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Religion Library: Buddhism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Julia Hardy

The most recognized of sacred narratives in Buddhism is the life story of Gautama Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. Many of the teachings of Buddhism are implicit within the story of his life, and carvings and paintings of scenes from his life story were often placed in or around temples and on stupas. Equally recognized in the Buddhist world are the Jataka Tales, which tell of the Buddha's past lives.

Another type of sacred narrative that has been vitally important to Buddhism is stories from the Buddha's sermons. Both the early sutras and the later Mahayana sutras are often presented as long narratives. They often begin with the words, "This is what I heard," and they include descriptions of scenes, a cast of characters, and dialogue. Within these long narratives, there are many specific stories said to have been told by the Buddha to illustrate the dharma, or Buddhist teachings.

Today, a few of these sutras have become so popular that sects of Buddhism are devoted entirely to them. One of these is the Lotus Sutra. Within the Lotus Sutra, which in English translation runs to over three hundred pages, there are many stories that convey a "message" to the listener. The most famous of these is a story that illustrates the doctrine of skillful means (expedient means). The story tells of a rich man and his young sons who lived in a huge old crumbling house with only one exit. One day the house caught fire. The man's sons were inside playing, oblivious to the danger. The man warned them, but they were enjoying their games and did not heed his warning. He knew he did not have much time to save them, and that he needed skillful means to get them to leave the burning house. Thus the man told them of rare and desirable toys waiting for them outside the gate — goat-carts, deer-carts, and ox-carts — and his sons left the house to get their new toys. The man had to use "skillful means" to get them to leave, lying to them to save their lives. When they got outside and wondered aloud where the new carts were, the man made for each of them a large carriage even more resplendent than the carts he had promised.

After telling this story, the Buddha compared himself to that rich man, saying that he was like a father to the entire world, and that he had come to earth to rescue all living beings from the fires of birth, sickness, old age, death, stupidity, misunderstanding, suffering, and the three poisons of greed, anger, and delusion. Because people were unaware of the danger that surrounded them, like the rich man's sons, the Buddha offered them special powers, awareness, freedom, and spiritual pleasures. Like the boys in the story, people left the world of samsara seeking these gifts, and when they did, the Buddha gave them these gifts and more. He gave them the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana.