In this video, a monk tried to draw a distinction between "mythology" and "history facts" ...

Ajahn Sujato - Buddhist Mythology - The Sacred and the Profane - Part 3

... saying that "Mythology" just has a community (identification) purpose.

Yet my person's thought was, "and how is that different to 'factual' history (aside that it faster changes)?"

How can "mythology" (Anussava), and "history" (perhaps thought as Itivea?), be seriously distinguished, if possible? And how should the past be seen, grasped, in accordance with the path, practice?

What kind of mythology, history, and anussati (bringing into present) is conductive for one's way, toward long-time happiness and beyond?

(Note that this is not asked for trade, stacks, exchange or entertainment, but for good undertakings toward release from this wheel)

3 Answers 3


All we can know to be "facts" is the following:

Svākkhāto bhagavatā dhammo sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko opaneyyiko paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhī

The teaching (of Suffering Ending Truth) well explained by the Buddha — visible in the here-&-now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, leading onwards (to Nibbana), that sensible people can know for themselves.

This is the Dhamma Refuge taught by the Honest Awakened One (The Buddha); adhered to by Honest Noble People. This is all we can know as "fact" and this is all the Buddha expects or asks of us to know.


Yet my person's thought was "and how is that different to 'factual' history" (aside that it faster changes).

Yes perhaps you're right, if you're saying that "history" isn't much better than mythology.

Even so-called "history" is often (or, invariably?) partisan -- see e.g. Is history always written by the victors?

I am not an experienced (e.g. professional) historian, though -- so I don't want to say they are the same, either -- perhaps a historian might try to explain a distinction. I think that a very simple definition of "history" is that it's related to "writing" -- if nothing written survives, from a given period, then that period is by definition "prehistoric" -- though there may be something recorded from "oral history", or inferred from "archaeology" (and/or perhaps from "myth").

How can "mythology" and "history" be possible serious distinguished

I guess that's two questions:

  • How do professional historians distinguish?
  • How should a practising Buddhist distinguish?

Leaving aside the first as off-topic, I think there are suttas -- e.g. one of the suttas to Rahula, and the Kalama sutta -- where the Buddhas says people should consider what they themselves know to be true.

In my experience even what I "know" of my own personal history is not much better than any other history -- e.g. perhaps conceited, partisan, incomplete, and empty -- but even so perhaps people learn from experience (possibly learning wisdom or the opposite of ignorance), as Rahula was told to:

Having done a [...] action, you should reflect on it: 'This mental action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful mental action, with painful consequences, painful results?' If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful mental action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should feel distressed, ashamed, & disgusted with it. Feeling distressed, ashamed, & disgusted with it, you should exercise restraint in the future. But if on reflection you know that it did not lead to affliction... it was a skillful mental action with pleasant consequences, pleasant results, then you should stay mentally refreshed & joyful, training day & night in skillful mental qualities.

I suppose Buddhists study the buddha-vacana too -- and maybe hagiographies (of which the Theragatha are an example).

What kind of mythology, history, anussati (bringing into present) is conductive for ones way toward long time happiness and beyond?

I'm not sure that story of the life of the Buddha, for example, is "history" -- including his birth and meeting the four "divine messengers".

Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote,

Meeting the Divine Messengers

The traditional legend of the Buddha's quest for enlightenment tells us that throughout his youth and early manhood Prince Siddhattha, the Bodhisatta, lived in complete ignorance of the most elementary facts of human life. His father, anxious to protect his sensitive son from exposure to suffering, kept him an unwitting captive of nescience. Incarcerated in the splendor of his palace, amply supplied with sensual pleasures and surrounded by merry friends, the prince did not entertain even the faintest suspicion that life could offer anything other than an endless succession of amusements and festivities. It was only on that fateful day in his twenty-ninth year, when curiosity led him out beyond the palace walls, that he encountered the four "divine messengers" that were to change his destiny. The first three were the old man, the sick man, and the corpse, which taught him the shocking truths of old age, illness, and death; the fourth was a wandering ascetic, who revealed to him the existence of a path whereby all suffering can be fully transcended.

This charming story, which has nurtured the faith of Buddhists through the centuries, enshrines at its heart a profound psychological truth. In the language of myth it speaks to us ...

When I visited Singapore once, for example, there were three books in the hotel room: a Christian Bible, an Islamic Koran, and a Buddhist "Life of the Buddha" of some kind.

I think that sort of "narrative" of the Buddha's life is well-known.

Perhaps -- I don't know -- it is everyone's first introduction to Buddhism: a story you learn as a child.

  • Thoughtful and careful share of thought, Nyom Chris.
    – user11235
    Jun 25, 2019 at 11:59

How can "mythology" (Anussava), and "history" (perhaps thought as Itivea?), be seriously distinguished, if possible?

In my humble opinion, it cannot. History begins its transformation iinto mythology on its first retelling by a human. So, in a way, there is really no true history.

Even if we are present at an event, what we remember is modified by our life experiences and viewpoints. Many psychological studies on "eyewitness" recall have proved that. So what we recount to ourselves (and others) is always, in actuality, myth. The amount of myth-iness - or diversion from 'history' - in the retelling might vary but it will never be 0%. And the more retellings, the more divergence, as each individual in the chain modifies the story through their personal filters.

Even a film of an event seldom portrays straight 'history' - although I admit it can come close. The placement of the camera and the editing usually modify the perception of what was 'true' in the recording's retelling.

And how should the past be seen, grasped, in accordance with the path, practice?

Personally, I view that the past wisdom of the Buddha we have been provided, while myth by my definition, is definitely not without value. The actual words he used and perhaps some of the minor meanings may have been lost, but the essential core of his teachings have been shaped and interpreted by well meaning and intelligent fellow human beings through the centuries. What we may have lost in accurate 'history', we have gained in interpretations formed by the wisdom of 'the group'. His teachings have been, thus, amplified and refined for understanding through the humanity of each teacher in the chain.

What kind of mythology, history, and anussati (bringing into present) is conductive for one's way, toward long-time happiness and beyond?

In my opinion, all of the available texts and teachers are potentially valuable resources for us to find our way on the path to enlightenment. Since each interpretation has come to us through different chains, there will be some variability in the form of the knowledge. But by studying several and trying to be open to the teachings in each, we can build a composite understanding that will resonate with us and we will be able to incorporate into our being. Because it will, then, be totally accepted by us, we can be one with the methods and understand necessary work we individually need to use to attain our ultimate goal.

I believe this is consistent with the (mythical?) teaching we have received from the Buddha in the Kalama Sutta that we should not automatically accept any one single teaching / teacher as the absolute font of truth. By studying many, we will have a basis for determining which is our true path.

You must log in to answer this question.