Most mornings, I sit with a cup of coffee and read a portion of a Buddhist sutra before doing my practice. The first two I ever read this way were the Lotus Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, both of which are chock full of profound doctrine and vivid, engaging narrative storytelling. Undoubtedly, much of this narrative material—which may seem over-the-top or far-fetched, with characters that at times appear superhuman—falls into the genre of hagiography. As Buddhists in the modern world, we should examine how we relate to that.
Over the years, my morning reading practice has transformed me.
Hagiography means different things, depending on the context. In its primary, academic usage, a hagiography is a literary works that venerates the life of a holy being by giving an account of their life and deeds. For example, The Life of Milarepa, with its tales of sorcery and trials no ordinary person could endure, is a hagiography. Buddhist teachings are full of them. In the Lotus Sutra, there is a chapter devoted to a bodhisattva named Sadaparibhuta, or Never Disparaging, who was known for bowing to everyone he met and saying, “I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance. Why? Because you will all practice the bodhisattva way and will then be able to attain buddhahood.” The text goes on to describe Bodhisattva Never Disparaging as not devoting any time to other traditional Buddhist practices such as reciting sutras; instead, he engaged solely in this practice of bowing and praising others. This too is a hagiography of sorts. The thirteenth-century Japanese monk Nichiren was particularly moved by Never Disparaging’s story—he wrote that this bodhisattva’s practice signified that the purpose of the Buddha’s appearance in the world was to exemplify just such behavior (the Buddha was Bodhisattva Never Disparaging in a past life, making the narrative also a jataka tale).
While a hagiographic story like that of Milarepa or Bodhisattva Never Disparaging has the power to inspire, hagiography can also carry a pejorative meaning. A biography of a person’s life that is insufficiently critical may be labeled a mere hagiography—as if criticism is by definition an indication of objectivity. In this vein, there are those who would denigrate hagiographical writings as devoid of meaningful information.
Such an attitude toward hagiography is an impoverished one. For scholars and practitioners alike, hagiographies are important documents that reveal what was (or is) significant to the people who composed them, in their respective milieux. But more important, they reveal something about us, as readers. What inspires you? What kind of person do you want to emulate? Emulation does not, of course, necessarily entail doing what such beings did—in many cases, that may be impossible. But it could take the form of embodying within ourselves the virtues and attitudes that the story exemplifies. That is to say, hagiography inspires us to be better, truer, deeper versions of ourselves and to act in community in improved ways.
Over the years, my morning reading practice has transformed me. I am uplifted and inspired by the hagiographic stories I find in the Lotus Sutra, Diamond Sutra, and other Buddhist literature. It goes without saying that entire communities of practitioners have also found similar inspiration. Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhists are fond of the following passage, found in the writings of Nichiren: “The storehouse of the eighty-four thousand teachings represents a day-to-day record of one’s own existence. This storehouse of the eighty-four thousand teachings is embodied in and contained within one’s own mind.” In positioning these teachings so squarely in our own ordinary experiences, Nichiren points to the ways in which the careful reading of texts is a process of cultivation—one in which we ourselves are implicated. By opening ourselves to the fantastical, mythic achievements of the practitioners who came before us, we expand, little by little, our sense of our own possibility. If we can just let down our guard a little, then these stories, amazing as they are, can become our own.