What is myth and why does it matter?


“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.


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!


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.



Sādhu Sādhu Sādhu!! Well said Bhante!

And today I learned that Ray Kurzweil is Gilgamesh :joy:


Could it be argued that what some here on SC might be trying to do is to finally de-mythologize, and de-romanticize Buddhism? That the heart of the Dhamma is to bring us to a place void/lessened of myth and romantic notions of life, and our successive lives? I agree that myth serves a useful and important purpose, but at some point, do we inevitably need to focus on what is real and absolute in order to be liberated from dukkha? Or, are we always trapped at some level in myth-making, in order to make sense of our life and world?


For me it is not a question of absolutes, which remain theoretical for most people. It is that the Buddha lived immersed in a world of ritual and superstition, and he responded by “demythologizing”, or as Calasso more poetically puts it, he came to “make an end of gesture”. In 19th and 20th Century traditional Buddhist contexts, such a process was also welcome, as it helped shake Buddhism from the superstitious and magical forms into which it had evolved.

But we come from a background that is pre-demythologised, so our position with regard to the the context is exactly the opposite. Demythologizing isn’t challenging our preconceptions, it is playing into them. So our sense of self is validated. Then when we encounter the mythological dimensions of Buddhism we reject it and see it as having no worth or meaning. This is not just a psychological perspective, it creates very real divisions in the Buddhist communities. By drawing attention to the meaning of myth, I hope to show modern Buddhists that, even though our focus is of course on the suttas, meditation, and liberation, the stories that the Buddhist community has told itself over the millennia are meaningful, and in important ways they can inform and enhance our our lived experience of the Dhamma.


Yes, and this is something that I struggle with. A sense of perceiving that what is being widely taken for “Buddhism” is incorrect, or too skewed with myth, such that the Dhamma is getting lost in the 21st century, when we might just need it the most.

Maybe it’s akin to you, Bhante, as being a composer of music (as you once were), and being able to understand and weave into new music influences that are important and beautiful. Great music opens these doors perhaps the way well crafted myth opens doors to ecumenicism and understanding. It seems to me the ability to craft this kind of meaning is a rare talent.

I absolutely lack that musical skill or talent and maybe need to be careful in Dhamma practice to be less blunt or judgmental to other voices and stories; maybe this needs to be part of my 2020 resolutions.