TG: Scriptures, People Not of the Book

CAMPBELL: People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.

MOYERS: Myths are clues?

CAMPBELL: Myths are clues to the spiritual potentialities of the human life.

MOYERS: What we’re capable of knowing and experiencing?

CAMPBELL: Yes. [edited for length]

MOYERS: How do you get that experience?

CAMPBELL: Read myths. They teach you that you can turn inward and you can begin to get the message of the symbols. Read other people’s myths, not those of your own religion, because you tend to interpret your own religion in terms of facts – but if you read the other ones, you begin to get the message. Myth helps you put your mind in touch with this experience of being alive. It tells you what the experience is.

--The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers

I don’t want to explicate this too much, so I’ve just prepared some excerpts (in translation) or some sweet overview-style videos for you to peruse. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but these are elements I’ve found in other texts over time to plug back into my framework of Mormonism that enhance my understanding of the theology. We can do this exercise for any and all aspects of religion, and even a more granular look at scripture. However, since Mormon’s unique point of view is that our scripture contains the “fullness of the Gospel” or the Plan of Salvation, I have kept the categories roughly within those bounds. There is a question at the very bottom I'd like to get some responses to, if you're game! 


There was neither existence nor non-existence then.
There was neither sky nor heaven beyond it.
What covered it and where? What sheltered?
Was there an abyss of water?

There was neither death nor immortality.
There was nothing telling night from day.
The One breathed breathless autonomously.
There was nothing else.

There was darkness concealed in darkness.
All was water without shape.
The One enclosed in nothing
Emerged by the power of heat.

First to arise was desire,
The primal seed of mind.
Wise poets searching their hearts
Found the bond between existence and non-existence.

That cord was stretched across.
What was above and what below?
Seeds were shed and mighty powers rose.
Below was urge, above was will.

Who knows and who can here tell
Whence it all came, whence is this creation?
The gods came later to this world.
So who knows whence it came?

Whence this creation came,
Whether he made it or not,
The overseer of it in the highest heaven,
Only he knows it. Or doesn't he know?

-- Rig Veda, Mandala 10, Hymn CXXIX, Nasadiya Sukta, synthesized translation.


The Divine’s Relation to Mankind

        “Myth has two main functions,” the poet and scholar Robert Graves wrote in 1955. “The first is to answer the sort of awkward questions that children ask, such as ‘Who made the world? How will it end? Who was the first man? Where do souls go after death?’…The second function of myth is to justify an existing social system and account for traditional rites and customs.” In ancient Greece, stories about gods and goddesses and heroes and monsters were an important part of everyday life. They explained everything from religious rituals to the weather, and they gave meaning to the world people saw around them.
        In Greek mythology, there is no single original text like the Christian Bible or the Hindu Vedas that introduces all of the myths’ characters and stories. Instead, the earliest Greek myths were part of an oral tradition that began in the Bronze Age, and their plots and themes unfolded gradually in the written literature of the archaic and classical periods. The poet Homer’s 8th-century BC epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, for example, tell the story of the (mythical) Trojan War as a divine conflict as well as a human one. They do not, however, bother to introduce the gods and goddesses who are their main characters, since readers and listeners would already have been familiar with them.
        Around 700 BC, the poet Hesiod’s Theogony offered the first written cosmogony, or origin story, of Greek mythology. The Theogony tells the story of the universe’s journey from nothingness (Chaos, a primeval void) to being, and details an elaborate family tree of elements, gods and goddesses who evolved from Chaos and descended from Gaia (Earth), Ouranos (Sky), Pontos (Sea) and Tartaros (the Underworld). Topic


       Also – and here I hope I shall not sound absurd --  I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found … in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish… but nothing English, save impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.
        The main body of the tale, The Silmarillion proper, is about the fall of the most gifted kindred of the Elves, their exile from Valinor (a kind of Paradise, the home of the Gods) in the furthest West, their re-entry into Middle-Earth, the land of their birth but long under the rule of the Enemy, and their strife with him, the power of Evil still visibly incarnate. It receives its name because the events are all threaded upon the fate and significance of the Silmarilli (‘radiance of pure light’) or Primeval Jewels. By the making of gems the sub-creative function of the Elves is chiefly symbolized, but the Silmarilli were more than just beautiful things as such. There was Light. There was the Light of Valinor made visible in the Two Trees of Silver and Gold. These were slain by the Enemy out of malice, and Valinor darkened, though from them, ere they died utterly, were derived the lights of Sun and Moon. …
         But the chief artificer of the Elves (Feanor) had imprisoned the Light of Valinor in the three supreme jewels, the Silmarilli, before the Trees were sullied or slain. This Light thus lived thereafter only in these gems. The fall of the Elves comes about through the possessive attitude of Feanor and his seven sons to these gems. They are captured by the Enemy, set in his Iron Crown, and guarded in his impenetrable stronghold. The sons of Feanor take a terrible and blasphemous oath of enmity and vengeance against all or any, even the gods, who dares to claim any part or right in the Silmarilli. They pervert the greater part of their kindred, who rebel against the gods, and depart from paradise, and go to make hopeless war upon the enemy. The first fruit of their fall is war in Paradise, the slaying of Elves by Elves, and this and their evil oath dogs all their later heroism, generation treacheries and undoing all victories.

--From a letter by JRR Tolkien to Milton Waldman, 1951, printed as a forward to The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien

Prepare a Savior

        Now, the Buddha figure is like that of the Christ; of course, 500 years earlier. You could match those two traditions right down the line, even to the characters of their apostles, of their monks, Christ, now, there’s a perfectly good hero deed formula represented there, and he undergoes three temptations: the economic temptation, where the devil says, “You look hungry, young man; change the stones to bread,” Jesus said, “Man lives not by bread alone, but every word from the mouth of God.” Next, we have the political temptation: he’s taken to the top of a mountain and shown the nations of the world, and says, “You can come into control of all these if you’ll bow to me.” And then, “Now, you’re so spiritual, let’s go up to the top of Herod’s temple and see you cast yourself down, and God will bear you up and you won’t even bruise your heels.” So he says, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Those are the three temptations of Christ. In the desert.
       The Buddha also goes into the forest, has conferences with the leading gurus of the day, he goes past them, He comes to the bo tree, the Tree of Illumination, undergoes three temptations. They’re not the same temptations, but they are three temptations, And One is that of lust another is that of fear, and another is that of social duty, doing what you’re told. And then both of these men come back, and they choose disciples, who help them establish a new way of consciousness in terms of what they have discovered there. These are the same hero deeds; these are the spiritual hero deeds ñ the Moses, the Buddha, Christ, Mohammed.

-- Excerpt from Bill Moyers' interview with Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Death & The Life After 

[Egyptian] Journey through the underworld
        Throughout the underworld journey, the deceased’s spirit would have to contend with gods, strange creatures and gatekeepers to reach Osiris and the Hall of Final Judgment. Here they would plead their case for entry into the afterlife.
Who is Osiris?
        Osiris was the god and chief judge of the underworld. He was also god of vegetation and the annual Nile flood and was closely associated with death, resurrection and fertility. The ancient Egyptians believed him to be a dead king, a former ruler who had been miraculously restored to life after being murdered by his brother Seth. For this reason he came to symbolise the hope for eternal life that every Egyptian held.
The Final Judgment
        Once the journey through the underworld is complete, the deceased reach the Hall of Final Judgment. Judgment involved a two-part process:
        Part 1: standing before the 42 divine judges
        Here they stood before 42 divine judges and pleaded their innocence of any wrongdoing during their lifetime. The Book of the Dead provided them with the correct words to use for each of the judges, ensuring that they would pass this part of the judgement process even if they had not been completely innocent.
         Part 2: weighing the heart
         The second part of the judgement process was the ‘Weighing of the Heart’ ceremony. The heart, which contained a record of all the deceased’s actions in life, was weighed against the feather of the goddess Ma’at. This feather was the symbol for truth and justice and helped determine whether the deceased person had indeed been virtuous. If the heart was found to be heavier than the feather, it was fed to Ammut, the ‘Devourer’, and the soul was cast into darkness. If the scales were balanced, the deceased had passed the test and was taken before Osiris who welcomed them into the afterlife. For those who were concerned about this test, they could recite the spell (usually Spell 30B from the Book of the Dead) inscribed on their heart scarab amulet to prevent their heart from ‘betraying’ them.
The Afterlife
        Life in the Field of Rushes was a reflection of the real world they had just left with blue skies, rivers and boats for travel, gods and goddesses to worship and fields and crops that needed to be ploughed and harvested. The dead were granted a plot of land in the Field of Rushes and were expected to maintain it, either by performing the labour themselves or getting their shabtis to work for them. Shabtis (small statuettes) were often supplied with agricultural tools such as baskets and hoes and were often lead by a foreman or overseer (who appeared after about 1000 BCE), who carried a flail instead of tools.

Below are a few excerpts from a debate hosted by between two Western (read: white) Buddhists on reincarnation and rebirth. The full interview is behind a paywall, so if you're interested in the entire transcript just let me know. 

Tricycle: So, Bob, you can’t have cause and effect and karma without rebirth?
Thurman: No, because you’re not in it.
Tricycle: And Stephen, what would you say?
Batchelor: I think you can. For me one of the most striking passages in Shantideva is the verse in which Shantideva says that the person who dies, and the person who is reborn, are other. And, therefore, the only valid motive that one can have for acting has to be compassion. There is no “you” who continues into a future life. “You” finish at death, and something else, another being is then born, like a parent giving birth to a child. That position takes the subject—me, the ego—out of the equation. The process of evolutionary change is not about me, Stephen Batchelor, but about what I can now do to improve the spiritual evolutionary advantage of those who come after my death. If you take the idea of otherness in this way, you no longer need to posit some personal consciousness that goes from one life to the next.
Tricycle: So rather than attribute to him supernormal human capacities, you, Stephen, are attributing to him limited cultural parameters.
Batchelor: I have difficulty with the idea of seeing the Buddha as a kind of superman.
Tricycle: Bob?
Thurman: I’m sure Buddha was superman! Beyond superman! [Laughter] Stephen is correct that the Buddha accepted his cultural paradigm. Yet many of Stevenson’s cases are drawn from cultures other than India where they don’t have formal rebirth theories. The vast majority of people in this country, when they’re polled, believe in heaven and hell. What we have in our culture is an elite group controlling materialist science. Their views make it impossible for people to make progress, because it inculcates a nihilistic attitude about life. “Existential” is a nicer term, but it’s really nihilistic. It gives you a weird kind of freedom. And it gives you a tremendous helplessness. There’s is nothing you can really do because you don’t think that this piece of meditation, this piece of training, this piece of reasoning, will really accomplish any transformation. The idea that you will become nothing at death, which subliminally makes you feel like nothing even now, is the major obstacle to people’s emotional life, and their sense of connectedness with nature, with other people, and the environment. And that’s where the cause and effect of karma and former and future lives, can push at those self-imposed boundaries. 

Tricycle: So the “story” of rebirth can be a positive motivating force.
Thurman: And that’s good. The key boundary that we have to cross is the white, Protestant mentality in order to rediscover the sense of reconnectedness to life and the planet. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Buddha was just telling stories in some sense of making it up. Of course, from the Buddhist radical scientific point of view, the story of us sitting in this room on the eighteenth floor of a building in New York City is a story.
Thurman: In classical Mahayana and Tantric accounts when someone attains Buddhahood they go through a kind of mega-death which results in a kind of mega-life where they can be alive in fifty different beings or a million different beings. That’s very different from a person who as a compulsive self-centered, self-enclosed individual grasps for another self-enclosed individual’s existence in whatever form of embodiment, which is the way they would describe an unenlightened person’s involuntary samsaric rebirth—driven by lust and hate and so forth. So there are different kinds of rebirth within that picture. But no one can absolutely prove rebirth; even the Buddhists say that; only a Buddha’s mind can know it for sure. But still, the fact of accepting it has profound and important consequences.
Tricycle: If you accept that Buddhism is about suffering and the relief of suffering then the question to you, Bob, is why, without rebirth, you would then change some part of your life? And the question to Stephen is, does the vow to relieve suffering become greater or lesser with a dependency on rebirth? Is there a way in which the dependency actually could subtract or undermine?
Batchelor: It could go both ways. I think that for people who are inspired by the notion of subsequent lives it could reinforce the vow to save all beings. But there could also be those who could feel, “Well, you know, this life is kind of busy. Maybe in some future life I’ll get my act together.” I don’t think that there’s anything to believing one way or the other that has any intrinsic ethical implications.

Final Question:

Given the People of the Book all claim the same original sacred text, we can safely assume more than a few parallels in theology, structure of scripture, etc. However, when we branch out to People Not of the Book, do you expect to see so many similarities? Why or why not? Furthermore, what is the cause of such similarities?

Vanessa OlerComment