Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation

By Hans H. Penner | Go to book overview

20
The Great Agent
Universal Monarchs and Buddhas

The Western usage of “Buddhism” as the word for identifying a religion may contribute to some of our problems in understanding it; “Buddhism” may be far too “Buddhacentric” as an adequate identifying marker. It follows the theologically defined Christocentric nature of “Christianity” and the attempt to identify Islam as “Mohammadanism,” an attempt that was quickly rejected by Muslims as outright blasphemy.

Be that as it may, a comparative analysis of the two legendary characters, the Universal Monarch and the Buddha, is necessary because concentration on the Buddha as the central figure in this religion has almost obliterated the fact that large sections of the Buddhist canonical texts have to do with Universal Monarchs. The “Great Agent” known as a Universal Monarch completely disappears in most introductions to Buddhism because of the Buddhacentric focus of Western scholarship. This focus, in turn, stems from our own Western narrative constraint in understanding religions, a constraint that considers the mythical as of less value than history and that stresses the value of the individual, the person, the self.

From this perspective the Universal Monarch is a mythical product of South Asian imagination, vivid, fascinating, but nevertheless unreal or absurd. History, on the other hand, is the way things really are, and our task is to uncover the historical agent that is clothed in that rich imaginary dress in the style of the Buddha. The Universal Monarch is myth; the Buddha is history, a founder. The one is

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