Saturday, June 12, 2010

Two Ways of Looking at a Tree

Consider these two stories:

Story One: A prince is born supernaturally out of the side of his mother. His father, the king, never allows him to leave the palace, preventing him from seeing old age, disease, or death. But the prince makes it outside one day anyway, and the gods allow him to see these things, which makes the prince want to learn more. The prince sits beneath a tree and declares he won't leave it until he gains the knowledge he wants. A supernatural snake encourages him to do so, declaring that this will be the day he will enjoy the divine fruit. While demons try to prevent the prince, the gods encourage him. Eventually the prince gains the knowledge he wants and becomes enlightened about the nature of suffering. He is now able to help others to do the same.

Story Two: A man is born supernaturally from the ground and then a woman is born out of his side. Their father, a god, shelters them from all suffering within a garden, not allowing them to experience shame, bodily pain, hard work, or death. There is a tree that can give them this knowledge, but their father forbids it. A supernatural snake encourages the woman to eat the fruit of the tree anyway, telling her that she will gain knowledge if she does. She eats from the tree, shares the fruit with her husband, and they become aware of themselves and experience shame. Their father curses the snake, makes the woman (and all women) suffer in childbirth, and makes the man (and all men) experience hard work. They are forced out of the shelter of the garden to eventually age and die (as will all mankind as a result).

The first is the story of the Buddha and the Bodhi tree. The second is the story of Adam and Eve and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They are both essentially the same story (birth from side, sheltering father, encouraging snake, tree of knowledge, recognition of suffering), but with one major difference: in the first one, the knowledge tree is good; but in the second, the knowledge tree is bad.

If you ask most people what the message of the Adam and Eve story is, the disappointing answer tends to be "Don't disobey." It's the best anyone can usually come up with. "Don't disobey" is fine if you're meant to obey a rule worthy of following. If God had said, "Don't eat from the tree of violence," then maybe. But instead, he's forbidding knowledge. Why is knowledge bad? We tend to think that knowledge is good, right? Is it bad in this case? Again, the common answer is yes. Why? "Because God commanded it." And if that's the answer, then the real "moral" of the story of the garden is "Listen to anything anyone tells you, no questions asked, even if they forbid something that seems good for you. By all means, remain ignorant."

And of course Eve and Adam did see that the knowledge was good for them, and the snake helped them to see it. If the story had stated that the couple ate the fruit and discovered suffering that already existed, the story would have made better sense. But, instead, the story says that the couple caused suffering, that they were the origin of it. But you know what? It's not our faults. Suffering is a fact of life. Childbirth pain is a fact of life. Working hard to survive is a fact of life. And death is the ultimate fact of life. Unfortunately, because of this story, millions of people are blaming themselves (or at least some distant ancestor) for something that isn't their fault. Isn't suffering and death painful enough to deal with without thinking that it's also our fault?

Now, if the story had simply said that God gave the couple a choice: if he had asked, "Do you choose to live a sheltered life of ignorance, or do you choose to become more like me and know what real life is all about?" then we would have an accurate story. This is what the Buddha story is. The prince could have lived his sheltered life that the king (the God equivalent) provided him, but he chose knowledge, to know suffering, and to help mankind with that suffering. The snake was right; the king was wrong.

Blaming yourself for the existence of death is foolish, not to mention conceited beyond belief. Refusing to believe that death exists is also foolish. Facing death is the beginning of wisdom and of real life. No one should want to live in the Garden of Eden, in a world of ignorance, selfish and useless to the rest of humanity. Blind acceptance of authority is not a good lesson. Being ashamed of knowledge, enlightenment, and human curiosity is a horrible lesson.

Mythological stories use strong images to convey very large truths that can't always be expressed literally or in any other way. They are so powerful that they guide the consciousness of millions of people, whether these people realize it or not. But is it possible that myth can sometimes get it wrong? When I compare these two stories, it seems that the answer is yes.


Robert Hagedorn said...

The fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil was pleasure and the original sin was anal intercourse. Oh yes, I am serious. Dead serious. For the exegesis, google "Robert Hagedorn's Blogs" and read. You won't like what you read. So there must be something wrong with the exegesis. Here's the challenge to us all: what's wrong with this very offensive exegesis?

Rusty Spell said...

Thanks, Robert. I see you've made your way all across the internet.