from The Myth of the Great Secret: An Appreciation
of Joseph Campbell (Celestial Arts, 1990)
This article has 4 parts. This is
Part 1: Brer
Rabbit and the
Part 2: The
Part 3: Jesus
Part 4: A
like the Buddha or the Bodhisattva and a battler with the world and
its suffering like Brer Rabbit and Prince Five-weapons--discovered
that the way to overcome the world and the flesh was to embrace it;
the way to overcome death was to die. Jesus was nailed to a cross.
The cross, extending in the four directions of the compass,
represented the physical world. Jesus suffered five wounds by which
his senses were crucified on the tree of the knowledge of good and
evil. The fruit of that tree, when eaten by Adam, resulted in the
vision of the polarities which trapped him and all his offspring in
the world of suffering. Crucifixion on that tree resulted for Jesus
in the vision beyond the polarities.
of the confirmation to Thomas the Apostle, who said he would not
believe in Jesus' return until he had placed his own hands in Jesus'
wounds, is the only indication in Scripture that Jesus had been
nailed to his cross. Elsewhere it is simply reported he was
crucified. As almost every depiction of the scene shows of the two
thieves, victims of crucifixion were ordinarily tied by the arms to a
horizontal beam and left to die, usually of asphixiation when the
weight of the hanging body caused the muscles in the chest and
diaphragm to go into spasm.
But Jesus is said to have suffered five
in the hands and feet, caused by nails with which he was affixed to
the cross, and in the heart, caused by a spear with which he was
stabbed by the Roman Centurion, who seems to have been a believer, to
make certain he was dead (and, incidentally, to drain the blood from
his body as required in the preparation of the Passover lamb). The
crucifixion was cut short and the men killed because it was necessary
to dispose of their bodies. The feast of Passover was beginning and
Jews would be forbidden to prepare graves.
The five wounds were significant of the
of the senses by which the vision of the Kingdom could be regained.
Five "wounds" appear similarly on the body of Tara, the goddess of
compassion, born of a tear of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. She
bears openings in her hands and feet and in her forehead; from within
Tara's wounds eyes look out to see the mystically transformed world.
On the cross, Jesus said, at least
the ritual language of Hebrew, words that have perplexed many
Christians: Eli, eli, lema sabacthani. And (according to the two
Gospels that record this story) he then gave up his spirit to God.
These are the opening words of the Twenty-second Psalm, a prayer that
is part of a cycle of texts that refer to the "suffering servant,"
the just man who, though innocent, takes upon himself the sins of the
people, becoming the scapegoat to suffer for them, once for all.
Jesus' intonation of the words, "My God, my God, why have you
forsaken me?" was not a sign of his despair. It was very truly his
recitation of what in a different context we know as the
By the merit of his act he became more
just a man trapped in space and time. He became, as he prayed in the
priestly prayer in the Saint John Gospel, one with all humanity. And
he was crowned, with a crown of thorns and briars, King of the
Universe, Savior of the World.
To Dismas, the good thief, Jesus
"This day you are with me in Paradise." The word in Scripture is
Paradise, not heaven; it was the word for the Garden in Genesis.
Jesus seems to have been declaring not that Dismas would enter some
ethereal afterlife, but that, because he had recognized he was
responsible for his own acts and deserved crucifixion and, unlike the
other thief, did not taunt Jesus to free him, Dismas' cross had also
become the tree of life and to him also was restored the vision of
Jesus' words to Dismas
willingness to accept responsibility for one's own acts restored one
to Paradise, and Jesus' own willingness to go beyond that to accept
responsibility for the acts of the whole world, reveal an essential
meaning of the myth of the crucifixion. The Christian message,
similar to yet differently inflected from the Buddhist, is at least
on one level that, while the suffering of the world may not be
escaped, it can be transcended. In the Gnostic Acts of John, leading
the Apostles in a kind of mystic dance, Jesus instructed them: "Learn
how to suffer and you shall be able not to suffer." And that is
accomplished by taking responsibility for the world in all its
manifestations, by embracing it in oneself and in others as the means
by which the senses can be opened, by accepting things just as they
are without resistance, by practicing compassion not condemnation.
This is more consistent with Jesus' practical admonitions to forgive
sinners and love even one's enemies than with the later tendency of
Christians to judge righteously as sinful certain lifestyles and to
persecute those who did not adhere to a rigid standard of orthodoxy.
Jesus, unlike many of his followers, saw
Brer Rabbit saw: different people live in different universes and one
person's briar patch is another's home; one person's hell is
another's heaven; and to be one with the Ultimate, to be one with
God, one has to embrace all the heavens and all the hells equally.
And so from his perspective as the Christ--the ultimate Self--he was
willing to fling himself into the briars. For the road of adventure,
the road back to the Garden, leads right into the middle of the briar
patch. The briars of Brer Rabbit's escape and the briars of Jesus'
crown are one and the same: the occasion to change the way we look at
"In a twinkle we
all be changed," said Saint Paul.
Not in a twinkle, but in the agony of
hours on the cross and the emptiness of three days in the tomb, Jesus
Christ was changed from man to god. His body was transformed, the
myth tells, from a body of flesh, which, trapped in individuality by
the perspective of the senses, could suffer and die, to a body of
light and glory, which, freed from the limitations of perspective,
could pass through walls and cover distance in an instant.
The Resurrection is considered the
mystery of Christianity. In it are clues for how to live in the world
and in the flesh. That is what the mystery is about. Too frequently,
however, the Resurrection is presented not about life in the flesh,
but about some sort of disembodied afterlife.
Just as the bodhisattva, in one version
vow, offers himself as "the food and drink in the famine of the ages'
end," so Jesus said his physical body would be meat and his blood
drink for his followers so they could enter his Kingdom. He offered
himelf as the lamb of the Passover sacrifice. The blood of this lamb,
smeared on the doorposts, alerted the Angel of Death to pass over the
homes of the chosen people; its flesh fed them during their
pilgrimage to the Promised Land. And of his body that would be
sacrificed, Jesus said, "If you destroy this temple, I shall build it
up again in three days."
The disciples perhaps took his metaphor
reconstruction too literally--an error they made often. They
consistently misunderstood his message, expecting in the Kingdom not
mystical vision but political accession. And so it was that on the
third day after Jesus' death, when they went to the place where his
remains had been laid, to their dismay they found only an empty tomb,
not a reconstituted Jesus. It must have seemed to them that their
Lord had failed to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed or
resurrect the victim who had been ritually sacrificed for the new
But then one by one they began to
strange events. At unexpected times they felt Jesus' presence. In the
gardener on Joseph Arimathea's land, Mary recognized him. In a
stranger two of the disciples met on the way to the little town of
Emmaus outside Jerusalem, when they sat down to eat together, they
experienced him. In a shadowy figure cooking breakfast over a fire by
the edge of the sea, to which as sailors they'd returned after Jesus'
death, they recognized him. In the upper room in which they'd hidden
in fear, the Apostles saw him in a mystical body.
John Dominic Crossan, a Biblical
under whom I studied as a Servite in Chicago, argued that the notable
differences between the narratives in the four Gospels suggest that
the simple physical resuscitation of Jesus was not the real sense of
the Resurrection intended by the Evangelists. If, as so many have
maintained afterwards, the historicity of such a resuscitation were
the central fact of Christianity upon which all else rises or falls,
Crossan argued, the accounts should agree in their report of the
historical events. After all, the essence of historicity is
consistency among witnesses' accounts. But the accounts are not
consistent: the Evangelists treated the Resurrection just as they did
other events in Jesus' life--not as historical facts--but as symbolic
carriers of spiritual and mystical meaning. What the Gospels do agree
on is that on the third day the tomb was empty and soon afterwards
the disciples experienced mystical phenomena that are variously
depicted as apparitions of Jesus, their ability to work wonders, and
the descent of the Holy Spirit.
What actually happened to Jesus' body
mystery. Perhaps the corpse was reanimated, as most Christians
believe. Perhaps it was stolen, as suggested in the Matthew Gospel,
by entrepreneurs, hoping it might still possess some healing power or
at least bring a small fee from pilgrims. Perhaps it simply
* The bodies of
yogis have occasionally bcen reported to dissolve into light or flame
at their deaths. Scientific analysis of the mysterious shroud of Turin
suggested that the image of the body was formed by some form of
scorching radiation. The shroud was believed to have been the burial
cloth of Jesus and the radiation would have occurred at the time his
body was transformed to light. Further analysis, however, has
questioned this explanation because the fibers of the shroud do not
appear to date back to Jesus’ time. Still, there is no viable
explanation of how the image was formed. The shroud of Turin is a curiosity of religious
history. Could it be that what formed the image was the belief of all
those who came to see it and worship at its shrine? Which is to ask, I
suppose, can hoaxes become “real” if they’re believed long enough? The
scientific answer, of course, is “no.” The mystical answer, on the
other hand, seems to be “of course.” That’s where all the myths come
from, after all.
Or perhaps the
body of Jesus. After all, at the Last Supper Jesus had taken bread
and blessed it and given it to his disciples, showing them "This is
my body" and instructing them "take and eat." And he had taken a cup
of wine and blessed it and given it to them, showing them also "This
is the cup of my blood, take and drink." Thus he would be physically
present in the disciples' own bodies.
What the Resurrection seems to indicate
Christ has remained mystically, yet also physically, present. This
is, of course, what is meant by the sacrament of the Eucharist. For
two millennia the Roman Church has insisted that the eucharistic
bread and wine are not merely symbols but are in fact,
transsubstantially, the body and blood of Jesus. The revulsion we
feel when we consider the cannibalism inherent in this image or in
Jesus' rather straightforward instructions at the Last Supper only
reveals how little we appreciate sacramentality or understand the
meaning of the historicity of the Incarnation. For the historicity of
Christianity is itself mythological. The myth of historicity means
that spiritual reality is embodied in time and in the flesh. The
historical events do not need to have "actually" happened for the
notion of their historicity to be meaningful.
In the ancient Roman liturgy of the
Vigil, grains of incense were enfixed with stylized wax nails into
the five cardinal points of a cross inscribed on the Paschal Candle.
The candle represented Christ as the "light of the world." The grains
of incense represented the sweetness of the wounds by which the world
was transformed. To the right and left of the cross were inscribed
the numerals for the current year; above and below, the Greek letters
alpha and omega: the cross, which is the acceptance of things just as
they are, is formed by the intersection of the temporal and the
With consciously sexual symbolism
the Church, the priest who prepared the Paschal Candle then plunged
it three times, each time deeper, into a pool of water. As he did
this, he prayed that the Spirit descend into the water--which,
representing the material world transformed, would be used throughout
the coming year for baptism--making it fruitful for regeneration so
that those who partook of its sacrament would be "born again new
children in true innocence."
This ceremony manifests the tradition
Jesus' death fecundated a new earth. This image, in turn, manifests
the even older tradition of the slaughtered king or corn god, who
sacrificed himself at the end of his reign in order to bring life to
the soil upon which his people depended for food.
Some years ago I
wandered into the chapel of
the Catholic ministry at the University of California at Santa
Barbara. Behind the altar hung a huge mural of the crucifixion in
stark black and white, like a photo collage. I was stunned by it. The
corpus was surrounded by chromosomal and genetic structures on one
side and interplanetary and galactic images on the other. Jesus' body
was formed of vascular and striated muscle tissue. It stood before
and grew into a cross that was a stylization of the female
reproductive organs. The arms of the cross were like fallopian tubes.
Within an ovarian form on the left crossarm, a skeletal fetus reached
out its hand to insert its fingers into the print of the nail in the
savior's palm. Above Jesus' face, bowed in life-bestowing death, the
spectral hands of the Father blessing his Son formed the head of the
phallus by which the Christ was fructifying the material organic
world. The painting, by Michael Dvortcsak, was titled in Teilhardian
fashion: Christ Invests Himself Organically with the Very Majesty of
The sacrifice of the incarnated Self
biological and mortal manifestation engenders new life in foetal
humankind who reach out, like twin brother Thomas to test the
validity of the Resurrection. (In Gnostic Christianity, such as that
presented in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, the image of the
twin signified mystical identity with Jesus the Christ. The
confirmation to Thomas signified the Apostle's realization that Jesus
was flesh, and not a ghost, in Thomas' own body.) The blessed belief
even of those who have not yet seen, but who have believed,
transforms the nature of organic existence. Christ died not to enter
into a new life by which he could escape the world, but to give us
new life by which to experience that world, in the very flesh in
which the Christ Self remains forever incarnate.
In promising to "master the immeasurable
dharmas," the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara identified himself with all
beings. In realizing the radical oneness of all consciousness, he
became the one being incarnated in all, the one able to perceive the
world from all possible perspectives, the one "divine spark," as
Eckhart called it, and the Holy Ghost, as mainstream Christians call
it, by which the Godhead is present in every being. Hence
Avalokitesvara became savior of the world because he is the only
being in the world and he has saved himself, and everyone else, by
his realization that none are saved till all are saved, and by his
choice to save himself by saving all of us--the ultimate act of
enlightened, radical self-interest.
Joseph Campbell wrote of the Bodhisattva:
"Peace is at the heart of all
because Avalokitesvara- Kwannon, the mighty Bodhisattva, Boundless
Love, includes, regards, and dwells within (without exception) every
sentient being. The perfection of the delicate wings of an insect,
broken in the passage of time, he regards--and he himself is both
their perfection and their disintegration. The perennial agony of
man, self-torturing, deluded, tangled in the net of his own tenuous
delirium, frustrated, yet having within himself, undiscovered,
absolutely unutilized, the secret of release: this too he
regards--and is. Serene above man, the angels; below man, the demons
and unhappy dead: these all are drawn to the Bodhisattva by the rays
of his jewel hands, and they are he, as he is they. The bounded,
shackled centers of consciousness, myriadfold, on every plane of
existence (not only in this present universe, limited by the Milky
Way, but beyond, into the reaches of space), galaxy beyond galaxy,
world beyond world of universes, coming into being out of the
timeless pool of the void, bursting into life, and like a bubble
therewith vanishing: time and time again: lives by the multitude: all
suffering: each bounded in the tenuous, tight circle of
itself--lashing, killing, hating, and desiring peace beyond victory:
these are all the children, the mad figures of the transitory yet
inexhaustible, long world dream of the All-Regarding, whose essence
is the essence of Emptiness: "The Lord Looking Down in Pity."
But the name means also: "The Lord Who
Within." We are all reflexes of the image of the Bodhisattva. The
sufferer within us is that divine being. We and that protecting
father are one. This is the redeeming insight. And so it must be
known that, though this ignorant, limited, self-defending, suffering
body may regard itself as threatened by some other--the enemy--that
one too is the God. . . we live not in this physique only, but in all
bodies, all physiques of the world, as the Bodhisattva." (Hero, pp
That is why all Mahayanists ritually
vows. For the vows are clues to one's own truest identity and to the
ultimate redeeming insight.
Jesus' mystical vision had shown him that
individuality too was evanescent. He had seen that in the destruction
of his body, sacrificed and devoured, surrendering form back into
emptiness--as ego consciousness surrenders to unconsciousness--he
would be transformed: he would dissolve back into the collective. In
being subsumed he would become one with his followers, incorporated
into them, seeing through their eyes, hearing with their ears,
touching them with their hands--free of individual perspective.
In entering death, proclaiming the
bodhisattva-savior's vow to suffer for us all, Jesus is reborn in
each person. He has become one with the consciousness that perceives
all experience and founds all existence. Each of us is Jesus
reborn--not so much, of course, in our bodies of matter (born of
mother) which exist in different places in space and time from the
body of Jesus--but in our pure awareness (born of virgin) of life
simply as it is in the present moment. In Christ (that is, in the
pure awareness that is the consciousness in each of us) we all rise
from the dead, for we are reborn in children over and over again, not
necessarily as reincarnating individuals but as the life itself that
causes our children to grow into adults and then to die to make space
for more children and more life.
The myth of the Resurrection gives
reality to Jesus' spiritual discovery of life beyond death--not
simply of continuous living, but of an abundant, transpersonal
vitality beyond space and time. The Resurrection reveals how rooted
is the temporal in the eternal, the individual in the collective, and
the physical in the spiritual.
The myth of the resurrection of the body
(Jesus' in history and ours at the Second Coming) signifies that life
keeps coming back in the flesh. To see that is to see that death need
not be feared, that embodied life is good, that we are all
manifestations of the same life. To see that is to be born again of
the water (of the ocean out of which life first grew and of the
amniotic water of our birth) and of the spirit (which is the breath
respiring through all of us, and which, as William James saw, is
modulated into consciousness in each of us). It is to see that we are
all risen from the dead because of God's act of creation of space and
In time the creative will is our
tense. For the future into which we are being born is always being
created in time out of the past from which we have been reborn.
Indeed, being reborn means seeing that we are that creative will
knowing itself and choosing out of infinite compassion and interest
to be all beings.
In space that will is seen as light. For
life grows up from the earth driven by the power pouring down from
the sun. In his resurrection Jesus became light, one with the sun.
Thus the bread and the wine really are the body and blood of Jesus
because the wheat growing out of rich soil, nourished by the
deterioration of organic matter in the dark humus, is the embodiment
of the light, and the wine, pressed from the grapes, invigorated by
the propagation of yeasts in the rich red juices, is the blood of the
The point of sacrament is to give
reality to spiritual truth. Jesus' conquest of death is his presence
in the flesh of his followers. And the point of transforming our
vision is to find in the flesh, with all its sexual immediacy, the
sacrament of our experience of God. True innocence, Christ invested
organically, a new way to see the world, vision transformed, the
fecundation of a new heaven and a new earth--this is what the
spiritual teachings promise. Such vision will, in fact, transform the
world of history.
Joseph Campbell frequently quoted a line
the Thomas Gospel: In answer to the disciples' question: When will
the kingdom come? Jesus said: The kingdom will not come by
expectation. The kingdom of the Father is spread over the earth and
men do not see it. "In other words," Joe said, "bring it about in
your hearts. And that is precisely the sense of Nirvanic realization.
This is it. All you have to do is see it." (Open Life, p.
That is what the Second Coming refers to:
our sights have all changed we will see that Christ comes again
because, of course, he's never left. Like Avalokitesvara he has
remained in our bodies as us.
This article has 4 parts. This is
Part 1: Brer
Rabbit and the
Part 2: The
Part 3: Jesus
Part 4: A
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