I have finally found a moment to finish reading Maria Heim’s 2014 book The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency (Oxford University Press). In it, Heim uses Pali scriptures and the commentaries of Buddhaghosa to explore notions of intention or motivation in Buddhist ethics. She spends a chapter each on the suttas, abhidhamma, and vinaya, tracing commonalities and differences in presentation and emphasis. Her fourth chapter is on the narrative materials (particularly the Jātaka commentary and the Dhammapada commentary), which she sees – following Buddhaghosa – as offering yet another perspective on the Buddha’s teachings.
I enjoyed the attention that Heim gave to genre in her study. Often we forget that different sorts of text might explore the same questions in different ways, or might even ask different questions altogether. A sutta about intention will not necessarily take the same form or have the same concerns as an abhidhamma exegesis with its desire to systematise, nor will it be the same as a vinaya discussion, which is naturally concerned with issues of culpability.
It was Heim’s concluding thoughts about the narratives of the Jātaka and Dhammapada commentaries that stuck with me, however. She notes (p.214):
Stories reflect on action in particular ways and value a particularism that does not necessarily lead to universals or to grand theory. They are open in important ways to multiple interpretations, and they place value on the process of puzzling through the opacity of human action.
This, elegantly put, goes to the heart of my own interest in narrative materials. They nuance the systematic teachings, open them up, challenge them, explore them, and often do not provide a straightforward answer to whatever we are asking of them.
This is why I really HATE the phrase “And the moral of the story is….”!
Heim also notes stories’ ability to emotionally engage us, and how tales can therefore challenge our notions of independence or subjectivity, and enable us to become more morally sensitive. She concludes (p.215):
Thus narrative commentaries ripen or mature our knowledge of the general truths we have explored in other genres. They do so not so much by exemplifying them as by inhabiting them.
I love this idea of stories inhabiting the more systematic or general teachings offered in other genres. Stories are so much more than mere exemplars. They are a different way of exploring Buddhist (and Jain and Hindu and other) ideas to other sorts of teaching, but no less valuable.