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Contents Preface to the Revised Edition: Weaving a Tapestry of Meaning
1. Belief in Crisis
2. Emptiness, Peregrination, and the Spirit of Mendicancy
3. The Mystical Insight
4. The Great Secret
5. Synchronicity and the Story of Your Life
6. Techniques of the World Saviors
7. The Path of the Wanderer
8. The Virtues of Emptiness
9. The New Myth: Gaia Awakes
Nobody knows and you can’t find out.
—John Brockman There is an environment of minds as well as of space. The universe is one—a spider’s web wherein each mind lives along every line, a vast whispering gallery where… though no news travels unchanged yet no secret can be rigorously kept.
Preface to the Revised Edition
Weaving a Tapestry of Meaning
The Myth of the Great Secret was originally subtitled A Search for Spiritual Meaning in the Face of Emptiness. It might well have been subtitled What I Learned From Joseph Campbell. The book first appeared in 1981. Its companion book, In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld, was published a year later. Together these presented a theory of religion—and an application to such real-life issues as teenage prostitution and the so-called sexual revolution—based on the ideas of Joseph Campbell. While the two books developed a small following (I still get letters from readers who’ve found copies in used bookstores), they were in some ways ahead of their time and soon went out of print.
In the early 1980s, Joseph Campbell was relatively unknown. Of course, he’d already published a shelf of books and had devoted fans all over America. But it was not until after his death in 1987 and the subsequent appearance on television of the six-part series of interviews with philosopher and television commentator Bill Moyers that he caught the fancy of the American people. PBS channels discovered that the airing of the series, titled The Power of Myth, during annual fundraising appeals brought enormous success. Apparently this was the kind of television the thinking and contributing public wanted on the air.
Perhaps by the end of the decade of Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority with its unfulfilled promise of restoring the righteous moral values and deadly serious religious certainty of the 1950s, Joe Campbell’s sensible approach to religion and his infectious, good-natured laughter were a breath of fresh air. There was something reverent and sacred even about his irreverent and sarcastic accounts of Christian teaching and history. Even when he complained about the abuses and spiritual aberrations of religion in the West, it was as though he understood the secret truth behind it all—and that that made it okay to joke about the most serious and sacred of topics. Somehow, you always knew God would be laughing along with Joe.
As early as 1966 I was one of Joseph Campbell’s devoted fans. After being assigned The Hero with a Thousand Faces for an undergraduate course in Jungian literary interpretation, I discovered my whole world view and spiritual attitude transformed. I was in Roman Catholic religious life at the time and the transformation had serious practical implications.
In the early 1970s, out of religious life, living in San Francisco, and pursuing a degree in Comparative Religion, I had an opportunity to hear Campbell in person. That opportunity blossomed into much more than attendance at a lecture. I got to know Joe personally and began a correspondence that continued sporadically over more than ten years.
The transformation Campbell’s ideas produced and its consequences in my life was recounted in The Myth of the Great Secret and In Search of God in the Sexual Underworld. (This revised edition of the former includes some of the most notably Campbellian portions of the latter.) This recounting necessarily included episodes from my life. But this book is not properly an autobiography. I’m hardly important enough to warrant an autobiography. My life is important only as an example. For one has to have concrete examples. That’s an important part of Campbell’s notion of myth and religion, that inherited traditions provide us with symbols and metaphors for interpreting and enriching our individual lifestories. In fact, he titled one of his books Myths To Live By. Abstract, transcendental truths can only be told in terms of concrete, everyday examples, and the examples must not be mistaken for truths.
What has made my story interesting is how Campbell’s wisdom helped me to face the very difficult religious crisis that confronts the modern world. Essential to that wisdom is the notion that each of us is a storyteller and it is in telling the story of our lives—even if only to ourselves—that we utilize the myths of religion and that we place ourselves in the divine context. This seems to be what religion is really all about.
This book weaves together metaphors—in the style of my teacher. These are the metaphors of my life, of course, but just as the metaphors of Joseph Campbell’s life have inspired millions with awe and wonder, understanding and enjoyment, so I hope those of my life and my generation may also inspire in readers some wonder and enjoyment.
I’m pleased to report that Joe liked the original of this book. He wrote, “The Myth of the Great Secret is a jewel of a book. I have read it with deep fascination, enchanted not only by the graceful style… but also by the skill of your presentation, giving us your message at the start, in a prologue, and then illustrating it with increasing force, to the end, in a sort of narrative-and-expositional crescendo. And, of course, it was with very great pleasure for me to learn of my own contribution to your dark-forest adventure. The episode of the blank slide that time at the Mann Ranch! And I think the way you have put together all that we have all been learning from each other in those meetings and encounters, up and down the state of California, is really wonderful. The book is the definitive chronicle of our ‘Queste del Saint Graal’ of the seventies.” (The story of the blank slide—a joke Campbell played on me and on his audience—is told in Chapter 3.)
One of the issues that concerned Campbell more and more in the seventies and eighties was the question of “the new myth.” His audiences began to ask him what would replace conventional theism now that science had undercut so many of its foundations. He always replied that one could no more predict a future myth than one could predict tonight’s dream. Yet it seemed to me quite obvious what Campbell’s own thought predicted would be the new myth. And it’s seemed quite obvious that the popularity of his thought has borne this out. That he didn’t realize the implication of his own work seemed to be a blind spot in his understanding—a blind spot, by the way, probably indicative of the message in the episode of the blank slide…
Joe Campbell was a man. He had his successes and his failings, his strengths and his weaknesses. Other people may write about those. Though I knew him as a man, I was most interested in his thought and how his writings had affected my experience of my religious compulsions. This is what I’ve written about in my appreciation of Joseph Campbell.
That is not to say that Campbell’s personal life was not important to his thought. That he was raised a Roman Catholic; that he was fascinated as a child with Native American lore; that he was a successful track runner in college; that he went to Europe in 1924 and met Krishnamurti on the boat; that he experienced the difficulties of the Great Depression and spent several years in Woodstock, New York in seclusion studying; that he was invited to teach at Sarah Lawrence College; that he married Jean Erdman, an accomplished dancer; that he came under the tutelage of Heinrich Zimmer and studied Indian culture and religion; that he met Carl Jung and edited six volumes of the Eranos papers from the Jung Conferences at Bolligen; that in the 1970s he came to California to lecture; that he lived in the cultural and ethnic melting pot of New York City—all these were the events of his own lifestory. They influenced his personal experience and colored the wisdom he gleaned. But the wisdom to be learned from any person’s lifestory is, hopefully, always greater than the sum of events.
What Campbell tells us in his prolific writings is that the events of our lives can make us heroes and teach us wisdom that arises from far beyond the individual, and that understanding life in this way can help us cope with the daunting difficulties and frustrations of daily life and, in fact, raise us into a realm beyond the everyday.
This is what Campbell meant when he said the great myths of the human past can open us to a heightened experience of being alive. And it is what he summarized in his now familiar dictum: “Follow your bliss.” This means to pursue that which inspires one with a sense of wonder and connectedness, full of the rapture of life. It doesn’t mean pursuing simple materialistic happiness or middle-class (even academic-class) fulfillment, though it may incidentally result in those. Bliss is a technical term in Buddhism, ananda, for being enraptured in enlightened wonder and living in harmony with truth and being. This doesn’t mean being narcissistic in the sense of being concerned only with one’s own happiness and satisfaction, though it does mean following one’s own path and not looking to “what other people think” for the measure of one’s success. It means paying attention to what life is telling one one ought to be doing, paying attention to the promptings of one’s soul, to the urgings of compassion, and to one’s sense of being part of the grand process of life.
Carl Jung identified the psychological themes in the religious and mythological traditions. He called these “archetypes.” One of the archetypes was the “wise old man.” It referred to the character in one’s lifestory who teaches wisdom and points the way to discovery of the deep secrets of that grand process of life.
Joseph Campbell was for me—and, through his writings and lectures, for many—the “wise old man.” He opened my eyes and pointed me toward my bliss. Through my lifestory, I’ve discovered how to gently leave behind the naive—and now discredited—religiousness of my youth and find wonder, meaning, and bliss in a new mythic consciousness.
I strongly believe Joseph Campbell is one of the instruments by which this new mythic consciousness is being born. It doesn’t come from him. One might say it comes from the mind of the planet and he has been one of its voices—one that happened to get publicity because as an individual he happened to be at the right place at the right time and happened to have the personality to get noticed. One might also say that because he was following his bliss he was especially attuned to the urgings of that planetary mind.
Joseph Campbell was by birth an Irish Catholic. That heritage helps to explain why laughter and storytelling were part of his intellectual explanation of things and part of his personal style. Joe loved to tell stories. He had a great voice and was constantly modulating his tone, demeanor and vocal character. He made people laugh, even as he made them think. One such story succinctly summarizes the message of this present book. And it reveals the religious predicament of the modern day.
Campbell told that he’d been lecturing on mythology, explaining how the various religious traditions influenced one another, how certain doctrines developed, how the various gods around the world reflected one another, and how they and their followers differed from one another—the stuff of Campbell’s lectures that’s become so familiar to PBS viewers these days.
During the question and answer period, Campbell told, a rather stern woman stood up and explained that only one religion could be right and that all the others are therefore mere myths. “Mr. Campbell,” she concluded, “I’ve been listening to you all night and… and… well, I think you’re an atheist!”
“Madam,” Joe said he replied, “anyone who believes in as many gods as I do can hardly be called an atheist.”
That kind of not being an atheist is precisely what the new myth is about and it’s the secret I learned from Joseph Campbell.
Peace is at the heart of all because Avalokiteshvara-Kwannon, the mighty Bodhisattva, Boundless Love, includes, regards, and dwells within (without exception) every sentient being. (The Hero With A Thousand Faces, p. 160)
Discovery comes less often from learning and thinking than from intuition. I was in graduate school in Theology on the way to the priesthood; I’d learned about the truths of Roman Catholic Christianity. I’d also studied C.G. Jung and Alan Watts and Joseph Campbell; I’d learned about the truths of the world’s religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. I’d thought a lot about God. But once when I was living in the Servite Priory in southern California, I experienced intuition. Though it lasted only a moment, it came to influence all my thinking since.
The monastery, house lore had it, was built during the 1920s by an ex-gangster who needed to disappear into the California desert where enemies would never find him. To gratify the whim of his wife, who had loved the Alhambra at Granada, he constructed a Moorish castle complete with moat, minaret, domes, and hanging gardens. After his death (of perfectly natural causes) the property, like so many other such odd estates, ended up in the hands of the Church, in this case, the Order of Servants of Mary. To counter the Islamic influence, the Servites had erected a huge fountain depicting Our Lady’s bodily assumption into heaven right in the middle of the hanging gardens. And to house some fifty novices and students they’d added two dormitory wings on the crest of the hill above the castle.
By the time I arrived at the castle it had been a seminary for years, but it still retained some of the original exotic flavor. The road into the property bridged an arroyo euphemistically referred to as “the moat,” then dipped down to pass under an arcade which upheld a terrace overlooking the arroyo, and finally circled a rock-walled garden in front of the main entrance. From there a huge doorway led into a marbled antechamber, up a few steps, and into the great hall, which the Servites were now using as a chapel. Lining both sides of the huge room were glass doors painted with brilliant icons depicting the Catholic sacramental system; on the right these opened onto the terrace above the moat and on the left, onto a central tiled court, where palm trees and tall cypresses shaded the Shrine of the Assumption and what was left of the gardens of cypresses, succulents, and cactuses.
It was no longer a hideaway. The sprawl of Los Angeles had reached all the way to the desert and surrounded the property. And there was no need for hiding anymore. Indeed, the seminary maintained a very visible presence in the middle-class suburb of Riverside. We had a large crowd of followers and friends of the community. And we conducted very popular and well-attended liturgies on Sunday mornings. This was in 1969 when progressive Catholics were spiritually exhilarated by folk guitars and still expected that the Mass in the vernacular was going to make religion more relevant in their lives. It was after one such liturgy, toward the end of the first summer I lived there, that my life changed.
After Mass, I had gone back to prepare lunch for the community. Being pretty good at it and enjoying cooking, that summer I’d taken on responsibility for the kitchen duties. The room was a mess. The previous night the arrival of visitors from the Midwest had inspired an impromptu party. Now dirty dishes from the coffee-and-doughnut social following the morning Mass were piling up atop the remains of that party. To add to the confusion, during the evening one of the visitors had fallen against a lavatory in one of the upstairs rooms, knocking it off the wall. The pipes burst and rained water into the refectory adjoining the kitchen. As part of the late-night repair, the water had been mopped up, but in the morning the floor was still dirty and streaked.
The Prior of the house, a gentle, saintly, and somewhat reclusive man named Father Peregrine Graffius, assumed the job of waxing and buffing the refectory floor. (I think he wanted to avoid all the hoopla surrounding the arrival of the visitors.) I set out to straighten up the kitchen and wash the dishes. It seemed like an endless chore. More dishes were being brought in from the after-Mass social than I could keep up with. And nobody was volunteering to help. I grew first angry, then philosophical, then despondent. The previous school year I’d been quite taken by the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant with its insistence that for human actions to have moral significance they had to be done out of duty and not desire. Even before discovering Kant, I’d read Joseph Campbell’s account of the Buddhist saint Avalokiteshvara who overcame personal desire and saved the world by vowing to take upon himself the suffering of the world. Swept with zeal in the fervor of Campbell’s words, I’d made the bodhisattva vow myself. And so that morning I’d kept reminding myself of my commitment to duty and to overcoming personal whim.
Just as I finished in the kitchen, the Prior came in and asked me to help him replace the tables in the refectory, then to put away the buffing machine for him. That would be my last chore. The house was quiet now. All the guests had left. The brothers, for whom it turned out I’d unnecessarily fixed lunch, had gone off with the visitors from the Midwest. All morning I’d been alternately cursing the makers of this mess and berating myself for not accepting my religious duty more gracefully. I was exhausted and emotionally drained.
I rolled the buffing machine out into the courtyard. It caught on a tile and the brush fell off. As I was replacing it, the machine slipped and fell on my fingers. Then, when I pushed open the door to the chapel, a pile of folding chairs that had been carelessly leaned up against the door frame crashed down, and the brush fell off the machine a second time. I stacked the chairs properly, reassembled the machine, and managed to get it through the door and down the aisle to the back closet where it was kept. I found there was no room in the closet because folding chairs there had also been stacked improperly and in order to get the machine inside the door I had to position it precariously on the edge of the brush. It slipped and fell on my fingers again.
I slammed the door to the closet. I almost screamed I was so angry. But then a curious peace descended upon me. As I started to walk back toward the front of the hall, I realized that despite my resistance I had been behaving correctly. I had indeed been doing my duty. And, I realized, that was how God would be acting in my spiritual life. I saw that all that had been happening that morning, including all my complaining and resisting and fussing, had been the instrument by which God was shaping and molding my spirit, by which I was being taught to accept things the way they are and not just the way my ego wanted them to be.
And then, in a flash, I saw that these events had not been the instrument of God, but had been God. And I knew in that moment that I was seeing the face of God. All my life, I had prayed to know what God looked like, to see the face of God. And I knew then that I’d always been seeing it, that I had always been in the presence of God because God had always been my present experience. The chapel turned to God all around and stretched out endlessly. The universe opened up to me. Everything was obvious. My sense of ego disappeared. There was only God and whatever was left of me, I realized, was also God and had always been God. I sank to my knees on the steps of the sanctuary, amazed that suddenly I seemed to be seeing the divine so clearly, and that it was all so simple.
It lasted only a moment. A quizzical voice inside my head asked if I was having a mystical experience. With that self-reflection, the walls of the room slammed back into place. I was me again, imprisoned in my ego. Shaken but elated, I staggered out of the chapel and across the courtyard. As I was ascending the walkway that led up to the novitiate wing, again for a moment the stairs turned into God bearing me up—as they had always been, but which I’d never understood.
The experience can be explained away. It may have been simply the effect of coffee and doughnuts and stress and too much adrenaline decaying in my brain. And yet…
The experience changed my life. I have since then never quite doubted that life is the vision of God’s face—though my measuring and evaluating ego continues to veil it from me—and that such a God is very different from the one I’d been taught about in catechism or that is preached about by television ministers or talked about in mainstream churches.
As I said, I’d been moved spiritually and intellectually by my reading The Hero With A Thousand Faces a few years earlier. Joseph Campbell had explained to my satisfaction how the myths of the world’s different religions are all metaphors for the qualities of God. He had inspired in me a fascination with the Buddhist myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesava. He had sown seeds in me, I understood, for the realization of the meaning of that—and of all—myth. He had set me up for the discovery of a secret.
That is how I discovered that there is a Great Secret that is everywhere hidden and everywhere revealed. Listen, let me tell you a secret…
BELIEF IN CRISIS
…the democratic ideal of the self-determining individual, the invention of the power-driven machine, and the development of the scientific method of research, have so transformed human life that the long-inherited, timeless universe of symbols has collapsed. In the fateful, epoch-announcing words of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Dead are all the gods.” (Hero, p. 387)
We are all looking for something that will make our lives rich, interesting, and meaningful. Yet most of us have so lost touch with the search that we wander aimlessly, feeling only an occasional restlessness which reminds us that there ought to be more to life than there seems to be.