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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, December 15, 2006

mythology and waking up

A semi-wakeful night, with plenty of dark thoughts. Plus, a major windstorm swept in by around 3:00, creating thunderous sounds outside (when I pulled out my earplugs), and making the building shudder.

In the morning I keyed more notes from Oriental Mythology by Joseph Campbell. I'm in chapter 4, "Ancient India". Campbell is developing the streams of mythology that led to the distinctive civilization of India. He has identified four streams:

1. the diffusion of Bronze Age civilization from the nuclear Near East (Mesopotamia), with its society based on the hieratic city-state, goddess-worship, professional priests with knowledge of the calendar, and the periodic ritual killing of kings;

2. the overthrow of this culture by the horse-mounted Aryans, patriarchal warriors who worshipped willful, capricious gods--the culture now known as Vedic;

3. the resurgence of some of the Bronze Age mythology, but farther east, down the Ganges River, and the rise of the Brahmin as a class of being superior even to the gods, insomuch as the Brahmins, through their ritual knowledge, were able to compel the favor of the gods; and finally

4. the arising, by 700 BC or so, of "forest sages", hermits who meditated in the jungle to cut through the chain of suffering of earthly life--men who used the ancient practice of yoga (which existed in India even before the time of the Bronze Age infusion) to awaken from the sleep of life. The greatest of these would be known as the Buddha (563-483 BC).

From these four great creative centers the great mythological complex of India was born, giving rise to the spiritual civilization that we know today.

When I was younger I resisted studying the history of religions or philosophies. I was looking for truth, and I didn't want to think that truth was something contingent, the result of a rough-and-tumble series of accidents. If something is true, it's true, isn't it? It doesn't matter what came before, or how it was discovered. 2 + 2 = 4, no matter who says it, or where, or when.

Now I feel different. I'm able to share Campbell's excitement in tracing the origins and history of ideas--the ideas that have given form to whole cultures and civilizations. I'm willing to acknowledge that truth in the absolute, pristine sense that I was looking to find does not exist--not in the relative, conceptual world in which I was looking, anyway. (In my Buddhist training, I came to be acquainted with the idea of the "two truths", that is, relative and absolute.)

For me, the Buddhist teachings have been decisive in my spiritual education, which means my education into the meaning and purpose of my life, my education into adulthood. When I was at Gampo Abbey in 2002 I learned a little about the philosophical matrix in India from which Buddhism was born. I was surprised to learn that many of the doctrines I had been taught did not originate with the Buddha, but were simply incorporated by him from the surrounding culture in teachings of his own--things such as the concepts of samsara, nirvana, karma, and the meditative states called dhyanas. Even his first core teaching of the Four Noble Truths were not original, but a repackaging of existing teachings, using a standard medical structure: diagnosing an illness, identifying its cause, naming its cure, and prescribing a treatment regime to get there.

The issue of truth is very important to me and always has been. That makes me a philosopher. There are always people who know more than oneself, which means that in some sense they stand as authorities over one. I think of an image from the novella called The Goshawk by T. H. White (I haven't read it--my brother-in-law Mike read it and told me about it). Evidently, in order to tame a hawk, the would-be master has to stay awake longer than the bird. That's the only way. It can take a couple of days, but when the hawk finally falls asleep in your presence, it knows it's been beaten; it has submitted to your mercy.

In a similar way, those who know more than we do have been "more awake" in those fields where their knowledge is superior, and we are naturally inclined to submit. This is normal, natural, and good--but only up to a point. There comes a point when one must go by one's own lights, regardless of authority, and of course take all the attendant risks. Otherwise, one never attains true adulthood. One remains a member of the herd, obedient to leaders who may take you only to slaughter.

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