MythBlast | Myths of Light — transcendence and reflection
It is the first day of spring as I sit down to write. The sun has entered Aries, the first sign in the Zodiac, marking the dawning of a new astrological year. The sun is more present in this joyful season: our days grow longer, brighter, and we ourselves open to the promise of new beginnings. In this expanding light, Earth gives way to new growth – the greening of the world – and with it comes a reminder of the eternal cycle of life: birth, death and rebirth.
In Myths of Light: Metaphors of the Eternal, Campbell explains, “…the interaction of these two powers—the solar power of sheer light and the lunar power of reflected light, modified to life—is one of the great mythic themes” and these myths of light—of birth, death and rebirth—are present in both the East and the West; however, how they are experienced are very different (Myths of Light, 13). In 1955, Joseph Campbell spent a year of his life “in Orient,” as he called it, exploring the mythologies that emerged in the civilizations of South and East Asia. It was a life-changing journey that deepened Campbell’s understanding of how myths everywhere reflect, like the moon, the deeper truths of our human existence and how they not only profoundly impact our understanding of our existence but also shape our experience of it.
He became keenly aware that many in the East had a very different experience of life than we do in the West. Upon his return to America, he gave a series of taped lectures about his newfound understanding of mythology, which emerged during his travels and which has been artfully compiled and edited by David Kudler into Myths of Light, now part of the Collected Works of Joseph Campbell. In it, Campbell takes the reader on a journey through the many myths of the Eastern canon, discussing how they contrast to our Occidental mythologies.
In the West, light appears as a central motif in the myths of the many gods of early Greece up through the mono-mythic God of the Abrahamic traditions. In fact, the Bible begins with God’s declaration, “Let there be light!” (Gen. 1:3). God then creates Adam and animals of many kinds. But Adam is lonely. God grants Adam his wish: He creates Eve, but not from Himself; Eve emerges out of Adam. As Campbell points out, this is the first indication in the Biblical tradition that the human condition from that point on is separate from God. Indeed, “… the whole calamity of history goes on over on our side of the footlights with Him out there, observing” (Myths of Light, 10). In the West, we conceive of ourselves as separate from God.
In the New Testament, God sends his Son, Jesus, to give us a way out of the darkness. Jesus proclaims: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). We are reminded that we are not ourselves of God’s light, but we may follow the light of Jesus to our own resurrection. We are reborn through that light, but it is not us. Campbell explains in Myths of Light that while many of the same themes and images of light are present in Eastern mythologies (in fact, in Sanskrit the root for Buddha means “to illuminate”), the many similarities are dwarfed by the profoundly different way in which the transcendent is experienced in Eastern mythologies (Myths of Light, 21).
I use the word transcendent here, as in some Eastern traditions there are many gods (Hinduism) and no God (Buddhism); however, in each there is the idea of the transcendent, that which is beyond all thought and understanding. Campbell explains, “In Occidental theology, the word transcendent is used to mean outside of the world. In the East, it means outside of thought. To imagine that your definitions of your God have anything to do with that ultimate mystery is a form of sheer idolatry from this standpoint.” He further explains that in the East “this mystery that is transcendent of all knowledge is the basis of your own being. It is you; it is immanent within you” (Myths of Light, 6).
Tat tvam asi — “thou art that.” It is the profound insight he gained from his travels, one that directed much of Campbell’s work for the rest of his life. In the East, there is no separation of our inner and outer worlds, no division between the individual and the universe, nor the individual and other individuals. In the Buddhist doctrine of the Flower Wreath, “the whole universe is described as a great net of gems…a gem reflects the light of all the others and is reflected in all the others…” (Myths of Light, 15). That is the light of our lives: it is me, it is you, it is everyone, reflecting one gem from/to another, a great web of illumination.
We are the light.
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