(The content here follows the “World Religions” program I gave on Sunday, March 31st, 2019 at Unity of Springfield).
What is it that is waiting for us or perhaps what are we waiting for? It was Joseph Campbell, who made famous the idea of “following our bliss”. He was a strong believer in the psychic unity of mankind and its poetic expression through mythology. What is to become of the story of our lives. For myself, it is when we see, or think of our weaknesses becoming our greatest strengths. It is what I saw as an eleven/twelve-year-old in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, a movie following the life of T. E. Lawrence – Thomas Edward Lawrence, (16 August 1888 – 19 May 1935) who was a British archaeologist, army officer, diplomat, and writer. The movie was an epiphany that shaped who I was to become. Ultimately leading me to China, Confucius, Lao and Chuang Tzu and my writing. Beginning with the idea that our perceived weaknesses allowed to be nurtured can mature into our greatest strengths (a man had fallen off his camel and was going to be left to die. Omar Sherif’s character says “it is written that the man should be left behind”. Lawrence goes back, retrieves the man and returns with him alive saying nothing is written until we write it for ourselves). That allowed to flourish, our endeavors are what can lead to our ultimate destiny. Through the movie Lawrence of Arabia, T. E. Lawrence and his exploits rose to mythical proportions and seemingly immortal. His too was a great story worth telling.
I often feel like I can see people rolling their eyes, or saying… “that’s just Dan”. But metaphysics, becoming transcendental through our everyday activities, and some sense of moving in the direction of enlightenment, is ultimately who we are and what we are here to embrace.
Enlightenment is always grounded in our own direct experience of mind and “where we are doing it from” (our life), no matter what those activities may be.
When we trust our creative energy, we encounter a supreme kind of enjoyment – an amazement at the natural unfolding of life beyond our ordinary way of looking at things. All the meditation and mindfulness in the world you may do, is only meant to match your highest vibrations, your endeavors, with your ultimate destiny. Nothing more – nothing less just to be present for your own awakening. True happiness is an inside job. To become greater than who we see ourselves being at the moment. To go there. It’s who we are… it’s what we are here to do. Lawrence of Arabia took others places they could have gone themselves, but didn’t only because they feared going there.
Joseph Campbell made use of the idea that the whole of the human race can be seen as engaged in the effort of making the world “transparent to transcendence” by showing that underneath the world of phenomena lies an eternal source which is constantly pouring its energies into this world of time, suffering, and ultimately death. To achieve this task, one needs to speak about things that existed before and beyond words, a seemingly impossible task. The solution to which lies in the metaphors found in myths. These metaphors are statements that point beyond themselves into the transcendent. Writing and expressing events, of people, and thoughts of the past convey and tell us the way forward. I often think of John C Fremont, a surveyor, who mapped the way west in the 1830’s across the continent ultimately to California. His maps showed the way for thousands…
(image from Wikipedia)
For Campbell, The Hero’s Journey was the story of the man or woman who, through great suffering, reached an experience of the eternal source and returned with gifts powerful enough to set their society free or change the course of events that mirrored his or her vision. I am reminded again of the Sioux holy man, Black Elk and the grandfathers, and what was to be his ultimate fate. Could there be a greater purpose in our endeavors and this become our own final destiny that defines us and serves as a guide for others? Could there ever be a Final Chapter… or do we return again and again to keep adding to the wisdom we have always known? Could this be our ultimate purpose – to look to those who guide us and become the guide for others as well?
I was most intrigued and interested in Campbell’s book series on The Masks of God, that continued his life-long passion of studying the world’s mythological traditions. In one volume he looks at Asian mythology as it developed over the course of five thousand years into the distinctive religions of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and Japan that followed my interest in Chinese history and philosophy.
The Masks of God is a four-volume study of world religion and myth that stands as one of Joseph Campbell’s masterworks. On completing it, he wrote: “Its main result for me has been the confirmation of a thought I have long and faithfully entertained: of the unity of the race of man, not only in its biology, but also in its spiritual history, which has everywhere unfolded in the manner of a single symphony, with its themes announced, developed, amplified and turned about, distorted, reasserted, and today, in a grand fortissimo of all sections sounding together, advancing to some kind of mighty climax, out of which the next great movement will emerge. It is in becoming one with this energy we, ourselves, come forth as our ultimate selves.”
It is this basis that is Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. That man – we are – the manifestation of God’s energy. It is moving to that point of “participation in divinity” that is our goal. It is why we wake up and face each day. It is this realization of wonder… of first being a part of something bigger than oneself, to becoming or having a sense of power to shape our world is why we are here. We see this in nature and the continuing flow of energy and keep coming back to this idea. That there is something much bigger than the human dimension.
In the West we think of God as the source, in the oriental or Eastern way of thinking, however, God is the manifestation of the energy found in nature. Therefore, it is only natural that this “divine energy already resides in each of us. Seeing God as not the source but as the vehicle… that the level of energy determines the character of the God within each of us. It is the source of the energy that is the mystery. It is in internalizing this ‘flow’ we become our authentic selves.” For myself, this explanation of how we each relate with and to a “divine presence” is what defines us, as well as, those and what we have always known but perhaps forgotten.
It is when “the hero within each of us” returns from a soul-searching visioning process that serves to peel away the “self or ego” (shown above) to discover both the divine and human nature within each of us that truth can reveal itself.
The two being as different as night and day, life and death, even to the I Ching and yin verses yang. It is the journey we all eventually take when we can see beyond what we think we know what is true – to travel to find for ourselves what is – beyond basic assumptions. When we have an insatiable need to know our purpose and who we really are. This is what comes of Campbell’s hero who returns after discovering his true identity to create something better than what existed before.
He/she becomes the agent of change that serves to illuminate the world again and again. This is what explains the power of myth that he illustrates transcends our own continuing from generation to generation.
It is in our own “waking consciousness” that is seen as those not prepared for the journey that we each eventually must take. That we get lost in what I call “delusions” – an inconsistency between the wisdom or “flow” as I call it and our present circumstances. That true understanding begins with taking things back to their source and internalizing how things begin and end within us.
Moving beyond Campbell to the moment – There seems to be a new level of consciousness that emerges with every generation. A new blend of what was with what will be, maybe as Donovan sang as… “We are simply trying to catch the wind”. The question becomes where are we going when we do. As if we set out on becoming someone different from ourselves we think we know, as if we move from simply being spiritually awake to spiritually mature… What our memories keep reminding us is that being free of fear is not a matter of never feeling it, but of stepping out of our comfort zone and challenging ourselves with what we think will occur when we do. We can feel it and know it is a natural phenomenon, also an impermanent one, which will have it’s say and be gone. When we become present in the flow. That it is in seeing beyond the illusion of fear that we grow to our full potential. As Stephen Covey says, “A moment of choice is a moment of Truth. It’s the testing point of our character and competence.”
Dragons drinking from the flow of eternity / Shaanxi Museum / Xian
What if it is as FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd president of USA) told the country during the depression of the 1930’s… “There is nothing to fear – but fear itself”. It’s like saying there’s no there there. Perhaps only an illusion that fits our notion of what is real that may never have existed in the first place, or may occur in the future. It is in seeing beyond fear to shape future events to fit our vision of what can be that shapes us. This is why knowing and understanding history is important. We don’t want to re-invent the wheel – only better serve ourselves and humanity by taking the next spin. What the metaphysician does giving purpose and meaning to our efforts as this manifestation of spirit, i.e., God’s energy. As we find ourselves dancing on the edge of mystery.
Joseph Campbell continues, “We want to think about God. God is a thought, God is an idea, but its reference is to something that transcends all thinking. I mean, he’s beyond being, beyond the category of being or non-being. Is he or is he not? Neither is nor is not.
Transcending ourselves / Shaanxi Museum
Every god, every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery. He who thinks he knows doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows.
And our way of thinking in the West largely is that God is the source of the energy. The way in most Oriental thinking, and I think in most of what we call primitive thinking, also, is that God is the manifestation of the energy, not its source, that God is the vehicle of the energy. And the level of energy that is involved or represented determines the character of the god. There are gods of violence, there are gods of compassion, there are gods that unite the two, there are gods that are the protectors of kings in their war campaigns. These are personifications of the energy that’s in play, and what the source of the energy is. What’s the source of the energy in these lights around us? I mean, this is a total mystery”.
There is so much of Campbell on UTUBE and his books it’s hard to describe his genius. His life’s work. But for now, I want to finish with an excerpt from his interview with Bill Moyers that appeared on PBS. The 1988 PBS series, mythologist and storyteller Joseph Campbell joins Bill Moyers to explore what enduring myths can tell us about our lives. In each of six episodes –“The Hero’s Adventure,” “The Message of the Myth,” “The First Storytellers,” “Sacrifice and Bliss,” “Love and the Goddess,” and “Masks of Eternity” — Moyers and Campbell focus on a character or theme found in cultural and religious mythologies. Campbell argues that these timeless archetypes continue to have a powerful influence on the choices we make and the ways we live.
I recommend watching all… Released shortly after Campbell’s death on October 30, 1987, The Power of Myth was one of the most popular TV series in the history of public television, and continues to inspire new audiences. Below is an excerpt of episode 6: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘Masks of Eternity’.
BILL MOYERS: Well, then, what is religion?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, the word religion means religion, linking back, linking back the phenomenal person to a source. If we say it is the one life in both of us, then my separate life has been linked to the one life, religion, linked back. And this becomes symbolized in the images of religion, which represent that connecting link.
BILL MOYERS: Your friend Jung, the great psychologist, says that the most powerful religious symbol is the circle. He says, “The circle is one of the great primordial images of mankind, that in considering the symbol of the circle, we are analyzing the self.” And I find you, in your own work throughout the course of your life, coming across the circle, whether it’s in the magical designs of the world over, whether it’s in the architecture both ancient and modern, whether it’s in the dome-shaped temples of India or the calendar stones of the Aztecs, or the ancient Chinese bronze shields, or the visions of the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, whom you talk about, the wheel in the sky. You keep coming across this image.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Yes, it’s an ever-present thing. It’s the center from which you’ve come, back to which you go. I remember reading in a book about the American Indians, called The Indian Book, by Natalie Curtis, it was published around 1904, her conversation with a chief. I think it was a chief of the Pawnee tribe. And among the things he said was, “When we pitch camp, we pitch the camp in a circle. When we looked at the horizon, the horizon was in a circle. When the eagle builds a nest, the nest is in circle.” And then you read in Plato somewhere, the soul is a circle. I suppose the circle represents. totality. Within the circle is one thing, it is encircled, it’s enframed. That would be the spatial aspect, but the temporal aspect of the circle is, you leave, go somewhere and come back, the alpha and omega. God is the alpha and omega, the source and the end. Somehow the circle suggests immediately a completed totality, whether in time or in space.
BILL MOYERS: No beginning, no end.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, round and round and round. The year, well, this is November again, you know, and we’re about to have Thanksgiving again. We’re about to have Christmas again. And then not only the year, but the month, the moon cycle, and the day cycle. And this is we’re reminded of this when we look on our watch and see the cycle of time, it’s the same hour, the same hour but another day, and all that sort of thing.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you suppose the circle became so universally symbolic?
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, because it’s experienced all the time. You experience it in the day and the year, just as we’ve said, and you experience in leaving home, going on your adventure, hunting or whatever it may be, and coming back to home.
And then there’s a deeper one also, that mystery of the womb and the tomb. When people are buried it’s for rebirth, I mean, that’s the origin of the burial idea, you’re put back into the womb of Mother Earth for rebirth.
BILL MOYERS: And Jung kept returning to that theme of the circle as being the sort of universal symbol.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Well, Jung used it as a pedagogical (instructional) device, actually, what he called the mandala. This was actually a Hindu term for a sacred circle.
BILL MOYERS: Here is one of the pictures (below).
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: That’s a very elaborate mandala. You have the deity at the center, with the power source, the illumination source, and these are the manifestations or aspects of its radiance. But in working out a mandala for oneself, what one does is draw a circle and then think of the different impulse systems in your life, the different value systems in your life, and try then to compose them and find what the center is. It’s kind of discipline for pulling all those scattered aspects of your life together, finding a center and ordering yourself to it. So you’re trying to coordinate your circle with the universal circle.
BILL MOYERS: To be at the center.
JOSEPH CAMPBELL: At the center. The Navajo have that wonderful image of what they call the pollen path. And when you realize what pollen is, it’s the life source. And it’s a single, single path, the center, and then they were saying, “Oh, beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty to the right of me, beauty to the left of me, beauty above me, beauty below me, I’m on the pollen path.”
Navajo pollen path
“So, the little cosmos of one’s own life and the macrocosm of the world’s life are in some way to be coordinated. Well, for instance, among the Navajo Indians, healing ceremonies were conducted by way of sand paintings, which were mostly mandalas, on the ground and then the person who is to be treated moves into the mandala. There will be a mythological context that he will be identifying with, and he identifies himself with that power”. Campbell adds, “this idea of sand painting with mandalas and used for meditation purposes appears also in Tibet in the great Tantric monasteries outside of Lhasa. For instance, they practice sand painting, cosmic images and so forth indicating the forces of the spiritual powers that operate in our lives”. (the end of interview)
Through my own journey and experience, I have been to Lhasa, and have seen this “Circle of Life” mandala firsthand. Both as the primary symbol and actual re-creation done by the monks at the famous Sera Monastery.
The Sera Monastery has three colleges and thirty-three houses. It is the second biggest monastery in Tibet. The two things that got my attention were first, the afternoon debates in the courtyard. The daily debating is a class to practice and test the monk’s mastery of Buddhism. The second was the Circle of Life, or Wheel of Life, depicted here that describes Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
The Wheel of Life can be interpreted on several levels. The six major sections represent the Six Realms. These realms can be understood as forms of existence, or states of mind, into which beings are born according to their karma. The realms also can be viewed as situations in life or even personality types—hungry ghosts are addicts; devas are privileged; hell beings have anger issues. In each of the realms the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appears to show the way to liberation from the Wheel. (A Bodhisattva is a person who has attained prajna, or enlightenment, but who has postponed Nirvana in order to help others attain enlightenment). But liberation is possible only in the human realm. From there, those who realize enlightenment find their way out of the Wheel to Nirvana. It is one of the most common subjects of Buddhist art.
Mandalas are works of sacred art in Tantric (Tibetan) Buddhism. The word “mandala” comes from a Sanskrit word that generally means circle – hence the concept of circle of life. There were several to be found here at the Sera Monastery. A mandala is a spiritual and ritual symbol in Hinduism and Buddhism, representing the universe. Joseph Campbell understood the meaning of immortality and through his efforts helped to show us the way of our own hero’s journey – for ourselves.