Beyond the Limits of True and Untrue
An excerpt from The Logic of Faith
“Myths are not lies...nor are they detached stories. They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. They shape its meaning.”
- Mary Midgey, Myths We Live By
My sister-in-law, Dickey Lama, once told me a story. She was born in India, the daughter of Tibetan parents, and grew up listening to the hagiographies of the great Buddhist saints as bedtime stories. But like so many others of her generation, Dickey also received a Western education and so possesses the critical intelligence that necessarily comes with living in contemporary culture.
One day she brought home for her mother a local, low-budget video that a neighbor had made, which depicted the life of Padmasambhava, the historical Tibetan saint who brought Buddhism to Tibet from India in the seventh century. Spiritual biographies describe him as magical. He could fly and appear in many places at once. He would hide sacred scriptures among the natural elements, such as rocks and the ethers of space, to ensure the preservation of the Buddhist teachings for future generations. He displayed unconventional behavior, drank alcohol, wrathfully subdued negative forces, and was known for having many spiritual consorts.
In one of his many famous adventures, Padmasambhava wandered into a kingdom in Northern India and took up with the King’s daughter, who was happened to be a nun. The King expressed his displeasure by commanding his minions to prepare a pile of wood upon which to burn Padmasambhava. But the hero wouldn’t burn. Instead, the surrounding area transformed into a lake and Padmasambhava remained unscathed. Humbled, the king offered him his crown and robes.
You may wonder how a local group of neighborhood “producers” pulled this scene off. The actor-protagonist in the drama stood in the center of a pile of wood, in which they had woven in pieces of red, yellow, and orange crate paper to give the illusion of fire. They placed a fan nearby to blow air onto the set, which made the paper wave and crackle. You could hear it wwwhhhrrrrrrrr-ing throughout the scene in the background. Naturally, having seen many well-produced Hollywood films my sister-in-law couldn’t get past the bad filmmaking and started to laugh. But when she turned around she saw her mother deeply moved, tears streaming down her face.
This story vividly illustrates the differences in worldviews that can bring about vastly different interpretations of the same experience. Dickey told me this story with the utmost respect for this direct and humble way of responding to life, so prevalent in the older generation of Tibetan and other indigenous cultures. From a contemporary point of view it may seem naïve, but if you witness the qualities of openness and aliveness in these people you realize you have something to learn from “the old way.”
As people of contemporary culture we arrogantly assume that we have a better grasp on “reality.” But wouldn’t a more believable Hollywood production have just offered a more polished illusion?