Sacred Narratives

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.

Another popular sutra is one that buttressed the growing lay movement within Mahayana Buddhism, the Vimalakirti Sutra. In this sutra, Vimalakirti is critical of the non-Mahayana schools, using the pejorative term Hinayana (small vehicle), because, he says, they are not interested in assisting others, but think only of their own enlightenment. Vimalakirti is then revealed as a bodhisattva who has incarnated to assist the Buddha in expounding the true ideals of the Mahayana.

For many lay people, the polemics in this sutra are less interesting than the fact that Vimalakirti was not a renunciant, but a wealthy lay follower of the Buddha. Many Buddhists had understood the Buddha's teachings to mean that one must renounce possessions and social connections to follow his teachings. Vimalakirti, however, was enlightened, like the Buddha, despite his wealth and lay status. The sutra thus validated the lay approach to Buddhism that became increasingly popular as Buddhism spread from India into other parts of Asia.

The Amitabha and Longer Amitabha Sutras tell the story of Dharmakara, who devoted millions of lifetimes to become Amitabha, the Buddha of the Pure Land. He was once a great king who gave up his throne to become a monk and began to practice the way of the bodhisattva. He went to the Buddha Lokesvararaja and expressed the wish that someday he could become a teacher to all living beings, and liberate all from suffering and rebirth.

Dharmakara then devoted five eons to cultivation and one hundred billion years of study to build up the required merit and design a Pure Land for living beings to go to after death. When his task was finally complete, he became the Buddha of this Pure Land, Amitabha. Now one has only to call the name Amitabha with sincerity at the moment of death, and one will be transported to this Pure Land, and will be exempt from rebirth. The Pure Land is beautiful and peaceful, but it also a place where one can continue to study Buddhism with the eventual goal of enlightenment and the dissolution of self.

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