Posted inOther Teachings

The World is made of Stories, by David Loy, Part 2 of 3

March 11, 2016

Awakening involves realizing that “my” story is part of a much larger story that incorporates others’ stories as well. Our stories do not have sharp edges; they are interdependent. 

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Click to read part 1 of The World is made of Stories.

The central character in the foundational story that we return to over and over is the self, supposedly individual and real yet actually composed of the stories “I” identify with and attempt to live. Stories give my life the plot that makes it meaningful. Acting out one’s stories has consequences, a process that in Buddhism is called karma. From this perspective, karma is not something the self has; it is what the sense of self becomes as it becomes entrenched in its roles. Habitual tendencies congeal into one’s character—and one ends up bound without a rope.

There’s an important difference between improving one’s karma and realizing how karma works, which is to say, our problem lies not with stories themselves but with how we identify with them. One meaning of freedom is the opportunity to live the story I identify with. Another freedom is the ability to change stories and my role within them: I move from scripted character to coauthor of my own life. A third type of freedom results from understanding how stories construct and constrict my possibilities.

According to the British cognitive scientist Guy Claxton, consciousness is “a mechanism for constructing dubious stories whose purpose is to defend a superfluous and inaccurate sense of self.” The main plot of such stories tends to revolve around fear and anxiety, because the central character—“I”—can never achieve the stability and self-sufficiency that is sought. Such narratives attempt to secure and aggrandize an ego-self understood to be separate from the rest of the world.

Those efforts boomerang because, as Buddhism emphasizes, such a discrete self is delusory…

Awakening involves realizing that “my” story is part of a much larger story that incorporates others’ stories as well. Our stories do not have sharp edges; they are interdependent.

Like the jewels in Indra’s net, they are composed of other stories, recombined and internalized. I grow up by accepting some of the stories that society provides, and I reinforce them by acting in ways that validate them. Stories teach me what it means to be a boy or girl, American or Chinese, Christian or Buddhist, how and why and to what extent things like education, religion, money, and so forth are important.

The stories that make sense of this world are part of this world. It is not by transcending the world that we are transformed but by storying it in a new way. Or, to say it another way: we transcend our world by being able to story it differently. When it comes to religion, that means changing the metaphors we live by. Understanding religious metaphors and symbols in a literalistic way is a modern phenomenon that usually misses the point. In Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, Joseph Campbell writes:

Half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions, for example, are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.

The metaphorical nature of religious language means that its assertions are difficult to evaluate. Myth, like metaphor generally, avoids this problem by being meaningful in a different way. Religious doctrines, like other ideologies, involve propositional claims to be accepted or refuted. Myths provide stories to interact with.

The Buddhist myth about Siddhartha’s fateful encounters with an old man, an ill man, a corpse, and a renunciate can be taken as historically factual, or as an imaginative way to represent why Siddhartha left home, or as a literary device that may have nothing to do with the actual life of the Buddha. Yet the myth is an effective way to story his teaching. Understood symbolically, this polyvalence is not a problem, because that is how myths work. It is not a matter of literal truth or falsity. As Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes in Letters to a Buddhist Jew, “All my stories are true. Some happened and some did not, but they are all true.”

A better way to evaluate a myth—a symbolic story—is to consider what happens when we try to live according to it. The most important criterion for Buddhism is whether a story promotes awakening. A myth that is interpreted for me still needs to be interpreted by me, by what I do with it—and what it does with me. A story about the suffering of old age, illness, and death challenges the stories with which we try to ignore our mortality: the importance of money, possessions, fame, power. Letting go of those preoccupations opens up other possibilities: different stories, and perhaps a different relationship with stories.

Myths are not simply bad stories that need to be replaced with rational and scientific accounts that more accurately grasp the empirical world. From a story perspective, one of the most dangerous myths is that of a life without myth, the story of a realist who has freed himself from all that nonsense. The idea that science and systematic reason can liberate us from the supposed unreason of myth is one of today’s popular fictions.

Stories have social functions as well as individual ones. Some stories, for example, justify social distinctions. Medieval kings ruled by divine right. A Rig Veda myth about the various parts of the cosmic body rationalizes the Hindu caste system. We challenge a social arrangement by questioning the story that validates it. When people stop believing the stories that justify the social order, it begins to change. When French people no longer accepted the divine right of their king, the French Revolution ensued. “Change the stories individuals and nations tell themselves and live by,” writes the Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, “and you change the individuals and nations.”

Click here to read the third part of The World is made of Stories.

David Loy is a writer and teacher in the Sanbo Zen tradition and author of A New Buddhist Path: Enlightenment, Evolution, and Ethics in the Modern World.

Originally published as The World is made of Stores, in Tricycle, Summer 2015.

Featured Image by Torbakhopper, CC BY-ND 2.0 from Flickr.com
Image: Boje by Mirjana Veljovic, CC BY-SA 2.0 from Flickr.com

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