Epicureanism and Life


There are a good many people always buoyant in spirit and mirthful in appearance as if born optimists.  There are also no fewer persons constantly crestfallen and gloomy as if born pessimists.  The former, however, may lose their buoyancy and sink deep in despair if they are in adverse circumstances.  The latter, too, may regain their brightness and grow exultant if they are under prosperous conditions.  As there is no evil however small but may cause him to groan under it, who has his heart undisciplined, so there is no calamity however great but may cause him to despair, who has his feelings in control. A laughing child would cry, a crying child would laugh, without a sufficient cause.  'It can be teased or tickled into anything.'  A grown-up child - and  many adults could be thus described - is he who cannot hold sway over his passions.

He should die a slave to his heart, which is wayward and blind, if he be indulgent to it.  It is of capital importance for us to discipline the heart, otherwise it will discipline us.  Passions are like legs.  They should be guided by the eye of reason.  No wise serpent is led by its tail, so no wise man is led by his passion. Passions that come first are often treacherous and lead us astray. We must guard ourselves against them.  In order to gratify them there arise mean desires- he desires to please sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.  These five desires are ever pursuing or, rather, driving us.  We must not spend our whole lives in pursuit of those mirage-like objects which gratify our sensual desires.  When we gratify one desire, we are silly enough to fancy that we have realized true happiness.  But one desire gratified begets another stronger and more insatiable.  Thirst allayed with salt water becomes more intense than ever.

Shakya Muni compared an Epicurean with a dog chewing a dry bone, mistaking the blood out of a wound in his mouth for that of the bone.  The author of Mahaparinirvana-sutra has a parable to the following effect: 'Once upon a time a hunter skilled in catching monkeys alive went into the wood.  He put something very sticky on the ground, and hid himself among the bushes.  By-and-by a monkey came out to see what it was, and supposing it to be something eatable, tried to feed on it.  It stuck to the poor creature's snout so firmly that he could not shake it off.  Then he attempted to tear it off with both his paws, which also stuck to it.  Thereupon he strove to kick it off with both his hind-legs, which were caught too.  Then the hunter came out, and thrusting his stick through between the paws and hind-legs of the victim, and thus carrying it on his shoulder, went home.'  In like manner an Epicurean (the monkey), allured by the objects of sense (something sticky), sticks to the five desires (the snout and the four limbs), and being caught by Temptation (the hunter), loses his life of Wisdom.

We are no more than a species of monkeys, as some evolutionists hold.  Not a few testify to this truth by their being caught by means of 'something eatable.'  We abolished slavery and call ourselves civilized nations.  Have we not, nevertheless, hundreds of life-long slaves to cigars among us?  Have we not thousands of life-long slaves to spirits among us?  Have we not hundreds of thousands of life-long slaves to gold among us?  Have we not myriads of lifelong slaves to vanity among us?  These slaves are incredibly loyal to, and incessantly work for, their masters, who in turn bestow on them incurable diseases, poverty, chagrin, and disappointment.

A poor puppy with an empty can tied to his tail, Thomas Carlyle wittily observes, ran and ran on, frightened by the noise of the can.  The more rapidly he ran, the more loudly it rang, and at last he fell exhausted of running.  Was it not typical of a so-called great man of the world?  Vanity tied an empty can of fame to his tail, the hollow noise of which drives him through life until he falls to rise no more.  Miserable!

Neither these men of the world nor Buddhist ascetics can be optimists.  The latter rigorously deny themselves sensual gratifications, and keep themselves aloof from all objects of pleasure.  For them to be pleased is equivalent to sin, and to laugh, to be cursed.  They would rather touch an adder's head than a piece of money.  They would rather throw themselves into a fiery furnace than to come in contact with the other sex.  Vegetarianism and celibacy are their holy privileges.  Life is unworthy of having; to put an end to it is their deliverance.  Such a view of life is hardly worth our refutation.


 



 

 

Original text by Kaiten Nukariya, edited and revised by William Mackis 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


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Epicureanism and Life