Mythic Ways of Knowing

Dream

We are all familiar with the way dreams speak to us in strangely assembled images, drawn from the past, interspersed with our fears, and projected into our future. There is even the ‘science’ of travelling through space and time with lucid (consciously aware) dreaming. While dreams clearly have a function in helping us process emotional disturbance, including ‘nightmares’, they can also communicate deeper truths to us through imagery.

I myself had a clear experience of this during a major period of upheaval in my life. Working with a dream therapist, I learned how to go back into the dream sequence and ‘ask’ different images what they were trying to tell me. The answers were clear and direct and helped me make major changes in my life. It was like my deeper awareness was communicating to me via metaphor, bypassing my habitual ways of thinking.

For in dreams things are not as single, simple and separate as they seem, the logic of Aristotle fails, and what is not-A may indeed be A. The goddess and the lotus are equivalent representations of this one life-enclosing sphere of space-time, wherein all things are brought to manifestation, multiplied, and in the end return to the universal womb that is night (Campbell, The Mythic Image, 1974:8).

One of the greatest popular scholars of the world of mythic thinking is Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). Campbell concluded that:

What humans seek is not so much meaning, but 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… and that’s what myths help us to find within ourselves (Campbell & Myers, The Power of Myth, 1988:5).

He is most famous for his theory of the journey of the archetypal hero (The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949), which has informed the construction of the narrative story arc in cinema, particularly celebrated in the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings film series. In his, The Mythic Image, Campbell takes a comparative journey through mythic ideas across cultures, exploring the themes of ‘the world as dream’; the idea of a cosmic order’; the Lotus and the Rose as symbols; ‘transformation of the inner light’; the idea of ‘the sacrifice,’ followed by the idea of ‘the waking’.

It is widely acknowledged that Campbell’s interpretation of the meaning of world myths drew on the psychological theories of Carl Jung, which in turn were influenced by Indian and Buddhist religious ideas, including the syncretic synthesis of these in Theosophy. Of particular interest were the ideas of life and death in the celebrated 14th century Tibetan text, the Bardo Thodol (Eng: Tibetan Book of the Dead), first translated by Evans-Wentz in 1927, and which revealed a radically different approach to human consciousness.

The Mystery of Consciousness

The methods of science, as enshrined in technical rationality, have been unable to unravel the mysteries of consciousness, being limited to the physical examination of brain function, or in the behavioural study of humans and primates. In this paradigm, consciousness is seen as an emergent property of the brain, which itself is not yet fully understood. However, beginning with the ruminations of the physicist, David Bohm, the field of quantum physics is now gaining evidence for what the Buddhists have been teaching for thousands of years: our consciousness operates at a level that exceeds the physical speed of light and is able to travel anywhere it wants instantaneously. Bohm warned:

We need to understand the limitations of human thought, as well as a deep realization of the existence of pure awareness beyond thought, wherein lies the source of all true insight, intelligence and creativity. Language imposes strong, subtle pressures to see the world as fragmented and static: thought tends to create fixed structures in the mind, which can make dynamic entities seem to be static. There is really no such thing as a thing: all objects are dynamic processes, rather than static forms (Bohm, 1987:73-91).

Rather than thinking of consciousness as something that is created and produced by the brain, many scientists are beginning to wonder if the brain is merely a filter for consciousness to come through, an approach that is in tune with the Buddhist understanding of consciousness.

The Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche, wrote The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (1993, rev. 2002) as an explanation of the Buddhist vision of life and death contained in the Bardo Thodol for a contemporary understanding of its essential spiritual message.

In this wonderful teaching we find the whole of life and death presented together as a series of constantly changing transitional realities known as bardos…(which) are occurring continuously throughout both life and death, and are junctures when the possibility of liberation, or enlightenment, is heightened… The greatest and most charged of these moments, however, is the moment of death (Sogyal Rinpoche, 1993:11).

Dream yoga is an important part of the Tibetan Buddhist canon of spiritual training, and Tibetans recognise the ability of certain adepts, known as déloks, to travel into the world of the ‘dead’ through dream yoga, and to bring back messages of spiritual importance. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche (1930-2002) has written about his own mother, Dawa Drolma, as a délok in his autobiography, Lord of the Dance (1992), later further explained in Dawa Drolma’s own autobiography, edited by the translator Richard Barron, in Delog: Journey to Realms Beyond Death (1995).

Spiritual Praxis

Although I am a student-practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism in the Nyingma tradition, to which the Bardo Thodal belongs, and I have received teachings on Dream Yoga, this is not a practice that I have trained in. Like Buddhist practitioners of all traditions, I have trained in calm abiding (shamatha) meditation, which is the source of all mindfulness meditation and therapy, and in insight (vipashyana) meditation. I have also trained in the direct wisdom meditation methods of Dzogchen, and in the tantric meditation methods of Vajrayana, which utilise complex deity mandala visualisations and use of mantra as a way of helping transform everyday dualistic perception of reality and inner experience into what we might call mythic ways of knowing. As Sogyal Rinpoche makes clear, Tantric practices use the principle of deities as a way of relating to the fundamental energies of non-dual consciousness. Buddhism is non-theistic; the term of Buddha or Buddhas refers to the principle of spiritual awakening, not a person or ‘god(s)’.

Deities are understood as metaphors, which personalize and capture the infinite energies and qualities of the wisdom mind of the Buddhas. Personifying them in the form of deities enables the practitioner to recognize them and relate to them. Through training in creating and reabsorbing the deities in the practice of visualization, he or she realizes that the mind that perceives the deity and the deity itself are not separate (Sogyal Rinpoche, 2002: 289).

It is in the teachings of the Bardo Thodol that we find the explanation for the relationship between consciousness and the mandalas of Buddhas and deities of the generic mandala of the Five Buddha Families, which are central to Tantric Buddhism and its ‘alchemical’ methods of transmutation. These act to transmute both the reifying of perception and concepts, and the solidifying of wisdom energies into the disturbing emotions (hatred, greed, jealousy, envy, pride)—thus allowing what the Buddhist teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul refers to as the re-synchronization of perception to accord with reality. It allows for what another contemporary Buddhist teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, calls—escape from the prison of the real.

It is through my immersion in such Buddhist spiritual praxis (practice supported by theory) that, despite my extensive training in technical rationality as a sociologist of technological innovation, I have gained a deep familiarity with mythic ways of knowing. And yet, while I can live in both these worlds of technical rationality and mythic knowing, I find it very difficult to explain this to those who have not undertaken similar immersive training in mythic ways of knowing.  This blog post is my attempt to somehow communicate my own understanding of why mythic knowing is important and transformative.

Dakini

The idea of ‘dakini’ (Tib: khandro), ‘she who moves through space’ is one example of the power of mythic knowing in Tibetan Buddhist practice. It has multiple levels of meaning, conventionally expressed as outer, inner and secret. As the scholar-practitioner Simmer-Brown explains, the idea of the ‘dakini’ became an important expression of spiritual energy in Tibetan Buddhism associated with the feminine principle, but importantly beyond the conventional idea of gender. Activated in both men and women practitioners, it points to a form of awakening that breaks through our conditioned mind through all sorts of circumstances and events.

On a secret level she is seen as the manifestation of fundamental aspects of phenomena and the mind…the formless wisdom of the mind itself, the Great Mother, (Prajnaparamita, Sanskrit, Yum Chenmo, Tibetan). On an inner, ritual level, she is a meditational deity, visualised as the personification of qualities of Buddhahood. On an outer, subtle-body level, she is the energetic network of the embodied mind in the subtle channels and vital breath of tantric yoga (Simmer-Brown, Dakini’s Warm Breath, 2001:8-9).

The 9th century historical figure of Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal is celebrated as a principal student and consort practitioner of the spiritual mystic, Padmasambhava, a foundational figure in the establishment of Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism and Dzogchen in Tibet under the patronage of King Trisong Detsen during the reign of the Yarlung Empire across Central Asia. Known as Guru Rinpoche (precious teacher), one of his manifestations is the warrior protector, Gesar of Ling, the subject of the largest extant oral epic narrative in the world, dating back to the 15th century, and sung across large parts of Tibet and Central Asia.

Invoked in spiritual practice through the ‘Seven Line Prayer’, Guru Rinpoche is ‘sung into being’ by the dakinis, from the place of his birth in Oddiyana (thought to be analogous with the Swat Valley in NW Pakistan). In the story of his life, Padmasambhava’s accomplishments as a vidyadhara (knowledge holder) and mahasiddha (accomplished yogi) in India are celebrated in the story of his Eight Manifestations, and in particular, his relationship with wisdom and worldly dakinis (Terton Sogyal Trust, 2004:25-31). For example, after the Dakini, Lékji Wangmo (Sangwa Yeshé/Guhyajnana), in the form of a nun, transformed him into the syllable HUM and swallowed him, she conferred on him the secret empowerments of Amitabha on her lips, Avalokiteshvara (Tib: Chenrezig) in her stomach, and Hayagriva in her ‘secret place’, before rebirthing him through her ‘secret lotus’. Here we see clear evidence of the use of female sexual imagery and embodiment in the female form as a way of mythic knowing, which persisted in Tibet despite the prevalence of its monastic male-centred spiritual culture.

As a western woman, steeped in the learning of academic technical rationality, discovering Tibetan Buddhist practice with this pervasive reference to female embodiment had a profound effect on me when I was going through a transformative change in my life. By embracing the idea of the dakini as an outer, inner and secret experience in my spiritual life, it has become a deep source of spiritual nourishment, free of gender politics, that connects me on multiple levels to the world around me, providing me with a profound sense of the dynamic interdependence of life as it arises moment by moment.

As part of my own spiritual journey, I undertook a three-year retreat at Lerab Ling, a retreat centre in the south of France, where I completed the traditional tantric and Dzogchen practices of my Nyingma tradition. During this retreat, connecting strongly with the dakini, I wrote this supplication:

Khandro Yeshe Tsogyal
Fearless Lady of Lotus Light
Hear my plight
Fill my heart with your blessings
Opening it into the vast expanse.

You called to me long before I recognised your voice.
Looking back I see your hidden hand in my yearning quest for meaning,
My troubled youth, the disappointments and adventures,
The dreams and visions that awoke my inner nature.
Until finally I found you, the precious voice of the dharma,
Reverberating from Oddiyana and Tibet into the chaos of the modern world.

Many times you sought to awaken me from my prison
Of the conceptualising mind,
My female energies hidden from my view.
Finally you sent the mamos into the very cells of the gateway to my womb
Where they shook me with their wrath:
‘Woman, give birth to your female energies
Or this disturbance of your cells will spread.
If you do not heed us, you will die. Give birth to your Dakini!’

As I watched the dawn break over the rolling waves of the ocean
The dakinis sang to me with Pandaravasini’s fiery sun,
The glistening surge of Mamaki, brushed by the wind of Samayatara
To form white foam that frolicked in the sunlight.
Their voices sang: ‘Put away your books and intellect. Find a new voice.
Make fertility sculptures with Buddhalochana, the flesh of Mother Earth.
Mould sensuous forms that celebrate a woman’s body!’

For months I laboured with the alchemy of fire and clay,
The Buddhas, Pandaravasini and Buddhalochana, my companions,
To find a language that my inner dakini could speak.
I put aside my intellect and learned to play with the Earth,
To trust the fire of the kiln’s alchemy,
Moulding sculptures of fertility that I placed around my house.

Thus I began to heal and birth my inner dakini.
You came to me in dreams, each one with the same message,
‘We want you to dance.’

Then, thus prepared, you took me to meet Guru Rinpoche himself,
Appearing in his precious emanation, Sogyal Rinpoche
Whose warm heart, irreverent, biting humour and vajra words
Opened my aching, fearful, lonely heart.
I found a place within, unmet before, and took him as my teacher.
And so began my spiritual path with the Ancient Ones,
The Nyingmapas of Tibet.

As I chanted the mantra
OH AH HUM BENZA GURU PEMA SIDDHI HUNG
With which the dakinis welcomed Guru Rinpoche into our world
I allowed its deep vibrations to penetrate all my subtle channels,
Awakening the wisdom of my inner air,
Calling to the innermost tiklé of my consciousness.

Finally I am getting to know the lineage masters whom I invoke
Until I can feel them close to me, across time and space
In their hermitages and monasteries.
And in the wilder places of charnel grounds and mountain caves,
The places where you, Yeshe Tsogyal, trod the path 
Following the instructions of your guru
Across the awesome landscape of Tibet.

My mother Tsogyal, precious dakini of the heart
Guided by your spirit the masters explored and mapped
The vast inner reaches of the nature of mind,
Which is their gift to us that we might follow.

Integration

After returning to Australia at the end of the retreat, at the age of 64 I had to face the challenge of funding my old age. This saw me returning to the world of technical rationality, taking a job in Canberra in the Department of Innovation and Industry, and later the Department of Communication, and stepping up to the challenges of shaping public policy and performing the myriad small tasks of public administration, driven by ‘risk management’ in the age of the 24 hour media cycle and social media. It also saw me embracing my role as mother to my sons and grandmother to my grandchildren, none of whom are Buddhist practitioners but who all respect my spiritual journey and embrace many of its values and attitudes in their daily lives.

Meanwhile in my private time and place I remained immersed in my Buddhist praxis and a project I had begun working on during the last year of my retreat. This is a manuscript (unpublished) exploring the world of East Tibet through the lives of a number of spiritual teachers and political figures, during the one hundred years before it was thrust into the modern world in 1955 as part of the Peoples Republic of China. Yet it is a world where the power of the Gesar epic lives on as an embodiment of spiritual courage in the lives of contemporary Tibetans, while they simultaneously embrace modernity as citizens of one of the great political and economic powers of the world.

My research-writing project enabled me to explore the world of pre-modern Tibet, a land of sacred landscape, of mountain gods such as Amnye Machen and Nyenchen Tanglha, of protector spirits, and of spiritual teachers with seemingly ‘magical’ powers of insight and magnetic spiritual presence. Windhorse prayer flags still flutter from houses, temples and mountain passes across Tibet. At the centre of the flag is the horse (symbolising lung-ta or lifeforce) crowned by the jewel of Chenrezig, Buddha of Compassion. In the four directions are the garuda (fire), the dragon (water), the tiger (wind) and the snow lion (earth), each symbolising the magical-sacred powers of the elements, the inner nature of which is dakini wisdom energy. It is a world I physically travelled through in 2004, accompanying Amnyi Trulchung Rinpoche, abbot of the Ju Mohor Monastery, which sits high on a treeless hillside in the nomadic country of west Sichuan, at an altitude of 4,500 metres.

Today the benefits of my immersion in my Buddhist path of wisdom are many. Its central embrace of the truth of impermanence and interdependence and ways of working with my mind and feelings enable me to flow with life’s challenges and the reality of ageing and death. Because Tibetan Buddhism uses mythic language and imagery to convey its insights, and its experiential methods harness the power of the arts to convey truths that are not easily captured in the clear edges and grammar of prose language, it has given me a feeling for the rhythm and epistemologies of the cultures of Aboriginal And Torres Strait Island peoples, which form the ancient foundation of what it should mean to be Australian.

Mythic Presence in Landscape

Now I am retired from my job in the Australian Public Service, living in a small mountain cottage in Katoomba, with views down Kedumba Creek over Katoomba Falls across the valley that is home to Lake Burragorang (Warragamba Dam), and further south to the mountains in the distance. All this is Gundungurra Country.

Katoomba is home to the famous rock formation known as the Three Sisters, but which in fact is part of a larger formation of the Seven Sisters songline expressed in rock and part of the Seven Sisters Dreaming songline that stretches right across Australia from west to east, intimately connecting the stars of the night sky (the Pleiades seven star formation) with the land forms below.  This is illustrated in the painting by Josephine Mick, Seven Sisters Songline, 1994, acrylic on particle board, held in the National Museum of Australia, and which is the feature image of this blog.

This songline was the subject of a major exhibition, Tracking the Seven Sisters, at the National Australian Museum in 2019. As Andrea Mason, CEO, Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankuntjatjara Women’s Council says in the Foreward to the exhibition’s catalogue:

An ancient land, Australia has always been more than a sunburnt country. And there is no greater place to start a deeper immersion than the Severn Sisters songline, an epic journey that connects human relationships with the breathtaking landforms of the Australian desert… this songline is one of the great foundational cultural routes of Australia, highly valued by the living custodians in the Western and Central desert regions of Australia and part of the national heritage of all Australians.

Because of the dispossession suffered by Aboriginal people such as the Gungundurra, whose country stretches for 50 square kilometres from the Wingecarribee area of the Southern Highlands to Bell in the Blue Mountains (Indigenous Land Use Agreement, NI2014, Native Title Tribunal), their population was dispersed, and their culture and language suppressed. As a result of this history of white settlement the expression of the Seven Sisters songline in the spectacular rock formations of the Blue Mountains escarpment is held as ‘secret business’ by the women elders of the Gundungurra. As the area is a focus of nature-based tourism, the elders are reluctant to allow Parks and Wildlife to record their sacred sites and songlines for fear they will become popularised for tourism—without any respect for their sacred, secret nature.

However part of this songline, which is celebrated as ‘Boars Head Rock’ by ‘whitefella culture’ because it bears passing resemblance to a boars head, has a special significance for me as a Buddhist practitioner and Australian.

One of my Buddhist teachers, Wangdrak Rinpoche, who regularly visits the Blue Mountains to hold retreats here with his students, had a spiritual vision while spending time at this place. He has recognized it as a manifestation of Vajravarahi (Tib: Dorje Pakmo), an important female deity in my tradition (who iconographically often features a sow’s head above her right ear), and one that is part of my own personal tantric practice. Thus, in my old age I feel embraced and nourished by the spirit of the Dakini, as the ancient culture of Aboriginal Australia meets my Tibetan Spiritual practice, which is also anchored in a pre-modern world of mythic thinking.

In 1999, I spent time working with Yankuntjatjara elder, Tjilpi Bob Randall, on his autobiography, published as Songman (ABC Books, 2003). Bob came to live at my house in Stanwell Park, tucked into the rain forest under the Illawarra escarpment, bordering the Royal National Park. Over twelve months we worked on his manuscript, including taking a long overland trip in his old Toyota Landcruiser to visit his birthplace at Tempe Downs in the Central Desert, Mutitjulu at Uluru, his friends and family in Alice Springs, and then on to Ainslee Point in Arnhem Land close to Croker Island where Bob had grown up on the Anglican mission after being stolen from his mother at the age of six years. Bob’s 1970 song, My Brown Skin Baby They Take Him Away, which he hauntingly sang to me, is often called an anthem for the Stolen Generation. Spending time with Bob gave me many insights into important aspects of Aboriginal culture and the lives of many Aboriginal people in Australia impacted by colonial dispossession and racism. Bob passed away at Mutitjulu in 2015.

Bob and I often talked about similarities and differences between the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual worldview and that of his Aboriginal culture through the spiritual idea of Law (Lore) enshrined in the Tjukurpa and ideas of community caring and compassion in the idea of kanyini. I was recently talking with one of my Buddhist friends about the difficulty of talking about these ideas and inner experiences that touch on mythic knowing. We agreed that it is about opening up intuitive ways of experiencing our world. When I talked with Bob about the type of learning that was important in his culture, imparted through ceremony, he pointed to precisely this form of knowing. As Bob said to me, the reason why Aboriginal ceremony is secret business, and carries a heavy penalty if this secrecy is violated, is that: “It is not something you talk about (gossip); it is meant to transform your very being.”

The Wild Mountain Collective

In 2018 I helped establish the Wild Mountain Collective as a multi-arts project of the Blue Mountains Creative Arts Network. It operates on a co-creation basis with artists, photographers, sculptors, intellectuals, environmental conservationists, musicians and anyone who shares our inspiration to explore and celebrate the ‘wild’ and our sense of interconnected relationship with nature and one another, to engage with a philosophy of regenerative living, an attitude of Interbeing with all of creation. In this we are deeply inspired by the role of the arts in the ancient songline tradition of our First Nations peoples. Their profound eco-spiritual consciousness was kept alive through dance, song, painting and story telling in their continued veneration of the Ancestral Beings of their ancient culture dating back before the last ice age, for over 60,000 years. The Darug artist, Leanne Tobin, one of the patrons of the Wild Mountain Collective has agreed to guide us in the way we honour this inspiration.

Transformation

Brought on by the long-term results of industrial methods of production since the 18th century Industrial Revolution, and the global economy by which these methods have spread to all corners of the Earth, Australia is grappling with the climate crisis of global warming and environmental degradation. To this has been added a further global threat—the COVID-19 pandemic of a virus that has migrated from the ‘forest’ into the human world.

We stand on the edge of the need for transformative change to the way we human beings live and care for our planet and all its creatures. About how we care for Country, in the Aboriginal sense, as is celebrated in the idea of ‘Cultural Burning as Caring for Country’ (Steffensen, Fire Country, 2020), as an alternative paradigm to the dominant one of heroic crisis bushfire fighting to protect assets such as human lives and their property. This is a significant epistemic paradigm shift.

As all these factors come together, Australia stands at a unique point in its history in the way it responds to the Uluru Statement From the Heart, which is calling on Australia for three things: a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Australian Constitution; a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between Government and First Nations; and Truth Telling about Australia’s history, including the frontier wars and dispossession of First Nations peoples from their lands. Part of this truth telling is the recognition and valuing of Indigenous knowledge systems that celebrate mythic ways of knowing.