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Is a myth true?

I have been listening to Malcolm Smith, a brilliant Tibetan Buddhist scholar. He was talking about the lives of Garab Dorje, the first human master to transmit the non-dual teaching of Dzogchen on planet Earth. It seems that we have divergent accounts of his activities that are found in three biographies written at different times and all many, many hundreds of years after the events they are said to recall. In fact the whole thing is all rather tendentious as there is no agreement on when, or even whether, Garab Dorje existed and within the biographies there is only agreement on a core of shared elements. Furthermore, Malcolm referred to this material as ‘myth’ while I am fairly sure that at least some of his audience up to that point most likely believed it to be history - an account of a real flesh and blood yogi who lived in the north-west of the Indian sub-continent and who taught an extraordinary and precious Dharma. Over the last couple of years I have been compiling a handbook called, Dzogchen, Who’s Who and What’s What in the Great Perfection. While writing the entries for the lineage Lamas and Treasure Finders, tertöns, I have found myself repeatedly caught between two stools. Like Malcolm I cannot take these legendary accounts as historically accurate but like those in his audience who have invested the accounts with a sense of reverence and awe, feeling their intention to teach and inspire, I too cannot simply pass them off as just stories - myths - and not much more. This leads us to a middle way. I was hoping Malcolm would not only talk about the history of the Garab Dorje literature but would also address the complex issue of the psychology around how we receive this literature. Particularly, if I give up believing these accounts are historically true does that then leave me in some sort of atheistic limbo where my thinking may have become more sophisticated but I have also lost something precious on a feeling level? Maybe the answer to this is in the word myth. This is a huge subject but if I pause for a moment and think again maybe myth does not equal ‘just made up’ after all. Maybe a myth is a story that has evolved through its telling over thousands of years and remains interesting because it contains information, truths, that are important to hear. Looked at like this the biographies of Garab Dorje suddenly reveal another dimension. He is immaculately conceived following the appearance of a man of light to his virgin mother. At a young age he is imbued with a sense of mission and preaches his Dharma while still a child to a gathering of wise men within his grandfathers court. And after an extraordinary teaching career, at death he ascends into the sky and reveals his final teaching from within a vision of light. The message is clear - here is a god man, follow his teaching and we too will experience awakening. It may not be history - which after all can never actually be an objective recollection of events - but it is certainly something, a possibility, many of us will want to hear.

NW. 16.7.22

With thanks to Malcolm Smith,


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