Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation

By Hans H. Penner | Go to book overview

21
The Gift, the Renouncer, and
the Householder

What is the first thing you imagine when you hear the word “Buddhism” or “Buddhist”? It is probably an image of a saffronrobed monk with his begging bowl or a rotund meditating Buddha. And from where do we get these first images of Buddhism? We get them from the hundreds of books written about Buddhism as an otherworldly, ascetic religion, a religion of the monk with the Buddha as the central focus. In brief, our view of Buddhism is very ascetic and “Buddhacentric.”

Throughout part II, I have emphasized the superhuman, mythical character of the Buddha. I have also argued that the Buddha and the ascetic community cannot be fully understood as if they were isolated, complete in themselves, in other words, a view of the Buddha and his monks as if they are sui generis. They are best understood as complementary yet oppositional and necessary elements of a complex whole that includes the Universal Monarch and the householders that we can simplify into a basic set of oppositions we label as householder ↔ renouncer.

The history of Buddhism can then be viewed as a logical development of this basic set of relations. The Buddhism of myth is not history, however; as is the case with all religions, myth is both a product and a source of doctrine and belief. It is a structure whose narrative constraint and framework are composed of two oppositional elements, the renouncer and the householder. I have argued that this approach to the legends of the Buddha resolves many of the

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