Book Review: Joseph Campbell “Myths of Light – Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal”

I just read a new book by Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light – Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, which I received as a review copy from New World Library.  Campbell, of course, passed away in 1987, and this new tome is compiled from previously unpublished lectures and articles.

The year Campbell died was the same year PBS presented his six-part conversation with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. After the program aired, a television executive (I think he was with CBS) said that if it had been shown on any of the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), which would have vastly increased the viewership (remember this was pretty much a pre-cable time), the program would have changed the face of religion in America.

It certainly changed how I viewed religion, and since then, I have maintained that anyone who wishes to write, talk, or even just participate in any kind of religion or spiritual practice, would benefit greatly if they viewed this program first.

Throughout his career as a mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell showed us, as he wrote in Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, how “[Religion] may, in a sense, be understood as popular misunderstanding of mythology.” In The Power of Myth he famously commented that when religion “gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”

I’ve always felt that if everyone could just get this one point, it would prevent so much confusion.

But not so fast. Confusion still abounds.

In the first chapter of Myths of Light, Campbell relates a story about attending a series of talks given by Martin Buber at Columbia:

It was during the third lecture that I got up my nerve to raise my hand. Very gently and nicely he asked, “What is it, Mr. Campbell?”

“Well,” I said, “there is a word being used here this evening that I just can’t follow; I don’t know what the word refers to.”

“What is the word?”

I said, “God.”

Well, his eyes opened. He looked in utter amazement at me and he said, “You don’t know what God means?”

I said, “I don’t know what you mean by God. You’re telling me that God has hidden his face. Now, I am just back from India, where people are experience and beholding God all the time.”

I don’t know what either of them mean by God. The use of words like “his” and “beholding” suggest to me a personal god or a “supreme being.” Yet, in the same chapter, Campbell makes it clear that “the basic idea of the Oriental philosophies to this day” is that “the cosmos is not ruled by a personal god; rather, an impersonal power.” I guess I just don’t know what Campbell means by God. I suppose if you can experience an impersonal power, you can also behold it . . . In the second chapter, “The Jiva’s Journey”, he discusses the meaning of AUM (OM): “AUM is God. AUM is the sound of God.” That is certainly not the way I understand AUM. Just what does Campbell mean by God?

Perhaps, the confusion is on my part, or maybe it belongs to David Kudler, who edited the book, or it might be Campbell’s. I don’t know, but I do find the G-word to be extremely cumbersome with all the baggage it carries and could do without it.

Unfortunately, this “confusion” made the book somewhat less enjoyable. But that is not to say that Myths of Light isn’t a good read. Campbell’s conversational style is immensely readable. A great storyteller, he uses stories to explain complicated concepts plainly and simply, and that’s what makes this and his other works so compelling.

One point I think he makes very clear in a direct manner something about the role and nature of religion. Many people today, especially a lot of younger Buddhists, are turned off by talk about the transcendent, the ineffable, the mysterious, and so on. However, Campbell explains that that is the whole point of all religion and spirituality, at least in the East:

[You] are that mystery, but not the “you” that you think you are. The you that you think you are is not it and the you that you can’t even think about is it. The paradox, this absurdity, is the essential mystery of the East.”

Perhaps folks who are bothered by mystery should not try to practice spirituality where the prime intent is to try to penetrate that mystery.

Another interesting clarification Campbell offers:

In Occidental theology, the word transcendent is used to mean outside of the world. In the East, it means outside of thought.

How the East views the transcendent or the eternal is the theme of Myths of Light and overall Joseph Campbell does a good job of exploring the subject. In some respects, the book could serve as an excellent introduction to Eastern philosophy, except for a few problems such as the use of the G-word and the R-word – reincarnation.

The longest chapter in the book is “The Jiva’s Journey.” Jiva is the Sanskrit word for the “reincarnating” entity, the “deathless soul” that “puts on bodies and takes them off, over and over again, as a person puts on and removes clothing.” What he is talking about is rebirth, not reincarnation, which would be the same person putting on and removing clothing – that is not rebirth. I wished Campbell had made a finer point about the distinction between the two, and how Buddhism, in general, rejects the notion of reincarnation.

But you can’t have everything. Elsewhere, Campbell offers a very fine explanation of nirvana:

Nirvana literally means “blown out”; the image is that once one has realized one’s unity with what is called the Buddha mind – this is the Buddhist conception of Brahman – then one’s individual ego is extinguished like a candle flame, and one becomes one with the great solar light . . . But when you get over there, you realize, I was here all the time.”

As I have said many times on this blog, realizing nirvana is not about going to some other place, even though we may use the metaphor of the “yonder shore.” Nirvana is viewing this saha or mundane world differently from how we have viewed it before.

There is this great Buddhist text, the Prajnaparamita Sutra [The Heart Sutra], and its only a very short concise thing of about a page and a half, and it culminates in one line, which is said to be the summary of the whole sense of Mahayana Buddhism. That line goes like this: Aum gottam, Buddha-tam, parigatam, parasangatam. Bodhi!* “Gone, gone, gone to the yonder shore, landed on the yonder shore, illumination!” Hallelujah.

That is the summary of the whole thing. Prajnaparamita: The wisdom of the yonder shore, beyond pairs of opposites. The one who is trying to get away from life to nirvana is still caught in pairs of opposites. But when you get there, you realize that this is it right now.”

Such an important point should be repeated, many times until it penetrates our hard skulls. And there are quite a few important points that Joseph Campbell makes in Myths of Light. A few other things, I could nitpick about, as well. But the good in this book far outweighs anything negative, and whether someone is just beginning to look into Eastern philosophy, which Campbell covers from Jainism to Zen,  or whether they are a long time seeker of Asian wisdom, this is a valuable book to have on hand.

* Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha


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