Awakening in the West: Zen, Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism, and Learning to Fall

Awakening in the West: Zen, Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism, and Learning to Fall March 17, 2018

 

 

For some today is a day to mark the life of Patrick, the Romano-British missionary bishop to Ireland. Whose fortunes in various circles has declined to drunken parades featuring gallons of green beer. Others, of a more decorous sort take today to honor the seventh century abbess, Gertrude, patron of cats and cat lovers.

Me, I have to go with Marcus Aurelius, emperor and philosopher, who died on this day in 180.

A bunch of years ago the blogger and Unitarian Universalist thinker Doug Muder wrote a sermon called “Is There a Western Path to Enlightenment?” He suggested there is. And he concluded that path is Stoicism.

Now, Stocism isn’t the only candidate among the various Greek philosophic paths as a Western path to Awakening. My old friend Doug Bates has spent the last couple of years advocating for Pyrrhonism as a Neo-Buddhist path for moderns. And I suggest it might be worth investigating. But, me, right now, its Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics that I find myself reflecting on.

Here’s the deal in short. We are alive. We know we will die.

Real religions deal with this.

The art is learning to fall.

Zen Buddhism offers a way to learn to fall. It is amazing. And, it isn’t the only one.

Doug started his sermon with the observation how “There’s a classic story that gets acted out in reality every few years. It goes like this: A young adult (typically male) grows up in the center of civilization (typically England). He has a certain measure of success and comes to be quite proud of himself. And then he goes off to an apparently backward part of the world (typically India), where he finds ancient teachings that wake him up spiritually.” Doug cites some of the more famous examples from Kipling’s classic novel Kim to the Beatles studying with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Of course I’ve taken that journey myself. And, I’ve found Daoist and Zen Buddhist advice on learning to fall. Good advice. Words I’ve learned from. But I’m haunted by something else that Doug said, how, “As much as I admire and even envy some of the Eastern or indigenous religions, I am a Westerner. The West is not just where my body happened to be born. It is the home of my soul.”

He then goes on to offer some words from the Stoics that might be more accessible to many of us in the West. I know even as a life long practitioner of Zen, I find turning to Western wisdom fills a need, some deep visceral need. And with Doug and Doug and increasing others, I think we can profit greatly from attending to the Stoics and other Greek philosophers and their wisdom. It is a wisdom just as profound as we can find in the East.

Although, just like with Zen, we need to start by saying much of what we probably think Stoicism is, is probably wrong. For most of us being “stoic” is sucking it up, finding that stiff upper lip, and gutting it through, whatever the situation might be. This isn’t a new way of thinking about Stoicism. Someone who did the research found that usage dating from the middle of the sixteenth century. Nonetheless, I suggest such a view of stoicism is missing the great gift to Western spirituality that this ancient Greek and Roman spiritual insight in fact offers. Stoicism is about learning to fall in a world where we’re all falling.

Turns out the Stoics emphasized three things. The first was virtue, a way of discerning what to avoid and what to embrace in our lives. The second was wisdom, often called reason in Greek and Latin, which while including rational thought, is mainly about a larger perspective that is found not through the accumulation of knowledge but rather through careful attention to what one thinks and holds in the mind. And the third is a view of the rhythms of nature, discerning its patterns and laws. Each is worthy of detailed study.

Now, what surprised me was how these concerns each involved spiritual practices. For me this was a surprise because I’ve long felt the major lack in the West has been such actual hands on, try this and you’ll find your way, pointers to our own individual depth. But here they were. For instance, Doug describes attention to character as a Stoic spiritual discipline. He cites the Stoic philosopher Seneca who wrote, “The mind must be called to account every day. This is what Sextius used to do: at the close of the day, when he retired to his nightly rest, he used to pose questions to his mind: ‘What fault of yours have you cured today? What defects have you resisted? In what way are you better?” Doug goes on to describe how he has adapted this as a personal spiritual discipline.

Inspired I found several essays and references to books that described Stoic spiritual disciplines, most all of which seemed likely useful to anyone in this room. Just google “stoic” and “spiritual.” I suggest it’ll really be worth the trouble. Sadly, most of the details of Stoic spiritual practices have been lost. At the same time there is much still accessible, hints and pointers. And as I see it, with a little fill in from the wisdoms of the East, particularly the disciplines of stopping and watching we can find in Buddhism, I think we may be well on our way to a Western spiritual path.

As a Zen meditator I was most taken with what I found about Stoic concern with attention to the mind’s workings and how it appears so like my own practices. All of the essays concerned with Stoic attention seem to point to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’s small book Meditations, and particularly to the twelfth book and its third chapter.

You are composed of three things: body, breath and mind.
The first two are yours to the degree that you are responsible for their care;
only the third is truly yours.
If you do not attach your sense of who you are
to your thoughts,
to what others say or do,
to what you have said or done,
to what you will say or do,
to the vicissitudes of your health and other physical conditions,
to any of the raging currents of your life beyond your control;
so that your mind is not entangled by those things that pass away:
you will dwell in freedom
and become the master of your house;
making all your actions just,
doing everything mindfully,
and living truthfully.
If you live mindfully without clinging to any thought
of bodily condition, or the future or the past,
and become like Empedocles’ globe,
perfectly contained and joyful,
and strive to live only the life you have,
in this moment;
then you will own your life
up until the time of your death,
marked by wisdom and joy,
at one with the god within.

In order to own it a little more, and to be owned by it a little more, I sat quite a while with several translations, particularly John Jackson’s classic text and Pierre Hadot’s modern version. Then, after a while attempted my own creative adaptation. Yes, I do understand the limitations of such a project, particularly the limitations from not reading Greek, and how of necessity I project my own life into the text.

On the other hand this discipline of making my own “translation” invites intimacy, and I felt myself shifting and being transformed by the text even if at the same time I was shifting and transforming it. Whatever the details, this discipline of making a text one’s own itself is arguably a Stoic spiritual practice. At least according to one source I found. Perhaps you’ll try your own version sometime. We’re near the end of our time together. Here’s my attempt, which you’ve already heard once. I feel it is the most important thing to share today, and worth some attention. Marcus Aurelius, emperor and philosopher guides us toward our own kingdom.

You are composed of three things: body, breath and mind. The first two are yours to the degree that you are responsible for their care; only the third is truly yours. If you do not attach your sense of who you are to your thoughts, to what others say or do, to what you have said or done, to what you will say or do, to the vicissitudes of your health and other physical conditions, to any of the raging currents of your life beyond your control; so that your mind is not entangled by those things that pass away: you will dwell in freedom and become the master of your house; making all your actions just, doing everything mindfully, and living truthfully. If you live mindfully without clinging to any thought of bodily condition, or the future or the past, and become like Empedocles’ globe, perfectly contained and joyful, and strive to live only the life you have, in this moment; then you will own your life up until the time of your death, marked by wisdom and joy, at one with the god within.

So, here’s the deal, here’s the invitation. With attention, with recollection of our lives, and with finding our genuine relationships within the world that is; we find a way of wisdom. That is what I suggest we’re about as Western practitioners of Zen Buddhism, and what I see that Stoicism is about. And something more, how Stoicism can help us find our own authentic Western way.

I don’t see Stoicism or other Greek philosophies as supplanting Zen. Zen is too clear and offers such a powerful basket of practices. But, its also obvious all religions are false, all are limited. And, so having a wide gaze is wise. And, taking wisdom where we find it, is prudent. And, well, here’s an angle that can be very helpful.

Here we are, from the moment of our birth, falling. The only question is how do we fall artfully, healthfully?

Well, our Western spiritual ancestors, the Stoics, tell us by seeing through the great mess, by not grasping at things that pass, but rather by holding with open hands, by noticing, noticing, noticing; we discover our hearts open, we discover joy, and we find a way of life that can be called wise.

Sound familiar?

Learning to fall.

Awakening in Zen.

Awakening in the West.

The great way…

 

 

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