Joseph Campbell: Matters Fundamental to Ourselves

Today is the 111th anniversary of the birth of mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell. My thinking about Buddhism and religion in general was influenced greatly by his work. From Campbell, I learned that nearly all religious literature is pure mythology, and therefore, one should not take it literally. A simple idea, perhaps, but when you consider how many people in this modern age are literalists when it comes to religion and that they cause a lot of trouble for others because of it, you realize it is a great insight, and extraordinarily relevant.

The title of one of his books, Myths to Live By, suggests that we should not disregard myths, but rather try to understand what these stories are trying to tell us about living. Here, in his own words, from that book, is Campbell explaining the essence of religious mythology:

Joseph Campbell 1904-1987
Joseph Campbell 1904-1987

What I would suggest is that by comparing a number from different parts of the world and differing traditions, one might arrive at an understanding of their force, their source and possible sense. For they are not historical. That much is clear. They speak, therefore, not of outside events but of themes of the imagination. And since they exhibit features that are actually universal, they must in some way represent features of our general racial imagination, permanent features of the human spirit — or, as we say today, of the psyche. They are telling us, therefore, of matters fundamental to ourselves, enduring essential principles about which it would be good for us to know; about which, in fact, it will be necessary for us to know if our conscious minds are to be kept in touch with our own most secret, motivating depths. In short, these holy tales and their images are messages to the conscious mind from quarters of the spirit unknown to normal daylight consciousness, and if read as referring to events in the field of space and time — whether of the future, present, or past — they will have been misread and their force deflected, some secondary thing outside then taking to itself the reference of the symbol, some sanctified stick, stone, or animal, person, event, city, or social group.”



Some folks are keen on creating a Buddhism without ritual. They equate ritual with religion, even though Buddhism as it has existed for thousands of years can be either a religion or not a religion, depending on one’s point of view. And that is what the whole question of ritual boils down to – point of view, or more precisely, how one understands ritual and its relevance to our journey.

There are some Buddhist rituals I am not overly fond of, and my method of dealing with these rites is simply not perform them if I can help it, and then move on. Sometimes, though, I’m at a temple or a dharma center, and I feel it is necessary to be respectful and follow the principle of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I’ve found that even when forced to engage in some ritual I don’t like, I somehow manage to survive.

We perform rituals every day. Just the act of getting up from bed in the morning is ritualistic. Most of us have our own routine for this. Getting dressed, going to the restroom, making coffee or tea or breakfast, we usually have a certain procedure that we rarely alter. Sex is a ritual, and you don’t hear too many people complaining about it.

There is actually very little in human society that isn’t ritual. Rituals serve to connect us to one another; they help strengthen community, link individuals with society. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell once suggested that when a society loses its capacity for ritual, it begins to disintegrate, and he said there is a constant need to invent new rituals to keep societies moving forward.

Even in those Buddhist groups striving to create dharma sans ritual, when they meet, they generally follow some set format. If they ring the bell to signify the time to begin meditation, that’s a ritual.

I’m not crazy about doing full-body prostrations, but I do like bowing. You know, the little half-bows with palms pressed together. To bow to another is not necessarily saying that person is superior to you. When two people bow to each other, it’s a sign of respective equality.

A teacher of mine once suggested that one could view bowing as a way to touch the spirit of Bodhisattva Fukyo (“The Bodhisattva Who Never Disparaged”) in the Lotus Sutra. One day, Fukyo went around and bowed to every person he met. As he bowed, he would say, “I deeply respect you.” People thought he was strange and a mob beat him, almost to death. Yet, as a result of his sincerity in performing this personal ritual, he extended his life span by two-hundred-ten-thousand-million billions of years and taught the Buddha-dharma to countless beings. Those who had slighted and condemned Bodhisattva Fukyo eventually became his followers.

It’s a myth, but it has a rather obvious point. Fukyo saw that all people have Buddha nature, that they inherently possess the nature to become a buddha. The practice he engaged in is called raihaigyo or “bowing in reverence.” Fukyo represents the true spirit of the bodhisattva, and his ritual is one we should all perform in daily life, the ritualpractice of treating others with respect.

Bowing to statues and objects may be a slightly different matter, but here is Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki’s take on that subject:

[When] you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”


Joseph Campbell and the Ramparts of Belief

“Belief gets in the way of learning.”
– Robert A. Heinlein

When I quoted the late Joseph Campbell in Monday’s post, I did not realize that today, 2 days later, we would be celebrating the 110th anniversary of his birth.

Few philosophers – in addition to a mythologist, writer and lecturer, he was a philosopher – outside of Buddhism have influenced me as much as Joseph Campbell. When I watched his dialogue with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth as it aired on PBS in 1987, it had a profound effect and certainly changed my life. It finally resolved for me the tension between the metaphysical aspects of religion and my rational mind.

1987 was a largely pre-cable time and the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) still dominated the television landscape. After The Power of Myth aired, a TV executive, with CBS as I recall, said that if the program had been broadcast on one of the major networks instead of PBS, it would have changed the face of religion in America.

Campbell’s central thesis in this program was relatively simple:

“From the point of view of any orthodoxy, myth might be defined simply as “other people’s religion”, to which an equivalent definition of religion would be ‘misunderstood mythology’, the misunderstanding consisting in the interpretation of mythic metaphors as references to hard fact . . .”

In other words, religious stories are just stories, myths, and not history. If more people understood and appreciated this, we could spare the world from much trouble, and free ourselves from the bondage of dogma. Some have taken this message to heart, but there are others who dismiss it as something that undermines their faith.

Faith is a concept used by different persons to designate very diverse attitudes, but most often, we find faith reduced to belief coupled with the misunderstanding that belief makes what is believed fact. Any attempt to clear up this confusion is viewed as a threat, and this insecurity is the cause of most religious controversy and conflict.

Campbell did not articulate his view as such, but the principle underlying his philosophy was essentially the same as Nagarjuna’s Middle Way teachings on the emptiness of views, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan* explains in this way,

The Middle Way is to see things as they are, to recognize the possibility of determining things differently from different standpoints and to recognize that these determinations cannot be seized as absolutes. This is the way that realizes the relativity of specific views and of determinate entities. This becomes practically the central point in the philosophy of Nagarjuna.”

Faith is not belief about experiences but something inferred from them, and various things can be inferred from any one experience. Even while we may acknowledge the fact that faith/belief does not make what is believed fact, faith/belief can greatly influence attitudes and produce undesirable, unbeneficial, and even dangerous actions. A case in point would be the Louisiana teacher who taught her students that the universe was created by God 6,000 years ago and that that both the Big Bang theory and evolution are false. She gave her class a test in which the only correct answers were those based on this literal interpretation of the Bible. When one student gave different answers and then stated he was Buddhist and didn’t believe in God, the teacher reportedly told the rest of the class that Buddhism was “stupid.”

The student’s parents successfully sued the school, with the presiding judge in the U.S. District Court ruling that “School Officials shall not denigrate any particular faith, or lack thereof, or single out any student for disfavor or criticism because of his or her particular faith or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

This case is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, for we know all too well how religious intolerance can lead to violence and war.

Campbell said

We have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.”

Both sides are wrong. Campbell further explained that

Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images . . .”

Buddhism has its share of misunderstandings about mythology. Some tend to dismiss concepts they see as supernatural or metaphysical and fail to appreciate the real messages they convey, while others insist that certain beliefs, such as karma and rebirth, must be taken literally, missing the point that if these ideas are regarded as metaphor, it does not undermine Buddhism’s core philosophy. Then, in addition, there are those who also mistake belief for fact and contend that the sutras and the theology surrounding the sutras are historical and adopt an absolutist stand that their Buddhism alone is true.

Religious philosophy is a system of ideas. It uses words and symbols to refer to what lies beyond the full scope of our knowledge. The nature of God is a continuous debate, and yet, assuming there were a super-awakened being that created the universe, the mind of such a being would be so vast and impenetrable that no one on this earth could possibly know it, let alone claim the ability to interpret His or Her will.

Religion does has practical value when it is practiced without undue attachment to belief and the blindness of faith. In Monday’s post, Joseph Campbell pointed out that yoga means to “join” or to “yoke.” In The Power of Myth, he explained, “The word ‘religion’ means religio, linking back.”  We can say then that yoga and religion have essentially the same meaning, and the same ultimate aim, which is to enter the zone of pure consciousness awake. When we awaken from slumber each morning, we wipe the sand or sleep (rheum) from our eyes. To be awake in the religious sense means to wipe away the sand of dogma from our minds and then go into the world and make our stand not on the ramparts of belief but before the gates of wisdom.

[You] have the three great Western religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and because the three of them have different names for the same biblical god, they can’t get on together. They are stuck with their metaphor and don’t realize its reference. They haven’t allowed the circle that surrounds them to open. It is a closed circle. Each group says, ‘We are the chosen group, and we have God.'”

– Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

The wayfarer that can understand this [the emptiness of views] does not seize, does not cling to anything, does not imagine that this alone is true (and not that). He does not quarrel with anyone. He can thus enjoy the flavor of the nectar of the Buddha’s doctrine. Those teachings are wrong which are not of this nature (i.e., non-contentious and accommodative). If one does not accommodate other doctrines, does not know them, does not accept them, he indeed is the ignorant. Thus, then, all those who quarrel and contend are devoid of wisdom. Why? Because every one of them refuses to accommodate the views of others. That is to say, there are those who say that what they themselves speak is the highest, the real, the pure truth, that the doctrines of others are words, false and impure.”

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Maha Prajna-Paramita Sutra

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* K. Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987


Joseph Campbell, Ferryboats, and The Heart Sutra

In my recent reading of the new Joseph Campbell book, “Myths of Light,” (reviewed here), I was intrigued with his all too brief discussion of the Prajna-paramita (Heart) Sutra, which I excerpted almost in its entirety in the review. It left me hungry for more. The Heart Sutra [text and video here] is a cryptic work, an essential Buddhist text. Nearly every word is a symbol, a metaphor for a deeper concept, or some deeper experience. It would be wonderful if Campbell, that great interpreter of spiritual literature, had written or spoken at length on the Heart Sutra. But I don’t think he did, or at least, nothing substantial has yet been published.

The Heart Sutra: A Ship to Cross the Sea of Suffering

Campbell’s remarks about Prajna-paramita appear in the chapter “Vessels to the Farther Shore,” in a section titled “Ferryboats.” The analogy of the ferryboat or raft is symbolic of one of the sutra’s themes: the way of the Bodhisattva. Campbell discusses “ferryboats” in terms of Buddhist yanas (vessels or vehicles), the “different Buddhist paths to enlightenment,” such as Hinayana, the so-called “small vessel” (of which Theravada is the only remaining school), and Mahayana, “the great vessel.” He makes the point that “Little ferryboat Buddhism is the Buddhism of monks, the Buddhism of people who make a distinction between this shore [the world] and [the shore of Nirvana] and are striving to get there,” while the great ferryboat of Mahayana “is meant to be the boat on which we all can ride – it takes us to the yonder shore and then ferries us back to this world.”

Campbell is expressing the Mahayana view here about “small vessel” and “great vessel,” to which some in the Theravada tradition might disagree. Nonetheless, he is exactly right that the prime point of Mahayana Buddhism is, metaphorically speaking, about a ferryboat large enough to carry all people across the sea of suffering to the yonder shore that, in actually, is not a yonder shore at all, but right here. 

Prajna-paramita or “wisdom that goes beyond” is said to be the ship that ferries us to the realization of “the world of suffering is Nirvana.” But then, but when you reach the shore of Nirvana you do not stop, you have to keep going. You may no longer need the vessel that ferried you, but a vessel is only a tool for travel, it’s not the journey. The journey is “the endless further,” going beyond, going far beyond.

Many people tend to focus only on the theme of emptiness in the Heart Sutra. However emptiness in one sense is just a tool. The purpose of understanding emptiness is to develop non-dual wisdom, so that we can practice compassion to the fullest extent. Prajna-paramita is a Bodhisattva vessel and Bodhisattva’s cannot rest until all living beings have been liberated.

That’s a big job, and an impossible one. Yet this is allegory, and the deeper meaning is about trying to capture the spirit behind the idea of liberating all livings beings.

In “There Is No Suffering,” Ch’an master Sheng-yen writes,

Paramita literally means ‘from here to there,’ but it also has the connotations of ‘leaving behind’ or ‘transcending.’ In particular, it means leaving behind and transcending suffering and its causes: the root afflictions (kelsas), propensities (vasanas), and deluded thoughts, words, and actions (karma). Another nuance of paramita is ‘liberation’  . . . the journey across the ocean of suffering, and its causes, to the other shore, liberation.”

That’s why in many of the English translations of the Heart Sutra you see the phrase “Avalokitesvara while practicing deep prajna-paramita crossed over all suffering” or words to that effect. ‘Crossed over all suffering’ does not appear in the original Indian and Chinese versions of the sutra. It’s there to reinforce the idea of transcendence, of going beyond, making the journey. It’s not a solitary trip. One’s motivation to go on the journey should be for the sake of all beings.

And since Prajna-paramita is the way of the Bodhisattva, it’s also why a Bodhisattva is front and center in the Heart Sutra and not the Buddha. I truly believe that the Mahayana Buddhists who put this sutra together were trying to send a subtle message that it’s more important to be a Bodhisattva than it is to become a Buddha. Why? Because in Mahayana, Buddhahood or enlightenment is not a destination, it’s just a stage in the journey. While the practice of compassion, is something for right now, in the present moment, for every step along the way.

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book on the Heart Sutra, “The Heart of Understanding,”  he writes,

In Buddhist meditation we do not struggle for the kind of enlightenment that will happen five or ten years from now. We practice so that each moment of our life becomes real life.”

Whether you call it enlightenment, liberation, Nirvana, or just plain happiness, looking for it outside of your life, somewhere beyond this world, or at some future time, is a not a real journey, but rather, a dead end. That kind of ferryboat just gets tossed upon the sea and eventually sinks.

In “Myths of Light,” Joseph Campbell says,

Illumination comes from having something happening inside . . . The main sin is inadvertence, not being attentive to life, to the moment you are in, to its mystery, to what is happening right here now. When this is there, and you realize that the whole mystery and void is shining through at you, you are there.”

So here you are, standing on the shore, and the ferryboat is loading, and it’s not leaving a few minutes, or in an hour, or tomorrow, it’s leaving right now, in present moment. Climb on board.

In my next an upcoming post, more on the Heart Sutra, a bit more of Joseph Campbell, and about how Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, when viewed in the female persona of Kuan Yin, represents the feminine element within all beings.


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