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Gagging on ‘True Doctrine’

Updated: May 17

Have you heard the one about the tiger and the goats?

Joseph Campbell often shared this fable: a young tiger, raised by the herd of goats his mother leapt into hoping to feed herself and her unborn cub before dying in childbirth, grows up believing he is a goat until being instructed by a passing-by adult tiger to eat meat and discover his true self. Campbell borrowed the story from 19th Century Hindu mystic Shri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, calling it his “favorite sort of sew-it-all up” story. 

It’s a classic “to thine own self be true” tale, and has been fodder for countless teachers and religious figures across cultures. All the young tiger needed was the teacher to show him who he really was.

I want to call out, however, a couple of nuances in Campbell’s retelling of the story in a 1972 interview (L444: ZBS Interview, 1972, 1:20:00–), that I think invite us to uncover shadows in being learners in relationship to teachers, and what it means to, in the worlds of my educator father, Eugene Melander, who spent a lifetime imagining how teachers can teach and students can student, learn to “self author.” It’s the difference between seeing who you really are and crafting the story that brings you to that awareness; always ongoing, never static, with ownership of your own story and its telling.

In Campbell’s 1972 retelling, he describes the elder tiger’s instructions to the young tiger, who doesn’t even realize that he is being perceived as a student, as he drags him by the scruff of the neck to look at his face in a pond. Campbell says:  

The big tiger looks in and he says, "Now, see, you've got the face of a tiger. You're no goat, you don't have a goat's face. You're like me! Be like me!"

And then Campbell, as an aside, adds “That's the guru-style: "Be like me."

Not “be yourself.”

The elder tiger then shoves meat down the protesting throat of the young tiger, who gags on it. Campbell adds, “And the text says, ‘as all do on true doctrine.’”

What an image! While it’s possible to read this as a nod to the difficulties of losing one’s self and one’s ego to the power of capital “T” Truth in the teaching as delivered by the teacher, it also invites us to question the role of doctrine in our own self-authoring.

If we gag on the true doctrine, is it really true? Is the teaching, the exhortation to be just like the guru the point of this story? Or is the actual truth in the experience for the young tiger the moment where the nourishment hits his body with a rightness he viscerally understands, and he becomes tiger in that moment?

For doctrines, even when well-meaning, are external to us. And sometimes they are flat wrong. 

By way of illustrating this, I want to share a poem I wrote about a piece of doctrine it took me forty years to stop gagging on, and the gagging stopped only when I spat it out:

40 Years Later

I had a realization.

Reading a poem about how EB White cried when Charlotte died.

And how the mother reading the story had cried.

And the children who knew nothing of loss laughed at her crying.

But I cried. I cried as a small child reading Charlotte’s Web for the first time. And I have cried all the times I have read it since.

It is about compassion, not experience. The ability to imagine with empathy into understanding someone else’s sorrow. 


And I remember a short story I wrote at 19 about a garden fearing the shears and mowers for a writing class in college.


And I loved the professor. I still do. And I cried when he died.


But he hated the story. It didn’t fall into the canon of serious fictional literature about unhappy people, and plants didn’t have voices or sentience. 


It was vapid and childish. 

Not his words directly.

But what he meant, kindly, pushing me to reach higher to drop that for grownup stuff.


So I tried for what he said I should want.

And it was an exercise in learning to cleverly order words and metaphors.

And I couldn’t feel anything any more.


And I stopped going to class.


I have always felt shame. It was my fault. I was fucking up. 

I cried then, with him.

When I gathered the courage to beg for his forgiveness. 

And he was kind. 


And it’s only now, 40 years later.


That I realize he should have been begging for mine.


That I was begging for forgiveness for abandoning my heart, really.

Not his class. 


For I still hear the voices of the garden fearing the shears and battle with my husband and insurance companies over lawns gone to meadow at my farm. 

It’s not neglect, I say. 

But a choice. 

To let them live so the birds and caterpillars and snakes and voles who ensure we all can live can as well. 


And I realize that is a story that the world did need 40 years ago, not just me. 

As we are on the precipice of what happens when humans don’t hear those voices.


And something breaks open for me over this.


I am wrong to wait for permission. 

And I need to tell the stories that are my heart.

That I still wait for permission.

Far too often. 

And tell my heart to grow up. 


And I wonder how many stories we have lost. 

From everyone told they were doing it wrong. 

That their hearts didn’t understand. (Melander, 2023, unpublished)

How would this fable - and its teachings - empower him differently if the young tiger was invited to find his own taste for what he needed to become all that he was? And what different stories would he be able to tell? About his mother’s sacrifice, his adopted family’s sacrifice, and how both of those were also a part of what made him Tiger?


A collage featuring The Hero's Adventure

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 1, and The Hero With a Thousand Faces.


Latest Podcast

In this episode, Roshi Joan Halifax sits down with Bradley Olson of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. Roshi Joan Halifax speaks to Buddhists and non-followers alike on such universal topics as compassion, suffering, and what it is to be human. Influenced by early experiences as an anthropologist-world traveler, passionate end-of-life pioneer, and her work in social and ecological activism, she eloquently teaches the interwoven nature of engaged Buddhism and contemplative practice. She encourages a wholistic approach to life and training the mind, “that we may transform both personal and social suffering into compassion and wisdom.” Roshi Joan’s personal practice includes creative expression through photography, brush painting, and haiku as explorations in “beingness” and joy. As Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya, her vision for the Zen Center embraces comprehensive Buddhist studies, meditation, service, dharma art, and environmental action as integrated paths cultivating peace and interconnectedness. She knew Joseph Campbell very well. In the conversation, she and Brad discuss her life, her work as a teacher and pioneer of end of life care, and her experiences with Joseph Campbell. To learn more about Joan visit


This Week's Highlights

A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

"Is the conscientious teacher––concerned for the moral character as well as for the book-learning of his students––to be loyal first to the supporting myths of our civilization or to the "factualized" truths of his science? Are the two, on level, at odds? Or is there not some point of wisdom beyond the conflicts of illusion and truth by which lives can be put back together again?"

- Joseph Campbell -Myths to Live By, p.11


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