The price of understanding certain truths is living–being willing to reveal yourself utterly, to fail, to fall short, (old fashioned word perhaps, but still) to sin.
In the meantime, there are the Great Courses. Recent, I learned this in the comfort of my car: In his introduction to course “Buddhism,” Professor Malcolm David Eckel of Boston University, referred to Buddhism as a religion of stories. Of course it is…and so is Christianity and ever other great tradition and teaching. It suddenly hit me that stories show us how to be fully human–stories impart a kind of truth, a kind of intelligence, that philosophy or practice alone can not reveal. In Buddhist practice and in other ways of awakening, great emphasis is placed on waking up from the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Indeed, profound moments of awareness often come to people in the midst of shocks that suspend our endlessly updated and revised narratives, our comforting certainties. But Professor Eckel echoed something that P.L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, described in “The World of the Hero” in the founding issue of Parabola.
There is a myth-making capacity in everyone, wrote Travers. The intelligence that guided the lives of the ancients “miraculously survives and is ever present in the subterranean layers of ourselves. It can be tapped as one taps the waters under the earth; it can be questioned as once our forefathers questioned the oracles.” Travers described the way certain factual stories pick up a deeper truth over time and offered the example of Galileo. Pressured to recant his assertion that the earth moves around the sun, Galileo is said to have muttered into his beard: “Epppur si muove” (“Nevertheless it moves”)–mythologically the heroic Galileo was required to say it.
The mythmaking mind goes to work on the facts, pitting the heroine against a villian, insisting on “both ends of the stick–black and white, good and evil, positive and negative, activine and passive.” The hero or heroine, according to Travers is one who volunteers to face the unknown, setting out not so much on voyages of discovery as rediscovery, seeking “a treasure that was lost and has to be found, his own self, his identity.” The hero is human and flawed, just as creation is flawed–and the flaws turn the wheel, summon the perfections. Achilles pride led to courage in battle. Buddha’s human vulnerability led to awakening (and couldn’t it really be called a rediscovery of a timeless dharma?)
Like a lot of young people, I think I was secretly hoping that I by reading many books or making great efforts in the meditation hall I could skip over some of the steps that Travers outlines, of going from the mud to the mountain top. Now I know we can’t. We have to be the heroes of our own lives. We also have to be the villains. There is just no other way to learn truth.