The Enlightenment of the Swan
Lohengrin, The Swan Knight by Ernst Fuchs
In Wolfram's story of Parzival, the Grail Castle is situated in the Wasteland, la Terre Gaste. This is a powerful metaphor for modern Western culture with its dead-end narcissism, going hand in hand with the wholesale devastation of the natural world. In Where the Wasteland Ends, Theodore Roszak applied the same metaphor in his lucid critique of "how the urban-industrial revolution generated an artificial environment, and what style of politics and consciousness has followed from that environment." Artificial is the operative word here. The Wasteland of the 12th Century was not, of course, the one we are facing today, within and without. In that time and setting, the artificial environment was the lifestyle of the top stratum of the feudal hierarchy, the Nobility.
The word "noble" comes from the Indo-European root, gno-, found in gnosis. One could say, Gnobility. The equivalent in Sanskrit is jna-, found in prajna (discriminating insight) and jnana (reflective insight). In what sense did the European Nobility of the Middle Ages embody these precious faculties of enlightenment? Is it even conceivable to attribute such high spiritual attributes to people of that time and setting?
Well, the Grail Legend seems to be telling us that, yes, there was a Buddhic element in the privileged class of the feudal world.
Let's recall that Prince Siddhartha came from the feudal Nobility of India in the seventh century BCE. In his hugely influential translation of The Lankavatara Sutra, Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki used "noble wisdom" to translate prajna and aryajnana, two Sanskrit terms for the Buddhic capacity.
Gnosis is a special capacity for knowledge, including both self-knowledge and the apprehension of the natural world and the cosmos at large. The Grail Legend suggests that this capacity was present in some members of the feudal Nobility, but not in that class as a whole. However, the point is, that it was preserved in that class and not elsewhere in feudal society. In some manner, the European Nobility of the Middle Ages acted as guardians of an enlightened impulse. They were the vehicle of a sense of human spirituality based in direct experience of the magical and supernatural powers of Sacred Nature. Those who gazed upon the Grail were nourished physically and morally, infused with all manner of sensuous pleasure, and spared from ageing.
The story clearly shows that the Company of the Grail are trapped in their world of privilege. That which sustains them, also isolates them. Their privileged status compromises their humanity, yet they also represent the best that humanity can be. Amfortas suffered from a wound that did not heal, yet he could not die from it, either. The Grail Family were wonderfully nourished from the sacred dish, yet they could neither nourish themselves nor alleviate the hunger around them. Wild Mountain where the ultimate source of nourishment was kept stood in a land where nothing grew. Someone coming from within the Company had to free it from these paradoxical conditions, so that the Buddhic potential could flow to humanity at large. This happened with the attainment of the Grail by Parzival, and, almost simultaneously, with the passing of the Grail, its transmission toward the future, now.
The transmission proceeded in two directions, externally and internally. Through Feirefiz, the Syrian half-brother of Parzival, the Grail passed to Asia. Through Lohengrin, Parzival´s son, the mission extended into the interior of Europe. Even though these developments in the Grail Legend transcend historical events, they are closely reflected in them. The transmission of the Grail to Asia happened in the 10th Century. The story says that the Grail maiden Repanse de Schoye, who married Feirefiz, had a son who came to be known as Prester John. Feirefiz gave the Grail to his son, who came to rule a remote Asian kingdom, a place called Shambhala.
Did anything happen historically in central Asia in the 10th Century that reflects these legendary events?
Well, a significant development in Tibetan Buddhism did occur at that time. This was the emergence of the Kalachakra initiations. These are complex Tantric practices that were only introduced to the Western world in the 1980s through Kalu Rinpoche and the 14th Dalai Lama. They concern two initiatory tools or methods, the Wheel of Time, usually represented as a sand mandala, and the Wish-fulfilling Gem. It is possible to see in the latter an image of the Grail, often described as a gem or precious stone. Hence there is a thousand-year cycle of historical continuity — 980 to 1980 — involving developments on a global scale: the Western Grail, transmitted to the East, becomes the Wish-fulfilling Gem, and then, a thousand years later, the Grail returns to the West through the Kalachakra initiations.
It appears that the noble intentions of the Grail Company in the Western world are intimately linked to the central Buddhist tradition of the far East.
The Flemish Connection
As noted in the previous lesson, with the passing of the Grail to Lohengrin, the legend shifts to Flanders — in modern terms, the Benelux countries, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg. Wolfram sets up this part of the story by a careful orchestration of dynastic links. Prince Kaylet of Castile, a cousin of Parzival´s father Gahmuret, rejected a young woman named Elize. During the great tournament where Gahmuret met Herzeloyde, Elize was claimed by a knight from Flanders, Duke Lambekin of Brabant and Hainaut. Elize was a Gascon princess from the border of France and Spain, across from Castilia. Her marriage with Duke Lambekin formed a dynastic link between Gascon-Castilia region and Flanders.
From the Middle Ages onward there were close ties between Spain and the Lowlands. In fact, Flanders was for a time under Spanish rule. Flemish soldiers who visited Spain during the rule of Hapsburg Emperor Charles V (Charles I of Spain, reigned 1516 - 56) became known for their physical largeness and crude manners. The soldiers were considered to be "roughhouses" or "road house" types. When Spanish gypsies emerged as a distinct class in the 18th Century, they were observed to have a similar style, a roadhouse or rowdy manner. The local populace loosely applied the racial term (an insult, really) for the soldiers — Flamencos, "Flemings" — to the gypsies and, by extension, to their wild, outrageous manner of dancing. So it came about that the Andalucian art of Flamenco, to many people the very signature of Spain, is called by a Flemish name.
The Flemish connection figures centrally in the story of Lohengrin, the Swan Knight. After Parzival renounced the kingship of the Grail, he gave some special instructions to his son who proceeded to Hainaut and Brabant, following the dynastic link to which Wolfram alludes: the marriage of Princess Alize to Duke Lambekin.
At the end of the 12th century, Wolfram drew the elements of the Grail story in part from the unfinished work of Chretien de Trois. The town of Trois is in the province of Champagne in France, southwest of the Lowlands (a car journey of about five hours). Chretien was known to have composed the Grail story for his patron, Philipe of Flanders, as things were done in those times. Interestingly, the literary provenance of the Grail story links it to the Lowlands at the close of the 12th Century, between 1185 and 1206, and the actual historical events that reflect the story also point to this region, but two centuries earlier. Lotharingia or Lorraine originally extended northward into the Lowlands (Lower Lotharingia) and southward into Alsace (Upper Lotharingia). I presume the key moment of Parzival´s quest to have been 968 CE, and the time of Lohengrin to have been the end of the 10th Century, around 985 CE. Specific celestial designs signal these moments.
No Questions, Please
But all this is mere detail — historical trivia, really. What is the true significance of the passing of the Grail? How does the destiny of the Swan Knight relate to anything we experience today in personal, societal, or global terms? What can the sequel of the Grail Legend tell us about modern spirituality, the plight of the planet, and the regeneration of humanity?
Well, the sequel found in Wolfram's tale itself does not give much to go on. In literary terms, the Lohengrin episode makes a feeble, unconvincing ending to Parzival. It is tacked-on without foundation or finesse. Yet there are crucial details here, which need to be considered with care:
Upon asking the second question — "How do I serve the Grail?", or, in another phrasing, "Whom does the Grail serve?" — Parzival must have had a realization that induced him to renounce kingship of the Grail. He abdicated the throne of Amfortas, thus breaking the ancestral lineage of the Grail Kings. Also, with the passing of the Grail to the East, there occurred a decisive mystical event:
Writing was seen on the Grail to the effect that any Grail Knight whom divine Will should bestow on a distant people for their protection, must forbid them to ask his name or his lineage, for he must help them gain their rights. When such a question is put to him, the people there cannot keep him any longer. Because gentle Amfortas had remained in bitter agony for so long and the question was withheld from him for such a long time, the members of the Grail Company are now forever averse to questioning. They do not wish to be asked about themselves. (Parzival, p. 406)
Wolfram says that Lohengrin grew into a strong and valiant man who mastered
the arts of chivalry. At some point he heard of the plight of a noble
lady of the Lowlands, Else of Brabant. She refused all suitors, much
to the frustration of many men, the barons of the region. Else provoked
intense male animosity by her independent stance. She was just plain
unavailable to be an accessory to the male rule of order. Finally, one
of the barons attempted to force her hand and make her enter into marriage
against her will.
In short, Lohengrin was a true hero, a man appreciative of the Feminine and aligned to the Goddess, and not a patriarchal champion bent on overthrowing the Goddess and defeating the ethical code and system of values She inspires. (This distinction between hero and chamption is central to my book, The Hero - Manhood and Power.)
Now, Else and Lohengrin, known as the Prince of Brabant, lived a wonderful life, looking after the concerns of the common people. But Lohengrin had to tell her about the conditions of his service: namely, that no one, including herself, could ask about his family name or his origin. "If I am subject to questioning, you will have lost my love," he warned her. She gave her pledge, but through her very affection for him, she would later betray it. The more good the Prince did, the more the people wished to acknowledge him, but to do so, they asked about his name and family origins. This was natural for them to do, because social custom dictated that prestige goes to the families who serve the existing order and work for the betterment of society. Else herself was attached to this custom and wanted her husband to receive due credit for his good works.
But the Writing on the Grail flatly stated a condition that precluded the accrual of social prestige for the work of bettering society. Curiously, the observance of the condition fell on society, rather than on the one who served it: the question of family origins must not be asked. Lohengrin could not violate this conditon by disclosing his origins, but the mere act of asking him about them could, and did. This is what happened, eventually, when Else succumbed to social pressure and asked the Prince about himself. At that moment, the mysterious swan came back and Lohengrin climbed aboard the skiff with his sword, shield, and helmet. He is said to have fallen into a trance, or fallen asleep, on his shield as the swan pulled the skiff away, across the sullen grey waters of the North Sea.
Fathers and Sons
A careful look at the message encoded in the Lohengrin story will reveal the new social equation that arose in feudal Europe in the 10th Century, an equation whose importance for spiritual regeneration in our time cannot be overlooked.
One aspect of the message is clear: the monopoly of ancestral, blood-based transmission ended with Parzival. Upon the passing of the Grail, noble intentions to better society were no longer a family affair. This means, not that enlightened social service by the Nobility was no longer just a family affair after the 10th Century, but that it was thereafter no longer a family affair at all. In the new social equation signalled by Lohengrin, something replaced the familial or dynastic vehicle for the Grail initiative. What that was will become clear in a moment.
In Chapter 15 of Parzival, Wolfram says: "No wise man in search of truth counts father and children as related." This is a hard saying (indeed, to some people it will be an unacceptable saying) that calls for some compassionate scrutiny. In The Hero I explained that father-son relations figure poorly in classical myth and Pagan lore. They do exist — consider Ulysses-Telemachus in the Odyssey, and Aeneas-Anchises in the Iliad (shown on the right, the hero carries his father from the ruins of Troy) — but they are non-essential to the heroic tradition. No great hero looks to his son to equal or succeed him, and likewise, sons do not become heroes through emulating their fathers. Needless to say, this factor plays flagrantly against the paternal assumption that God the Father is pleased by his Son, Jesus Christ. The paternalistic syntax of religious make-believe is contradicted and thwarted by the heroic code, which stresses the independence and autonomy of the young male. (There is much to be said about pleasing the Father God in future lessons in Mythbusting 101.)
The overthrow of paternal authority begins in the womb. If the father
dies before his son is born, the male child acquires a rare and special
power to resist patriarchy. The condition of winning the Grail reflects
this motif: the hero must be the son of a widow. He has no living paternal
examplar, no blood father to follow. And therein lies his advantage,
his edge against the Paternal Lie. "Honor thy father and mother," says
the paternal commandment. Parzival does neither. He abandons his mother
and has no father to honor in the first place. The same (some would say
harsh) conditions that qualify him to win the Grail empower him to resist
and defeat the Paternal Lie.
There is so little substance to the Lohengrin story that one wonders how it could have become such a big deal, but a big deal it is. Wagner's opera of Lohengrin was, and still is, a huge crowd-puller. Productions of this opera run to emotional grandiosity, if not high camp. The story is treated as a romantic tragedy, and a rather pathetic one at that. All in all, the tale of Lohengrin is rather ridiculous. I suspect that in the 12th century it was considered so. Having the hero go off to the Lowlands was like saying he got lost in the boondocks — although it must be said that Flanders entered a magnificent Renaissance after the 13th Century. Still, local sensibility in that time and setting might well have seen Lohengrin stranded in swampland, and callously betrayed by the mundanity of a noble lady named Else.
This being said, it is still the romantic dimension of Lohengrin's story that must be elaborated, if we are to understand the transmission of the Grail ahead to our time. We are asked to imagine that he and Else are true and authentic lovers whose passion puts them beyond social norms and mores. They are what I will call a fated couple. Romantically fated. The swan is the key to the whole story. It brings Lohengrin to Else, and takes him away. From the 12th Century on, the swan will continue to be one of the most pervasive and deeply regarded images in European art and literature. It re-emerged in the Decadence, the last wave of the Romantic movement at the end of the 19th century, as the emblem of poetic visionary experience. In European tradition, the swan is the sigil of mythopoesis. It is also the image of passional love considered as a transcendent or mystical force. In Asian cults of Tantra and sexual yoga, the divine swan, Hamsa, is the image of the mystical body formed by the couple in ritual embrace. Fated couples such as Else and Lohenrgin are primary exemplars of the Cult of Amor, celebrating divine love in the human dimension. This Cult is the other part of the Grail Legend, complementary to the Grail initiative in European history.
The New Social Equation
With Lohengrin, the Grail Quest merges into another epic genre, the love story. The future Grail hero finds his lost twin in his soul-mate, a woman. One moral of this story is that man and woman must complete each other to be human. Only those who are authentically human serve, future-bearing power of the Grail and insure its survival. Gender balance is essential to the new social equation.
This new equation depends on passional love between two people (the fated couple) who embody noble intentions, and not on the dynastic accomplishment of such intentions. Of course, the couple might belong to a notable family, but the service they render to humanity is not to be credited to the family, nor to them as dynastic figures or prominent social players. The Writing on the Grail seems to have posed an odd challenge to those who enact noble intentions to better the world: do not allow those whom you serve to single you out for social prestige. Remember, it is not the disclosure of origins that the Grail forbids, it is asking about origins. This is extremely odd, for it implies the responsibility of those who serve to control the response of those whom they serve. Controlling the responses of other people is, needless to say, a tricky business.
Yet for well-intentioned and socially enlightened people to control the way they are perceived does play into the new social equation. Why? I would suggest that the conditions stated by the Writing refer to defeating patriarchy by renunciation of social power that accrues to those who serve social betterment. This prevents the uneven distribution of power from feeding back into itself. It breaks the cycle of social injustice that depends on the acceptance of privileged status by those who have power and resources of uncommon magnitude. The privileged can make society better because they themselves are better off in society, but while the acceptance of privileged capacity (having more money and influence) is necessary to serve, the acceptance of privileged status is not.
In short, the Writing asks those who serve the Grail to renounce merit. This is the core practice of the Bodhisattva ideal formulated in Asian Buddhism around 150 AD. It is rather remarkable, isn't it, that this formula shows up in the Western tradition of the Grail as an exact counterpart to the Wish-Fulfilling Gem, which I have suggested is the Grail transmitted to Asia? Through a careful deciphering of the literary motifs in the fragmentary Lohengrin sequel, we learn that the Grail Legend is global, combining the renunciation of merit taught in Buddhism with the calling of social enlightenment in the West. The combination of Bodhisattvic practice with social initiative is potent and determines the blend of magical and moral effects in humanitarian service.
The renunciation of merit (dana) is a fascinating, little-understood practice. In the perspective of the Grail Quest, it is an indispensable factor in breaking the unjust rule of patriarchy. Oddly, dana denotes both generosity and the merit or reward that accumulates from acts of generosity. But how can a moral attribute and the "rewards" for the expression of that moral attribute be the same? This is not immediately evident. I suggest that this moral formula carries a magical element, like the regenerative power of the Grail. In fact, Buddhist teachings ascribe a similar power to the Bodhisattvic act of renouncing merit. In the practice of what Buddhists call "the altruistic intention," the Bodhisattva gains "points" of positive karma which are then rendered to others with less points. This is putting it crudely, or gamely, I know, but the teachings really say just this, without quite admitting it.
To generalize, many socially enlightened people in the United States tend to see Buddhism as superior to Judeo-Christianity because the latter is clearly a moral reward system, closely linked to a paternal authroity god, the punishing and rewarding parent, whereas Buddhism seems to be free of that syndrome. In reality, it is not free, but it does present an approach to magical morality that could be an alternative to the salvationist regime. Renunciation of merit involves a magical dynamic of morality, something that cannot be explained in terms of the social conception of reward. In some way that remained to be elucidated, it is superior to the social-spiritual reward system of the three mainstream religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
One could elaborate further on this fascinating notion, but within the limits of this lesson I want to point out something else. No matter what its magical value may be, renunciation of merit has a self-evident pragmatic effect: it breaks the self-affirming cycle of social privilege in which those who live better in society, and are therefore privileged to make society better, come to be rewarded by society for doing so. For acting on the altruistic intention, they are rewarded by the system, even if they don't want to be! The rewards and prestige that accrue to them mire them ever more deeply in patriarchal power structure. The Lohengrin principle refutes the reward-system by discouraging those who are served from conferring prestige on those who serve them. Doing so, the Lohengrin ethos — that is, the renunciation of merit for enlightened acts of social betterment — clearly undercuts the paternal system in which the resources (material and otherwise) held by powerful families accrue perpetually to the advantage of the members of those families.
What happened in Europe in the initial transition out of the feudal system around 1000 AD was that someone in the Nobility realized that the spiritual mission of noble-minded people could be carried forth without collusion in patriarchy. This was possible by the renounciation of privileged status and social advantage, not the renunciation of what made the Nobility priviliged in the first place. In other words, someone realized that Nobility could survive as a model of spiritual initiative if its exemplars used their privileges in the cause of human rights, and renounced their right to live in a privileged manner. This must have been a wild, electrifying prospect to those who were able to discern it at that time. It meant that Nobility could disown the patriarchal structure from which it arose and find it own way in the world.
The hero who led the way was the unlucky lover in a fated couple, Lohengrin, the Swan Knight. His destiny prefigures the future of social enlightenment in the West and, beyond that, in the entire world.
Material by John Lash and Lydia Dzumardjin: Copyright 2002 - 2017 by John Lash.