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Literal vs. Symbolic Truth in Buddhist Practice

I grew up in the evangelical Christian church.  The word evangelical comes from the Greek word euangelion, which translates to "good news' or "the gospel.  In this case, the good news was that our souls had been saved by the loving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.

So, we spent a lot of time at church talking about Jesus, hell, and all of the terrible things that would happen to us if we didn't accept him as our lord and savior.  

Again, this was "good news" because the only thing we had to do in order to avoid an afterlife of torment was to have an unbreakable faith both in Jesus and the holy bible.

We were told that we had to "act out" our faith in daily life both by recruiting friends and co-workers to come to church and by accepting the bible as the literal word of God.  Thus, the earth was created in six days, Noah put two of every animal on the ark, and the story of Genesis happened exactly as it was written; talking snake and all.

It was all very black and white.  The bible was literally true.  And if I couldn't believe that, then I couldn't be a Christian.

I tried as hard as I could to believe.  I'd read the bible cover to cover three times by the time I was fifteen.  And I still have large chunks of it memorized to this day.  But I just couldn't get there.  So, at the age of twenty-three, I stopped being a Christian.

I lived as an Atheist for a number of years, and that was fine.  Not believing in hell was easier than trying to avoid it.  And atheist intellectuals like Matt Dillahunty and Sam Harris gave me plenty of talking points that I used to defend my new lifestyle over family dinners.

The only problem I had during this time was that I lacked a moral-framework.  Using our own reason to develop moral systems sounds good in theory, but it's exhausting work.  And if we're creating our own moral system, why can't we change it whenever we want too based on the situation?  In my own life, this resulted in a sort of "moral relativism" emerging that didn't serve me in the long-term.  

I didn't need God necessarily, but I did need some sort of playbook that would help me stay on the righteous path; enter Buddhism.

Teachings like the Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, and the Three Marks of Existence provide me with the necessary presuppositions to make moral choices.  And I'm grateful to the Buddhist masters who kept them alive for 2,600 years.  It's not an exaggeration to say I owe them my life.

But my decision to be Buddhist isn't without irony because there are many supernatural elements to this practice.  Buddhism contains gods, demons, and multiple hell-realms amongst other things.  And there is an obvious tension if one believes that Christian hell is fake but Buddhist hell is real.

Exhibiting the arrogance that's typical of western spirituality, I chose to ignore the supernatural parts of Buddhism early in my practice.  This worked to a point because many of the physical practices like sitting and walking meditation stand on their own.  

But something was lost.  There are some teachings that don't make sense on the surface.  For example, why was I making nightly offerings to hungry ghosts if I didn't believe in the ghosts?  

I tried to wrap my head around them, but I couldn't accept Buddhist teachings about devas and god-realms any more than I could accept the teachings of world-wide floods and talking snakes that I was given in my youth.  Ironically, it was Christian and Jewish authors who helped me break this impasse.

Writers like Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, and the late Rachel Held Evans use words like historical-context, metaphor, and deeper-teaching, in order to explain the idiosyncrasies of their faith.  

They suggest that certain teachings make sense in a specific historical context, but they need to be adapted to modern times.  Other teachings worked fine on their own, and still, others needed to be understood as stand-ins for deeper truths that aren't easy to explain.  

In short, they divide scripture into literal truths that should be taken "as-is" and symbolic truths that are useful tools for understanding something else.  More importantly, they put the impetus on the reader to engage in exegesis and determine which is which.

When I applied this approach to Buddhist scripture the effect was mind-blowing.  For example, the act of prostrating in front of a Buddhist statue is an act of worship in certain cultural contexts.  In places like Nepal and Sri Lanka practitioners believe that Buddha is alive in a celestial realm, and has power over their lives.  So bowing makes a lot of sense.

In the western context, however, where we may not believe in celestial reams, practitioners may be tempted to remove bowing practice from our liturgy.  But this is a mistake.  Because whether or not we believe there is a literal value to the practice (e.g. Buddha hears our prayers) there is certainly a symbolic one.

The act of bowing teaches us humility and gratitude, important parts of Buddhist practice, along with bonding us with our sangha members who bow with us.  In this way, it creates a sense of community.  Could we learn these lessons on our own without bowing in front of a statue.  Absolutely, but prostrating serves as a shortcut that gets us there much faster.

To be clear, this isn't an either-or proposition.  We don't need to argue over the literal vs. symbolic value of doing prostrations.  We can bow because it's useful for our daily lives.  Or we can bow out of hope for salvation.  The "why" isn't important.  What is important is that we bow fully, and whole-heartedly with every part of our being.

The same can be said about the teachings of reincarnation and rebirth.  If we're being honest, no one actually knows what happens after we die.  And we can quibble about that fact, or we can focus on the value of the teachings outside of our ego-centered need to be right.

Literal reincarnation is a central tenet of both Vajrayana and Theravada Buddhism; stating that there is a subtle mind-essence that persists after we die.  And it receives either a good or bad rebirth in a new form based on the karma of our past actions.

This teaching is central to the tulku system in Vajrayana, which centers around students finding the reincarnation of a teacher after he dies, so he can continue leading them.  

In contrast, the teaching of rebirth is widely held in Mahayana Buddhist circles.  It states that our consciousness arises out of the Dharmakaya due to the karma of others who came before (e.g. our parents having sex amongst other things), and after we die it dissipates back into the Dharmakaya.  So, we're here for a little while and then we're gone; like a wave that crashes into the shore and returns to the sea.

Personally, I hold to the teaching of rebirth.  It makes the most sense to me based on what I see in nature.  However, I can't show anyone the Dharmakaya anymore than they can show me a subtle mind-essence.  So, in the absence of literal truth, we must look to the symbolic truth of these teachings.  And there's a lot there.

The teaching of reincarnation is useful because it helps us understand that our actions have consequences.  Whether we're kind to our parents because we want to be reborn in a god-realm or we're kind to do them because it's the right thing to do doesn't matter.  It only matters that we're kind.

Similarly, the teaching of rebirth helps us to understand the interconnection of all things.  And as we gain a deeper understanding of that interconnection, we naturally learn to be kind because we realize that we're all waves on the same ocean.

Again, we could learn these things on our own through many years of trial-and-error, but the teachings of reincarnation and rebirth get us there much faster.  Additionally, if we choose to accept them as literal truth, they grant comfort to people who have anxiety around the thought of death.

I say all of this to say that when I read Buddhist scriptures, I first look to see if I can accept them as literally true.  Sometimes this is possible, and sometimes it's not.  In cases where it isn't I then look for the larger truth that the teaching is meant to represent or wonder if the teaching is specific to a certain cultural context.  

In the end it's all true; just in different ways.

Of course, this all requires a great deal of humility on my part, and I think that's the most powerful teaching of all.  There are certain things that are simply beyond my understanding, and others that will require many more years of practice.  I'm okay with that.  After all,  Buddha required countless lifetimes before he could realize enlightenment. 

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Literal vs. Symbolic Truth in Buddhist Practice


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