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Jun 03
Dharma Teachings
Prometheus’ Chains: The Myth of Shenpa



COLUMN: Dharma Teachings

article by Crystal Gandrud

All myths evolve in the light of intelligence and imagination (also known as basic goodness). We conceive of what conceives us in an eternal wish to know where we came from and why. The stories we tell are powerful for one reason: they engage our inherent wisdom to illuminate the path, which leads to realms beyond story or conception. In this article, Crystal Gandrud of Boston, explores how the myth of Prometheus connects to the concept of shenpa (being hooked by experience).

The myth of Prometheus embraces light and darkness; pain and suffering; ultimate freedom. Although the dharmic resonances of all myths are probably infinite, one aspect of the Prometheus story, his punishment, can be examined as a perfect illustration of shenpa, or the experience of being caught by thoughts and emotions.

He is punished because although pleased with his human creations, he is bothered that we suffer in total darkness. He vows to alleviate our suffering and while the other gods are sleeping or arguing or fornicating, he commits the crime of selfless generosity. He tiptoes up to the source of all light (or fire), cradles it in a fennel stalk, and offers humanity illumination.

Naturally, Prometheus’ gift enrages the status quo-loving Olympians. With light, instead of slithering in opaque confusion and enslavement, humans now grow food, relax, sleep, dream and think. They sit around fires and talk. Myth-making and philosophy arise. A dimly lit path, which winds into an illuminated one, hovers on the horizon. Gods cannot exist except in the dark realm of belief. Once humans start making sense of their own reality a god’s life is doomed. (Welcome to the human realm, gods.)

A meeting is called. Prometheus is dragged before Zeus and the entire tetchy crew. By reasons of sensitivity, Prometheus is found incapable of abiding by Magna Carta Olympia. No drama is spared in his punishment. He will be chained to a rock overlooking the sea. Everyday at noon an eagle will descend, tear open his flesh and pluck out his liver. Over the next twenty-three hours the liver will regenerate and the following day, the eagle will wrench out the newly plump organ again…for infinity.

The first cycle is excruciating. The eagle circles Prometheus a few times and dives in for the liverectomy. Then sea salt seeps into the wound. His screams shake every corner of Olympus. As terrible as the pain is his outrage at the injustice of the other gods. There’s also the issue of repetition. To have your liver ripped out once is one thing, but to know there will be another time and another quickly escalates to unbearable. By day two, you know what you’re in for. By day three, you are hysterical.

Also, Prometheus’ screams are interfering with preferred godly activities. No one can sleep or think. Finally, Hercules has had it. He calls another meeting and argues for clemency so he can get some peace (and for Hercules to want peace indicates how bad it must be). His request is denied but after reflecting for a moment that he can probably take all the other gods if he feels like it, he decides to ignore their decision. He climbs up onto the rock and frees Prometheus just as he is beginning to cringe yet again in the shadow of the eagle. And that, in later tellings of the story, is an end to it. In earlier versions, however, there is a cosmic joke — a punch line — that beautifully illustrates the relative and the ultimate truths of being chained…but we will get to that in a minute.

As persons honing our observational skills through meditation, we are refining our ability to work with shenpa. Our minds are very sticky, looking for stories to hook into. We are all chained to the rock with our version of the eagle and the pounding sun and the sea salt in our wounds. We are repeating it again and again, creating a practically hysterical desire to avoid passion, aggression and ignorances’ consequences.

Our passion, aggression and ignorance are our shenpa. There are many forms: shame, jealousy, depression, paranoia, arrogance, fear, addiction, numbing. We seek relief in: food, drugs, work, sex, shopping, entertainment. We engage in an endless project of hoping to soothe the sensitive savage mind. In the Aspiration of Shambhala chant, “We put our heads in clouds of daydreams and speculations, always wanting there to be another now.”

Like Prometheus, we have excellent intentions. His basic goodness guides him to steal light so our world is illuminated. We, too, mean to offer ourselves illumination and wisdom in a fennel stalk. However, because of conditioning and socialization, mental functioning and education — which are all just words for karma — we often end up on the rock where shenpa reigns. And just to clarify, all of us work with shenpa almost all the time. It isn’t really an occasional kind of arising. As long as we are believing something that causes us uneasiness, we are caught.

We enact all this drama because samsara, by its nature, is uncomfortable. We do not want to be where or who or what or how we are. But we also naturally tend towards the light. The dharma says that we tend towards understanding that there is nothing wrong with any experience at all. We call this understanding the ultimate view.

The path to knowing the ultimate view is that, like Prometheus, we must revisit the consequences of our chaining again and again. Yet working with (which is really just being with) shenpa is also realizing the cosmic joke that Hercules discovers. In the earlier, less homogenized versions of the story, Hercules reaches down to unchain Prometheus only to realize that there are no chains to be unhooked. He must surely shake his head and wonder at how foolish Prometheus is. But he isn’t foolish; he is human-like. Prometheus is pinned by beliefs. He believes that he is chained even though there is no concrete evidence to support it. That is the ultimate insight into shenpa: that we are not actually caught. Only our beliefs keep us in the relative view of samsara or cyclical existence.

Sometimes (or maybe always) you cannot avoid the experience of the chains and the eagle and your liver being ripped out. However, there is actually no need to enact it and reenact it and then analyze it and obsess about it. The wisdom of the teachings on shenpa posit that we cannot avoid the pain of life, but we don’t necessarily have to sit through all the spin offs. Shenpa concerns itself with the repeated stories we tell about experiences, not the experiences themselves.

Gaining intimacy with these stories and how they keep us chained is the beginning of wisdom. The first suggestion is: don’t chain yourself to the rock and let your liver get plucked out in the first place. If that is not possible, the second suggestion is to get curious and train the mind to stay while you are torturing yourself. Naturally, organically and slowly the chain reactions won’t rule so much of our lives.

We are our own sensitive, complicated Prometheus and we are our own Hercules. Since we have light, we are entirely capable of unchaining ourselves. Furthermore, we are completely capable of seeing that our chains are a fiction and that we were free all along. We tend to go through the whole drama many times. Once we know it thoroughly, we can relax. Once we relax, we are in the realm of the ultimate view of perfection.

Humans conceive of what conceives us in an eternal wish to know where we came from and why. These stories are powerful for one reason only: they illuminate the path to that which is beyond conception.

From the Supplication to the Takpo Kagyu: ‘Whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization.’ If eagles’ talons and salt water arise, then they are the royal way to the ultimate view that all experience is perfect as it is. All experience. Perfect. As is.

That includes an endlessly plucked out liver and the resultant relaxation from fully experiencing the drama. Working with shenpa is learning to appreciate our stories without believing a word of them. When we can do that, we’re in on the cosmic joke.


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8 responses to “ Prometheus’ Chains: The Myth of Shenpa ”
  1. JoAnn Bonamico
    Jun 12, 2015

    Every morning, in meditation, I thank Niguma for giving me journey and I ask that she dream into my life what my journey is all about and every day in the past year this “horrendous” drama has unfolded….building and building, including more and more family and friends, occasionally debilitating and paralyzing me. I keep believing in my “depression” and questioning daily, “How do I get out of this? Why is this happening now?”
    I get it now……Niguma is showing me a lifetime of chains. She is unfolding my mythology! And in that awareness is the key to the “ultimate view of perfection”.
    Thank you……there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  2. Linda Devlin
    Jun 12, 2015

    Interesting reminder of my own neuroses and how I feel like I’m in a rush to get through all the bs and just be enlightened. I feel like a Spanish onion being peeled layer by layer and amid the tears I’m waiting for that last peel to be ripped away to reveal my true essence and set me free. But I am free……am I not……how many times must I get my liver ripped out …..I’m really getting sick and tired of it all….how do I realize this so I can be of service to other….

  3. Bill Auerbach
    Jun 8, 2015

    Thank you for exploring a Greek myth and relating it to dharma — they are so rich in human experience in a completely dream like magical way!

  4. Chris Stockinger
    Jun 6, 2015

    Excellent exposition, thank you! The connections you made are very useful.

  5. John Glazier
    Jun 6, 2015

    Ah yes. This article caught my eye because on first glance it seemed rather oddly out of place in the Shambhala Times. Having read it, it’s looking in the mirror. Well done. Thank You!

  6. Ellen Scordato
    Jun 5, 2015

    As a once-Classics major now-buddhist, I really enjoyed this! Thanks, Crystal!

  7. marjolaine robert
    Jun 5, 2015

    Very inspiring article. Thank you

  8. Robert Taylor
    Jun 4, 2015

    I have to admit I started reading this piece with skeptical “what is Shambhala devolving into?!” crankiness, but found it to be accurate, inspired, and inspiring. Nicely done! : )

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