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I've been studying Buddhism for the past few months and part of it entails reading about Siddartha's life story, including his path to enlightenment.

What's been confusing to me is whether or not one is to believe all of the "magic" that is described in his past - things like his birth and walking, leaving behind him roses in his path (a newborn baby walking?); or later when he doesn't eat for incredibly long periods; when he creates a golden bridge in the sky and walks it to prove his enlightenment (week 3 after enlightenment);when a king cobra wraps itself around him to keep him warm (6th week after enlightenment)?

All of these things seem very unrealistic, akin to stories about Jesus in the christian bible. My struggle is that, as far as I'm understanding and what has truly drawn to Buddhism, this religion is supposed to be based on logic.... these events do not strike me as "logical", i.e., they defy our understanding of science and the material world.

Are these stories, therefore, meant to be understood as metaphors, or are they believed as fact?

Thanks for any thoughts on this!

Kevin

  • Leaving other things aside if we solely focus on their teachings Buddha far surpasses Jesus. And as far as those "illogical" things are concerned they are added to a great personalities and such things are there for many other great people as well. – Rolen Koh Jun 28 '17 at 9:44
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"All of these things seem very unrealistic [...]"

Notice that a doctrine is not the same as a biography.

The buddhist literature is vast and the biographical accounts are small in comparison and really not the main point. So, for a practitioner, the Buddha's biography (though profoundly inspiring and worth of learning) is not the place to focus the most on and it's not the best place to find the "logic" that seduced you.

To better illustrate this point, if we consider only the four main collections of the Pāli canon, the biographical accounts of the Buddha not only are rare but are pretty down to earth -- I recall only one or two suttas mentioning the Buddha as a baby talking and walking and so forth.

Consider now that there are over twelve thousand discourses in these collections alone. So if these extraordinary events are hard to conciliate, it's easy to dismiss one or two passage and focus on the actual bulk of the teachings. Furthermore, one will eventually notice that these teachings are, in a sense, telling one to not waste energy dwelling with these conflicts anyway.

However, there are more texts describing "supernatural" powers, and a few more with spiritual beings participating. These increase in size if we also consider the Mahayana texts. So, these elements are really intrinsic to Buddhism, though there are buddhists who prefer to dismiss them, like secular buddhists. In some way, this is also a testament to the strength of the nucleus of the doctrine which, even when these elements are removed, remain valuable to people who dislike them.

"Are these stories, therefore, meant to be understood as metaphors, or are they believed as fact?"

One thing here is how buddhist should perceive this stories. Whereas commonly we understand religions in the west as "believing is seen", perhaps Buddhism is more aligned with "seen is believing". In the orthodoxy, I know of no part of Buddhism that states something like "you have to believe this, or else go away". Other sects, however, may put some extra value on faith about something.

So, some buddhists believe the stories, some believe them partially, and others don't. But, as per the Buddha's discourses, these stories are meant to inspire disciples to practice.

On the factuality of these stories, however, there's really not much evidence available to judge their veracity. Plus, there are different biographical stories -- so you better check your sources. Also, apart from his tours across the country, some events of his life have been argued more substantially that they are likely to have happened, like the period where the Buddha studied under the other two ascetic teachers.

But other biographies show some signs of creativity. For example, a popular story (I'm not entirely sure from which texts it's from) says that the Buddha-to-be saw a sick, an old, and a dead after leaving his palace for the first time and that these marked him deeply. However, it's known from an unrelated discourse of the Buddha that he referred to these three things as metaphors or signs that "wakes" a person to the tragedy of existence and inspires them to look for an escape from suffering. So it's not far fetched to imagine that the author of this particular biography decided to put these signs quite explicitly in the Buddha's own story.

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    Ask enough people to tell you the same story and eventually you stop hearing the same story. But ask no one and you never learn the story. – candied_orange Jun 27 '17 at 8:41
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    A fine answer my friend, What matters is the core not the magical details, But there are some things like Heavenly realms (Alien planets in the modern interpretation) that defines a buddhist. Without these beliefs, one can't call himself a buddhist. But if one find the birth and such non-canon related stories are not in the same domain. – Theravada Oct 14 '17 at 10:02
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the Buddha taught that there is unsatisfactoriness in this world and the way out of it which is more systemised as the 4 Noble Truths.

If these stories help you understand unsatisfactoriness and help you come out of it or inspire you in any way to practice and strengthen your faith, by all means use them. If not leave them aside without outright rejection and concentrate on what appeals to you.

What is most important is you follow the Noble 8 Fold Path divided into the 3 Fold Training which results in understanding the 4 Noble Truths.

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Three months after Shakyamuni's death the first Buddhist Council was convened. There was no written method to record his teaching so a group of monks, many with eidetic memories, were chosen to commit the Buddha's lessons to memory. This was the system used to pass down his teachings for hundreds of years.

So, that said. it remains rather unsurprising that certain liberties were taken with the "facts" in order to facilitate a good story. The type of story that would survive hundreds of years of interpretations. When I see what appear to be outlandish statements I try to focus instead on the idea or feeling they are trying to emphasize with the casual approach to reality.

Especially in various koans this approach becomes very useful. I see the exercise as a further lesson taught to us by the dharma. Not as some attempt to mislead.

I hope this helps you. I encountered the same concerns years ago as I sought refuge in the dharma. In fact, to me this is part of seeking refuge ... how willing and successful are you at parsing the kernel of knowledge gleaned amidst the so-called chaff? Namaste my friend.

  • It seems to me like this approach can apply to most religions, despite the fact that many believers would disagree with it. – DaaaahWhoosh Jun 26 '17 at 20:58
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    I worked on a dissertation showing a high degree of likelihood that all the major religions drew from the experiences in the far east. Lots of empirical data supporting the hypothesis. – Kauva Aatma Jun 26 '17 at 23:31
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MN 123 describes the Buddha's physical birth; standing, walking & prophesying about himself. This contradicts MN 64, which states a new born child has no mental conceptions of self or identity.

Since there is a contradiction here & since we know from reality that new born children cannot mentally construct words about themselves, we can be confident the birth story of the Buddha is false & a form of religious mythology.

MN 123 is of a tiny genre/style of suttas similar to the later-day Jataka, Apadana & Buddhavamsa stories. Therefore, it is highly probable the Buddha did not speak MN 123 & that MN 123 was a later-day composition. These Hinduistic ideas eventually contributed to the extinction of Buddhism in India because they reinforced/supported Hinduism & diminished the uniqueness of Buddhism.


Other stories, such as seeing the four signs of an old, sick & dead man and seeing a monk and then sneaking out of the palace, also appear to contradict what is written in the suttas, which report Gotama was well aware of aging, sickness & death in the palace and that he left the palace with full knowledge of his parents, who had tears streaming down their faces.

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The Pali canon was put down in writing hundreds of years after the parinibbana of the Buddha, having been transmitted orally for that time. If not the message, then at least the presentation of the message was altered to suit rote memorization (one reason why some perceive the canon to be a 'dry' read).

It is good to be aware of the fact that the Digha Nikaya was likely an introduction to Buddhism for the wider brahminical/Hindu society of the time, hence the mix of very 'clean' suttas with ones that discuss gods etc.

Interestingly, though a later creation (likely 100BC), the Milinda Panha offers an explanation that all these jumps that the Buddha and his disciples make to Sakka's realm etc are only mental episodes - a reasonable explanation imo, given the prevalence of that imagery at that time, as well as the power of the mind to see that which it has been concentrating on for long periods of time.

Even in the canon, there are suttas where the Buddha addresses monks who have come from different schools, wherein he discourages them from staying engaged with beliefs they had from their times before joining the Sangha (with Samkhya philosophy in MN1 for example), so it would be no surprise if later, after his parinibbana, new devotees brought a level of their own baggage to the texts.

Personally, I don't mind that a 2500 year old expounding of a world view has a little embellishment and degradation in it - expecting otherwise would be misunderstanding how humans tend to act, and a disservice to the understanding of anicca!

The Dhamma the Buddha declared was stated as verifiable in the here and now, and for the most part the canon is very repetitive and consistent for the main message. If you come across ideas that cannot be verified, or seem to be one off entries in the canon, it is fair to question them, especially if they break with our now basic knowledge of science (newborns walking etc).

If a part of a text does not directly discuss the Dhamma, see if it points to aspects of the message indirectly. If you can't see anything, enjoy the story!

(though I wouldn't be too critical of the austerities part, the Samana movement seems to have had some pretty determined people in it at the time, and in SN 56.11 (the first sermon), the discourse is specifically about staying away from the extremes of sensory indulgence and self mortification, meaning austerities likely played a big part in the Buddha's path to enlightenment)

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    I have been fascinated studying the intertwined history of messages contained within the Upanishads and the dhammapada while comparing it to historical human migration in regions like the Kush from europe into SE Asia where the arya (people) met with the indo. Also the influence that spread after taoism and the uniform elements between confusianism, taoism, buddhism, and hindi. I so envy the history. – Kauva Aatma Jun 27 '17 at 3:37
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    I do find history fascinating too, though early Buddhism lacks for it - likely even hindered by the Buddha himself, as he stated that he an all other Buddhas turned to the Dhamma above all else, including themselves (sorry, no memory of the reference!). The Tao Te Ching is a fascinating side by side read too - it seems to straddle the original message of emptiness, with similarity to the later Buddhism of Buddhagharba in a fascinating way. – Ilya Grushevskiy Jun 27 '17 at 6:44
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I think that the story of the new-born baby walking and talking might possibly come from (or is most commonly found in) the Jataka tales (and/or the Buddhavamsa), and not the suttas.

Conversely I think the suttas tend to be more "realistic", as you put it.

There's only one sutta that I know (but there may be others) that mentions a supernatural birth, which is MN 123 ... but, and I don't know why, MN 123 isn't translated on Access to Insight, nor on Dharmafarer. Perhaps neither translator found that sutta among the most important to translate?

Anyway you might prefer to read, might find more benefit in reading, the suttas than the Jataka tales.

One of the anthologies of suttas, which people on this site recommended, is In the Buddha's Words ("An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon, Edited and introduced by Bhikkhu Bodhi").

Are these stories, therefore, meant to be understood as metaphors, or are they believed as fact?

If you are talking about Jataka tales, then see for example the answers to the topic, Does Theravada Buddhism accept Jataka Stories?

Some popular anthologies/stories of the Buddha's life start with the Four Sights and the Prince's decision to leave home, rather than at birth.

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It's like the bible. Some more moderate believers see it as metaphorical whereas the more hard core believers take the whole thing literally. Personally I think the whole thing needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Nobody can prove any of it is real just like they cannot prove the bible. The dangers of taking such writings literally leads to fanaticism and violence which can be seen all throughout history.

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After 50 years of mindfulness meditation practice and receiving novice ordination some 30 years ago (full ordination was not available in Canada back then), I can say with certainty that it is meditation practice that counts the most in the Buddhist teachings. From this point of view, the most important part of Buddhism is the Buddhist psychology of meditation, even though it is incomplete and offers almost no explanation as to why meditation works. The life of the Buddha tells us little about meditation. There are many gaps in the "logic" of Buddhism. I sincerely hope you will take up meditation practice anyway.

protected by Lanka Jun 26 '17 at 22:25

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