[S]uch a person [who insist the stories must be taken as true lock stock and barrel], if religiously inclined, would likely insist that it is only by interpreting the events literally that one can be a faithful and true practitioner of that particular tradition. Often, they will even claim to be better practitioners than those who focus on the meaning of the story and who discount the likelihood that the story’s more improbable events occurred empirically. On the other hand, another kind of literalist will reject the whole story outright as worthless because it is pure fantasy. In both cases, the modern literal interpreter may well be much more naive about the main messages of such stories than are those who hear them in a traditional manner.
Religions, Buddhism included, are almost entirely about symbolic meaning rather than facts. Indeed, to have religious meaning, even a fact must become a symbol. Religious people have always known this intuitively. But in the modern context, we face a new and particular challenge, a different twist on the matter of truth. We modern people must differentiate clearly and carefully between facts and symbols, between history, which is an empirical discipline, and the traditional stories whose purpose is primarily symbolic.
Many religious people resist giving up literal interpretations of their most valued stories, because they think, erroneously, that they must either accept such stories as factual accounts or reject them entirely. But this dualistic assumption is the most dangerous conclusion people could draw regarding the relationship between fact and symbol, between narrative and history. A narrative can be both true and false at the same time—factually false yet symbolically true. It is not at all necessary either to edit traditional narratives to make them conform to modern sensibilities or to insist, against all common sense, that unless they happened literally as presented they have no truth value. We can learn to interpret traditional stories symbolically while simultaneously holding a modern attitude of discernment toward the events they recount.
While contemporary Buddhists seem to have little trouble distinguishing between literal and symbolic meaning in some situations, in others this flexibility is less often found. People seem to really hold tight to their traditional stories, for instance, when it comes to the various accounts of how their particular school developed. These stories are often highly sectarian and historically inaccurate, yet because they speak to issues of authenticity, they retain a great deal of dogmatic power.
Seeing the difference between history and the stories of legend need not diminish the latter of their meaning and value. In fact, I believe it can enhance them. My own teacher, Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, told me as much, when she said that learning that many of her traditional beliefs were not historically accurate only made her think more deeply about their spiritual meaning. This is really the point. When we cease to confuse history and stories, when we look at traditional stories outside the context of literal truth and sectarian debate, we are freer to appreciate the imaginative truths they convey. When we fail to see the issue discerningly, such stories are spoiled in every way. They are not accurate history, but they are no longer good stories either. They become completely wooden as the attempt to take them literally robs them of all their whimsy, humor, and playfulness.
Rita M. Gross is an author, dharma teacher, and professor emerita of comparative studies in religion. her best-known books are Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism and A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration.