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Is Myth Necessary? The No-Myth of Zen

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    Joseph Campbell offers several definitions of myth. In Pathways to Bliss, he states, “Myth is the transcendent in relationship to the present.”

    But then, a few sentences later, he notes the following, almost as an aside:

    Of course, in trying to relate yourself to transcendence, you don’t have to have images. You can go the Zen way and forget the myths altogether.”

    Considering Campbell’s reputation as a proponent of mythology, it may come as a surprise to some to hear him speak approvingly of the shedding of myth. Robert Segal, myth scholar and Campbell critic, claims in his book, Joseph Campbell: An Introduction, that the difference between Jung and Campbell is the latter thinks that you cannot do without myth; it is absolutely essential for psychological health – a conclusion contradicted here by Joe’s own words. Joseph Campbell held Zen in high regard, and those he knew who practiced this discipline were certainly individuals he considered psychologically healthy.

    Of course, he does see tremendous value in mythology for most people, and goes on to make exactly that point:

    But I’m talking about the mythic way. And what the myth does is to provide a field in which you can locate yourself. That’s the sense of the mandala, the sacred circle, whether you are a Tibetan monk or the patient of a Jungian analyst. The symbols are laid out around the circle, and you are to locate yourself in the center.  (Pathways to Bliss, xvi)

    Why this distinction? What is the difference between Zen and other forms of Buddhism?

    There are two ways. One is through one’s own strength. This is called in Japanese jiriki, “self power.” The other is through what the Japanese call the Way of the Kitten: tariki, or “outside help.” Just as a kitten requires its mother to pick it up by the scruff of the neck and carry it to safe ground, so some souls require the action of an outside agent to carry them beyond themselves.

    Zen is the way of inside help; you do it yourself. In the great mythic world of the Bodhisattvas and the Buddhas, whose grace and mercy and compassion yield the energy that enables us to release ourselves from the bonds of illusion, on the other hand, you have the way of outside power. This is the way to myth. A mythic image is an outside power that comes to help you; through it you can achieve release from the bonds of the mundane world. We have various deities who represent the inferior powers of the lower cakras, but we also have ultimate deities that represent the ultimate power of ideation of the mind, and these are represented in the Buddhist figures, in the Bodhisattva figures, and in Hinduism.” (Myths of Light, 96)

    Myth is in essence a tool. As Joe points out later in the intro to Pathways,

    What myth does for you is to point beyond the phenomenal field toward the transcendent. A mythic figure is like a compass that you used to draw circles and arcs in school, with one leg in the field of time and the other in the eternal. The image of a god may look like a human or an animal form, but its reference is transcendent of that.”

    Zen is an experience of the transcendent, sometimes described as consciousness empty of content (everything I say about Zen, of course, is completely inadequate – an example of using limited language to describe what Zimmer called those “best things, which cannot be described”). If that’s the path one walks (or sits?), myth is unnecessary.

    Which isn’t to say there aren’t a number of mythic and ritual elements to the formal practice of Zen (and, indeed, the origin tales about Bodhidharma or the sixth patriarch, Hui-neng, are mythic in nature); however, these trappings are merely that – nonessential trappings.

    Joseph Campbell believes myth can enhance one’s life, but for those who do not practice Zen, does he feel it is essential? That’s not what comes across in his opening exchange with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth:

    MOYERS: Why myths? Why should we care about myths? What do they have to do with my life?

    CAMPBELL: My first response would be, ‘Go on, life your life, it’s a good life – you don’t need mythology.’ I don’t believe in being interested in a subject just because it’s said to be important. I believe in being caught by it somehow or other. But you may find that, with a proper introduction, mythology will catch you. And so, what can it do for you if it does catch you?”

    The whole of Campbell’s career was about answering that question. (Granted, he does wax enthusiastic about the subject – which is how I got caught by myth . . .)

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