Spiny O'Norman wrote:
So are you saying the Buddha didn't himself believe in devas but taught about them anyway? Or that he knew they didn't exist but still taught about them? That seems to be the logical conclusion of what you're saying.
He taught differently to different people depending on where they were at and he used the words, beliefs, mythology, and rituals of his time as teaching methods depending on the worldview of the audience.
In a ideal world everyone would have an abidhammic understanding of their mind body process and would be ripe for arahantship, but that's never going to be he case. If somebody can develop a better understanding of sila and kamma through use of the teaching stories of the day then that's a good thing.
That doesn't necessarily imply endorsement of them as fact.
I think we have to focus on what the Buddha was trying to achieve, not the context within which he was trying to achieve it. I think we have to ask ourselves if he were teaching 20th century westerners would he communicate the message differently so as not to confuse what's important with what's peripheral, we can see teachers are already doing this.
The context is important in understanding why we read what we read in the suttas. It was normal for the wise ones to speak on several levels simultaneously, and that's what the Buddha does.
I would add that the Buddha always speaks to people in the idiom they are comfortable with. This is why he can use words that we translate as "Take refuge in yourself" even though, as we all know, we have no self to take refuge in. Is he lying when he speaks that way? No. He is using language without clinging to it. He even points out the correctness of speaking this way:
MN 74 wrote:
A monk whose mind is thus released does not take sides with anyone, does not dispute with anyone. He words things by means of what is said in the world but without grasping at it."
When he speaks of gods, he is speaking in this way because, as he puts it:
MN 100 wrote:...whether one answers, 'There are gods,' or 'It is known to me to be he case [that there are gods],' a wise man can draw the definite conclusion that there a gods... It is widely accepted in the world, Bharadvaja, that there are gods."
This speech follows directly after a sutta in which he has pointed out that it is unwise, when wanting to make one's point, to talk to people in a way that conflicts with their understanding:
MN 99 wrote:"What do you think, student? What is better for those well-to-do-brahmins... that the statements they make accord with worldly convention or flaunt worldly convention?" "That they accord with worldly convention, Master Gotama."
The Buddha often counsels his followers not to cling to language when they speak of the dhamma, and he sets a good example. Unfortunately in our day and age we tend to get a little dogmatic about the use of language and see this as lying. The Buddha wouldn't lie so this must all be literal. Historical context is important.
But the bottom line, as Goofaholix pointed out in the last lines above, is to keep in mind what the Buddha was trying to achieve. He was trying not just to get his teaching across but to get it across in such a way that it would reach many people and have a chance of surviving. He used every skillful means at his disposal to get people to come and see for themselves, regardless of what they believed at the start, because he had the courage of his convictions in his dhamma, that if it was followed far enough, and understood well enough, it would lead them on to where dukkha ends.