A Living and Breathing Mandala Named Joseph Campbell


A myth may be thought of as many different things; a metaphor, a psychological orientation, a story, a religious belief. Joseph Campbell imparts that myth is the “dictionary of the language of the soul” (Campbell Inner Reaches, 31) and that one culture’s myth is reflected in all others: the one in the many and the many in the one. Through the lens of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, myth is both a sacred mandala of a culture, contained in a particular time and space, and a universal macrocosmic web that is intimately connected to all the myths created by the psyche of mankind.

Joseph Campbell communicates through his writings and lectures that the point of myth is to see, and more importantly, to experience the world metaphorically, richly, innovatively. Myth as a type of “language of the soul” expresses elements of the spiritual, psychological, and biological on personal, cultural and universal levels. The soul of an individual, a culture and the cosmos can be discerned in the image of the mandalas; the mandala is an artistic rendering of a microcosmic world in conjunction with the divine. A mandala is a spiritual and artistic conceptual model of an integrated, individuated human being.

The word “mandala” translates as “circle” in Sanskrit and is a symbolic representation of the cosmos. The mandala can be found in many other cultures in various parts of the world. In North America the Navajos create sand paintings for healing ceremonies; in the middle ages an abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, received a number of visions from god in the form of mandalas that she dictated to a painter (www.mandalaproject.org). The Tibetan Buddhists create sand and paint mandalas as tools for meditation in which they connect with their deities on a physical as well as a spiritual level. The mandala is drawn in the mind through visualization after remembering the patterns through the physical act of painting or sprinkling sand.

The chanters visualize these deities while creating a Mandala, a circular cosmological painting which they inwardly visualize in archetypal symbols. These mandalas may involve over 150 deities and entities, all in specific placement. (Hightower 2003)

In The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, the experience of being in the liminal space, called the bardo, between death and reincarnation is described in vivid detail. The word bardo translates as “gap,” and as “a sort of landmark which stands between two things” (Freemantle 10); the bardo is both a gap of emptiness and a place within a gap, it is the image representing the experience of luminous consciousness. According to Campbell and Tibetan Buddhism, the liminal bardo space exists biologically in the chakras of the body:

Between the moment of death and the moment of reconception, forty-nine days pass––seven times seven days. During the course of this, you go through all the worlds of the chakras…from top to bottom. (Campbell Transformations, 172)

Campbell compares the bardo journey of deconstruction through the chakras with Dante’s last canto of The Divine Comedy. The movement of the soul is spiraling downward, from the crown chakra (located at the top of the head) to the root chakra (located at the base of the spine).

In order to prepare for the moment of death and the journey through the bardo, Tibetan Buddhists meditate on the text of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, visualizing different mandalas for each of the major stages of the soul’s transmigration. When a person dies, the text is read to them by their guru or a close family member in order to help guide them through each stage of the death experience.

On the first day of awakening from the shock of no longer being attached to a body, the vision of Vairocana appears before the dead person. The color emanating from the heart of Vairocana is a deep blue; at this stage, a person becomes acutely aware of the fact that they are no longer a physical body; and that they have become a purely psychological and intellectual body floating in a deep blue space. “The whole symbolism of Vairocana is the decentralized notion of panoramic vision; both centre and fringe are everywhere” (Freemantle 16). Joseph Campbell refers to this deity as “Vairochana, the Sun Buddha,” who is “seated in meditation at the immovable spot of illumination doing nothing” (Campbell Transformations, 176). Vairocana is seated doing nothing because he is circling, internally, around his own center point.

Usually, Vairocana is personified in mandalas as having four faces that simultaneously perceive all directions, and as holding an eight-spoked wheel which “represents transcending the concepts of space and time” (Freemantle 16). In the "Mandala of the Awakening of Vairocana" (www.asianart.com) that I found online, Vairocana is shown, as described by Campbell, meditating in the center, one-faced, white-colored and surrounded by hundreds of attendants (The "Mandala of the Awakening of Vairocana" can be viewed on the first page of the Appendix).

As the “architecture of enlightenment” (Dr. Mahaffey’s Buddhism lecture) a mandala is also created as a three dimensional construction, as Tibetan Buddhist temples called stupas (I placed a picture of a miniature, handheld stupa in the Appendix section of this paper). Robert Thurman and Denise Leidy describe the symbolism of the stupa in their book, Mandala: The Architecture of Enlightenment:

Stupas began in pre-Buddhist India as hemispherical burial grounds that marked the remains of temporal rulers. At an early stage in the development of Buddhist art, they became symbols of the Buddha’s continuing immanence as well as representations of his mind…(www.stupa.org)

Each section of the stupa is symbolic of Buddhic consciousness and is meditated on. For example, the square base of a stupa is the platform that “holds the earth and symbolizes the ten virtues of body, speech and mind” (http://www.stupa.org.nz/stupa/symbolic_meaninig.htm). Both the external and internal components of the stupa are considered sacred:

Every part of the outwardly visible stupa has specific significance, yet this is only the surface: within are scriptures and relics in defined positions, each equally alive with symbolic meaning.


On the top of the stupa at Sanchi sits a large dome called the garbha meaning “womb” or “container,” and is the structural representation of the universe which contains all and at the same time full of luminous emptiness.

Like the womb of the universe, the mandala is contained yet still open and in flux. When we try to confine an archetypal energy instead of allowing it to flow into its many forms, we are stuck with a dead myth, a dogma. “When a deity like Yahweh in the Old Testament says, “I’m final,” he is no longer transparent to transcendence” (Campbell Transformations, 31). In contrast to the aggression of the Christian and Moslem gods, Buddhist deities synthesize easily with gods of other religions. “That’s the wonderful thing about Buddhism. Whenever it goes anyplace, it doesn’t say, “Cut out your gods” (Campbell Tranformations, 127). Joseph Campbell’s study of world mythologies, especially tantric Buddhism and Hinduism, helped him develop an openness and a way to show others the possibilities that are born from a state of chaos. Like the bardo, chaos is the womb of deconstruction that gives rebirth to all ideas, symbols, metaphors and myths.

Closing the mind and spirit off from the transcendent, the numinous, the mysteries, is life imprisonment in the literal; this happens when the mind and spirit are confined by dead myths which no longer circulate live blood to feed the cultural soul. Instead, a blood-spilling spree seems the only way to feed such a literalist hunger. Being open to transcendence allows the mind and the spirit to soar to their greatest heights. Evidence of this can be seen in the arts, where the soul has dived into the deep, dark realm of the archetypal and brought back innovative insight to the light world for all beings to revere.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher most appreciated by writers, artists and musicians during his time, was definitively influential to Campbell’s Western style of mysticism. Both Schopenhauer and Campbell are venerated by artists and mystics. Schopenhauer felt that a human could contemplate, meditate, on great artistic works to transcend the struggles and pain of life. In his essay “The Way of Art,” Campbell discusses the similarities between the mystic and the artist; the artist has a craft that holds him or her to the earthly plane. However, the mystic doesn’t possess a craft and turns inward to contemplate the aesthetic beauty of the environment, both natural and manmade (Campbell Inner Reaches, 89).

One example of how much Campbell absorbed Schopenhauer’s ideas is evident in this quote from The Inner Reaches of Outer Space:

There is a Hindu tantric saying, nadevo devam arcayet, “by none but a god shall a god be worshipped.” The deity of one’s worship is a function of one’s own state of mind. (Campbell Inner Reaches, 39)

The next quote, which is an aphorism by Schopenhauer, shows how he was particularly attuned to the aesthetics of how art and mysticism are intertwined.

As the sun needs an eye in order to shine, and music an ear in order to sound, so the worth of every masterpiece in art and science is conditioned by the mind related and equal to it to which it speaks. Only such a mind possesses the incantation to arouse the spirits imprisoned in such a work and make them show themselves. (Hollingdale 225)

On a larger scale than Schopenhauer, Campbell has been an inspiration to many artists and mystics of the past century. Campbell’s reach has touched masses of people who claim “follow your bliss” as their personal mantra. It is inspiring to see people’s eyes light up at the mention of the word “mythology” and almost immediately they will mention his name––as if Joseph Campbell is the beating heart of mythology. The two are are now so closely associated that they are interchangeable, synonymous, at least in the modern pop culture sensibility.

Many people connect with Campbell’s rhapsodic style because he truly embodied what he was teaching. He believed in the existence of a pervasive global mythology and lived his life in accordance with this concept. He experienced mythic revelation both mentally and viscerally: when he describes the experience of falling in love, or seeing a talented dancer, he transforms these everyday events into mystic happenings, and emphasizes the universal feelings of stillness and center. Campbell often quotes the T.S. Eliot poem, “Burnt Norton” in his writings––“at the still point, there the dance is.” Campbell is an epic hero, moving an entire generation of artists, mystics and students into the space “where the past and future are gathered,” where the still point is (Campbell Inner Reaches, 106). The place where souls, high art and myths are made.

On the other hand, it is important to acknowledge that Campbell’s strong conviction in his ideas may have led him to over-generalize and exaggerate many of his comparisons between myths of differing cultures. One of the professors in the Pacifica Mythological Studies department commented that all of the comparisons between cultural myths made by Campbell are incorrect. So, in this wide-sweeping generalization of Campbell’s work, which ironically parallels Campbell’s affinity for superficiality and over-generalization, lies the rest of the mandala. A mandala is the image of wholeness and integration, and like the symbol, Campbell himself contains both polarities of light and dark. To stay with sweeping generalities, in the spirit of this paper, can we surmise that all beings are mandalas?

As a scholar, it is essential to not take Joseph Campbell too literally. Campbell doesn’t teach “monomythism” or for that matter “metaphorism,” but he teaches the way to perceive life’s mysteries through the vehicles of the monomyth and metaphor. When Indra and Brahma ask the Buddha to teach for the salvation of mankind, he answers, “I will teach. But what I teach is not Buddhism; it is the way (my emphasis) to Buddhism” (Campbell Transformations, 117).

Now, this is the fulcrum point that I think Campbell circles around in many of his writings we’ve read in class: “Symbols are only the vehicles of communication; they must not be mistaken for the final term, the tenor, of their reference…Mistaking a vehicle for its tenor may lead to the spilling not only of valueless ink, but of valuable blood” (Campbell Hero With, 236).

The chosen god or goddess of a people is a cultural symbol that is shaped by their way of life, their struggles, their triumphs as a collective body. And yet, within the cultural mesocosm there is the microcosm of the individual who also experiences the divine in a personal way. Campbell makes it clear that in both cases the symbol must be “transparent to transcendence” if it is to breathe, move and live in the hearts and minds of a cultural body.

With global barriers breaking down more each day through mass media, such as the internet, music, film and television, myths of differing and often opposing cultures are rubbing up against each other. The violence now taking place all over the world is obviously not a new development and has been occurring for so long that it is hard to consider that there might be another way. The bloodshed taking place in Iraq and in Haiti, to name just two, are the labor pangs connected to the birth of Campbell’s macrocosmic global mythology; a “unified earth as of one harmonious being” (Campbell Inner Reaches, xix).

The big question that comes to mind is: can we view another culture’s religion as myth and still hold their view as sacred aspects of life, even when they seem preposterous and blasphemous to our beliefs? Campbell’s answer is we must because “tat tvam asi, thou art that” (Campbell Inner Reaches, 32). If we kill the other, we are also killing ourselves because the “other” is none other than ourselves!

Joseph Campbell had the sense that we (the we I’m talking about is the collective, global we) are on the brink of something big, cosmological even, and our current myths that have calcified into dogma are fading into the blackness of the universal womb. The alchemy of rebirth is taking place all around us––“The kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it” (Campbell Inner Reaches, 34). With the helpful eyes of Campbell, both reflective and penetrating, perhaps we can look into another’s––an other’s––symbols and see a glimpse of their soul; then we can finally become aware that the symbols, like mandalas, are panes of glass through which we see our own souls reflected back to us.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton UP,


—. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion. Novato, California: New World Library, 2002.

—. Transformations of Myth Through Time. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

Freemantle, Francesca and Chogyam Trungpa. The Tibetan Book of the Dead:

The Great Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo
. Boston: Shambhala, 1987.

Hightower, Thomas. “The One Voice Chord.” November 2000.10 April 2004.


Hollingdale, R.J. Arthur Schopenhauer: Essays and Aphorisms. London:

Penguin Group, 1970.

Schirmacher, Wolfgang. Arthur Schopenhauer: Philosophical Writings. New York: Continuum, 1994.

Websites Consulted and Cited (No visible credit given for authors)