Searching for an Old Stone Bowl? (Or, Achieving a Paradigm Shift)

For decades now, I’ve been hearing about my mindset and the need for a paradigm shift.  A paradigm represents a mental image, or as my psychology professor from so many years ago said, “It is our mental map.”  And while we hear a lot about needing to alter the map, or having a paradigm shift, not many people tell us much about how we go about doing that.  Yet the ancient myths provide answers to the question by presenting a plethora of ways to alter the mental images that shape our perception and establish the bounds of our accomplishments.  And we are indebted to Joseph Campbell, who taught us to see ourselves in the myriad of myths and folk stories found the world over.

From the myths, we discover that many obstacles stand between us and our transformation.  It is not merely a matter of wanting to change, and then it magically happens.  If such were so, many more would take that journey.  Rather, transformation (or a paradigm shift) requires work, and many of us are not willing to pay the price in time or effort.

The Great Stone Bowl

From a Japanese fairy tale, we learn of a stone bowl that belonged to the Buddha, a bowl that “gleams and sparkles as though set with the most beautiful gems.”[1]  The mythic bowl, a vaginal receptacle, symbol of the sacred feminine, can only be obtained through a long journey.  “It is hidden deep in the darkness of a great temple.  Few have ever seen it, but those who have can never talk enough about its beauty.”[2]  Within every woman lies this sacred bowl, and few be the men who have truly observed it.  Joseph Campbell, in his classic study The Hero with a Thousand Faces, tells us that “woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality of what can be known.”[3]  He continues:

The hero is the one who comes to know.  As he progresses in the slow initiation which is life, the form of the goddess undergoes for him a series of transfigurations: she can never be greater than himself, though she can always promise more than he is yet capable of comprehending.  She lures, she guides, she bids him burst his fetters.  And if he can match her import, the two, the knower and the known, will be released from every limitation.[4]

He Was a Very Lazy Man

In our fairy tale, a prince promises to undertake the journey to India to obtain the priceless bowl, but he “was a very lazy man.”  He had good intentions: “At first, he really meant to go, but the more he thought about it the lazier he felt.”[5] 

He asked the sailors how long it took to go to India and return. They said it took three years. At that he made up his mind he never would go. The idea of spending three years looking for a bowl, an old one, too!

So he went away to another city and stayed for three years. At the end of that time he went into a little temple. There he found an old stone bowl sitting in front of the shrine.

He took this bowl and wrapped it in a cloth of richest silk. To this he tied a letter telling of his long hard journey to find the bowl for her. Then he sent it to the princess. 

When the princess read the letter she was sorry that he had suffered so much to bring her the bowl. Then she opened the silk wrappings and saw the bowl of common stone. She now saw that he had tried to deceive her, and was very angry.

When he came, she would not even see him, but sent the bowl and letter back to him.

The prince felt very sad, but he knew that he deserved it, so he went home to his own house. He kept the bowl to remind him that you get nothing good in this world unless you work for it.[6]

A Metaphorical Paradigm for EVERYTHING

Among men, “many are called, but few are chosen.”[7]  Too many seek to deceive the women to whom they are connected by pretending to take the journey, by making a half-hearted effort at finding the sacred feminine that lives within the princesses who stand right before their faces.  An ancient alchemist once wrote that the stone rests in plain sight before the eyes of all.  Yet, so many fail to recognize it.  “Woman is the guide,” wrote Joseph Campbell, “to the sublime acme of sensuous adventure.  By deficient eyes she is reduced to inferior states. . . . But she is redeemed by the eyes of understanding.  The hero who can take her as she is, without undue commotion but with the kindness and assurance she requires, is potentially the king, the incarnate god, of her created world.”[8]

Now I hope, of course, that everyone understands that all this is not just about relationships between men and women.  It is so much more than that.  This stands as a metaphor for every aspect of our lives, and change (or a paradigm shift or transformation or being born again or whatever you want to call it) requires work during the course of a remarkable journey.  And our first step toward transformation requires that we take—well, the first step of that journey.

Books Worth Reading

Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a classic.  Every well-read person should take the time to study it.  You can get a copy on Amazon.


[1] Teresa Peirce Williston, “The Great Stone Bowl,” Japanese Fairy Tales (Chicago and New York: Rand McNally and Company, 1911).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), 116.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Williston, “The Great Stone Bowl.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Matthew 22:14.

[8] Campbell, 116.

Author: John A. Cowgill

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