contains recollections of older myths, and reflections about the betrayal and withdrawal of the gods.

This is, of course, an overriding theme of the Buddhist texts. While they are typically more gentle in their approach—we don’t nail our old gods to crosses, we tell jokes about them—the effect is the same. Once you have enough distance and irony to be able to tell a joke at god’s expense, that god is over. We no longer rely on divine intervention and revelation for truth or meaning, we rely on our own experience, reason, and awareness.

The story of the death of god is also the story of the ascent of humanity. Nietzsche:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

The death of god is no modern invention. Buddhists have been killing gods for 2,500 years. But we were not alone: the axial age spelled the ending of true myth. Or to put it another way. In order to create the great myths, a society needs a certain degree of development: sufficient size, trade interactions, wealth, stability, and a specialized, leisured class of literati. But the same factors that make this possible are also the factors that bring to a close the era that the stories tell of. Thus myth, in the form that we have it, tells the story of its own death. This is the birth of self-reflection: a story about its own story.

The story of the Buddha, while cast in the form of myth, is no longer an organic growth over centuries. It is a conscious, deliberate formulation, conceived by masters of literary structure. And, crucially, it is not the core of the thing; what matters is the Dhamma, not the Buddha’s life.

One of the few modern masters of myth, Roberto Calasso, summed it up perfectly: the Buddha came to put an end to gesture. No longer was spiritual life measured by external expressions of narrative, sign, and ritual, but by an inner awakening.

Buddhism—together with the other rationalizing movements of the time like Jainism—was the first generation of of post-mythic religions, serving a similar role as the philosophers did in Greece. From then on, myth was used as a storytelling device, just as Hollywood uses it today. It might be used by people with a greater or lesser grasp of its depths, in more or less powerful or profound ways, but it is being used, deliberately, rather than emerging organically from the depths. Something like the Buddhacarita is as much a precursor of the modern novel as it is the inheritor of the ancient myth.

This is not to say that myth is in fact dead in Buddhism; there is always a vast gap between the insights of the sages and the understanding of the masses. When Thai boys relive the Buddha’s renunciation through the ordination ritual, this has nothing to do with a search for inner awareness, and everything to do with a ritual embodiment of myth. Myth is very much alive for many Buddhists; and the unawareness of this fact underlies many of the tensions we find in modern Buddhism.

I have argued many times that the denial of myth, the chronic lack of understanding of what it is and why it matters, pervades modern Buddhist study and practice. You’ll learn more about myth by going to see Star Wars than you will by reading anything written by modern Buddhist academics on the subject. We have what is probably the largest and oldest collections of sacred stories anywhere in the world, yet they are routinely ignored and dismissed.

This is one of the reasons I abandoned my plan to write a proper article on Buddhist mythology for Wikipedia. The current article is appalling, but it is an reasonable representation of the current state of awareness and study of the issue. Wikipedia relies on citations, and on most issues there simply aren’t any.

There are many rich veins of insight and study of myth in modern times. It would be nice to see the current impoverished study of Buddhism tap into these.


It’s an older topic but there are some interesting points worth picking up. There is the theme of the ‘receding god’, just I don’t think it’s quite accurate. In the Old Testament god gets ‘revived’ a couple of times - god in the pillar of fire in the Exodus is not ‘soon’ after the Genesis but many generations later. And, not to forget, that the David’s temple in Jerusalem in a way also revived the presence of god amidst his subjects.So it’s more an oscillation with continuous recession and occasional rejuvenation.

In India a similar process was going on long before Buddhism appeared. The old myths of the Rgveda lost their dominating importance and were challenged by new gods and new myths in the Brahmanas. The large and elaborate srauta rituals became the exotic exception and the householder rituals became normal. But also the immortality of brahmaloka got in reach of humans - in the early Upanisads even not through rituals but through insight and spiritual understanding. Eventually the pre-Buddhist Upanisads (probably influenced by sramanas) declare the end of old age, death, and sorrow:

“The atman that is free from evils, free from old age and death, free from sorrow, free from hunger and thirst; the self whose desires and intentions are real—that is the self that you should try to discover, that is the self that you should seek to perceive” (Chandogya Upanisad 8.7.1, and similarly CU 8.1.5 and Yajnavalkya in BU 3.5.1)

And of course we have the same oscillation of recession and rejuvenation in Buddhism as well. Even within the suttas we see traces of declining spirituality and a receding ‘forest Buddhism’ towards a scholastic ‘village/city Buddhism’. And only a few centuries after the Buddha a ‘second turning of the dhamma wheel’ seems necessary. For a long time arahantship is considered impossible any more among many Buddhists etc.

I don’t know if the Buddha myths are trivial btw…

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Sure, God gets revived: but it doesn’t stick. That, in a nutshell, is the history of religion.

Since it’s about myths, and the myth of god (not the reality of god) isn’t it the same with the myth of the Buddha then? occasional revivals throughout history but the reality of liberation doesn’t ‘stick’, just the adapting myths stick around?

This is not about the quality or content of the teaching. Just on a structural level we possibly see similar developments in the other religions: occasional saints in Christianity, of course many enlightened gurus in India, ‘gifted’ rabbis (there are no saints in Judaism) etc.

The myth of the one and only Buddha (in our ‘era’) is quite central, the myth of declining spirituality, and several myths of revival lineages in a general age of decline.

It doesn’t seem to me that the ‘sectarian mythologies’ can be regarded separately. I think they belong to religions from the beginning - Devadatta, Mahakassapa vs Ananda, forest vs city monastics, the ‘evil’ group of monks in the Vinaya - these conflicts all belong to early Buddhism and are in a way quite important for cementing the self-identity (:wink:) of the monastic order.

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The earliest Buddhist textual collections on myth are found in Sagatha-vagga of SN and SA. They are early Buddhist adaptation of general Indian religious beliefs (such as deva, Mara, Brahma, Sakka, Vana, Yakkha …). The adaptation style is presented in verse in the EBT. This adaptation attitude of the Buddhist belief system has continued from early Indian Buddhism to different developments of Buddhism in India, China, Japan, and other areas. So, Buddhist myth presented in the texts or in communities is about ‘regional adaptation’; it is not about the fundamental teachings of Early Buddhism.

Mythology I think is at its root a way for cultures to present a way to make sense of life, which in reality seems to be simply a series of arbitrary events. It contains often unintentional metaphors drawn from free association or what Jung called the “collective unconscious.”

There’s Twain’s old joke, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

Possibilities, of course, being possibilities that we can imagine. Real life events often strain our ability to make sense of them, so we make stories to digest them. The really satisfying stories start out looking incomprehensible like life and then slowly reveal a pattern we can understand, or they provide an example of the experience being meaningful.

Fiction and poetry writers today often simply explore the possibilities with free association, then structure the results as needed to create something that’s meaningful. They might write to an expected template, but they still have to populate it with semi-random details to make every story unique. At the end of the day, though, their stories are a way for readers to “practice” understanding life through vicarious story plots. I know of one professional writer who laments the turn away from reading fiction, that it sort of de-skills people when it comes to understanding human personalities, internal motivations, and ethics.

With Buddhist myth, I find the jataka and other mythological tales fascinating, as well as the cosmological depictions. They were an outlet of creativity that perhaps didn’t have other avenues to take. Philosophical speculation was generally discouraged as argument-causing, so moral fables were the release valve. Mahayana sutras later picked up that baton with mythologized Buddhas giving teachings to mythologized disciples and bodhisattvas.


Finally, someone gets it! Yes, the core motif of Buddhist mythology is the death of the Buddha. And all the stuff—the stories, the stupas, the artworks, the legends, the whole Jataka and bodhisattva idea—is a response to the loss of the Buddha and the need to find some connection.

Again, thank you! As I argued in Sects & Sectarianism, the stories for establishing sects grow out of the broader Buddhist mythology. This pattern is first established in the Khandhaka. And, while this has not been my focus of study, it continues today, whether with the hagiographies of forest saints, or the authorization-stories of secular institutions.

Yes-ish. I mean, no-one is saying that mythology replaces the four noble truths. But the fact that it has been there since the beginning surely suggests that it is something rather more significant that just a bit of marketing. Instead of thinking of it as “local adaption”, perhaps the point is that everywhere is a location. Mythology is a way of telling the story of Buddhism in a way that connects with and is relevant to human beings. Today, the popularity of the hero narrative shows that the power of mythological storytelling is undiminished.

Indeed, yes. Life is chaotic, stories offer structure.

Or from a Buddhist point of view, echoes of past life memories.

It’s interesting how the writings of a good novelist often contains deeper psychological insight than you find in the work of a psychologist, or for that matter, a Buddhist scholar.

Again, yes.

So happy to see a sympathetic take on mythology. :smile:


Myths were created to make some sense of a very confusing and random world; to try to explain the unexplainable before science could tell us things about nature.

In a Myth, volcanoes, earthquakes, floods and lightning were attributed to powerful gods at work in the world. People invented stories of gods who were very much like humans but had dominion over the forces of nature like the seasons, the oceans as well as the stars and planets. There were also gods who controlled emotions like love, hate, jealousy, greed and also gods of war, peace, purity and the afterlife.

Myths told stories about how humans came to be and how we come about with our laws and customs. In short, Myths were stories about the big, “outer” world and how it worked and how Archetypes worked and intersected with humans.

There are other kinds of stories too: Legends, Sagas and Fairy Tales (Folk Tales). Each of these are defined quite differently from one another and from Myths.

I think many of the Buddhist stories could fall under the heading of Legends because they are based upon real persons and actual events but have picked up embellishments to make the story more grandiose and noteworthy.

Indeed, and as you say, many Buddhist stories would fit under these categories, each of which has its own value and role to play. My own interest has been in deep myth, the stories that speak via symbol and image to the oldest and most fundamental questions of human nature and culture. Most Jatakas don’t really fit that description, but some do.

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I’m interested in your position on this. I personally try to free the mind from the shackles of myths and there is often a relief of freedom when I let go of a belief or a myth, as if myths (as knots or nodes in the discourse) somehow weigh down the mind and force it go around in specific circles.

It seems you see soteriological value in myths as well (not just as a tool to perpetuate Buddhism on a social or faith level)? How do myths support the liberation process? Maybe you have already written about it somewhere…

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A few times, yeah …

If you’re interested, start with the course I did on mythology earlier in the year.


You can find @musiko’s compressed mp3s of the lectures here

And, I recommend this article by Rupert Gethin


Thank you Venerable for the article. :anjal:

“Even if we hesitate to regard the MSud as a formal visualization in, say, the manner of the tantric mandala, yet its meditative and contemplative dimensions remain manifest. The slow, unhurried description of the city with its groves of jewelled trees with tinkling bells and its lotus ponds, of the palace with its jewelled rooms and couches, evokes an image and sense of wellbeing and calm. The story of the king’s conversation and of his death, especially in the Påli version, is of considerable emotional intensity: it is a story of letting go, of the passing of the things to which we are deeply attached — the passing even of the Buddha himself.”

A very interesting way to ‘read’ this Sutta. It reminds me of some guided meditations done by Ajahn Achalo (link to all his guided meditations). In which he ‘guides’ the meditator back to ancient India to let him or her meet Mahapajapati Bhikkhuni for example.


Yes! I’ve returned to reading fiction after a stretch of only occasionally departing from information relaying material. The immersive nature of a good story gives one a “first hand”, at times almost physical, experience of a perspective one may not have considered before.


Right, and this is something we forget about mythology. We read it from a distance, but the alien form and content makes it hard to really enter into it.

When I was in Thailand, I stayed for a while in Nan. My supporter there was a modern, well-to-do Thai, who rode a Harley with skulls on it and supported Man U. He told me of a ceremony he went to, where a traditional story was told in the old way. The occasion took hours. I’m afraid I can’t remember the story. But he said that as it went on, it became so sad, no-one could hear it without crying. Imagine that whole audience of hundreds of people, all weeping at the tragedy! It’s that kind of shared emotional experience that modern mythology, like superhero movies, tries to recapture.


Just a small aside-joke about myths and myths-construction: XKCD on mythbusting

I was just at a performance of Philip Glass’s opera Akhenaton and had a similar experience, though I cannot speak to the other members of the audience. What came to mind though was the Buddha’s message in SN 42.2. How do you square his message with the emotions aroused in mythological stories? Does it make a difference that a story have a Buddhist message, or is that simply incidental?

To be clear, I enjoy artwork of all kinds, though I struggle with the interaction between art and greed, between art and powerful emotion. I did a video awhile back on Buddhist art where I struggled a bit with this question. I’m still struggling with it.


I also don’t see yet how myths support the radically different view on experience and reality brought about through meditation. A myth is a discoursive element, yes, it can motivate, inspire, etc. but it all still happens on an emotional-conceptual level and nourishes a religious-historical process or at most a faith-induction.

Stories and myths about Krishna are also lovely, inspiring, etc. It might sooth the doubting mind, but emotionally, I would argue, it’s necessarily an obstacle.

I can totally relate to the value you see in myths, as I too love what myth can shine light upon. For years, my interest was in Fairy Tales or Folk Tales, the stories that speak to the inner processes of being human. The structures, motifs, symbolism and archetypes are quite unique to folk tales and very different from myths, legends and saga and serve a very different purpose. For several years I read fairy tales to elementary school kids, about age 11, that developmental age where they were sorting things out and moving towards individualtion. It was an extraordinary experience to read dozens of these to them, to watch as the recurring themes began to turn lights on in their minds.


Well. I can understand both sides of the argument when it comes to emotionalism. If a person gets wrapped up in it and attached, it can lead to problems. On the other hand, a mature person can gain insight from life experiences without becoming attached to repeating them over and over. Then those experiences are lessons learned. As I was attempting explain earlier, stories give us a way to do that vicariously.