East and West: Myth & Ritual

The title of this post is taken from the introduction of Joseph Campbell’s Occidental Mythology: The Masks of God.  In it he contrasts two approaches to knowing being.

joseph campbell

     “Throughout the Orient the idea prevails that the ultimate ground of being transcends thought, imaging, and definition.  It cannot be qualified.  Hence, to argue that God, Man, or Nature is good, just, merciful, or benign, is to fall short of the question. . . . All such anthropomorphic predications screen or mask the actual enigma, which is absolutely beyond rational consideration; and yet, according to this view, precisely that enigma is the ultimate ground of being of each and every one of us — and of all things. . . Prayers and chants, images, temples, gods, sages, definitions, and cosmologies are but ferries to a shore of experience beyond the categories of thought, to be abandoned on arrival; for, as the Indian Kena Upanishad states:  “To know is not to know, not to know is to know.”

On the other hand, Campbell describes the Western approach:

“. . .the ground of being is normally personified as a Creator, of whom Man is the creature, and the two are not the same; so that here the function of myth and ritual cannot be to catalyze an experience of ineffable identity.  Man alone, turned inward, according to this view can experience only his own creaturely soul, which may or may not be properly related to its Creator. . . [the purpose] of myth and ritual, consequently, is to establish a means of relationship — of God to Man and Man to God.  Such means are furnished, furthermore, by institutions, the rules of which cannot be learned through any scrutiny of nature, whether inward or without.  Supernaturally revealed, these have come from God himself, as the myth of each institution tells; and they are administered by his clergy, in the spirit of the myth.”

My own experience for many years was dominated by the western approach.  However, the eastern has gained more hold in my own life but it seems to me that there is not an absolute need for one to completely exclude elements of the other.  Indeed, there are “crossover concepts” between sacred texts of both east and west which demonstrates that there is much in common — and it is in that shared territory that we find opportunity for a unified teleological experience.

I’m interested in hearing your ideas for how east and west relate to each other in this context and how it can work to experience being that respects the best from both.

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