25 September 2009

The Hero's Journey

OrpheusIn this essay I want to highlight the importance of myth. Carl Jung realised that many myths around the world have similar content and characters, and he made that the basis of a theory of a universal 'collective unconscious'. Whether or not we accept Jung's idea the one thing that he has done is highlight the universality of myth. Myths are stories which at their best reflect our unconscious motivations and attitudes - what Jung called the archetypes. Rather than simply being allegorical or stories with a moral, myths seem to reveal the (often amoral) inner workings of our psyche, though through symbolism not through logic - we understand them because we resonate with the symbols qua symbols. Joseph Campbell identified one myth - the hero's journey - which is so ubiquitous, and underlies so many other myths, that he called it 'the mono-myth.' In classical mythology it is the story of Orpheus, in fairy stories Jack and Bean Stalk amongst many others, and in Buddhism the biography of the Buddha also follows the same trajectory. In psychological terms it is the journey of individuation, but as Buddhists we look beyond this to a higher goal - liberation. I want to give an outline of that myth here and show how it relates to the spiritual life, indeed I will try to show that all spiritual practices are modelled on the hero's journey myth.

The Hero's Journey
  • The call to adventure
  • Crossing the threshold
  • Trials
  • Blessing
  • Return Journey
  • Benevolence
In The Hero with a thousand faces Campbell describes the journey in stages. I'll use his outline modified to fit a short essay. The journey begins with an invitation. Campbell calls this the 'call to adventure', and Robert Bly has called it the 'call in the night'. It can come in many forms but often the 'call' is felt as profound dissatisfaction, the yearning for something 'more'. Recall the story of the four sights: where the Bodhisatta sees old age, sickness and death and longs for some way to overcome them; and then sees a wandering holy man. It is at that moment that he feels the call - he joins the wanderers in the search for the deathless. The invitation is to adventure and usually results in a journey - the hero's journey. Very often the journey is to the underworld.

Having set out adventuring the hero must cross a threshold into the underworld. For the Buddha it was leaving home to taking up an itinerant, vagrant lifestyle. In some stories the threshold is literally a door. Some heros board a ship (or a rocket!). But there is a definite transition from the mundane world into another world which is most often talked about in myths as the underworld - though in Jack's case the threshold was a beanstalk and the other world was in the sky.

Having crossed the threshold the hero undergoes a trial or trials. For the Buddha there was his long period of austerities. For Jonah it is the belly of the whale. For Milarepa it is the building and taking down of towers for Marpa. The trial period can be seen as a period of purification and preparation. The hero must prove themselves worthy, and, having been purified and found worthy, the hero then receives some kind of blessing. The hero meets a powerful person, or at least a being in human form, who gives a gift. The nature of the gift may not be immediately apparent, and sometimes it does not reveal itself until the journey is completed. In many European myths the gift is the Holy Grail. In many world myths the gift is some form of immortality! What the Buddha finds is liberation from suffering. Milarepa receives Marpa's initiation. Jack finds the golden harp. Note that in early Buddhist myth the Buddha self-initiates.

On receiving the gift the hero must now make the return journey. This aspect of the overall myth often stands alone as a theme in stories. The return of the prodigal son, for instance, or the return of the Buddha to his home town Kapilavastu represent this phase of the journey. One of the most powerful evocations of the return journey myth is Homer's Odyssey. Sometimes the return journey is also full of trials and the hero may have many obstacles to over come. Finally having returned the hero understands the gift and uses it to enrich everyone around them. The hero in these myths is never selfish.

I've mentioned several episodes from the Buddha's biography to show that it fits this general pattern - a more detailed examination finds other resonances with the hero's journey. What I want to do now is to show how spiritual practice generally fits this pattern. I'll briefly describe meditation, puja, and Sādhana. The call is the same in each case - usually it is some insight into dissatisfaction with life: we wonder "is this it?", or perhaps a loved-one dies.

In meditation the threshold is when we sit down, close our eyes and find ourselves immersed in our own mind. Beginners can sometimes be surprised at how much is going on in their minds that they were not conscious of before! In meditation the hindrances to concentration correspond to the trials. The achievement of concentration is the beginning of the blessing, which may indeed culminate in Awakening. At the end of the period of meditation we open our eyes and go about our business. There may still be trials because the sensitivity we develop may leave us feeling vulnerable, or even irritable. But if we have achieved even a measure of calm then we are, even if only for a short time, a better person - more ethical, more kind. If we achieve some insight then we may be permanently changed for the better.

The Seven Fold Puja more explicitly draws on the metaphor of the journey. I treat puja as an acting out of the spiritual journey - a rehearsing of what we intend our lives to be like. In Worship and Salutation we experience the call of the Buddha and begin to respond to it. In Going for Refuge we form our intention to undertake the journey, and cross the threshold by committing ourselves. Confession of Faults and Rejoicing in merit are at once the preparation for, and the early stages of the journey - we unburden ourselves and find new reserves, but we also put into practice our commitment to be ethical. With Entreaty and Supplication we request a blessing, and with the reciting of the Heart Sutra we receive it. Finally with Transference of Merit and Self-Surrender we make the return journey and share the blessing we have received.

In Sādhana meditation we find an even more explicit version of the hero's journey. There is no space for more than a cursory look at it. Sādhanas are all based on the abhiṣeka ritual in some form, which in turn draws on royal coronation rituals. In this style of meditation we first imagine ourselves in a clear blue sky - the threshold to another world. In many Tibetan Sādhanas there are stages of renunciation, Going for Refuge, and purification which precede entering the blue sky, or even the whole seven-fold puja in compressed form. Then in stages the Buddha manifests in this other-world, and after a series of preliminaries bestows a symbolic blessing on us. This blessing is the abhiṣeka or initiation which communicates the Enlightenment of the Buddha through the medium of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala (or image). It is called abhiṣeka because it usually involves the sprinkling (seka) of water - a direct borrowing from the coronation. Having received the blessing, the whole pageant eventually dissolves back into the blue sky, and then we return to this world. If the initiation has been successful then our body, speech and mind have been aligned with the body, speech and mind of the Dharmakāya Buddha via the medium of mudrā, mantra, and maṇḍala and we have become a Buddha!

In effect then, spiritual practice is the hero's journey, when we sit to meditate, or do puja, or go on retreat, and even the whole process of taking on the higher evolution, the outline follows the path of the hero on their journey to and from the underworld. It is sometimes said that Buddhist is an Asian religion and that we westerners can't really understand it. The Dalai Lama, in his enthusiasm to not be seen as a proselytiser, has suggested that we pursue the religion we were born into. I disagree wholeheartedly with this view. Buddhism speaks to us because the myths that underlie it are universal stories reflecting universal concerns, and deep structures in the human psyche. Buddhist practices draw on myths which are as familiar in the West as in Asia (whether near or far, north or south).

Joseph Campbell. The Hero with a thousand faces. Fontana, 1988 (first published 1949).

image: Orpheus playing his lyre.
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