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Epicurus and Buddha: A Comparison

Glenn Russell

It is a great tragedy all the many books written by Epicurus have been lost to us. We know Epicurus wrote many books and we know the titles of these books since they are listed by Diogenes Laertius, the great 3rd century biographer of the Greek philosophers. Of the books of Epicurus that Diogenes Laertius lists, the three books I really wish survived are: 1) Of Love 2) Of Music and 3) Symposium.

I am struck with the many similarities in the life, approach and philosophy between Epicurus and the historical Buddha. For example:

• Both studied with teachers and the teachings within their respective traditions before rejecting those teachings and striking out on their own, developing their own unique philosophy;
• Both examined their own direct experience in the world to understand the nature of human life;
• Both insisted on facing the inevitability of one’s own death directly and with courage;
• Both developed a series of principles to be memorized, internalized and lived by;
• Both encouraged their followers to practice in separate communities of like-minded seekers and at a remove from frenetic public life;
• Both highly valued a clear-headed understanding of the nature of desire and how desire is the root of suffering;
• Both outlined rules regarding the intake of food and drink as well as one’s attitude toward food and drink;
• Both encouraged their followers to adhere to specific principles to transcend suffering and reach a state of tranquil abiding;
• Both took on a God-like status with their followers.

Sidebar: I have not read of any philosopher or scholar who has noted the similarities between Epicurus and Gautama Buddha. If anybody has come across any writing on the subject, please let me know.

As a way of encouraging a study of Epicurus, the following is my commentary on the first five of his Principal Doctrines (Diogenes Laertius lists the 40 Principal Doctrines in his narrative biography of Epicurus):

1. A blessed and indestructible being has no trouble himself and brings no trouble upon any other being; so he is free from anger and partiality, for all such things imply weakness.

A perfect being is too pure, too blissful to feel in a limited human or earthly way. If you had the misfortune of being raised in a religion where children are told to fear an angry, jealous God, than this is something you must outgrow if you want to live at ease as an Epicurean. Perhaps a good first step is to simply realize such a religion is one of thousands of religions throughout human prehistory and history, and many religions view God in ways other than fear. Another suggestion would be to seek out like-minded friends where you can talk through emotional issues caused by religious teachings. Since emotions and memory are so much part of our physical body, start to exercise in ways that you enjoy and find relaxing – yoga, dance, jogging or walking. Appreciate the fact that you are a sensitive, aesthetic embodied being. Live in joy, joy as an ongoing experience. There is nothing more pleasurable than a life lived in joy.

2. Death is nothing to us; for that which has been dissolved into its elements experiences no sensations, and that which has no sensation is nothing to us.

Do you get the willies when something reminds you of death? When somebody talks about death, do you feel like jumping up and running out of the room in a panic? If so, then you don’t need a doctor, you need an Epicurean philosopher. The first thing is to realize death is a complete dissolution where you experience no sensation, not even the tiniest pressure on your skin. According to Epicurus, death is a complete blank – no forms, no awareness, no sensation. In a very real sense, in a way we have this experience every night when we enter the deep sleep state. Of course, we wake up from our night’s sleep but, even still, there is that ‘blank’ aspect of sleep. So, please see death as a close cousin to sleep. You don’t have anxiety or misgivings about entering a deep, dreamless sleep, so you shouldn’t be bothered by the idea of death. To put not only your mind, but also your body in harmony with this view of death, it would be wise to practice meditation or the practice of sleep done by the yogis of India, which is called yoga nidra — very restful, very calming, giving you a deep acceptance of who you are and your own mortality. With even a small amount of practice, you will develop a deeper experience of tranquility and live with less agitation and nervousness.

3. The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.

The key is appreciating who we are and where we are. Easy to say and not so easy to do, since as humans we tend to be uncontrollable in our desires. Even when we are healthy and free of both physical and mental pain, we tend to always want more. The sickness of desire – more, more, more. Enough is never enough for the unwise man or woman. If we are not experiencing physical pain or mental pain, which is the vast majority of the time, we should enjoy and value the pleasures life affords. If you cannot enjoy the simple pleasure of taking a deep breath or the taste of your morning coffee or listening to the birds sing or the sight of trees turning in fall, you are missing the natural rhythms of being alive. In a very real sense, all we have is the present moment – relax and enjoy; be thankful you don’t have a tooth ache or a pounding head ache or a sprained ankle or the memory of being held captive in a prison camp. To bring yourself to a richer appreciation of the moment, take up an enjoyable exercise, which can be as simple as a morning walk. Clear your head of chatter, focus on your kinesthetic sixth sense, that is, being mindful of your body moving in space. If you need help with developing this awareness, try the Alexander Technique or a comparable method. If you want a good practice for the mind – start by committing to memory these forty Principal Doctrines of Epicurus. There is so much pleasure available having our five senses and our body. It is simply a matter of developing the habit of wakefulness.

4. Continuous bodily pain does not last long; instead, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time, and even that degree of pain which slightly exceeds bodily pleasure does not last for many days at once. Diseases of long duration allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.

Unlike ancient times, our modern world has a sophisticated medical industry with its thousand and one ways to perform operations and provide treatments to keep people alive who otherwise would be pushing up daisies. Thus, in a very real sense, we have more possibilities for pain. However, our modern world has a sophisticated pharmacological industry with its thousand and one ways to kill pain. It is something of a trade-off, but on the whole, we deal with less pain than people in ancient times. However, one thing remains the same: the ancients feared pain, and we in the modern world fear pain. Pain has been and will continue to be a very real part of life. But, does that mean we have to live in fear of future physical pain? Epicurus says `no’, and for good reason. Our fear of what could happen takes us out of the pleasures we can have right here and now. Nothing spoils our tranquility more than being anxious, continually worrying, fretting and fidgeting over the future. Do you have nervous habits – wringing of hands, fidgeting with a pen, tapping your foot, pacing back and forth? If so, time to take a deep breath and think things through with Epicurus. You have dealt with pain up to this point in your life and you can deal with any future pain even more effectively now that you are committed and dedicated to philosophy. Ups and downs, pleasure and pain are part of nature; fortunately for us, there is a lot more pleasure than pain. Are you experiencing physical pain right now? Probably not. Relax and sink deeper into the pleasure of what is happening in and around you. The richness of physical pleasure through our senses and mental pleasure by using our mind philosophically are very rich indeed, an endless ocean of rich experience. All we need do is become more attentive to the present and not allow ourselves to be pulled out of our on-going pleasure by fear of future pain.

5. It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly. Whenever any one of these is lacking, when, for instance, the man is not able to live wisely, though he lives honorably and justly, it is impossible for him to live a pleasant life.

Living pleasantly for Epicurus is living without agitation, anxiety, and fear, being comfortable and confident with who we are, far removed from even a trace of being sexually twisted or repressed or violent or greedy for such things as wealth, fame, status, and political advantage . Without being burdened by these negativites and hankerings, we are free to think in a calm and clear way. Rather than reacting in knee-jerk fashion, we interact and respond sensitively to others and the world around us. What is the natural result of living such a life of Epicurean philosophy? A life lived wisely and honorably and justly, where we are seen by others as we are in fact – kind, courteous, honest, considerate and full of good will. A life lived wisely, honorably, justly, and pleasantly are of one piece. Remove any one of these four qualities in us and our lives can quickly spin into a nail-biting, tension-riddled mess. Much better to stay with Epicurus in his garden and relax into the life we were meant by nature to lead. And remember, always mean what you say and say what you mean. A kind and gentle man or woman has no place for being snide or sarcastic or lashing out with a sharp tongue. We degrade ourselves when we are condescending, coarse, crude or mean-spirited.

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