Religious Beliefs

Are there mythic elements in Buddhist tradition?

Mythic expression plays a far less central role in Buddhist teaching than in Hinduism. In fact, you might say one of the Buddha’s main concerns was to “demythologize” Hindu tradition as he had received it. Hindu myth introduces believers to the impenetrable mystery of the divine while attempting to describe how the divine presence infuses the world of human experience. The Buddha cautioned against taking refuge in myth. However potent the divine presence may be, it does not relieve human beings of ultimate responsibility for their own choices.

As in so many religious traditions, the foundational figure himself soon became the focal point of a new mythology. Even the most hardcore Theravada tradition leaves room for the Buddha to expand into a being of supramundane qualities. Wondrous tales of the Buddha’s previous lives, the Jatakas radiate mythic energy. Some of the Mahayana denominations and sects, those of the widely popular Pure Land variety in particular, evolved their own complex descriptions of a multilevel cosmos ruled by multiple Buddhas and populated by countless lesser spiritual powers as well. Vajrayana Buddhism, represented especially by various Tibetan lineages, retained much of ancient Hinduism’s mythic spirit and cast of characters. But the Tibetans interiorized the myth, interpreting the many spiritual beings as projections of the inner powers with which one identifies through meditative practice. Even in popular Mahayana and the more esoteric Vajrayana teachings, mythic elements never attain quite the centrality they enjoy in Hindu tradition.


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