|October 1998||2541||Number 46|
Meaning in Myth
Since we live in a very multi-cultrual society, we are in contact with a great variety of influences; we are surrounded by different stories and we have access to ones that not only come from our own European or Asian background but we live in the middle of a whole confluence of different cultural patterns. One can see that there are fundamental human questions, problems or qualities that appear all over the world. Different traditions, different groups have evolved stories and ideas to help symbolise these and to effectively bring them into consciousness.
Wherever humanity has appeared, one of the questions that has arisen is, 'How did we get here? What made the cosmos happen?' and then, 'What should I do with my life?' Everywhere in the world, each culture has its own creation myths of how the universe came into being....
The way that we see the universe in terms of human-centred perceptions of time and space is restricting to the quality of true vision.
But the Buddha was one of the few religious teachers that did not make very much of a creation myth. In fact, he made the point of saying that the ultimate beginning of things is fundamentally inconceivable, it is one of the imponderable things. Which does not mean that he did not know the Truth but rather that this is something that cannot be put into thought or word; the thinking mind cannot conceive the reality of the situation.
The way that we see the universe in terms of human-centred perceptions of time and space is restricting to the quality of true vision, so the Buddha said to not bother trying to figure out how it all began. He actually said that if we try to, we will either go crazy or our head will explode into seven pieces. He avoided talking about the ultimate beginning of things... What he was trying to point to was that it is not a matter of how it all began in the first place, or how we can develop a universal picture of it, but to recognise how our experience of the world arises; this approach brings it more inside. He talks about the genesis of problems, how our experience of separateness and our difficulties in life arise. So, rather than having an average creation myth, the Buddha taught what is called Dependent Origination*, which describes how it comes to be that we experience dissatisfaction or unhappiness in the moment. How do our sense of alienation and our problems arise? And how do our problems cease?
...It is interesting that we can look at the biblical myth of the creation of the world in seven days and at Dependent Origination and find many correspondencies. The Buddha describes how ignorance, not understanding the truth of things, is the cause of alienation and dissatisfaction. From ignorance comes the apparent separation of mind and body, and of self and other. Attachment to the senses becomes solidified, which leads to deepening of sense contact, and the concomitant feelings of pleasure and pain becomes something that we absorb into and attach to, so that we run away from pain or we chase after pleasure. The mind thus becomes caught up with self-based desire of one sort or another; attaching to that desire then causes us to invest further in trying to possess the beautiful and escape the painful. When the beautiful slips through our fingers or the painful catches up with us, then that is what we call dissatisfaction or dukkha.
So from the Buddhist point of view, ignorance and desire are portrayed as the cause of suffering and alienation; in the Judaic myth we find that it is pretty much the same. ...Rather than looking to it to describe the origins of the human race, the Jewish people and so forth, the first three chapters of the Bible can be seen to be talking about this same process of Dependent Origination:
At the source, all there is is God -Ultimate Reality. The traditional translation reads: 'In the beginning God created heaven and earth.' However, I understand that in the Hebrew version of Genesis, rather than 'God created' - as a being that acts on a volition - its meaning is more like 'Out of God, heaven and earth arose,' which equates more with the the kind of pattern that I have been describing. Heaven and earth, here and there, represents the basic division and separateness of 'sankhara', heaven and earth are set apart from each other. The spirit of God moving on the waters is like arising of consciousness in that world. The land is then separated from the sea and all the creatures are brought forth into the world. Here again is the same form of branching, complexifying elaboration of the pattern, to the point where there are creatures and Adam and Eve living in the Garden.
This takes us through the levels from vinnana, namarupa, salayatana, phassa and vedana - the mind and body, the six senses, sense contact, to the level of feeling. So that, symbolically, living in the Garden of Eden is like living at the level of pure feeling, being responsive to the world in a state of innocence in invulnerable pleasantness where we are not being driven by desire or fear but just being responsive to life...
...Then the serpent arrives on the scene... the fruit of the tree of knowledge is 'advertised' and Eve is persuaded; this is the arising of desire. Following that desire, the attachment to it leads to the choice to eat the fruit, upadana or grasping. The actual eating of it is bhava, the moment of knowledge arriving - the impact of getting what you are after. Then bhava leading to birth is when we hear the voice of the Old Man,|
'Adam, where are you?'
The point of no turning back has been passed, they have emerged into raw knowledge, which then leads to the two of them being driven from the garden. Alienation, separateness.... So we can take a myth, a story, in many different ways and it is always up to each of us to see how these different images affect us. Because these are talking about deep and complex aspects of our own being, these patterns can help and guide us even if conceptually we cannot follow it or put it all together.
. . . o o 0 o o . . .
In many ways our spiritual life is built around the sense of longing for home - we feel a bit like Adam and Eve outside the Garden, we have been chucked out, we feel separated from other people and uncertain of ourselves. We long for security and comfort, we long for that feeling of 'Ahh...we're HOME' - like returning after a long journey or just that feeling of getting back to our home after work. It is that same heartfelt quality that is expressed in this story - 'Ahh...safe, we're home at last, this is good.' This is a religious symbol in that a spiritual homecoming is a realisation of our true nature; that quality of longing for home, is in a way the spiritual longing that we have for Reality, for completeness, for fulfilment.
Another of the most famous and powerful myths is the story from ancient Greece of the journey home of Ulysses from the Trojan wars. Interestingly, it takes him ten years to make what is, if you look on a map, a journey that should have taken him just a few weeks. He is drawn in by all kinds of events both painful, beautiful and disastrous - being attacked and imprisoned or being distracted, seduced, being shipwrecked and so forth. When looking at the trials of his journey and comparing that with our own spiritual life one can say, 'Yes! That is what it is like!' It is also interesting, however, that Ulysses had Athene, the Goddess of Wisdom, as his protector, his mentor, she was always there looking out for him and making sure that, even if everything else fell apart, he would somehow manage to survive.
For seven years of that time he lived on an island of nymphs. It was a blissful existence: a lovely Mediterranean island, surrounded by beautiful people, an idyllic, dream-like existence, but after seven years of this he feels in his heart, 'I want to go home. This is all very lovely but this is not home, I want to go home - I have to return to Ithaca.' Then there were many other encounters with different kinds of danger or distractions along the way.
Ajahn Sucitto once compared meditation to the journey of Ulysses and his sailors past the sirens. The sirens represent the desire mind. Ulysses knew that the only way that he and his crew could defeat and get past the Sirens was if one of them could hear the Sirens' song and not be entranced by them. Passing sailors would hear the Sirens singing their beautiful intoxicating songs, promising bliss and knowledge and then would land on the shore of their island. These beautiful sea-nymphs would then turn into terrifying monsters and summarily devour the sailors. He commented that the spiritual powers and faculties are very much like Ulysses' crew, who - following his instructions - filled their ears with wax so thay could not hear the song, and then they tied him firmly to the mast. They then rowed past the island and of course the Sirens start calling to them, singing their bewitching song. Ulysses is straining at his ropes trying to break free but the crew just rows on. He is desperately yelling at his crew, saying, 'Come on, it's all right lads! Change of plan, I'm sure this is going to be all right. Untie me!' But the crew just hauls away. The ropes are like the Five Precepts and the crew are the Five Indriya: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom - these are our spiritual powers,they are the things that power us through even though the desire might be overwhelming; the fickle mind is tied to the mast and screaming. This is what it feels like being on a meditation retreat sometimes, strapped to the mast and screaming to be let out, but it is only by being patient and letting the spiritual powers carry us through that we actually get past the Sirens. This represents how we have the ability, if we have good friends, a moral commitment and the right spiritual powers at our disposal, we can get through the most intoxicating, bedazzling, entrancing pulls upon our hearts.
...When Ulysses finally reaches Ithaca, Athene puts a haze over his eyes so that he discovers slowly where he is and that the island has been taken over in his absence. He eventually meets up with his son, Telemachus and a few other friends. His old nurse also recognises him, from a scar on his leg, but many of his old servants and friends have turned against him. Others, like Eumaeus, his swineherd, are still faithful - after all this time he is still looking after the pigs. In his disguise as an old man, he goes and stays with Eumaeus; they sit and talk through the evening, but what really impresses Ulysses is that, even though it is late at night and it's dark and cold, Eumaeus says, 'I have to go out and look after the pigs. I should not just stay in here chatting.'
...Thinking about this some years ago, it struck me that this story,was very like the stages of enlightenment: Ulysses leaving Troy and heading for home indicates the entry onto the spiritual path and from there the whole story unfolds as a spiritual analogy. When he arrives on Ithaca, he is home but there is still danger, he still has not completed the task. This is rather like the third level of enlightenment, what is called anagami, non-returner - he is home but there is still work to be done. The main opponent, the main obstacle to regaining the throne is what is called asmimana or 'the conceit of identity'. This is the final battle: even if we have developed enormous virtue, clarity of mind and purity of heart and we are home, back in Ithaca, if we do not deal with the sense of self in a very intelligent way and we are incautious, then we are going to end up getting skewered by the sense of 'I'. We are never going to make it back to the throne. (Perfection here is symbolised as the rightful king back on the throne of his kingdom with the country at peace and in harmony.)
This seems to be very much like the final battle of spiritual life. The last three of the ten fetters are asmimana, avijja (ignorance) and restlessness - these are the final tasks that are laid out before someone on the spiritual path. Of these, the sense of 'I', the sense of identity, is perhaps the main protagonist that one faces. Confronting it can be a gory business, but with wisdom, symbolised by Athene, on one's side, with humility, simplicity and faith, the hero of the saga must win out.
. . . o o 0 o o . . .
In the West nowadays we seem to be losing our myths, and the ones that we have do not really apply so well. Because of this we find ourselves adrift as a society, and very much at a loss as to how to steer ourselves. There are whole areas of our life where we simply do not know what to do...It struck me that one thing we are particularly lacking is a mythology for spiritual heroes...We also lack any mythology for death now; death is looked upon as a life having failed. But a society that rejects death has no way of understanding and accommodating the fact of it. The other great area of lack that sprang to mind is that we look upon elderly people with disdain, as if they have somehow failed as young people - almost like spare parts in society. We have lost our mythology of the old as being our sources of wisdom. I was talking yesterday with a Sikh, and he was saying how he likes to hang around with the old members of the Sikh community just because he soaks up so much goodness and wisdom from them. I thought, 'How rare!' One just does not find that in Western culture very much; even elderly people themselves are in this way and think, 'I don't want to be a bother, please put me in a home, your life is more important than mine.' One can understand the practicalities of it, but it is a shame that we do not look upon our elders as our guides and our sources of wisdom.
... I do not know how one can turn things around, but I see that until we do develop ways of generating respect and value in these areas, our society is going to continue to drift, degenerate and wander off course. So I leave these thoughts for you to consider for this afternoon.