What is myth and why does it matter?

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.


“Buddhist music” is another related tangent. I’ve been planning on posting an essay here in the Watercooler for a while on “The Notion of Buddhist Music” with a special emphasis on John Cage and my own ethnomusicological training with regard to Chinese Buddhist chant and also touching on traditional regional form of Burmese and Thai Theravāda chant, but I haven’t had the time yet.

John Cage and an assorted plethora of musical modernists teach us equanimity toward sound, one of the sense gateways. I don’t claim to have any sort of meditative attainment, but with respect to sound, I can personally say that either a) a more profound joy can be experienced via equanimity toward the ear sense door versus discriminative notions of “pleasant” and “unpleasant,” and quietude can be reached in certain conventionally sensual settings, or b) I’m still intoxicated by sound, but have intellectually aligned this with so-called “Buddhist” notions and am a fool who knows little of value. While b) may be quite true, hopefully a) has some merit.

I’ll eventually get to writing the post.

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For all those interested, back in 2017 I had edited, spruced up and added citations for Sujato’s write up for the Buddhist Mythology article for Wikipedia (with his permission, I submitted it to the Buddhist Mythology page).

It’s still up I believe. Its not perfect but it has some interesting stuff:


And thanks so much for this! The article is now pretty reasonable. It actually discusses Buddhist myth in a useful way, which is pretty much all we can expect.


@sujato Bhante, have you seen this article by Michel Clausquin where he says that the Sigālasutta is “demythologising” Brahmin tradition? It has some very interesting ideas on myth and historical context.


Although the term “demythologisation” is usually associated with the name of Rudolf Bultmann, it is here argued that very similar processes were occurring in the fifth century BCE in places such as Greece and India. One good example of this process is the Buddhist text known as the Singalovada Suttanta. In this text, a physical ritual of worship offered to specific gods believed to reside in the “six quarters” (east, south, west, north, below and above)is radically redefined and given a new, ethical interpretation, in which the acts of worship are reinterpreted as referring to ethical treatment of specific types of person. The process can, however, be seen to be at least partially self-defeating, because once the story had become part of a sacred literary corpus, it became “mythologised” itself and is now itself in need of demythologisation.

Here is the link to the article, it’s free if anyone is intrested! https://www.researchgate.net/publication/249059287_Demythologisation_in_Axial_Age_India_-_the_Singalovada_Suttanta

Umm, well yes, but also, it’s kind of missing the point.

As I said in the OP, the basic theme of all myth is the death of god. This is a universal. What he’s calling “demythologization” is just a fancy word for the same thing. No longer is the world imbued and enlivened by a mysterious divine presence, it is rational and comprehensible to human understanding.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to find a similar process in Greece and India; it was the same everywhere. The Bible tells the same story; or consider, as one of the earliest and most dramatic instance, the tragedy of Akhenaton.

Even before Akhenaton, the very earliest myth, Gilgamesh, is already demythologizing: Gilgamesh rejects the advances of the Goddess Ishtar, citing a range of tragic lovers she had in the past. He ends up going on his own journey, discovering the secrets of the gods through his efforts and ingenuity. I mean, he failed ultimately, but the point is, that’s what the myth is about; it’s what it has always been about.

And again, we should not be surprised to find that "de-"mythologizing ends up with "re-"mythologizing: that’s the point. We always tell ourselves stories that help us make sense of the world. You can’t get rid of mythology by saying that it’s false; you have to tell a better story. It’s not that “demythologizing” fails because you end up with another myth; it’s that the project of “demythologizing” is itself another myth: the myth of rationality.


And then that myth is replaced by various forms of Romanticism (nationalist, traditionalist, etc) and post-modernisms, and the process will go on as long as humans tell stories about themselves.