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
Perhaps the most eloquent possible
this mystery is that of the god crucified, the god offered, "himself
to himself." Read in one direction, the meaning is the passage of the
phenomenal hero into superconsciousness. . . But also, God has
voluntarily and taken upon himself this phenomenal agony. God assumes
the life of man and man releases the God within himself at the
mid-point of the cross-arms of the same "coincidence of opposites,"
the same sun door through which God descends and Man ascends--each as
the other's food.
(Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a
Thousand Faces, p. 260)
approach to myth was exemplified in his style of weaving together
stories, images, and metaphors from different traditions. That the
myths can be intermixed in order to clarify their deeper meaning, as
Campbell did in The Hero With a Thousand Faces in order to extract
what he called the mono-myth of the hero's journey, presumes that the
various traditions arise from a common source "which [has] remained
as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and
nervous structure of the human physique itself." (Hero, p.
This is a presumption that the individual
religions--especially those in the West--would disagree with, each
claiming hegemony over the others, each maintaining that it alone has
truth. That kind of exclusivism has resulted in the history of wars,
persecutions, and autos-da-fé ("acts of faith" as religious
executions were ironically called)--from pre-Biblical times to the
present day, from Ireland to Iraq--that make many modern individuals
understandably cynical about religion. It just doesn't make
Joe's facility and willingness to
tales simply dismisses the objectionable exclusivism and, in passing,
demonstrates a whole different epistemology of religious truth. It
certainly spoke to me and transformed my understanding,
simultaneously saving my religious impulses while satisfying my
In my account of my work with Harvard
sociologist-researcher Toby Marotta , In Search of God in the Sexual
Underworld, I presented such a weaving together of myth themes to
demonstrate the major point of that book: that the social problems of
the sexual underworld--prostitution, pornography, drugs, violence,
even molestation--derive more from the condemnations of sexuality in
our culture than from the inherent disorderedness of bodily urges.
The discovery of our research, in mystical terms, was that how we
look at the world determines what we see and that spiritual vision is
supposed to transform what we see in
order to save it , not to condemn
There's a Buddhist aphorism to that
Fools live in a foolish world; bodhisattvas live in a bodhisattva
world, buddhas live in a buddha world. It's no wonder then that men
like Jerry Falwell or the Reverend Wildmon, founder of the American
Family Association, see sin and debauchery all around them, even in a
holy--if, admittedly, erotically charged--parable about Jesus like
Nikos Kazantzaki's Last Temptation of Christ; or that some of their
ilk, like Jimmy Swaggart, end up falling into the muck they generate
all around them.
Using some notions straight out of
some out of my own insights, I want to demonstrate how we can find
the wisdom of saving the world and the flesh in surprising places.
After all, in a buddha world, even the grass is enlightened and every
story is a lesson in enlightenment. In Joel Chandler Harris's story
of Brer Rabbit and the Tar-baby, for instance, we find a classic
description of the hero's confrontation with the world and a hint at
the wisdom by which the hero saves himself and the world.
Brer Fox tried
time again to catch Brer Rabbit, but time and time again Brer Rabbit
got away. Then one day, Brer Fox got him some tar, and made himself a
Tar-baby. Then he took this here Tar-baby and sat her in the road and
then he lay off in the bushes. By-and-by along came Brer
Rabbit--lippity, chippity, chippity, lippity--just as sassy as a
Brer Fox, he lay low.
This story of Brer Rabbit parallels an
folk story of the Buddha. Long before he was incarnated as the wise
teacher who would enter nirvana in his lifetime, his spirit lived as
an heroic, young adventurer called Prince Five-weapons. On the
journey back to his father's kingdom, following completion of his
martial training, he came to a dark and forbidding forest in which
lived a fierce ogre called Sticky Hair. He was warned to go another
way, but he was confident and fearless and set forth straight into
the ogre's domain.
Brer Rabbit's confrontation with the
was a little less intentional, but soon no less militant. For when
the Tar-baby did not respond to his salutation, even after hollerin',
in case the Tar-baby was deaf, Brer Rabbit took it upon himself to
teach the Tar-baby a lesson in civility. So he threatened to whack
her upside the head if she didn't take off her hat and say howdy.
Brer Fox, he lay low, and the Tar-baby
stayed still, saying nothing. Brer Rabbit drew back his fist and took
her a whack on the side of the head. His fist went right into the tar
and stuck there. After threatening to hit her again if she didn't let
him loose, Brer Rabbit fetched her a whack with his other hand. And
that stuck too.
Brer Rabbit kicked the Tar-baby with
foot, then the other, and finally, in desperation, butted her with
his head 'til he was stuck firm to the Tar-baby in five places. Just
then Brer Fox sauntered forth from his hiding place and, just as
innocent as a mockingbird, greeted Brer Rabbit. This time it was Brer
Rabbit that ain't sayin' nothing. Well, Brer Fox was pretty pleased
with himself. He'd caught Brer Rabbit fair and square. Ain't nobody
made Brer Rabbit try to strike up an acquaintance with the Tar-baby.
And nobody invited him to stick his hands, his feet, or his head in
the tar. He did that all on his own. And now he'd be stuck 'til Brer
Fox went and lit a brush fire, pulled him out of the tar, and
barbecued him for lunch.
Brer Rabbit saw he'd been caught dead to
and he talked mighty humble. "I don't care what you do with me, Brer
Fox, so long as you don't fling me in that there briar patch."
Seeing as how it was going to be a lot of
to make a fire and apparently not caring whether lunch was cooked or
raw, Brer Fox reckoned he could just hang the rabbit. "Hang me just
as high as you please, Brer Fox, but for the Lawd's sake, don't fling
me in that briar patch," said Brer Rabbit.
Seeing as how he had no rope, Brer Fox
to drown the rabbit. "Drown me just as deep as you please, Brer Fox,
but don't fling me in that briar patch," said Brer Rabbit.
Seeing as how there was no water around,
Fox said he'd just skin the rabbit. "Skin me, Brer Fox, snatch out my
eyeballs, pull out my hair, tear out my ears by the roots and cut off
my legs," said Brer Rabbit, "but please, please, Brer Fox, don't
fling me in the briar patch."
Well, Brer Fox was pretty fed up with
Rabbit's whining. He really didn't care about eating him so much as
he did hurting him as bad as he could. So he caught him up by the
hind legs, pulled him out of the Tar-baby, slung him around in the
air, and flung him right into the middle of that there briar patch.
There was a considerable flutter where
rabbit struck and Brer Fox hung around to see what was going to
happen. By and by he heard someone calling to him, and way up the
hill he saw Brer Rabbit sitting on a log combing the tar out of his
fur. "Bred and born in the briar patch, Brer Fox, bred and born in
the briar patch. Briars can't hurt me," sang Brer Rabbit as he
skipped off just as lively as a cricket in the embers.
To become a hero,
Buddha had to overcome fear and trick death. When he was seated
beneath the Bo Tree on the Immovable Spot, where he would soon attain
his enlightenment, he was assailed by Kama-Mara, the Lord of Desire
and Death. To put an end to the temptation he touched his hand to the
earth, proclaiming his right to be there. And the earth
mother-goddess roared in a voice of thunder that terrified Kama-Mara
and all his minions, so that they fled, leaving the Buddha in peace.
He had seen that so long as he stayed grounded, firm in his resolve,
unfrightened by the illusions of fear and desire, he was unstuck.
But the confrontation with Kama-Mara over
right to be on the Immovable Spot was not to come for several
incarnations after Prince Five-weapons' battle with Sticky Hair. He
had another adventure to deal with first.
The Prince took his name from the five
he bore: poisoned arrows, sword, spear, and club, and his own body
trained in martial arts. With these he expected to slay the ogre who,
in turn, took his name, as one might imagine, from the thick hair all
over his body into which stuck any weapon used against him.
Five-weapons, upon finding the ogre,
with his arrows. They stuck in the hair. Then he tried his fabulous
sword. It too stuck. One by one the weapons, including, of course,
the Prince's hands, feet, and head, got stuck fast in the ogre's
hair. But the Prince was undaunted.
Hesitating before eating him up, the ogre
the youth, "Why are you not afraid?"
"Why should I be afraid? Death is certain
every life," declared the Prince. "Besides I carry in my belly a
thunderbolt for a weapon you cannot withstand. If you eat me up, the
thunderbolt will blow you to pieces. And, in that case, we'll both
Sticky Hair, not quite as difficult to
convince, but just as credulous as Brer Fox, submitted to the wisdom
of the future Buddha, was converted, practiced self-denial, and
became a divine spirit dwelling in the forest.
Each of us is
with five weapons. For, as Campbell points out (following A. K.
Coomaraswamy and others), the five weapons are the five external
senses with which we contact the world. Sticky Hair and the Tar-baby
represent that world. In his enlightenment the Buddha discovered that
the world that threatens to eat us up, tear out our ears by the
roots, and cut off our legs is but the physical manifestation of our
thoughts and experiences, like a dream or mirage. But when we engage
the world through our senses we become stuck in it. We take it
seriously. We become imprisoned in our own creation, caught in the
form we give to our experience of self, valuing one thing over
another, succumbing to fear and desire, resisting life. We get stuck
in the world because we fail to look beyond it, understand it in a
greater context, or take responsibility for our participation in its
The hero is wiser than the world. Oh,
Rabbit had got himself stuck all right, but when he saw the nature of
the Tarbaby and the grinning face of Brer Fox, he very quickly got
wise. What he knew--that Brer Fox didn't--is that rabbits are
different from foxes: that people live in different universes with
different assumptions, expectations, aims, and values based on their
upbringing and experience. Because the fox was so full of hate and
lived in such a one-dimensional world, he assumed because he himself
wouldn't want to fall into a briar patch Brer Rabbit was telling the
truth when he pleaded with him not to throw him into them there
briars. The fox fell for the ruse and the hero got away.
Young Five-weapons revealed to Sticky
besides the physical world in which swords cut and clubs crush and
mangle, there is an etheric world in which Sticky Hair's defenses
could not protect him. In Indian thought, there were not five senses
but six, for mind was considered a sense. It was through the power of
mind to observe the other senses, and to discover the wisdom that
death need not be feared, that the Prince was armed with the
lightning bolt in his belly.
This bolt, by the way, is the power that
transforms Billy Batson into Captain Marvel in the modern comic book
myth. Invocation of the mantra "Shazam" (an acronym for the heroic
qualities of Solomon's wisdom, Hercules' strength, Atlas' stamina,
Zeus' power, Achilles' courage, and Mercury's speed) reminds the hero
trapped in the illusion of human personality of who he really is and
releases super powers.
If even comic books and Saturday morning
television reveal the essential wisdom, why do we fail to possess the
powers? The Buddha answered that, of course, we do possess them:
Behold the universe we have created. But we are so mesmerized by that
creation that we do not remember our ego-transcendent identity and we
do not realize that we are creating it just the way we want to.
Our modern vantage point allows us to
ourselves (though it is precisely this ability which is responsible
for our loss of belief). We are conscious of the operation of our
minds. Just as our minds are responsible for the advances we have
achieved, so are they for the problems that have resulted. And yet
only our ability to observe ourselves can solve these problems which,
like Tar-baby and Sticky Hair, seem to trap us more deeply the more
we grapple with them. Only a change in consciousness, in how we
perceive the world, can save us from being trapped in it.
The wisdom of the mythological teachings
always, in part, concerned with how to get unstuck from the world,
how to see with the spiritual eye beyond the senses to who we really
are. This wisdom is what is conveyed in the stories of the heroes'
journeys, for the heroes are always seeking their true identity.
This article has 4 parts. This is
Part 1: Brer
Rabbit and the
Part 2: The
Part 3: Jesus
Part 4: A
About In Search of God in the Sexual
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