The Truth About Truth

The dangers of literalismRita M. Gross

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Since 2007, I have taught a course on Buddhist history during the intensive study program, or shedra, at Lotus Garden retreat center, in Stanley, Virginia, the Western center of my teacher, Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. In the second year of the course, I began a discussion of the historical origins of Mahayana Buddhism. According to Mahayana legend, the Buddha hid his Mahayana teachings in the realm of the nagas, serpent-like creatures who dwell under the sea, because his students were not yet ready to receive them. Eventually these teachings were retrieved by the great 2nd-century master Nagarjuna. This account has been passed down as if it were factual history, but of course it isn’t. What historical research tells us is that the Mahayana scriptures gradually emerged after the Buddha’s lifetime over the course of centuries.

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