In Athens in the third century B.C., Athenian minds were a buzz with questions: What is real? What is the nature of the universe? How does man fit into all of this? What is a good life? What is a happy life? Are those two— “good” and “happy”—in harmony or at odds with each other? And what, if any, role do the gods play in all this?
Philosophical discourse had become part of everyday life. Everywhere in the city you stumbled onto some deep conversation between teacher and teacher, teacher and student and students among themselves.
At the Theater of Dionysius a new comedy by Menander were playing, the audience remained talking and discussed the moral implications of the drama long after the play was over. The played touched on themes like, are extramarital affairs ever justifiable? Does bad behavior necessarily lead to personal unhappiness? Arguments from Aristotle’s Ethics was used, as were the moral arguments of Plato.
Later, as members of the audience walked back through the agora, they may have encountered Zeno of Citium in the colonnade lecturing students on the beliefs of stoicism. Some way further they may have passed the Lyceum, where Aristotelian philosophy was being taught, then pass the Academy, where Platonic philosophy was the subject at hand. And then, farther up a hill overlooking the metropolis, they would have reached a garden gate that had these words inscribed on it:
Stranger, here you will do well to dwell; here our highest good is pleasure.
The caretaker of that residence, a kindly host with the name Epicurus, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with bread, and serve you some water. The place you have arrived at, is Epicurus’s Garden. Here, at the long outdoor table, nonstop philosophical discussion reached its peak.
Unlike at the Academy or the Lyceum, women, some of them concubines and courtesans, as well as a few slaves, joined the conversation; further, many of the students here had arrived without academic credentials in mathematics or music, the requirement for entry to any of the other Athenian schools of higher learning.
No, in this Garden all were equal. And the subject under discussion was mostly on happiness. Remarkably, Epicurus’s ideas about what is truly necessary for finding happiness—were more directly influenced by Buddhist thought, than a twenty-first-century reader might imagine for a Greek philosopher of that era.
Two of Epicurus’s early influences, Democritus and Pyrrho of Elis, had actually journeyed all the way to what is now India, where they had encountered Buddhism through certain ancient Indian philosophers who pursued asceticism to the point of regarding food and clothing as obstacles to purity of thought (called by the Greeks, gymnosophists or naked teachers).
At the table in Epicurus’s Garden, the men and women are listening attentively to the Master. They all feel that Epicurus is one of the greatest teachers. He is also patient with his students’ questions and their misunderstandings and open-minded of opposing views. And his joy in simply being alive is tangible and infectious.
People feel good about life and themselves merely by being in his company. In short, Epicurus has all the makings of what in present-day terms we would call a charismatic self-help guru. And what did he say about happiness?
Well, Epicurus’s idea of happiness (as the Buddhist) was that only through being content with what you have and not desiring what you don’t have, can you understand happiness.
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have, was once among the things you only hoped for.”
Many of Epicurus’s most quoted sayings distill this idea: “Not what we have, but what we enjoy” and, in its more critical form, “Nothing is enough for the man to whom enough is too little.” And all this is only possible for he who has peace of mind or a state of calmness; stillness; peacefulness; serenity – the state of being free from desire.
Linking up with what Buddha said; “Desire is the root cause of all evil”. Well, maybe the word “desire” is not the correct translation, possibly “craving is the root of suffering” is better. Why? Because it goes beyond natural desire and into jealousy, greed, attachment, and delusion. Basically, it’s wanting reality to be different than it is in this moment which can only lead to suffering. You can appreciate this moment and still have a preference for how the next moment could unfold, but without attachment to it.
A modern philosopher, J. Krishnamurti, the great Indian philosopher, believed as Epicurus that “Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.” At one of his talks in the later part of his (Krishnamurti) life, he surprised his audience by saying, “Do you want to know my secret?” Everyone became very alert. Many people in the audience had been coming to listen to him for many years and still failed to grasp the essence of his teaching. Finally, after all these years, he would give them the key to understanding happiness, life. “This is my secret,” he said. “I don’t mind what happens.”
I suspect most of his audience at that time, were maybe more confused than before. The implications of Krishnamurti’s simple statement, however, are profound.
When you don’t mind what happens, what does that suggest? It suggests that internally you are in alignment with what happens. “What happens,” of course, refers to the suchness of this moment, which always already is as it is. It refers to content, the form that this moment – the only moment there ever is – takes. To be in alignment with what it means to be in harmony with what happens. It means not to label it mentally as good or bad, but to let it be.
Does this mean you can no longer act or desire to bring about change in your life? On the contrary. When the basis for your actions are align with the present moment, your actions become clearer and powerful.
Reading Epicurus now, with a twenty-first-century mindset, it may be hard to resist automatically viewing his teachings about the nature of things as unfounded leaps of reason. But if we return to his prescientific world, while reading Epicurus’s philosophy as life-enhancing poetry, rather than as testable scientific theory. We will discover a wise sage. Whose words can inspire us, as it did Krishnamurti, and guide us even today.
“The things you really need are few and easy to come by; but the things you can imagine you need are infinite, and you will never be satisfied… Meditate then, on all these things, and on those things which are related to them, both day and night, and both alone and with like-minded companions. For if you will do this, you will never be disturbed while asleep or awake by imagined fears, but you will live like a god among men.”