Understanding the greater truths that ultimately define us. The use of Myth, Metaphors, and Parables as the means of telling and living our own story.
“Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is.” ~ Joseph Campbell.
Or conversely, as Benjamin Franklin is said to have told John Paul Jones while waiting for another ship to be found during the Revolutionary War while both were in Paris – “He that commands patience will have what he will.” The myth of Jones saying later in battle on the high seas when he thought he was about to lose his ship “I have not yet begun to fight!” made him immortal. His ship was lost, but in the process, he captured a British ship at the same time. He would not settle for a pre-determined fate or was it that he had to write and create his own legacy or destiny, and truth for which we all remember.
There’s another quote that’s relevant here. It’s from William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even the past.” The past, whether considered as personal, or what might be seen as universal, continues to inform and shape our actions and our lives every day. As we all know from our own lives, the only way to change our behavior and improve ourselves is to take a look at who we have been and make a conscious decision to act differently. In doing so, we confront the past. The caveat being… things never die, they are simply re-born into something new. But then again – who are we and what have we learned along the way? Current research in quantum physics confirms we are universal matter. As if our heart/mind (our soul) continues unimpeded through eternity as we continually write, and edit for posterity, the story yet to be told – as if we are each only living history.
In effect, it is as Campbell teaches us – we are all journalists re-living and perhaps re-telling our own saga again and again. Or perhaps simply storytellers always returning to fine-tune what might be said of the nature of our spirit for the long run. Or even, his Hero with a Thousand Faces… potentially lies in each of us. (An updated cover on a new edition shows Like Skywalker from Star Wars).
Who are we, but myths of our own creation? As we base our thoughts and identities on reflections from the past as if a never-ending thread and project them as who we see ourselves becoming in the future. As if looking at ourselves in the mirror every morning for the first time. Unconsciously aware as we do so – that our past is simple prologue as we go forth each day. For thousands of years the dragon has been the ultimate metaphor in China depicting the shaman and then sage. As if a protecting totem or deity sent by the universe as a guide to one’s universal nature and Tao, the way of virtue. Something to aspire too. One was to never consider himself a sage (too presumptuous), only after he was gone based on his actions could those who followed him endow his legacy with such an honor.
It is as if we live in context with who we have always been, oftentimes unwittingly or unknowingly. What is it that metaphors, myths, parables, and even analogies do for us? They help us to see things in a different way or light. Perhaps to see universal truths and teach, or show us, that there is no separation between us and all other things.
A personal analogy I like is that people are sometimes like plants uncared for or left behind at Menards or Lowes and allowed to wither. I look for these for my garden. Often, these plants can be purchased at a discount… They were left behind – only needing someone to care for or about them. People are like that too. Do we only look to give homes to the healthy plants, or to those only needing nurturing back to their original selves when circumstances many times beyond their control have put them in a precarious condition? Dogs and cats at the Animal Shelter also fit this description. All simply needing a garden to thrive in and/or new home. We get to decide.
An excerpt of “The Three Fish” by Coleman Barks from The Essential Rumi. Harper Collins, 1995.
This is the story of the lake and the three big fish that were in it, one of them intelligent,
another half-intelligent, and the third, stupid.
Some fishermen came to the edge of the lake with their nets. The three fish saw them.
The intelligent fish decided at once to leave, to make the long, difficult trip to the ocean.
He thought, “I won’t consult with these two on this. They will only weaken my resolve, because they love this place so. They call it home. Their ignorance will keep them here.”
When you’re traveling, ask a traveler for advice, not someone whose lameness keeps him in one place.
Muhammad says, “Love of one’s country is part of the faith.” But don’t take that literally! Your real “country” is where you’re heading, not where you are. Don’t misread that hadith. It’s right to love your home place, but first ask, “Where is that, really?”
Another Rumi parable I like:
The Mouse and the Camel
A mouse caught hold of a camel’s tether, and because the camel was walking along, the mouse began to feel very proud and big. “I am leading a camel,” the mouse said to himself, and stuck out his chest and looked around to see if he was noticed.
The camel did notice the tiny mouse down there, but said nothing as the mouse strutted proudly in the lead. Before long they came to a river, and the mouse halted.
“Lead on,” said the camel. “You are my guide.” “I can’t cross that!” cried the mouse.
The camel stepped into the water and out again. “It’s not even up to my knees,” the camel observed. “Lead me on, master.”
“But that’s way over my head!”
“Climb up on my hump then,” said the camel. “Next time don’t pretend to be the boss if you aren’t able to lead.”
Perhaps things are not always what they seem to be. Our tendencies move us to encounters and the vibrations that seem to mesh with the comfort found in defining who we have always been (the natural flow of our heart/mind – or perhaps even Divine Mind) and we can decide rather to go with it or not. But we each have to decide to go there. Unfortunately, we get sidetracked by attachments we chose to cling and listen to and sometimes act in ways contrary to our innate universal nature. When we have thoughts of transforming our lives into something different – what frame of reference do we use to fill in the gaps or blanks that define what and who we will become? And who or what is our guide that serves as the metaphor of our lives? Who or what do we follow? (A metaphor is a term or phrase applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance). Do we do this ourselves, or simply conform to images others define for us to follow. As if asking – who is it that writes this chapter or are we here simply adding to a never-ending story? As our endeavors continually define our destiny and what takes us there.
Twenty-nineteen – 2019, marks the 500th anniversary since the first printing of one of the great classics of Hebrew literature, Midrash Hamesh Megillot, a collection of rabbinic commentaries and legends on the Five Biblical Scrolls, (the Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther). It was printed in the Italian town of Pesaro by Gershom Soncino, perhaps the greatest of the early Hebrew printers. Though the book was first printed in 1519, the content itself is much older. According to Jewish tradition, this was handed down orally from generation to generation since the time of Moses, and according to more modern scholars apparently only put into written form sometime after the fifth or sixth centuries of the Common Era. See more at the JewishEncyclopedia.com.
As in many rabbinic texts, the legends in this book are interspersed with, and woven into, discussions of Jewish law and custom. They are not meant to be understood literally but as parables; means of understanding greater truths. Indeed, to illustrate this the rabbis recorded a parable about parables in this book, saying:
“Do not let the parable appear of little worth to you. Through a parable, people can fathom words of Torah. Consider the king who has lost a gold coin or a precious pearl in his palace. May he not find it by the light of a candle worth no more than a penny? Likewise, do not let the parable appear of little worth to you. By its light, people can fathom words of Torah” (fol. 2a). A lovely thought to carry through life.
Text and woodcut of initial word on the opening page of Midrash Hamesh Megillot. First printed edition. Pesaro: Gershom Soncino, 1519. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division Library of Congress.
Perhaps each of our roles is to come forward and take the next step beyond Campbell’s admonishment that in fact, we are all heroes of our own story. That we all have a role to play. Moving beyond the Power of Myth, as he portrayed, to discover who we have always been and in knowing our past, the present unfolds as if in knowing our true nature and following it into the future. With this found as he says… our bliss defines us – as if identifying with the undefinable Infinate.
What is a parable? A parable is a succinct, didactic (intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive) story, in prose or verse that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles. It differs from a fable in that fables employ animals, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature as characters, whereas parables have human characters. A parable is a type of analogy.
An example would be a story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle, such as the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. The parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. It is about a traveler who is stripped of clothing, beaten, and left half dead alongside the road. Finally, a Samaritan happens upon the traveler. Samaritans and Jews despised each other, but the Samaritan helps the injured man.
Another parable told in many cultures emanating from the earliest shaman, is represented by the egg. The egg symbolizes the rising Sun and the beginning of life. In many myths about the creation of the world, a cosmic egg is laid by a giant bird in a formless, ancient ocean. The egg splits into two and the sky and the earth appear from the halves of it, while the sun is seen in the yolk. You can see in the picture that the newborn Sun still hasn’t taken its final shape yet. Shreds of primary matter continue to stream from the burning sphere rising over the ocean. According to Polynesian myth, the Hawaiian Islands were born from such an egg.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the parable is as follows: The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. … It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and put in his own garden. This parable’s theme illustrates the Kingdom of Heaven growing from small beginnings. Taking the next step as relayed in the New International Version of the Bible in Matthew 17:20 – Jesus replied to his disciples when questioned, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”
In China, the teachings of Confucius became the norm almost twenty-five hundred years ago. But stories following faith and nature became the favorite way to convey truth, or what might be called parables, or myths from antiquity. The following story appears in The Book of Lieh Tzu also dates back more than twenty-five hundred years ago. My own version is here on my website and appears below. It is a well-known fable from about the virtues of perseverance and willpower, as well as, faith. The tale first appeared in Book 5 of the Lieh Tzu, a Taoist text of the 4th century BC.
The Mountains of Tenacious Sincerity
After a lifetime of going around the mountains to get to a place directly in front of him, an old man decided that this was much too far to come and go. That the mountains should be leveled and thrown into the surrounding sea. So that a road straight through could be built and travel to places a distance away could be made much close. All agreed, except the man’s wife who argued that at the age of ninety he was too weak to raze even the smallest hill.
Painting by Xu Beihong, (1895-1953).
Soon the work began as he and his sons broke up the stones one at a time and began carrying them to the sea. Those passing by scoffed at the idea. Asking how a man in declining years could damage mountains several thousand feet high, he responded: “Certainly your mind is set to firm for me ever to penetrate it. Even when I die, I shall have sons surviving me. My sons will beget me more grandsons, my grandsons in their turn will have sons, and these will have more sons and grandsons. My descendants will go on forever, but the mountain will get no bigger. Why should there be any difficulty in leveling it?”
All those doubting the old man’s tenacity were at a loss for words. The mountains spirit began to get irritated at those pecking at their feet and upon checking it out, heard about what was going on and were afraid the old man would not give up.
They reported the story to God, who was overwhelmed by the sincerity of the old man and his efforts. God commanded that the mountains be moved, one the Shuo Tung the other to Yung Nan. Since that time the area where the old man’s descendants remain is as flat as can be and can be traveled across with ease. The forbidding mountains long gone. With the strength of one’s sincerity and faith, what task can possibly be too overwhelming. 4/19/1995.
As the status quo, Confucius was used to re-enforce the structure of society (the family, the community where you lived, and ultimately laws enforced by the emperor). Whereas, Confucianism depended on structure and conformity, many times this ran afoul with Taoism and an individual’s freedom to decide for himself what was right and what was wrong and following one’s innate talents as their guide. It would be the writings of Chuang Tzu who could lay bare what was contrary to “universal truth” illustrated by telling stories using analogies, humor, parables, and other meaning to demonstrate truths that fit all situations. Three stories made famous by Chuang Tzu were “the Butterfly”, “Cook Ting”, and “The Eight Virtues of the Way, or the Tao”. All seen as conveying far greater truths that challenged what might be seen as prevailing norms or structure, i.e., “limitations in thinking” of Confucius. They and many others can be found in the “Book of Chuang Tzu”.
Chuang Tzu dreamed he was a butterfly flittering around as he pleased. He didn’t know he was Chuang Tzu. When he awoke, he saw he was Chuang Tzu. But he did not know if he was Chuang who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Chuang Tzu. But he knew there must by some distinction in the transformation of things.
Cook Ting was cutting up an ox for Lord Wen-hui. Every touch of his hand cut the meat as if he used the knife as though he was performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music. The cook relayed that what he cared about was the Way or Tao, which goes beyond skill, and said, “I cut up the ox as if by spirit and don’t look at it with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a halt and spirit moves me to where it wants. Over a period of nineteen years I have cut up thousands of oxen with it, yet the blade is as sharp as the beginning. When I see a place of difficulty, I tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I am doing, work very slowly and move the knife with the greatest subtlety completely satisfied and move on. I then wipe the knife off and put it away.”
The Eight Virtues of the Way, or the Tao – The Way has never known boundaries; speech has no consistency. But because of recognition of this there came to be boundaries. These boundaries are referred to as the Eight Virtues. Chuang Tzu is parodying the ethical categories of the Confucians and Maoists by saying… there is left, there is right, there are theories, there are debates, there are divisions, there are discriminations, there are emulations, and there are contentions. As to what is beyond the Six Realms (Heaven, earth, the four directions, i.e., the universe), the sage admits it exists but does not theorize. As to what is within the Six Realms, he theorizes but does not debate. In the case of describing the Spring and Autumn Annals, the sage debates but does not discriminate.
I would add, often the journey begins when we see that we are no longer bound by how others define us – in reality perhaps it is as if we are simply… windsurfing through time. (The immortal dragon mentioned above was known for “riding the winds of eternity”).
Below is the Introduction to Chapter Two – The Yellow Emperor that is entitled “Windsurfing through Time” from an unpublished manuscript entitled “My travels with Lieh Tzu” I wrote in 1995.
Windsurfing through Time
Always to be riding the wind. Free from obstruction. Not tied to things external of your true nature.
Remaining free of needing to control events and knowing not to be hindered by them. Keeping the mind, spirit and body free from choices and thinking of alternative courses of action that must be taken.
Doing without thinking. Knowing without doing. Understand this parallel and remain free to simply fly away. Never conscience of the next action to be taken. Only aware of what needs to be done without thinking about or doing it. Action coming natural to current events as the natural extension of your inner chi.
Remaining as a mirror to each situation at hand. Unaware of making distinctions between advantage and danger. Behaving with resolute assurance with nothing standing in your way. Remaining enmeshed in harmony. Staying the same as all around you and finding an inner strength waiting to be found without interference.
To be able to walk on hot coals, swim through a fast current or climb the highest mountain and find comfort in doing none of them. Remain forever adaptable to the events swirling around you. Be as the air as it finds its way into everywhere and as water that passes through everything.
Be non‑existent and exist everywhere in all things. Without the need or desire to control events, simply remain as the ever‑prevailing sage ceasing to be obstructed by them. Free from whatever consequences that may come. 1/18/1995
And on we go…