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Where There Is No Path And No Gate

BY Mark C.E. Peterson November 22, 2020

Forest scenery. Creative commons.

“Each entered the forest at that point which he himself had selected, and where there was no trail or path, at its darkest point.”

Campbell citing the Grail legend. Romance of the Grail, p. 136

The great path has no gates,
Thousands of roads enter it.
When one passes through this gateless gate
He walks freely between heaven and earth.

Mumonkan (The Gateless Gate): A collection of forty-eight koan. Mumon Ekai (1183-1260)

This MythBlast is a little more personal to me than normal. 

It is profoundly satisfying to sail the world’s spiritual oceans, fishing for examples of Campbell’s observations about how mythology puts us into relationship to the world, and usually from the safety and comfort of the wheelhouse: the academic point of view. I say “safety” because this theoretical point of view preserves the distance that intellectual rigor, and The Academy, requires. Grasping the objects of study with thought alone prevents us from compromising our objectivity. We are, therefore, generally discouraged from jumping into, much less swimming in, those oceans ourselves.

That’s the upside, but there is an inherent tension in this approach to the world: the requirements of intellectual objectivity are not the same as the requirements of the fully lived authentic life.

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As a wannabe academic, the path laid out before me required a pathos of distance, paraphrasing Nietzsche, to prevent me from accidentally getting lost in the forests of my discipline. But even as I began university, heading down the road to Professorhood and the socially sanctioned role and opportunities that came with it, the entire approach left me restless and edgy. It seemed to put me in the role of a chef who wrote cookbooks but never tasted the ingredients — or, maybe, and I’m quoting Campbell from memory here, like going to a restaurant but only eating the menu.Ideas like this precipitated out of the aethyr when I learned this month’s topic was The Round Table. One quotation, more than any other, has stuck with me across the decades since first studying the Grail legends, and Campbell’s glosses on them.

They entered the woods where it was darkest and there was No Path.

For me this has always echoed a similar insight from Zen Buddhism: that there is No Gate. These dogmatic symbols from Europe and Asia can sound like Romanticized New Age fluff, but they aren’t (Hero with a Thousand Faces, 175). They are concise, practical, and occasionally brutal advice about how to manage and endure the challenges that confront us when we go looking for our lives.

Here’s what I mean: 

I naively took this advice myself — a bit like Phaeton casually picking up the keys to the Solar Chariot — and plunged into the wood where it was darkest and where there was no path. In my case that meant taking a job in what looks, to the outside world, like a backwater campus tucked into the rolling Kettle Moraine of southeastern Wisconsin. Honestly, I still cannot imagine a place anywhere in the world where, with my background and training, the wood was darker than West Bend, Wisconsin (most famous for aluminum pots and electric toaster ovens — yes, that one). From the outside this looked like career suicide even though, exactly as the monomyth predicts, all of my mentors both spiritual and philosophical, my own personal Obi-Wans, rejoiced in and affirmed my choice. 

I have to tell you, I was not so sure.

Of course now, 30 years later, it is perfectly clear to me that the advice from the Grail legend was correct. At the time, and for some years afterwards, I thought I must have been out of my freaking mind. 

“Holy crap!” I’d think, suddenly awake at 2am. “Should I have done this? I’m off the beaten trail! I’ve lost any path forward!”

You’ve probably had this happen too, right? 

Well, while this stanza from the Grail legend describes what happened — and what hopefully happens to each of us on life’s adventure — I found in it a comforting, restorative, and empowering truth.

“Yvain rescues the lion”, miniature from Garrett MS. No. 125 (ca. 1295) kept at Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library. Public Domain.

One night, for no reason whatsoever and out of the blue — also around 2am — I was catapulted out of my existential dread by the very thing that had caused it: the realization that there was No Path in front of me. There was No Gate to go through. I’ll confess to the cliché that the experience was, sure enough, kind of like getting hit by lightning. 

Now, all of that is a nice story, but there’s a terrifically useful and concrete bit of psychological import here.

The experience was liberating. It freed me from expectations that had remained brooding beneath the surface of my daily consciousness, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. In that moment, when these expectations were made explicit, I found myself released from their effects, from the chains that kept me from being what I-might-be-but-didn’t-know-I-could-be-yet, from the anxiety feeding on what I was “expected” to do — expectations that weren’t even my own. 

“Doh!” said my inner Homer Simpson, suddenly realizing that every donut was a eucharist and every beer at Moe’s already the Grail.

If expectation is the ground of sorrow, as the Buddha suggested, then an unexpected life, a life where there is No Path, is the true route to what in the West we’d call the Grail. 


Thanks for musing along!

Mark C.E. Peterson is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies with the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and President of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture.  He began his work at the University of Toronto focused primarily on Hegel’s natural philosophy and its links to the history of science and technology. These interests evolved to constellate around the larger questions of how humans are related – scientifically, philosophically, and spiritually – to nature. A practitioner of both taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years his academic research is currently engaged in a semiotic analysis of the relationship between explanatory and narrative/mythological accounts of nature and an Aristotelian re-examination of environmental ethics.

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In this talk, Joseph Campbell explores the Arthurian tales of the Grail–both in their humanist form, featuring the quest of the unsophisticated Sir Parzival, and in their spiritual form, featuring the quest of the unearthly Sir Galahad.

This series was recorded at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California during the summer of 1969, immediately following the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

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