The story of the Buddha begins with his immaculate conception. A white elephant enters the womb of Queen Maya, who, when her time is due, ventures into a secluded garden to deliver her child beneath flowering trees. The radiant baby immediately declares that he has been born for supreme knowledge, and that this will be his final life. At the same time, a prophetic sage visits the majestic household and predicts that the royal son will one day abandon his kingdom in a search for truth. The King, disturbed by this prediction, determines to thwart it by diverting his son with a life of wealth and pleasure.
So is the stage set for an epic tale that Joseph Campbell calls “the Hero Cycle” of myth. Through myth, Campbell asserts, the grandest, most vital issues of human existence are expressed and esteemed. Specifically through the symbolism of the Hero Cycle does man undertake life’s most universal journey, through the darkness of his own ignorance and fear of the unknown, to a realm of self-understanding and peace. “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward” (Campbell 11).
The elements of the hero myth are surprisingly similar across all cultures and times. For example, it is easy to draw parallels between the Buddha’s story, and that of Jesus or Muhammad, countless ancient tribal heroes or the champions of modern cinematic tales. The crucial elements are recognizable. Campbell shows us that "the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation -- initiation -- return.”
True to Campbell’s formula, the future Buddha’s adventure begins with a tale of separation, from his family, his wealth, from all that he knows and has heretofore understood as his destiny. He travels into a park with his charioteer, and there encounters age, disease and death, causing him to consider that man has no control over life, and to realize that the pleasures of the world are temporary. After seeing a monk in the park, the Buddha decides to retire from the world. Taking a last look at his wife and child, he mounts his horse and flees the city, his servant clinging to the horse’s tail. As they approach the edge of the metropolis, the massive gates open miraculously, and the Buddha casts away with indifference "a universal sovereignty already in his grasp." Leaving behind his established self and the known world, he embarks into the unknown, free for becoming.
At this point, the Buddha’s story immediately takes him into Campbell’s second stage – that of initiation, and into the momentous trials that will dispel the relative gloom of his mortal life and reveal the absolute brilliance of life eternal. Once outside the city, the future Buddha dismisses his horse and servant, cuts his hair, takes on the garments of a monk and begins the long expedition toward enlightenment. Though this journey is marked by external events, “the passage of the mythological hero” Campbell writes, “is inward -- into depths where obscure resistances are overcome, and long lost, forgotten powers are revivified, to be made available for the transfiguration of the world". Our hero surmounts impediments and overcomes temptations, starving himself to the very point of death, and rebuking the plagues of the satanic figure of Mara. Having defeated the mortality that these threats represent, the future Buddha enters into the first of three “watches of the night,” each one a deeper penetration through the veil of cosmic chaos.
Then, just at the break of day -- as if the universe itself has emerged recreated -- the perfectly enlightened Buddha is born.
Similar to the resurrected Jesus, the Buddha "comes back as one reborn, made great and filled with creative power." This marks the final stage of the Buddha’s hero cycle, that of return. True to the Campbellian formula, the Buddha doubts his ability to deliver his wisdom to others, fearing that the earthly eyes of mankind will be blind to spiritual truth. But the god Brahma, the very creator of the universe, descends from the heavens to implore the Buddha to teach. And so the Buddha returns to his former world, to instruct those who are ready for his message. For 40 years, he serves as a beacon on the path to illumination. Then, at the end of his life, he asks his followers three times if they have any final questions for him. They respond with silence. Seeing that they understand his lessons, he takes leave of the earthly realm.
Today, the story of Buddha continues to show mankind the way, one human life at a time. One man may emulate the details of Buddha’s adventure, renouncing the world and adopting an ascetic lifestyle. Another man may simply recognize in the Buddha’s story a kernel of truth that helps him along his own unique path. Each man is undertaking his own heroic adventure. And, as Campbell makes clear, "the hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life.” The hero is each of us, and each us the child of God.