While the dissolutions stage is essentially the end of the world, a stage commonly associated with doom, pain, suffering, judgement, death and indeed extinction, it is more accurate to say it is the disappearance of the world only, not its annihilation. However, Campbell acknowledges the fear inherent in the myths of the cosmogonic round: “Creation myths are pervaded with a sense of the doom that is continually recalling all created shapes to the imperishable out of which they first emerged. The forms go forth powerfully, but inevitably reach their apogee, break, and return. Mythology, in this sense, is tragic in its view.” Here Campbell points out all creation myths underline that the birth of life likewise births death. All things, all forms, all animals, all plants, all individuals, people, cities and civilizations are doomed to death from the moment of their creation. As the hero’s journey teaches us that nothing lasts and all forms are constantly becoming and in flux, so all visible forms in the world – including the world itself – change, distort, break, and disappear. Life, in a sense, is a parade of tragedies, one following the next.
Yet, in Myths to Live By, Campbell insists recognizing “the monstrous nature of life” is the “first step to the knowledge of the highest divine.” The trick is not just acknowledging the pain of the world, but seeing “its glory in that character: the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed.” It is from this same realization that Buddha rightfully asserts “All life is sorrowful,” for indeed life in this world is filled with misery, illness, fear, and destruction. However, Campbell cautions against hoping the world could be otherwise: “Those who think – and their name is legion – that they know how the universe could have been better than it is, how it would have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without life, are unfit for illumination. Or those who think – as do many – ‘Let me first correct society, then get around to myself!’ are barred from even the outer gate of the mansion of God’s peace. All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be.” The belief that the world could, and should, be different – even if this wish is the result of altruism – are the grand delusions of the ego, and so, as Campbell suggests, those who hold to these beliefs “are unfit for illumination.”
The reason is illumination itself requires the release of this attitude, for it is only the ego who think it knows better. Following his realization that “all life is sorrowful,” the Buddha asked if a cure for this sorrow could be found, which lead to his second revelation: “There is a release from sorrow.” The release however, does not alter the state of the world, as Campbell reiterates, “Revolution is not what the Buddha taught. His First Noble Truth was that life – all life – is sorrowful. And his cure, therefore, would have to be able to produce relief, no matter what the social, economic, or geographical circumstances [emphasis original].” Release from sorrow, the Third Noble Truth, is Nirvana. Nirvana is the “extinction of egoism.” As it is taught in Buddhism, freedom from the ego means freedom from its three temptations: “the desire of ego for enjoyment, its fear of death, and the sense of duties imposed by society.” Nirvana has no expectation of the world, “for the released one is moved from within, not by any external authority: and this motivation from within is not out of a sense of duty, but out of a sense of compassion for all suffering beings.”
The sense of the Buddha’s compassion (or, the Bodhisattva’s – this is Gautama Buddha and anyone who seeks enlightenment), is quite different from that of divesting the world of pain, it is rather “benevolence without purpose.” As Campbell recalls, “It is said that ambrosia pours from the Bodhisattva’s fingertips even to the deepest pits of Hell, giving comfort there to the souls still locked in the torture chambers of their passions.” This is the compassion of Nirvana, realizing that “in all our dealings with each other we are [the Bodhisattva’s] agents, whether knowingly or not.” It is recognizing that all beings are to some extent or another trapped in their own ego perspectives, and being willing to practice empathy towards them (and yourself), allowing through a small ray of the transcendent’s light, regardless of their outward actions and appearance. Indeed, the only answer to tragedy is in “dissolving the organ of suffering itself,” which Campbell describes as “the idea of an ego to be preserved, committed to its own compelling concepts of what is good and what is evil, true and false, right and wrong,” as, anyway, all dichotomies “are dissolved in the metaphysical impulse of compassion” as well as in the full light of the eternal, of which compassion is its earthly expression.
Personal, individual death is a helpful lens through which to understand the end of the world for one’s death is a personal apocalypse. As death is only the shedding of the ego, so the end of the world is the release of the ego illusions which gave rise to the visible world. Despite mythology’s apparently “tragic view” of life, Campbell deftly points out that mythology is essentially the opposite: “in the sense that [mythology] places our true being not in the forms that shatter but in the imperishable out of which they again immediately bubble forth, mythology is eminently untragical. Indeed, whenever the mythological mood prevails, tragedy is impossible. A quality rather of dream prevails. True being, meanwhile, is not in the shapes but in the dreamer.” The ultimate lesson of myth is to reorient us away from identifying with the ordinary world around us, with our physical bodies, our beliefs and worldly attachments, and back to the unmanifest, imperishable source. This is essentially Buddha’s meaning when he suggests that the extinguishing of the ego is likewise the extinguishing of sorrow, for without the ego all that remains is the transcendent. There can be no sorrow where there is no “I” to feel pain. As we do not identify with the shadows of our dreams, but our waking consciousness, so myth reminds us not to identify with the dream-like forms of the visible world, but with the superconsciousness of the unmanifest. As Campbell points out endlessly, the terrifying, death-celebrating gods of the world’s religions are all depicted with a hand raised in peace to remind us: “Do not be afraid. Nothing is happening.”
This is what Campbell means when he describes those fixed on the problems of the world as “barred from even the outer gate of the mansion of God’s peace,” for peace is not in the world. The world was created and is maintained by the perspective of the ego, the “mansion of God’s peace” is found by reorienting our identification to the eternal. Finding the still centre within, the umbilical cord which reaches back to the unmanifest source, is the foundation of true peace. As Campbell suggests, the highest goal of mythology is to teach us how to “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.” As mythology underlines the tragic and painful experiences of life, it also calls us passed them, it does not judge or condemn, it invites us to acknowledge pain and “participate joyfully” all the same. Thus we are called to look upon the dissolution of the world and instead of suffering and death, to see the immanent divinity in all things. The myths about the end of the world are terrifying only because they are sublime, because our egos are forced to face the truth: “I may not be real.” These myths are filled with horrors, in fact, in order to shatter the ego, expand our perspectives and help us re-identify with the transcendent. If we could truly learn to “participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world” by understanding that the sorrows are only shadows which disappear in the light of the unmanifest, we could discover the true freedom to live.
From this perspective, our notions of morality and evil are utterly transformed. Campbell writes of the existence of evil: “Universal too is the casting of the antagonist, the representative of evil, in the role of the clown. Devils – both the lusty thickheads and the sharp, clever deceivers – are always clowns. Though they may triumph in the world of space and time, both they and their work simply disappear when the perspective shifts to the transcendental. They are the mistakers of shadow for substance: they symbolize the inevitable imperfections of the realm of shadow, and so long as we remain this side the veil cannot be done away.” It is only in the physical realm that duality appears to be real. Love and hate, bright and dark, good and evil, are all shadows of the same, unknowable, invisible source. The morality of this world is exactly that, only of this world, it has no ultimate reality because from the perspective of eternity all acts of evil (indeed, all acts) “simply disappear.”
Thus, in a hero quest, the terrifying, oppressive, and evil dragon may be an enemy who must be vanquished, but, from the perspective of eternity, the same dragon is also a reflection of the hero himself. Both the hero and the dragon are holy. Or, as Carol Clover describes in her influential work on the horror genre in film, Men, Women and Chainsaws, “attacker and attacked are expressions of the same self in nightmare.” You would not condemn a dark figure in a dream because you understand from your waking perspective he was only a spectre, and indeed, arose from your own mind, so too are the appearances of this world from the perspective of the unmanifest realm simply shadows. But this is a point more eloquently made by author Hubert Selby Jr., whose books are often, and loudly, accused of being the devil’s work. Most notably his 1964 novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, which was not only banned in several countries including Italy, but was the subject of an English obscenity trial in the late 60’s (incidentally, the jury were all male because the judge believed women might be “embarrassed at having to read a book which dealt with homosexuality, prostitution, drug-taking and sexual perversion,” teacups that we are). In a quote from the book itself, Selby writes, “Sometimes we have the absolute certainty there’s something inside us that’s so hideous and monstrous that if we ever search it out we won’t be able to stand looking at it. But it’s when we’re willing to come face to face with that demon that we face the angel.” Selby articulates the existence of the transcendent behind the abhorrent appearances of the world, and while Selby acknowledges that much of his work is dark, the purpose of this darkness is not to frighten or repulse, but rather – like the dissolution myths of the world – to encourage readers to find the still source of inner light which reveals darkness to be an illusion. Likewise, mythology urges us to see that the peace of eternity shines behind even the deepest pits of hell. At the dissolutions stage of the cosmogonic round, all of this is finally laid bare, as Campbell reassures, because once the visible world recedes back into the transcendental source, “both [the devils] and their work simply disappear.”
With this understanding, it is possible to see that the existence of tragedy in mythology is impossible, for “the myths never tire of illustrating the point that conflict in the created world is not what it seems.” This can be seen in the Mesopotamian creation myth, where Tiamat, a primordial, dragon-like goddess who represents chaos, is split asunder by the great hero Marduk. The shards of Tiamat’s body then become the shell of the earth and sky. As Campbell assures, “Taimat, though slain and dismembered, was not thereby undone. Had the battle been viewed from another angle, the chaos-monster would have been seen to shatter of her own accord, and her fragments move to their respective stations. Marduk and his whole generation of divinities were but particles of her substance.” This great battle is not really between good and evil, it only appears to be: “From the standpoint of those created forms all seemed accomplished as by a mighty arm, amid danger and pain. But from the centre of emanating presence, the flesh was yielded willingly, and the hand that carved it was ultimately no more than an agent of the will of the victim herself.” Herein lie the echoes of the Buddhist law of Pratityasamutpada, the law of mutual arising which underlines the interconnectedness of all being: Tiamat exists because Marduk exists; Marduk exists because Tiamat exists, and thus, the actions of one are expressions of the will of the other. There is no separation between them, no polar opposites of good or evil – not even chaos and order. But, as Campbell underlines, this is all only visible passed the constricted perspective of the ego: “From the perspective of the source, the world is a majestic harmony of forms pouring into being, exploding, and dissolving.” It is only those of us tied to our ego perspectives who “experience [the world as] a terrible cacaphony of battle cries and pain.” Here again we encounter the lesson of the end of the world, to reorient ourselves in “the repose of the central Cause” rather than the apparent causes of the world, and while Campbell acknowledges “The myths do not deny this agony (the crucifixion); they reveal within, behind, and around it essential peace (the heavenly rose).”
From the perspective of eternity, there is no trace of “evil” here, only a shadow play, which taken too seriously is precisely the villain’s mistake. Tragedy and sorrow are themselves only visions created by the ego, not reality, and so too is the emanation and dissolution of the world simply a perspective. In many of the world’s mythologies the true nature of death – that it is simply the release of the ego – is underlined in traditions where the individual does not die once, but countless times over, experiencing many lives, all with the same goal: to totally re-identify with the unmanifest. Death is not an end, but a gateway to the Reality behind the world. Campbell summarizes this belief: “The Chinese tell of a crossing of the Fairy Bridge under guidance of the Jade Maiden and the Golden Youth. The Hindus picture a towering firmament of heavens and a many-leveled underworld of hells. The soul gravitates after death to the story appropriate to its relative density, there to digest and assimilate the whole meaning of its past life. When the lesson has been learned, it returns to the world, to prepare itself for the next degree of experience. Thus gradually it makes its way through all the levels of life-value until it has broken past the confines of the cosmic egg. Dante’s Divina Commedia is an exhaustive review of the stages: “Inferno,” the misery of the spirit bound to the prides and actions of the flesh; “Purgatorio,” the process of transmuting fleshly into spiritual experience; “Paradiso,” the degrees of spiritual realization.” Each life’s aim is to become more transparent to the transcendent until finally one breaks through the shadows of the world, back into Oneness.
So it is that the end of the world is not the sudden implosion and annihilation of all living creatures and the earth itself, but the gradual release of all the ego perspectives which make the world real, until the universe itself is released back into formless eternity. Campbell describes this process, through the lens of the Buddhist tradition, as the gradual recognition of the illusion of separation: “As in the much later Buddhist image of the Bodhisattva within whose nimbus stand five hundred transformed Buddhas, each attended by five hundred Bodhisattvas, and each of these, in turn, by innumerable gods, so here, the soul comes to the fullness of its stature and power through assimilating the deities that formerly had been thought to be separate from and outside of it. They are projections of its own being; and as it returns to its true state they are all reassumed.” This is, essentially, the moment of apotheosis (see The Hero’s Journey), there is no longer duality, no longer separation. This is the true moment of dissolution, where all individuality, all separation, dissolves back into Oneness. And yet… there is another secret whisper behind all the tales of the world’s dissolution: another world will arise again, for nothing is every truly lost. A promise reflected, too, in many of the world’s hero myths, wherein the tales of Baldr, Jesus, and King Arthur, although they die tragically, are not lost to us forever but are hidden in sleep to return in our need. This, for Campbell, is everything: “The basic principle of all mythology is this of the beginning in the end.” So the world must end, but it must also go on.
The horrifying myths of the world’s doom only appear malignant in the last throes of the ego-self resisting its own disintegration. Yet it is this ego-self, the source of our individual (and therefore false) identities, which must be let go of in order to be “reassumed.” This in, in fact, the central riddle of all mythology: “Can the ego put itself to death?” It is out of this riddle that the heroes of myth arise, the impulse to trace the path towards the ego’s release, ultimately towards the world’s dissolution where the ego perspective disappears altogether. Typically this process, particularly in the Christian tradition, is framed as the final punishment for the great sins of the world: the apocalypse becomes the ultimate redemption of a fallen, evil world. While this version rings true from the point of view that the world’s end does indeed dissolve all apparent evil, the essential meaning of these myths is that evil was never real. The true meaning of the dissolution of the universe is rather to reopen our eyes to our true identity in the divine source, and therein, as Campbell consoles in The Hero’s Journey (a transcript of several conversations with students), the concept of redemption is transformed: “The eternal cannot change. It’s not touched by time. As soon as you have a historical act, a movement, you’re in time. The world of time is a reflex of the energy of what is eternal. But the eternal is not touched by what is here. So the whole doctrine of sin is a false doctrine. It has to do with time. Your eternal character is not touched. You are redeemed.” And always have been.
I never realized, until I read your summation of the cosmogonic cycle, just how Buddhist it is. Of course, I know that Campbell was well versed in Buddhism and it influenced a lot of his thinking, but after reading this, it almost seems as if this life cycle of emanation and dissolution is almost just a re-statement of Buddhism(and Hinduism). I would love to have some input from others to see to what extent they agree. Again, your grasp of Campbell’s thinking is astounding.