This past May, I taught a course for the Jung Center on Joseph Campbell, the great comparative mythologist. Preparing for that, it occurred to me that his perspective on Buddhism should be of interest to this group.

Why look at Campbell’s ideas about Buddhism? He was not, after all, a Buddhist teacher. The answer, though, is that, as much as anyone in our times, he had an immensely broad, comparative grasp of world religions and mythologies, and thus is able to give us a context, a framework, for seeing how Buddhism is similar to and different from other world religions—particularly the Western religions that most of us grew up with. 

Campbell had an Irish-American background and grew up steeped in Roman Catholicism, attending Catholic schools and serving as an altar boy. But as a youth, he was also fascinated by a very different spirituality, that of Native American culture and lore. He studied the Western classics at Columbia University and became an expert on medieval European myths and legends.Moreover, he was intrigued with Asian religions well before they gained popularity in the U.S. In the 1920s, aboard a steamer to Europe, he met and became friends with Jiddu Krishnamurti, before Krishnamurti, whose roots were Hindu, became famous as a world teacher. On that trip, an assistant to Krishnamurti gave Campbell a copy of Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia, which included an account of the life of Siddhartha Gautauma, the Buddha. Campbell considered his encounter with that book to be “life-changing,” launching his lifelong explorations of Asian religions. 

The focus of our dharma talks tend to be about meditation practices and the application of Buddhist teachings to everyday life, but Campbell’s interests were more philosophical, ontological: he examined a religion’s general spiritual outlook—its notions of ultimate reality and how best to approach it—comparing that with the perspectives of other sects. Tonight I’ll focus on a few of his observations of that sort, especially comparing Buddhism to Christianity.

Most people who know the work of Campbell were introduced to it through his first book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, published in 1949.That book was hugely influential; it has guided the work of novelists and filmmakers to this day. In it, Campbell recounts the story of Prince Siddhartha and his enlightenment, presenting it as a prime example of the universal pattern followed in myths of a hero. 

You know the story: There is first a call, as Siddhartha ventures beyond the restricted life he had in his father’s palace, encountering the human suffering of old age, sickness and death. Like other heroes, he sets off on a journey and encounters extreme struggles, trials and fabulous forces. In his case, Siddartha lives the life of a wandering monk, carrying austerity to an extreme, thereby encountering the nadir, a low point, in his battles—what Campbell refers to as “the belly of the whale”—facing extreme weakness and lying on the verge of death. But the beautiful girl Sujata gives Siddhartha milk-rice, leading to his recovery, after which he discovers the Middle Way and receives homage from animals and divinities in the woods. Finally, under the Bodhi tree, he fends off the temptations of Mara, who besieges him with armies and natural catastrophes. Sitting immovable, Siddhartha receives the great boon, as Campbell calls it—in his case, enlightenment. Following the pattern of the hero’s journey, he then returns to everyday life, to teach, to present fruits of the boon to his fellows, so that they and society might be, in some way, resuscitated, redeemed. 

In the more profound myths, by Campbell’s analysis, the boon is, in some way, a means of gaining the favor, or coming into harmony, with a transcendent realm. In most heroic stories, the society to be redeemed is a local one, a tribe, a city, or a nation. But universal heroes—the Buddha, Christ, Mohammed—bring a boon intended not only for a particular society but for all the world. That boon achieves harmony with ultimate divine power; in Campbell’s words, it reflects “the universal force of a single inscrutable mystery: the power that constructs the atom and controls the orbits of the stars” (HwTF 191).

Let’s look more closely at two of those world redeemers, Jesus and the Buddha. There are definite similarities. Both in some way embody the eternal, the transcendent, in the human: as John’s Gospel says, “the Word was made flesh.” The Tibetan Buddhist mantra, om mani padme hum, which might be translated, “the jewel is in the lotus,” carries a comparable meaning—that the divine, the eternal is available the world. 

The ultimate message of both Jesus and the Buddha might be expressed as cosmic love. “God so loved the world,” says the Gospel of John, “that he gave his only begotten Son…” But Campbell thought that in Christianity,that message had been distorted by historical and social forces. In “the tradition of Christendom” it “has been so disarranged,” he wrote, “…that the modern thinker wishing to know the meaning of a world religion (i.e., the doctrine of universal love) must turn his mind to the other great universal communion: that of the Buddha, where the primary word still is peace—peace to all beings” (158-59).

The figure in Buddhism that most closely resembles ideals represented by Christ is perhaps not the Buddha himself, but the Mahayana mythical figure Avaloketeshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who vows not to bask in blissful nirvana, but to engage in worldly life in order to help all creatures attain enlightenment. Karuna, the compassion of the Bodhisattva, is comparable to agape, the Christian virtue of universal love. Both Christ and Avaloketeshvara regard humanity with infinite compassion and in a sense sacrifice themselves, leaving a heavenly realm to redeem the world. 

There are, however, major distinctions between these deities, and they point to essential differences in the two religious outlooks. In Christianity, Christ, although taking the form of a man, is decidedly other than human: He brings a divine grace from another realm, one which humanity, by its fallen nature, is incapable of participating in on its own. In Buddhism, by contrast, salvation, Buddhahood, comes not from without, but from within: it is intrinsic to our Buddha nature, and we need only realize that to derive its benefits. Ultimately, Campbell writes, the Bodhisattva “is not a power ‘out there,’ in someone else, or in some god somewhere, but within each living thing, within ourselves, inward, essential, and to be found” (MI 420).

Let’s take that distinction a bit further. In Western religions, the ultimate divine principle, what Campbell calls “the ground of being,” is personified as a Creator, God, who is entirely other than His creation and his creatures. The function of religious myth and ritual is to establish a relationship with that divine personality, and the means to forge that relationship is through institutions and rules seen as divinely sanctioned, administered by a clergy. By contrast, the supreme aim of major Asian religions, practices and rites is to promote an experience of transcendent reality, of the divine realm, which is seen as ultimately beyond personality, beyond specific deities, and utterly beyond human concepts and rational thought. Attempts to describe the character of that reality are only anthropomorphic projections. 

Moreover, in this more mystical Asian outlook, the human is part of the divine, is identified with it; it is within us, and within all things. “Tat tvam asi” says the sage to the young scholar in the Vedic Upanishad: “Thou art that.” The ground of being, the immortal life that you seek to know, is in yourself. Or perhaps in more Buddhistic rather than Hindu terms, it is to be sought within. The Christian goal is atonement with a God who is apart; the Buddhistic goal, by contrast, is a realization of our pre-existing at-one-ment with the ground of being. Ultimately then, according to Campbell, the project of Buddhism is psychological. The various avatars and deities, in the end, are not so much substantive entities as aspects of psyche. 

Campbell contrasts the common interpretation of Judeo-Christian scripture with Buddhist teachings. “In…the Old and New Testaments,” he writes, “God and man are not one, but opposites, and the reason man was expelled from the garden was that he had disobeyed his creator…. On the Buddhist side, on the other hand, man’s separation from the source of his being is to be read in psychological terms, as an effect of misdirected consciousness, ignorant of its seat and source…. Whereas the level of instruction represented in the Bible story is that, pretty much, of a nursery tale of disobedience and its punishment, inculcating an attitude of dependency, fear, and respectful devotion, such as might be thought appropriate for a child in relation to a parent, the Buddhist teaching, in contrast, is for self-responsible adults…” (MLB 28-29). Campbell likens the Buddhist perspective to Christ’s observation in the non-canonical Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it” (MLB 30).

But the Buddist kingdom is not the realm of a personified Great Father; it is, rather a realm of consciousness. In words of the visionary teaching known as Amida, “it is your own mind that is even now the Buddha” (MGII-OM 316). Or in Campbell’s words, Buddhism has lifted “temples and pagodas not to any God but to Buddhahood, that is to say, the purified, perfected, fully flowered and fully illuminated consciousness of man himself” (MGI-PM 10). In both the West and the East, we find anthropomorphic depictions of divinity. However the divine might be described in the West, finally it is “manlike.” It may be grossly so, as often in the Bible, or more philosophically, as bearing “human qualities of goodness, mercy, justice, wisdom, wrath and might.” But in the East, the anthropomorphic descriptions are, as Campbell puts it, only “the foreground of a larger structure” (MGII-OM 309). Images in Buddhist temple art are not idols but “supports of meditation” (310); they represent aspects of consciousness (MI 239). We are meant to go beyond “God-in-the-image-of-man” to “an experience of the ineffable, unimaginable no-thing that is the mystery of all being” and which is the ground of our own consciousness, the eternal life with which we are one.

What can we say about that mystery that may be seen as consciousness itself?

Allow me to close these remarks with a brief metaphysical excursion. The mystery may be ineffable and unimaginable, but that has not prevented teachings from characterizing it in some fashion. A fundamental quality of existence is interconnection: all things are related to one another in a unified grand whole. The Buddha stresses sequence in time: dependent arising, all things and actions result from antecedent causes and conditions. The teachings also point to interconnection in space: The universe is correlative: nothing exists in and of itself alone. Every element of reality reflects, in some way, the rest. The teaching is captured in the Mahayana image of the “Net of Gems,” with each individual gem reflecting, thus incorporating, all others. Campbell cites the description “totalistic harmony mutually relating and penetrating” (CM 659).

At least in Mahayana if not in Hinayana Buddhism, that notion of oneness leads to non-dualism. Whereas in Christianity, there is a pronounced distinction between the eternal and the world of time, between Heaven and Earth, in Mahayana Buddhism these two aspects of our experience ultimately are one. The Bodhisattva’s resolution to forego nirvana, Campbell tells us, “represents a realization that the distinction between eternity and time is only apparent—made…by the rational mind but dissolved in the perfect knowledge of the mind that has transcended the pairs of opposites. What is understood is that time and eternity are two aspects of the same experience-whole, two planes of the same nondual ineffable; i.e. the jewel of eternity is in the lotus of birth and death: om mani padme hum”(HwTF152). What Buddhists often call the void ultimately is one with earthly reality. As we are told in the Heart Sutra, “Form is emptiness, emptiness indeed is form.”

Well, those notions go far deeper than we can dive. The Buddha himself was of a practical mind: he cared less for grand metaphysical concepts than for the relief of suffering. But his practical teachings, and those of his successors, arose in a context of ontological assumptions and, as they developed, suggested others. Perhaps the work of Joseph Campbell can serve us as a reminder of that, and point towards a further dimension in our understanding of the teachings that we absorb here in the Sangha. 

Thank you for your kind attention.