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The Myth of the Return Journey

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 98: The Myth of the Return Journey

There are many sayings that have come down to us from the past. Sayings of ancient sages, ancient wise men of both the East and the West and one of these sages, one of these wise men once asked the question, 'what was the strangest and the most wonderful thing in the whole world?' And he answered his own question, he said that the strangest, the most wonderful thing in the whole world was man himself, or if you like the strangest and most wonderful thing in the whole world was human life, human existence. And we may say that there are quite a number of reasons why human life, human existence should be distinguished, should be singled out, as it were, in this way. In the first place, human life is a very deep, a very mysterious thing. It isn't very easy to fathom, isn't very easy to understand. It is, as it were, many-faceted. It has many different aspects, it's a very complex phenomenon, and it's therefore possible to look at it in all sorts of different ways. And because it has so many different aspects, because it's possible to look at it in so many different ways, it's also possible to represent it, to represent human life, in a multitude of forms, under the guise of many different symbols, even many different similes, many different figures of speech. And all these symbols, all these similes in terms of which we represent or embody life as seen from one or another point of view, one or another angle of human vision, all these, all these symbols, all these similes are capable of expansion, we may say capable of almost indefinite expansion. They can be expanded into grandiose myths, into inspiring legends, into fascinating, into enthralling, stories, and these myths, these legends, these stories, in turn can crystallize, as it were, into works of art, works of literature, can crystallize into epic poems, into novels, into dramas; and of course they can also crystallise, also condense, into what we call parables. And we may say that many of the greatest masterpieces of world literature, some of the most famous works of world literature, are of this kind. Their subject is none other than human life itself, and they represent, their purpose, their function, if you like, is to represent human life itself from a certain point of view, from a certain angle of vision. And these works, these great works of literature, ancient and modern, they represent human life, or even life in general, in terms of a symbol, in terms of a certain simile, a certain figure of speech, and it's for this reason they are of universal interest, and it's for this reason that they're still read and eagerly read even after the passage of hundreds or thousands of years.

Let me give a few examples of the sort of thing I mean. We can think, for instance, of human life, of human existence, in terms of conflict. We can think of it in terms of warfare, because looked at from a certain point of view, looked at from a certain angle of vision, life, human life is a battle, and battle is a symbol of human life itself. And this is the point of view, or if you like the vision, of some of the greatest and most famous works of literature in the whole world, in both East and West. If we turn to Greece, Ancient Greece, Classical Greece, what do we find there? We find there a great and a famous work, Homer's Iliad, and the story of Homer's Iliad is the story of the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans for the possession of Helen, Helen of Troy. And in this great battle. in this great war, even the gods and goddesses, divine celestial beings according to Homer, are also involved. So this is the Iliad, the story of a battle. And then if we go further East, if we go to India, to India of the time of the Buddha or maybe a bit later, we find another great epic poem, perhaps not as great from a literary point of view as the Iliad, but very very much longer, and this is the Mahabharata of the great poet and sage Byasa. And this also describes, episode by episode, a battle, describes the great battle between the Karavas on the one hand and the Pandavas on the other for the possession of their ancestral kingdom, the two parties being cousins.

And if again we come back to the West, if we go up to Northern Europe, there we discover that great anonymous Anglosaxon epic of Beowulf, and this too deals with a battle, it deals with a battle between the hero, Beowulf on the one hand, and on the other the fiendish monster Grendel, his still more terrible mother, and finally the dragon. And coming to modern times, comparatively modern times, coming to the seventeenth century in England we come to one of the very greatest of all poems, epic poems, Milton's Paradise Lost; and this too, in great part, describes a battle, this time a battle between God and Satan, or rather between Satan and the Messiah.

So in all these works, from Homer's Iliad down to Milton's Paradise Lost, existence, including human existence, is seen in terms of conflict, in terms of warfare. Life is a battle. It's a battle between right and wrong; it's a battle between darkness and light; it's a battle between heaven and hell; it's a battle between conscious and unconscious. And the battlegrounds, where is that? The battleground is the human heart itself.

Again we can see human existence in other terms, by means of another symbol, as it were. We can see this time human existence as a riddle, as a mystery, life is a problem. And this is the way in which, for example, the Book of Job in the Bible sees it. Job had been brought up to believe that God rewarded the good for their virtue and punished the bad, punished the wicked, even here in this life itself; but then the just man suffers. Job himself suffers, but he's conscious of no sin, no evil in himself, but it seems that God is punishing him and not the unjust man. The unjust man, he says, flourishes like the green baytree. It's the just man who seems to be ground to dust. So Job wants to know why, what is the reason for this, that makes human life seem a problem and a riddle. This is also the way in which Shakespeare sees life in Hamlet. Hamlet utters the famous words, 'To be or not to be', or, as some people have suggested would be more appropriate, to do or not to do; that is the question, or that is the problem. Life itself has become a problem.

There are many other ways of viewing human existence, and therefore there are many other symbols and many other similes, but perhaps we can say that the most important and the most popular of them all is the symbol or the simile of the journey. Life is not only a battle, it's not only a problem: life is a journey, or, if you like, life is a pilgrimage. It's a journey, a pilgrimage, which starts from the cradle and ends at the side of the grave, it's a journey from innocence to experience, from the depths to the heights of existence, and, in Upanishadic words, from darkness to light, from death to immortality. And this is the vision of life that we see in a very great number of works of literature indeed, life as a journey, human life as a journey, as a pilgrimage. And if we mention even a few of these great works of literature which are based upon this sort of symbols, this sort of simile, then it sounds almost like a roll call of famous names; there's the the Odyssey, that's a journey, there's the Divine Comedy, that's a journey, there's Monkey, that's a journey, there's Pilgrim's Progress, that's a journey, there's Wilhelm Meister, that's a journey, there's Peer Gynt, that's a journey - the list is endless. Life is seen in all these works, under the symbol, under the similitude of a journey.

And life is seen as a journey also in various myths, and various legends, and various parables, and this brings us to tonight's subject which is the Myth, or the Parable if you like of the Return Journey. And this is the second of the parables of the White Lotus Sutra, and it occurs in chapter four of that work.

And in chapter four, this parable is related not by the Buddha himself, not by the Shakyamuni, but by four great elders headed by Mahakasyapa. You may remember from previous weeks that these four great elders, headed by Mahakasyapa have heard Sariputra's prediction to Perfect Buddhahood. They have heard the Buddha tell everybody that Sariputra is now so far advanced on the path that he is sure, his is almost destined to reach the end, to reach the goal, to reach the very highest goal of all, which is not just emancipation from one's own individual sin and suffering but Buddhahood, Supreme Enlightenment itself. And these four great elders headed by Mahakasyapa are, they say, amazed and delighted to learn that there is a further and a higher goal of the spiritual life, namely Buddhahood, the existence of which they had not before suspected. And therefore they say they feel as though they had quite unexpectedly acquired an invaluable, a priceless jewel, and in they all together in unison, in chorus if you like give expression to their feelings in a parable.

They say that there was a certain man, and he left his father and he went away. In the East of course you usually live with your parents, with your father and your mother, but here only the father is mentioned.

So they said a certain man left his father and went away. And he went away into a distant country. And in that distant country he lived many years. The text, which after all is an Indian text, says he lived there fifty years, which is quite a long time, but perhaps that isn't to be taken too literally. And while the son was away, far away all those years the father didn't remain idle. Apparently he was a businessman, so he set to work, engaged in various trading ventures, and eventually he became very ...

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