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.”


Nagarjuna and the Elixir of Invisibility

Update: This is a re-telling of an ancient legend from Buddhism patriarchal past, a time when attitudes about sex were quite different than they are today. It has been toned down from the original tale and retold in modern language with a lean towards satire. It’s mythological, part of the “Nagarjuna legend,” and completely implausible. It is not meant to condone or excuse sexual misconduct in any way.

Today’s post is a repeat from September of last year, with some revisions. It’s a story in which Nagarjuna learns how to become invisible, culled from a text that was translated into Chinese by Kumarajiva sometime in the early 5th century, and modified to fit what we call the “modern vernacular.” I’ve also added a few bad puns.

Sometime back, I said that Nagarjuna was a badass. If you don’t know this story, then you don’t know the half of it. Now, I don’t want to say that he was also a juvenile delinquent, but . . .

According to this account, Nagarjuna belonged to the Brahman caste. His teenage life was one of intense study, which he often found rather boring. One time he got together with three of his friends and he said to them, “Are you guys as bored as I am? Haven’t we learned just about every truth there is and uncovered every bit of wisdom to be uncovered? We could use some fun, you know? Let’s go find a alchemist and learn how to make ourselves invisible.” His friends thought it was a cool idea.

They found a alchemist, a certain Professor McGargle, and asked him to give them a formula for invisibility. As it turned out, this alchemist was more of huckster than anything else. He was such a slick salesman that, as they say, he could sell ice to Eskimos. And yet, he did have some skills in mixing up magic potions.

The alchemist Nagarjuna met bore an uncanny resemblance to W.C. Fields
The alchemist Nagarjuna met bore an uncanny resemblance to W.C. Fields

Although he realized that the four boys possessed practically every knowledge that was known, Professor McGargle still pegged them for suckers. After all, a sucker is reborn every minute. He figured that if he just gave them a magic formula, they would leave and never return, and then he wouldn’t make much money off them. So, he decided to prepare a formula in advance and call it “Professor McGargle’s Patented Magic Invisibility Elixir.”

He said, “Here you are, boys. This stuff is good for man and beast, guaranteed not only to enable invisibility, but it will also grow hair and remove warts! The first bottle’s free. Of course, if you run out and need some more, I will be obliged to pass on a small charge. The overhead in the alchemy business is pretty high, you know.”

Nagarjuna unscrewed the cap, took one sniff, and then read off to the alchemist each of the seventy ingredients in the elixir. McGargle was flabbergasted. He said, “Sufferin’ sciatica! How did you figure it out?” To which, Nagarjuna replied, “Nothing to it. I’m smarter than your average teenage Brahman.” McGargle thought to himself, “I gotta get a better elixir, or find dumber marks.”

Ancient painting of Nagarjuna and his friends climbing the palace stairs.

Nagarjuna and his friends, now in possession of the bottle of invisibility elixir and with the knowledge of how to make more, indulged themselves. They were getting into all kinds of mischief. Since they were invisible while engaging in their hijinks, they felt confident they wouldn’t get caught. Eventually, they started going over to the king’s palace whenever they wanted and having sex with the women in the king’s harem. This went on for about three months and then some of the women became pregnant. Evidently, these girls didn’t mind having lovers whom they couldn’t see.

The king was perplexed. His security was very tight and he thought it impossible for anyone to sneak in and fool around with his harem girls. He brought his advisers together and asked, “What the hell is going on here?”

One of the advisers said, “Your majesty, a few months ago there was a alchemist around town selling various magic elixirs. Personally, I thought he was little more than a snake-oil salesman, but you never know, he might have been the real deal. Perhaps he had a formula for invisibility that he sold to someone and they’ve been using it to get in and screw around with your girls.”

The king said, “Well, however they’re doing it, we have to get these guys. Any ideas?”

The adviser said, “Well, we can sprinkle some dirt around the doors and on the floor beneath the windows. If they are demons, there will no footprints and there’s not much we can do about it. But, if they are merely bewitched or using some magical potion, they are bound to leave footprints behind and we can catch them.”

“Sounds like a plan,” the king said, and he commanded that they put it in action.

The next night, a guard noticed the footprints and alerted the king who called out all the other guards and ordered them to storm the harem rooms waving their swords in every direction. Nagarjuna’s three friends were beheaded. Nagarjuna escaped by standing next to the king, as he knew no one would wield a sword anywhere near his head.  And that is how he cheated death and his karma.

Afterward, Nagarjuna “awoke to the truth that desire is the origin of suffering and the root of the crowd of calamities, and that from this comes moral ruin and bodily peril.” He resolved then to become a Buddhist and master all of the 80,000-dharma teachings.

From “A Youthful Adventure” in “The Chinese Life of Nagarjuna” by Roger Corless, Buddhism in Practice, edited by Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Princeton, 1995


Nagarjuna and The Exilir of Gold

nagarjuna-drawing3It is thought that the great Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, was probably born in Southern India and that he came from Brahman (priestly) stock. His time is estimated somewhere between 150–250 CE. There are no historical facts about his parents, his upbringing, education, career, and so on. But there are stories . . .

One of the legends says that his parents had long desired children but had been unable to produce any. One night, his father had a dream that caused him to pray fervently to 100 Brahmans for a son. 10 months later, a son was born. The boy was taken to a soothsayer who told the parents that he was destined to die in 7 days. The soothsayer advised them that the only thing that could be done was to give a feast for 100 persons. That would allow the boy 7 more days of life. But if they also gave a feast to 100 monks, he would live for 7 years. That, however, would be the end of it. There was no way to prolong his life further.

Naturally, his parents gave these feasts, and thus, extended Nagarjuna’s life. But as the 7th year drew near, his mother and father felt they would not be able to bear the sight of their son’s corpse, so they sent him on a journey, accompanied by a number of servants. After some traveling, he reached Magadha, where the great monastic university called Nalanda was located. There he met a teacher named Saraha, who gave him a special mantra that would allow him to overcome the destiny of a short life. 

Interaction with Saraha inspired Nagarjuna to become ordained as a monk. After his ordination, he mastered all the Buddhist teachings, and Saraha initiated him into the secrets of Mantrayana.

This is Interesting, considering Nagarjuna’s alleged tantric connections, as there was a monk named Saraha in the 8th century who is considered to be the founder of Tantra. Whether the Saraha in the Nagarjuna story is supposed to be the same person is anyone’s guess.

Another account of Nagarjuna’s early life has him abandoning worldly life by taking the Buddhist vows of renunciation at the age of 8. According to Bu-ston (1290–1364), a Tibetan historian, after studying with Saraha, he studied with the abbot of Nalanda, Rhaulabhadra. Another source, however, says that Nagarjuna first studied Sarvastivada, an early Buddhist school that held to the theory “all dharmas exist.” At a later date, Nagarjuna asked Saraha to give him instruction in the esoteric Guhya Samaja practice, considered to be the supreme tantric teaching. The legends also say that he received teachings from Ratna Mati, a bodhisattva who was a manifestation of Manjusri Buddha.

Nalanda ruins

One story says that there came a time when Magadha was hit with a severe famine lasting 12 years. Because food was scarce, the prices were very high, more than the poor Nalanda monks could afford. Nagarjuna is said to have kept them alive through his knowledge of alchemy. By reciting special mantras over two sandalwood leaves, Nagarjuna gained the power to teleport, to materialize wherever he wished. Just like in Star Trek.

He placed one sandalwood leaf in the sole of his sandal, and held the other in his hand, and traveled to a distant island where he met a Brahmin who knew how to concoct an elixir that transformed common metals into gold. Nagarjuna asked the Brahmin to teach him how to prepare the elixir. The Brahmin, who was no dope and a bit shady, realized that Nagarjuna must have reached the island through some technique of magic or alchemy. He said, “I will teach you my technique, if you will share with me the method you used to come across the water.” Nagarjuna agreed. He gave the Brahmin the leaf he held in his hand.

Now, the Brahmin really didn’t want to share his secret of the elixir. However, he assumed that since he now had possession of the leaf, Nagarjuna would never be able to leave the island. So, thinking he had nothing to lose, he showed Nagarjuna how to prepare the gold-making elixir.

But, of course, Nagarjuna had the second leaf hidden in his sandal, and used it to leave the island and return to Nalanda. He made the elixir to transform iron into gold and was able to provide the monks with the means to purchase the food they so desperately needed.

It’s told that Nagarjuna eventually became abbot of Nalanda, that he defeated five hundred non-Buddhists in debate, and once expelled over 8,000 monks who were amoral and did not properly observe the precepts.

Modern scholars do not believe Nagarjuna ever studied at Nalanda. There is archaeological evidence that the site was not occupied until sometime after the 4th century (remember Nagarjuna lived in the 2nd or 3rd century) and further, that the university was not even established until the 5th century.

Evidently, many of Nagarjuna’s myth-makers decided there was no reason to let a few facts get in the way of a good story.


A Kuan Yin Christmas Story

Actually, this has nothing to do with Christmas, but it does involve Kuan Yin. If there are any morals to the story, I leave that up to you to discern. I offer the tale merely as entertainment, a small diversion from the usual storytelling heard and read at this time of year.

Fish Basket Kuan Yin, Ming Dynasty

As you may know, Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, the One Who Hears the Cries of the World, has many manifestations, and in art is depicted in a number of different poses, sometimes seated on a lotus blossom or in the “royal ease” posture; she might be standing, dressed in white, perhaps holding a willow branch or a child, or with a thousand arms. This is a tale of the origin of the Fish Basket Kuan Yin.*

In China, on the Yangtze River at Hunan, there is a waterfall called the Dragon Gate. Its waters cascade down from a great mountain for more than one hundred feet. Each year in the third month of the spring, a certain species of carp, known as Yulong, swim up from the sea and gather in the basin to climb the waterfall. It is said that any carp able to leap the falls will be transformed into a dragon. The large scales of Chinese dragons indicate they originate from carp.

However, the river’s current is strong, and as one sage wrote, “not a single carp out of a hundred, a thousand or even ten thousand can climb the falls, not even after ten or twenty years. Some are swept away by the rushing water, some fall prey to eagles and hawks, while others are netted, scooped up, or even shot with arrows by fishermen who line either bank of the wide falls.”

This myth was so well-known that throughout China the phrase “a student facing his examinations is like a carp attempting to leap the Dragon Gate,” was a common expression to indicate the difficulty of passing imperial examinations.

There was a man named Zhou, a youthful scholar who arrived at the capital one spring to take his examinations. While there, he stayed in a monastery. He was sincere student who maintained a pious devotion to the Three Treasures of the Buddha, Dharma, and Community of Believers. He was also skilled at calligraphy, a talent that attracted the attention of Prime Minister Ching, who befriended him. The Prime Minister asked Zhou to tutor his daughter, a beautiful girl named Golden Peony. After a short time, Zhou and Golden Peony fell in love, and were engaged to be married.

Now, there was a golden Yulong carp in the pond on the Prime Minister’s estate, and this carp took the form of Golden Peony and seduced Zhou, and together they left the capital for a nearby city. Needless to say, the real Golden Peony was heartbroken over the disappearance of her fiancée, and soon she became gravely ill over it. The Prime Minister was concerned, not only for his daughter, but also for Zhou, as his sudden and mysterious departure seemed so out of character.

Judge Dee

Prime Minister Ching contacted the famous Judge Dee, a detective and magistrate whose adventures have been recorded in contemporary times through the novels of Robert van Gulik and in the recent film, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. The judge launched an investigation and soon uncovered the hidden truth of the affair. Accompanied by a squad of soldiers, he traveled to this other city to capture the false Golden Peony and return Zhou. However, the woman who was really a carp managed to escape. Although he sent out men to scour the entire South country, Judge Dee could find no trace of the golden carp in any form.

By now, Kuan Yin had heard the sorrowful cries of the real Golden Peony. Even though Zhou had returned, Golden Peony was still in agony. She could not get over her belief that Zhou had been unfaithful and had betrayed her. Not even the fact that the honorable Judge Dee vouched for Zhou and explained that the young man had been tricked helped to ease her pain. Judge Dee, a most wise man, counseled the girl and suggested that she recite Kuan Yin’s name to arouse the power of compassion within her heart and forgive Zhou.

Kuan Yin, wishing to relieve Golden Peony’s sufferings, used her mystic power of insight to discover the carp’s hiding place: beneath a lotus leaf in the South Sea. Kuan-yin went to this place, captured the carp, and placed it in a fish basket.

White-robed Kuan Yin, Ming Dynasty

Mr. Yang was 0ne of the Prime Minister’s neighbors, a humble man of modest means whose most valuable possession was a painting of White-robed Kuan Yin. One night he had a dream in which Kuan Yin told him the next day he would meet a woman carrying a fish basket. The next morning he did indeed meet such a woman, and he took her to Judge Dee and they turned the trickster golden carp over to him. The woman received a sum of money as a reward that she then gave to Mr. Yang on the condition that he should commission a painting of Kuan Yin carrying a fish basket. This is the origin of the Fish Basket Kuan Yin.

The carp confessed, and Golden Peony forgave Zhou, and they renewed their plans for marriage. However, there was still the matter of the carp’s punishment to consider. The carp had repented of its errors and begged for mercy, and while the fish seemed sincere, Judge Dee was nonetheless tempted to take the carp to the fish market to become someone’s meal. Kuan Yin suggested they test the carp’s sincerity by releasing it into the waters at the foot of the Dragon Gate waterfall. If, without resorting to magic, the carp could leap the falls and become a dragon then its sincerity would be proved. If not, then the carp would surely drown or be netted by fishermen.

Kuan Yin and Judge Dee traveled to the Dragon Gate, where they released the golden carp and immediately it climbed the falls and when it reached the top, became a dragon known as Chan-long, or “Remorseful Dragon.”

It is said that after hearing this story, the poet Bei Du composed the following poem:

Those who contemplate on this subtle
compassionate lady dressed in white
appearing everywhere
in infinite universes,
return to the original enlightenment,
attaining nothing,
empty and free.


* A slightly different version of this story appears in Kuan-yin: the Chinese transformation of Avalokitesvara by Chun-fang Yu, Columbia University Press, 2001.


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