Reading the late Joseph Campbell or especially watching his lectures is always a pleasure because of his infectious enthusiasm and basic optimism. He was not a dry scholar of narrow interests but a knowledgeable popularizer. And what he popularized was nothing less than what Aldous Huxley called “perennial philosophy” (though Huxley did not originate the term).

Perennial philosophy points to the universal recurrence of themes, insights, and intimations shared in every culture and tradition in every age. We dare not call it truth because that gives it a name and that which would be so is nameless. So, like an asymptote in mathematics, we approach ever closer but never seem to resolve all of the elements of the perennial into a simple package.

Campbell illustrated the perennial through his observation of myth, symbols, dreams, and rituals, presenting them with illustrations in the classroom and lengthy conversations in his video interviews. (The producers of the film Sukhavati interspersed his best talks with archival footage and video to succinctly capture Campbell’s point of view.)

But do all of the anthropological examples and synchronicity of thought and expression equate to the sum of the parts? It is not that golden rules and analogous patterns of social behavior and thinking exist cross-culturally. In fact, we should be astonished that humans act so combatively towards one another just because they belong to this tribe or to that geographical place. Our cultural behavior as a species is predictable in terms of anatomy and physiology but it has become inevitably ugly and morose in terms of culture and society. As culture and society, humans function as a structural projection of the values of power and destruction.

Are we, then, just spectators at the achievements of great souls? Have we become flotsam driven about by the rush of modern culture and technology, which aims at replacing the perennial with globalization of minds and hearts? This is the heart of the blind forces that propel society, and only the individual (not the group nor the individual as a group member) can step back and wonder.

The critique of perennialism, especially of that perennialism presented in more elaborate form by Jung and others, is that the parts do not equal the sum, that similarities of ritual and belief do not equate to any one given truth or prove anything. Perennialism, argue the critics, represents the universal aspiration of the best part of human thought, but no amount of wishes equals the desired reality behind the dreams, rituals, and intimations.

One is reminded of the arguments for the proof of God, though none is perfectly analogous with the argument for perennialism. We may as well argue about the concept of truth and whether truth can be demonstrated to everyone, even to the deliberate naysayer or nihilist. The sum of the parts may well never equal the whole argument. The attempt itself is temporal, within time and space, and carries the same negative forces that slow objects hurtled in the air.

We are left to make futile raids on the absolute, glimpsing light but working in darkness, sensing conviction but conscious of our inarticulate attempts to pin down our feelings, like sketching the setting of a dream that too quickly recedes and then is gone before we have completed our sketch.

The desire for certainty is the first element in our lives that we must renounce in order to even approximate certainty. The perennial is that which cultures have taken millennia to achieve and which we now discard in a few short years.

Campbell’s celebrated comparison of the Theravada and Mahayana experiences, for example, makes a breath-taking lecture because of Campbell’s sense of conviction and insight. But it is the experience he enjoyed that we really covet, not necessarily the certainty of his argument. For we know the circuitousness of arguments. We want to be at the point where we need no words, not even words describing the wordless, but just to see the flower held by Gautama before Mahakashyapa, to feel that it is just for us, just for us to understand, to experience, to feel, even as we stumble in our ability to explain it all with words.

The inability to explain with words is the solitude of all beings. We are born, as Plato thought, with an amnesia that frustrates our articulation. We become convinced that because we cannot articulate we cannot know, and if we cannot know we cannot understand. By reading and reflecting on the perennial and savoring the nexus drawn for us by Campbell and others, we feed our parched minds with nourishment for one more day, for one more day’s strength to overcome the chasm of dualism that separates us from ourselves, and ourselves from everything else.


Why does the ancient Greek thinker Heraclitus (500 BCE) so attract centuries of philosophers? After all, only fragments of Heraclitus’ work remain, most of them apocryphal or redundant. One sentence of Heraclitus stands out, one persuasive utterance, variously translated:

You cannot step into the same river more than once.

Perhaps because of its context and antiquity, this single subtle sublime fragment has taken on an oracular character, like a statement issuing from the heart of solitude. Perhaps its very simplicity makes the fragment seem definitive, shaming logic and scattering the dissecting tools assembled by the learned commentators for working on the “patient etherised upon a table” of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock.

This is why the poets seem to grasp the fragment as competently as the philosophers. For example, Jorge Luis Borges makes references to the fragment in several of his poems:

We are the time. We are the famous
metaphor from Heraclitus the Obscure.
We are the water, not the hard diamond,
the one that is lost, not the one that stands still.
We are the river and we are that greek
that looks himself into the river. His reflection
changes into the waters of the changing mirror,
into the crystal that changes like the fire.

In these lines of verse is the sublimity of the realization, of the paradox that cannot be unraveled or resolved, that carries with it a cheap and selfless eternity and engenders what Borges elsewhere calls “the secret anguish of the Ephesian” — meaning Heraclitus, who was from Ephesus.

What outlasts us, in a different way, is art, Borges writes.

Art is endless, like a river flowing,
passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same
inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same
and yet another, like the river flowing.

Before the river we abandon intellect and control. Art is the eternal mirror to nature and to ourselves. And the most sublime art is the art of living rightly.

The world makes of the element of oneness a material and social opportunity to lay out caste, subordination, and sameness. It makes of the flux relativism, ego, and nihilism. Neither component functions without the other in the worldly sense.

The solitude that surrounds us in gazing at the river is coveted by the world because it is our approximation to reality, bypassing the contrived world of society and culture that has labored so much through texts and power to give us the stultifying sense of oneness that is the appearance of the river.

Yet from nature itself and from the depths of our solitude is how we gain the understanding of paradox, and rescue both the oneness and the flux, both the river and ourselves.

Beginning simplicity

Categories of logic so dominate Western thinking that they often exclude real thinking about reality. Contradiction and opposites illustrate this. For example, black and white are considered contradictory and opposite. Black text on a white background is obvious in contrast, but if the background becomes black, it does not mean that the text no longer exists. Thus our perceptions as sense data of opposition and contradiction are not wrong as far as the senses go, and not delusion as far as logic and judgment, but seriously lack a contextual point of view to accommodate things as they are or can become.

Beginning efforts at simplicity carry these same volatile concerns. The foreground of our daily lives is our functional self, while the background is the context of our lives. This context is social, cultural, ideological, and material. While we may ruminate about what someone said or did, this is an idle introspection that does not focus on the larger configuration of the background of our lives. Most people live without examining this background or its relationship to their selves as foreground. Yet such an examination is essential for an authentic sense of simplicity because simplicity will not arise exclusively from the background if it is to be genuine.

Simplicity is lately the subject of books, magazines, counselors, marketers, and consumers. Simplicity is a fresh marketing idea ripe for new products to consume and old products to refurbish. This spin on simplicity takes advantage of the background of our lives to tap the unconscious desire to consume, conform, and identify ourselves with the culture and society around us. These motives, from marketers to consumers, from background to co-opted foreground, have little to do with true simplicity.

One angle that misleads the average person interested in simplicity is the logical concept of opposites, which, as mentioned, is a false or at least incomplete view of reality. Simplicity is not the opposite of complexity, so that when people assume that their cluttered and overwhelmed lives are too complex and that they need simplicity, they unwittingly assume that simplicity means to escape something rather than to change something. The background of our lives — the society, culture, material conditions, technology — does not disappear, even for the solitary. Our lives as householders, spouses, parents, children, workers, consumers, students, artists, dreamers, etc. continue. The background of our lives may wane but remains in existence, even as we simplify.

What we need to do is to disengage from that background and not merely let it fade in priority or pressure. We need to have the foreground merge with less obvious elements of the background, so that those parts of the background that dominate daily life for most people are given up and left to drift away from us. There is no point in fighting them. Fighting them is reentering the maelstrom and assuming that we are, godlike, able to transform realities and conditions around us and around others. We need merely to disengage from them, so that those less obvious elements, those less noticed by the mass of society can emerge, those elements we call values, which can then reshape our lives in simplicity.

Simplicity is the process of disengaging from the material, cultural, social, and ideological context of our lives. Simplicity takes values based on the consensus of society and culture and winnows them to what can exist in the context of a set of values based on nature and harmonious processes of nature and the universe. These values will certainly intersect with many values of what we are calling the background, but they will be stripped of their second-handedness, their cultural accretions and bias towards violence, power, and structure.

Simplicity retains all of the wonderful complexity of nature and the universe, for simplicity is not the opposite of complexity. Rather, simplicity identifies the core processes of complexity and reduces the contrived input of society and culture, the faceless pleasure-driven, power-oriented fabrications that serve only the captains of the world of red dust and their minions.

Authenticity consists of each individual matching the deep core of the self with the corresponding harmonies of nature and the universe. We preserve the complexities of self but rid ourselves of what is moribund. We preserve the complexities of life and nature but rid ourselves as much as possible of the bad habits and dependencies on society and systems.

The tradition of wabi-sabi shows us that simplicity is an art. Today beginning simplicity requires the input of science and information in order to recognize what is going on in the background of our lives and how it affects the foreground. We don’t want this material background to overwhelm our foreground due to not paying attention to the world around us.

Yet that is the situation for the vast majority of people, nowhere close to an authentic appreciation of simplicity. Guided by the values of simplicity, we are more likely to cultivate the values that will enhance our lives. The solitary cannot “witness” these values but only live them, and if others notice, so much the better. We have only to recognize that nature and the universe are already at a teachable level of simplicity, and that complexity is not the opposite but the complement of simplicity and can accommodate even our complex selves yearning for simplicity.

Dogen’s tears

Japanese Zen philosopher Dogen (1200-53) always strikes the reader as a paragon of intellect. His insight, dogged pursuit of philosophical questions, and his ability to examine questions from every perspective makes him the model Zen thinker. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that his nearest contemporary Western counterpart was the medieval scholastic Thomas Aquinas (1225-74).

At the same time, Dogen is the archetypal “serious” personality: dry, aloof, reserved. Dogen wrote poems, but his poetry lacks the emotional and sensitive perspective that truly animates better poetry. Such sentiment is not romantic but reflective, insightful, and understands the whole with more than the mind alone.

Dogen’s poetry reads like intellectual commentary put into verse, as in this example:

Snow covering the red blossoms,
Unfettered by the dusty world;
Is it too cluttered even in this secluded mountain —
Who can really say?
When a single plum blossom opens,
Therein is held the awakening
Of the exquisite beauty of spring.

Sometimes this intellectualism makes the poem simply awkward:

The mountain filled with leafless trees
Crisp and clear on this autumn night;
The full moon floating gently above the cluster of roofs.
Having nothing to depend on,
And not climbing to any place;
Free, like steam rising from a full bowl of rice.

Here the equation of “free” and “steam” evoke the sense of enlightenment mingled with impermanence and evanescence, and the mundaneness of rice intends to appeal to a wabi standard. But here the equivalences only work at an intellectual level. Again, there is no emotional involvement in the setting.

But Dogen also writes poetry “in the style of Saigyo.”

The Japanese Buddhist poet Saigyo (1118-90) wrote more familiarly. Emotion is an essential ingredient of his verse, not as romanticism but as melancholy and solitude. Saigyo helped pioneer the maturation of sabi and the short verse that would endear him for centuries later. He was Basho’s model poet, Basho in turn being the preeminent haiku poet, capturing image, feeling, and wabi-sabi in the shortest possible verse, in scintillating and moving evocations. All of these characteristics are already found in Saigyo.

Dogen clearly admires Saigyo and he tries to capture these poetic elements. With this set of poems, Dogen’s poetic efforts are somewhat warmer, but only when he adheres closely to seasonal words and images, less so when he adds an interpretation to them.

Thus we have snow, mountains, moon, plum blossoms, the thatched hut, the cuckoo and the cricket — all of the requisite images, but still we labor to see how Dogen feels. He will tell us in one poem that “even if you abandon all for the ancient path of meditation / you can never forget the meaning of sadness” — but we just don’t know if he is really sad or how it really feels to be sad because he doesn’t express melancholy.

Perhaps this is always the intellectual’s weakness but it cannot be the poet’s. Dogen’s best poem in the style of Saigyo hints at emotion in a tantalizing way that reflects his own ambiguity about expressing feelings. Perhaps it helps to know that Dogen’s parents died when he was still young.

This best poem contains the last lines cited above. Watch for the source of tears in this summary poem of Dogen’s path. Is it the bamboo or is it the poet at the end of dawn’s meditation?

The unspoiled colors of a late summer night,
The wind howling through lofty pines —
The feel of autumn approaching;
Swaying bamboos keep resonating,
Shedding tears of dew at dawn;
Only those who exert themselves fully
Will attain the Way.
But even if you abandon all for the ancient path of meditation,
You can never forget the meaning of sadness.

Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

Can we fathom non-existence not as a mere philosophical conjecture but as an experience derived from our observation of human potential, human nature, and technology? That is the sort of question presented by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — if we do not grow impatient with art and fiction and attempt to rush the question, as in T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question …

Developmental biology suggests the question: Does consciousness separate or alienate us so much from the world that it sets off the cascade of aggression, destruction, and technology on an irreversible countdown?

In The Road there is no philosophical or scientific apparatus, no presentations on geopolitics or morality, no justifications or regrets — only pure experience, the existential reality of the story’s protagonists.

Many critics have unduly dwelt on the protagonist father and son bond of love and saving grace in what is, after all, a paternal-filial love that is almost biological in its necessity, even for a novel. To seek out prematurely this redeeming factor is too facile.

As it is unwise to subordinate the world context — the annihilation that is the arrogant prerogative of science and technology in creating the possibility of nuclear winter — to redeeming human traits. We too conveniently miss the overarching stage and play up our script on it. Logical annihilation is the inevitability of human nature run its gamut, run its course with the consumptive power of technology.

The characters of the novel are suggested by some as father and son on a last universal level, like Father and Son begetting their love which is Spirit, and will be everlasting. But our sentiments may be brought back from false hope by a strange character calling himself Ely. Ely is supposed to be Elijah or Elias the prophet. Critics miss that Ely is more like Nietzsche’s madman, after all. “There is no God and we are his prophets,” he announces.

We might conjecture — though the author does not pursue this thought — that the whole world presented here, stinking of ash and death, is the odor of God’s corpse slain so thoroughly by man. Ely admits when he first saw the boy he thought the boy, the son of the man, was an angel. “What if I said that he’s a god?” asks the boy’s father. Ely replies, shaking his head.

I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true. Things will be better when everybody’s gone. …

When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?

And we are left with that imponderable element of will. But the will to survive or to love is all the same, confronted by the physicality and temporality of our existence as individuals. This sameness of feelings and actions is but further highlighted by the absolute vulnerability of humanity to technology and its consequences: inevitable consequences foreseen by every major thinker in the last hundred or more years. Consequences always ready to converge on the tiny window of life and breath that we glimpse in trying to fathom reality. McCarthy’s parsed language, nearly poetic, tries to capture this evanescence of meaning.

Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.

It was the holiness of self that we were to strive for. It was silence that was intended to show us the mystery of the world. That was supposed to be our “road,” our path and way. But in the end, destruction is coldly secular. The silence will mock us then as the counterpart to creation and being, the echo of annihilation, of nothingness. We will have failed to understand ourselves and how fragile and beautiful was our existence.