from conversation's with Michael Toms and Joseph Campbell
"An Open Life - Joseph Campbell in Conversation With Michael Toms"
Human beings throughout history have been searching for their source. How do
you see todays search?
I think our search is somewhat encumbered by our concept of God. God as a final
term is a personality in our tradition, so that breaking past that "personality"
into the transpersonal, whether within ones self or in conceiving of the
form beyond forms although one cant even say form is blocked
by our orthodox training. This is so drummed into us, that the word "God"
refers to a personality. Now, there have been very important mystics who have
broken past that. For instance, there is Meister Eckhart, whose line I like to
quote: "The ultimate leave-taking is the leaving of God for God." This
is what in Sanskrit is so easily expressed in Saguna and Nirguna Brahman
Brahman with qualities and Brahman without qualities. And when people would go
to Ramakrishna, he would ask them how they would like to talk about God, with
qualities or without? You see, thats inherent in their tradition, but its
blocked in ours.
Many people seem to be coming to the search for God.
Well, thats the great thing about it. As soon as you smash the local
provincial god-form, God comes back. And thats what Nietzsche meant when
he wrote that God is dead. Nietzsche was himself not an atheist in the crude sense;
he was a man of enormous religious spirit and power. What he meant was that the
God whos fixed and defined in terms appropriate for 2,000 years ago is no
longer so today. And of course the words of Meister Eckhart give an earlier variation
of Nietzsches remark. So the concept of God beyond God is in our tradition.
What do you think will be the result of the influx of Eastern religions into
You must remember that when we have teachers coming from the East, were
getting the best. There are also crude folk-traditions in the East; and we have
the crude folk- traditions in the West; and our best teachers are not the ones
that are most listened to. Lets put it that way, to start. Now, the best
teaching from the East is the one given by the Dalai Lama. We also had it from
Sri Ramakrishna, the great Indian Hindu teacher of the last century, namely that
there is a common consciousness which is our own ground and so in consciousness
we are one; insofar as you identify yourself with the consciousness that moves
and lives in your body, youve identified with that which you share with
me. And on the other hand, if you fix on yourself, and your tradition, and believe
youve got It, then youve removed yourself from the rest of mankind.
the Eastern teachers are telling us is that the important thing is not what happened
thousands of years ago when the Buddha was born or when Jesus was crucified: whats
important is whats happening in you now. And whats important is not
your membership in a religious community: its what that membership is doing
to your psyche. The divine lives within you. Our Western religions tend to put
the divine outside of the earthly world and in God, in heaven. But the whole sense
of the Oriental is that the kingdom of heaven is within you. Whos in heaven?
God is. Wheres God? Gods within you. And what is God? God is a personification
of that world-creative energy and mystery which is beyond thinking and beyond
naming. We think not only that our God has been named and known, but that hes
given us a whole system of rules. But this system of rules is not from God, its
from man, and the rules are mans clues as to how to get to the realization
of God. Their view is quite different from that. When you hear it, you say, "Ah,
the Waste Land might be said to be the taking of these rules literally, concretely;
and the rejuvenation of the Arthurian grail hero, that of recognizing God as the
dynamic of your own interior. Because were all from a mysterious trans-rational
ground subatomic particles tell us that. We dont know what they are,
and thats what we are. And of course our mind is in this world of time-space
relationships; and the mind must open to the impulse and statements of this primary
precedent of the general consciousness.
So we have effectively cut ourselves off from the spiritual side of life. Is
that what youre saying? Or should I say that we restrict our spiritual inclinations
Well, during the industrial transformation of the world, the conditions
of life lasted a little while; for generations they were essentially the same,
so that the manner of dealing with them and getting the spiritual sense could
be developed and richly experienced. But now the conditions of life change so
rapidly that by the time you get yourself related to one set, another comes along.
I think part of the anxiety of our time is the result of the rapidity with which
change occurs; one cannot get a spiritual relationship to this rapidly changing
important point that the Oriental traditions bring to us is that practical life
is not separate from religious exercises. Religion isnt for Sunday or for
Friday night; it is for all day every day. For instance, were in a religious
exercise right now, you and I, in our relationship. What is it that is playing
in? Its through life that one is to experience the spirit and communicate
the spirit and live in the spirit.
You mentioned the Waste Land. Could we say that in certain parts of American
society a wasteland does exist?
I dont know what your impression is, Michael, but mine is that the
majority of my friends are living Waste Land lives. In teaching, you have people
who havent come into the Waste Land yet. Theyre at the point of making
the decision whether theyre going to follow the way of their own zeal
the star thats dawned for them or do what daddy and mother and friends
want them to do. The adventure is always in the dark forest, and theres
something perilous about it. Now, since retiring Ive been lecturing for
the most part to adults, many of whom feel they need a new start; they have to
find a center in what they do that really meets their lives. And my impression
is that many of my friends just are baffled; theyre wandering in the Waste
Land without any sense of where the water is the source that makes things
You have to go beyond traditional concepts, dont you?
Indeed you do. Not only for your own life, but because life is different
from the way it was and the rules of the past are restrictive of the life process.
The moment the life process stops, it starts drying up; and the whole sense of
myth is finding the courage to follow the process. In order to have something
new, something old has to be broken; and if youre too heavily fixed on the
old, youre going to get stuck. Thats what hell is: the place of people
who could not yield their ego system to allow the grace of a transpersonal power
to move them.
So its like coming in touch with the deeper part of life and being willing
to let go.
And if you understand the spiritual aspect of your religious tradition,
it will encourage you to do that. But if you interpret it in terms of hard fact,
its going to hinder you.
Heinrich Zimmer once said, "The best things cant be told; the
second best are misunderstood; the third best have to do with history." Now,
the vocabulary through which the best things are told as second best is the vocabulary
of history, but it doesnt refer to history; it refers through this to the
transcendent. Deities have to become, as one great German scholar said, "transparent
to the transcendent." The transcendent must show and shine through those
deities. But it must shine through us, too, and through the spiritual things we
are talking about. And as long as you keep pinning it down to concrete fact, and
declare something isnt true because it didnt happen, youre wrong.
We dont say that about fairy tales, and so we get the truth of them. We
should read our religions that way.
What about the desire to follow a guru? We see religions and cults based on
the teacher-disciple relationship flourishing everywhere.
I think that is bad news. I really do think you can take clues from teachers
I know you can. But, you see, the traditional Oriental idea is that the
student should submit absolutely to the teacher. The guru actually assumes responsibility
for the students moral life, and this is total giving. I dont think
thats quite proper for a Western person. One of the big spiritual truths
for the West is that each of us is a unique creature, and consequently has a unique
one quotation I ran into in La Queste del Saint Graal which hit me as being
the essence of what Id call the European or Western spirituality. The knights
of King Arthurs court were seated at table and Arthur would not let the
meal be served until an adventure had occurred. And, indeed, an adventure did
occur. The Grail itself appeared, carried by angelic miracle, covered, however,
by a cloth. Everyone was in rapture and then it withdrew. Arthurs nephew
Gawain stood up and said, "I propose a vow. I propose that we should all
go in pursuit of this Grail to behold it unveiled." And it was determined
that that was what they would do. And then occur these lines which seem to me
so wonderful: "They thought it would be a disgrace to go forth in a group.
Each entered the forest that he had chosen where there was no path and where it
was darkest." Now, if theres a way or path, its someone elses
way; and the guru has a path for you. He knows where you are on it. He knows where
he is on it, namely, way ahead. And all you can do is get to be as great as he
is. This is a continuation of the dependency of childhood; maturity consists in
outgrowing that and becoming your own authority for your life. And this quest
for the unknown seems so romantic to Oriental people. What is unknown is the fulfillment
of your own unique life, the likes of which has never existed on the earth. And
you are the only one who can do it. People can give you clues how to fall down
and how to stand up; but when to fall and when to stand, and when you are falling,
and when you are standing, this only you can know. And in the way of your own
talents is the only way to do it.
Death and eternity play a large part in our thinking. Does that interfere with
our perception of death?
Eternity is not a continuation of time. Eternity is a dimension of here and now.
And we have eternal life now. This is what is meant by "The kingdom of the
Father is spread over the earth and men do not see it." When one thinks of
what happens after death, one is still thinking in temporal terms. So, when were
talking about symbolic systems, that is a misplaced concern. Do you see? Youve
got to do something else with it; youve got to spiritualize the symbol.
favorite definition of religion is "a misinterpretation of mythology."
And the misinterpretation consists precisely in attributing historical references
to symbols which properly are spiritual in their reference. What a mythic image
talks about is not something that happened somewhere or will happen somewhere
at some time or other; it refers to what is now, and was yesterday, and will be
tomorrow, and is forever.
So the Apocalypse is something thats with us all the time.
The moment you see this kingdom of the Father spread over the earth, the
Apocalypse has occurred. Its a perpetual potential, and its also something
in a person who has the experience, that shuts on and off.
a wonderful Indian story of a young man who was told by his guru, "You are
Brahman. You are God." What a thing to experience! "I am God."
So, deeply indrawn, this young man goes out for a walk. He walks through the village,
goes out into the country. And coming down the road is a great elephant, with
the howdah on top, and the driver on his head. And the young man, thinking "I
am God. I am God," does not get out of the way of the elephant. The mahout
shouts, "Get out of the way, you lunatic!" The young man hears him and
looks and sees the elephant, and he says to himself, "I am God and the elephant
is God. Should God get out of the way of God?" And of course the moment of
truth arrives when the elephant suddenly wraps his trunk around him and tosses
him off the road.
young man goes back to his guru in a disheveled condition not physically
hurt, but psychologically in shock. The guru sees him and asks, "Well, what
happened to you?"
young man tells him his story and then says, "You told me that I was God."
so you are."
elephant is God."
so it is."
then, should God get out of the way of God?"
why didnt you listen to the voice of God shouting from the head of the elephant?"
I want to get back to the interpretation of myth, and especially relative to
Christianity. What is your experience with people from the established religions?
How do you convey to them that it is possible to look at the Bible from a symbolic
point of view?
I taught a course at Sarah Lawrence College on comparative mythology for
thirty-eight years. I taught young people of every available creed. More than
fifty percent of my students from the New York area were Jewish; many were Christians
Protestant, Catholic; there were Mormons and Zoroastrians and Buddhists.
There wasnt much of a problem with the Buddhists, but all the others were
somewhat stuck in their provincial traditions.
was the simplest thing; all I did was to point out the parallels and identities
all over the place. You see, when there is a motif such as that of the
virgin birth which occurs in American Indian mythologies, in Greek mythology,
and so on, it becomes obvious that the virgin birth could not have referred to
a historical event. Its a spiritual event thats referred to
even in the Christian tradition. One after another, these motifs became spiritualized
instead of historicized. And the interesting thing is that instead of the person
losing her religion, she gained it. It became a religion instead of a misleading
How can a theologian in a seminary present a course in comparative religion
and still hold fast to literal interpretations?
This is the most baffling mystery of my experience. Because I know, from
associating with my colleagues, that a great many of these gentlemen become firm.
"Ours is finally different. Its a fact!"
You mentioned the Flood. Like the Virgin Birth, it also is a motif that runs
through all cultures.
Yes. There are very few cultures that dont have a Flood motif. Thats
a basic idea: the dissolution of the world which takes place every night when
we go into the flood of our own unconscious. Its the analogue of the mythological
Flood: at the end of the cycle, theres a flood. The American Indians have
lots of Flood stories.
was thought when the diggings in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley were proceeding that
evidence of the Biblical flood could be located at least a flood universal
to that area. And there were flood levels found in several cities. But they were
not the same flood level; they were local floods. Theres no cosmic flood;
the Flood motif is a mythological idea. The whole notion that all originates from
water, and all is going back to water, gives you a cycle: out of water, back to
water, out of water, back to water; and each new cosmic aeon, each new world-age,
is, as it were, a creation out of water and a dissolution into water. So its
a mythological motif. This is exactly the point that Thomas Mann makes very well
in the first part of Joseph and His Brothers: the archetypal Flood is a
mythological, a psychological flood, and when local floods occur they become identified
with it. Do you understand? We have experienced The Flood. The Flood is a mythological
principle, and when a flood occurred, we understood the sense of the image.
What does contemporary religion have to do with the adventure?
I think contemporary religion is in a very bad spot. And I think it is
because it has taken the symbols as the referents. Religion is the constellation
of metaphors, and the metaphor points to connotations that are of the spirit,
not of history, as I said before. And in our religions, were accenting the
historical image that carries the message, but we stay with the image.
The literal interpretation, in other words...
Yes, and you lose these messages. The thing about Jesus is not that he
died and was resurrected, but that his death and resurrection must tell us something
about our own spirit.
Why do you think we tend to a literal interpretation of Christ in myth?
I think its the result of a strong institutional emphasis in our
religions in the West, and a fear of the mystical experience. In fact, the experience
of the divine within you is regarded as blasphemy. I remember having given a lecture
once on this problem of becoming transparent to transcendence, so that your life
becomes a transparency through which light shines. I spoke of it as "the
god in you, coming out through your life." A couple of months later, I met
a young woman at another talk who had happened to be present at the first one;
and she told me that when I had said "The Christ in you asks you to live,"
a priest sitting next to her had said, "Thats blasphemy!" So,
in institutional religion, all the spirit is out there somewhere, not in you.
whats the meaning of the saying, "The kingdom of heaven is within you,"
if you cant say, "Its within me"? Then whos in heaven?
And, "I and the Father are one."
All of that. Jesus was crucified because he said, "I and the Father
are one." Well, the ultimate mystical experience is of ones identity
with the divine power. Thats the sense of the Chandogya Upanishad
saying which says "You are It." That divinity which you seek outside,
and which you first become aware of because you recognize it outside, is actually
your inmost being. Now, its not a nice thing to say, but its not good
for institutions if people find that its all within themselves. So there
may be some point there about our particular situation in the West where religious
institutions have been able to dominate a society.
In some sense, we create our own gods.
Yes, thats exactly what we do. No matter what name we give it, the
God we have is the one were capable of having. Thats something people
dont realize. Simply because theyre all saying the same name for God,
that doesnt mean they have the same relationship to That, or the same concept
of what It is. And the concept of God is only a foreground of the experience.
Well, there you are... As Meister Eckhart wrote
A number of Zen roshis have called him very Buddhist.
Yes. As he said in his sermon "On Riddance," the ultimate riddance,
and the most difficult, is the getting rid of your god to go to God. Wow! Thats
the big adventure, isnt it? Thats the ultimate adventure. Thats
what you have to strive for every minute of your life: to get rid of the life
that you have planned in order to have the life thats waiting to be yours.
Move. Move. Move into the Transcendent. Thats the whole sense of the adventure,
Isnt it important to respect our own uniqueness?
I think thats the most important thing of all. Thats why, as
l said, you really cant follow a guru. You cant ask somebody to give
The Reason, but you can find one for yourself; you decide what the meaning of
your life is to be. People talk about the meaning of life; there is no meaning
of life there are lots of meanings of different lives, and you must decide
what you want your own to be.