Buddhism Versus Greek Mythology
Buddhism Versus Greek Mythology
“[A human being] experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness, “said Albert Einstein. “Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty” (“Heart Quotes”). Einstein’s view on nature is similar to that of Indian Buddhists. Life-giving Indian weather inspired the Buddhist cyclic view of rebirth while the rugged terrain of Greece inspired their harsh outlook on nature.
Buddhists believe man is one with nature while Greek mythology emphasizes the all-importance of man. Buddhists live in harmony with nature whereas the Greeks show violence towards it and all its creatures. However, as the Greek mindset shifted towards philosophy, so did it shift towards similar reverence towards nature. The defining distinction between these two perspectives on life is that the outlook on nature of Buddhists show values from the belief that all is in harmony with Atman, whereas the Greek outlook on nature shows that man is above nature.
India is a country of lush plains, striking mountains, beautiful deserts, and dazzling bays. 2, 545 years ago, this incredible scenery served as the backdrop to Buddha’s life and eventual Enlightenment, from which Buddhist teachings would one day grow (Eckel 6). The impact of Buddha’s surroundings on Buddhist thinking is obvious, especially when one takes into consideration India’s dramatic seasonal climate changes. Every summer in India, the monsoons arrive. Every summer in India is monsoon season, a time of torrential downpours raging uninterrupted for months.
Before these monsoons, the earth is dried and parched; food and water are scarce. It is, in every way, a season of death. Then, however, the rain arrives, harsh and relentless, but life giving nonetheless. The rain is the amniotic fluid catalyzing the re-entrance of life unto the barren earth. This annual cycle of death and rebirth presents the native people with a dire ultimatum: they must either obey nature or not survive. If they try to go against nature’s course, they will inevitably fail. Nature controls life. Observing this phenomenon, Buddhists learned from nature and realized that this cycle can be found everywhere.
They realized that humans undergo an equivalent cycle called samsara, or reincarnation. ————————————————- “He could no longer distinguish the many voices, the cheerful from the weeping, the children’s from the men’s: they all belonged together. The lament of the knower’s yearning and laughing, the screaming of the angry, the moaning of the dying- everything was one; everything was entwined and entwisted, was interwoven a thousand fold. And all of it together, all voices, all goals, all yearnings, all sufferings, all pleasures, all good and evil-the world was everything together.
Everything together was the river of events, was the music of life. And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, listened to this song of a thousand voices, when he did not listen to sorrow or laughter, when he did not bring his soul to any one voice and did not enter them with his ego, but listened to all of them, heard the wholeness, the oneness- then the great song of the thousand voices consisted of a single word, which was ‘om’: perfection…belonging to the oneness” (Hesse 118-119). At the core of Buddhism lies an important lesson about maya and Enlightenment. To reach Enlightenment, one must understand all.
One of the first steps towards such understanding is to understand maya, or illusion. Everything that one sees, feels, and tastes belongs to the world of maya. Even one does not exist but in the world of maya. Thus, if all does not exist, then all is equal. One is equal to everything in the surrounding world, especially nature. All are one in Atman, which is the heart of all of Buddhism. Everything is one. All of this separation from nature and from one another is simply maya, or an illusion. Consequently, in Buddhism, any injustice done to nature is an injustice to oneself.
To reach Enlightenment, peace and oneness with nature are essential. Man and nature are one. Therefore, everyone and everything, especially nature, should be treated as so. “[Siddhartha said,] ‘This stone is a stone, it is also an animal, it is also God, it is also the Buddha, I love and honor it not because it would become this or that someday, but because of this because it is a stone, because it appears to me now and today as a stone, it is precisely because of this that I love it and see worth and meaning in each of its veins and pits, in the yellow, in the gray, in the hardness, in the sound it emits when I tap it, in the dryness or dampness of its surface.
[T]hat is precisely what I like and what seems wonderful to me and worthy of worship…I love the stone and the river and all these things that we contemplate and also a tree or a piece of bark. These are things and things can be loved” (Hesse 126-127). In harmony with the principle of reincarnation, any plant, creature, or other aspect of nature is a part of the cycle of rebirth. Therefore, any of these can one day become a man, for when something in nature dies, it undergoes the cycle of rebirth and can be reborn as anything.
One day, it will become a human. Nature holds the ability within itself to be a human and, for that reason, should be considered as an equal. The true magnitude of nature’s presence in Buddhism is truly portrayed by the distinct mentioning of Siddhartha reaching enlightenment under a tree, specifically the Bodhi tree or the Asiatic fig tree (Gach 16). The scriptural account of the Enlightenment of Buddha gives this significance to nature when Buddha sits under the Bodhi tree for seven whole days.
After the seven days, the Buddha gets up only to sit down again at an Ajapala banyan-tree for another length of time. He rises once again just to sit down once more at the foot of a Mucalinda tree (“Bodhi Leaf”). Nature is therefore made clear as one of the most important aspects of Buddhism. As Buddhists have such a deep reverence for nature, they believe in keeping peace with every aspect of nature. This does not just mean plants but also animals and other living creatures. However, that does not mean that all Buddhists must be vegetarians although it is strongly suggested to do so.
It is said that the act of eating meat is a form of karma that will lead a person farther from Enlightenment. Therefore, the more meat one eats in one’s various lives, the more times one will have to experience the cycle of death and rebirth. On the other hand, some Buddhists believe in another view of meat eating. One is allowed to eat meat that one receives unless one knows or suspects that the meat in question was killed especially for one (Epstein). As far as sacrificial practices, meat is not sacrificed but instead herbs and incense are given up in prayer.
Peace is a very important aspect of treating nature. Peace comes in many forms: peace towards environment, towards creatures, towards man, etc. A Buddhist definition of peace is “softening what is rigid in our hearts” (Chodron 17). In keeping with their attitude towards nature, Buddhists also believe that a man should not kill another man for any reason. In Buddhism, war is never the answer. In fact, the first few lines of the Dhammapada, a Buddhist scripture, state “For love is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love.
This is a law eternal” (Chappell 81). Therefore, instead of fighting hate with hate, Buddhists believe in fighting hate with love. That is the only way to overcome and to reach Enlightenment. “’When someone seeks,’ said Siddhartha,’ then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.
You, Venerable One, may truly be a seeker, for, in striving toward your goal, you fail to see certain things that are right under your nose. ” (Hesse, 121-122) As previously stated, to reach Enlightenment, Buddhists believe all that is needed is understanding. The ultimate goal of Buddhists is to attain this understanding, this meaning, this Enlightenment. However, one must be aware that spending a life seeking is not the way to reach Enlightenment. To be a faithful Buddhist, one must understand that the key is not to seek.
For, in seeking, as this quote says, the obvious is not seen. Buddhism then teaches that to reach Enlightenment, one must find not seek. Therefore, Buddhists do not seek to explain nature (Hanh 78). They are content with nature as it is- unexplained, for nature’s explanations can be found without seeking. “’Is this what you mean: that the river is everywhere at once, at its source and at its mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the rapids, in the sea ,in the mountains, everywhere at once, and only the present exists for it, and not the shadow of the future?
’ ‘That is it,’ said Siddhartha. ‘And when I learned that, I looked at my life, and it was also a river and the boy Siddhartha was separated from the adult Siddhartha and from the old man Siddhartha only by shadow, not by substance. Nor were Siddhartha’s earlier births the past, and his death and his return to [Atman] are no future. Nothing was, nothing will be; everything is, everything has being and is present” (Hesse 94). A final important aspect of Buddhism is the concept that time does not exist. Time is a man-made notion that does nothing but bring about worries.
All sufferings in life can be attributed to time. Buddhists believe that once the concept of time is released, life will hold no more problems, worries, or stresses. Only then can Enlightenment be truly reached. When the concept of time is destroyed inside oneself, it allows for a completely new philosophy to surface. Greece is a country lined with hostile, jagged mountains, in which there are very few arable location surrounded by threatening seas. There is no cycle, no preconception, no structure. To the Ancient Greeks, it seemed that nature was not kind; nature was no friend to them.
Therefore, their logic decided that they should be no friend to nature. Such was the physical and mental location of this people, and the beginning of many differences between Greek thought and Buddhism. Greeks living about six hundred years ere the birth of Christ were very religious, as well as very diverse spiritually. All the answers to their questions were found in different religions. Ancient Greeks passed down their religious traditions orally through myths. A myth is “a story about the gods which sets out to explain why life is as it is” (Gaarder, 22).
Greek mythology was an integral part of Greek culture. The ‘miracle of Greece’ is a phrase that describes the awakening of Greek culture and its effects on the rest of the world. One way the Greeks accomplished this was through their focus on man’s importance. They put mankind at the center of their world so that man was all-important. The Greeks even created the gods in their own image, complete with very human qualities. This was the first time in history that a god was made into a recognizable, tangible form. Erstwhile, gods had no lucidity about them.
“Greek artists and poets realized how splendid a man could be, straight and swift and strong. He was the fulfillment of their search for beauty. They had no wish to create some fantasy shaped in their own minds” (Hamilton, 9). Man was put on a pedestal and made the most prominent being in the world, so that he was made into a deity. Any human could be the son of a god, thereby half-divine, an idea unheard of before this time. This idea of man being the ultimate authority is in complete contradiction to Buddhism, where man was equal to nature, not above it.
“And soon as the men had prayed and flung the barley, first they lifted back the heads of the victims, slit their throats, skinned them and carved away the meat from the thighbones and wrapped them in fat, a double fold sliced clean and topped with strips of flesh. And the old man burned these over dried split wood and over the quarters poured out glistening wine while young men at his side held five-pronged forks. Once they had burned the bones and tasted the organs they cut the rest into pieces, pierced them with spits, roasted them to a turn and pulled them off the fire” (Homer 93)
Myths were also used for other purposes than learning. “But a myth was not only an explanation. People also carried out religious ceremonies related to the myths” (Gaarder, 25). Like most other religions at the time, the Ancient Greeks’ religions consisted of brutal rituals and rites that contrasted greatly to the thoughts of Buddhism (Connolly 87). Buddhism teaches of kindness to animals whereas Greek religion utilized animal cruelty as part of their holy worship to the gods. The gods of Olympus, who were created in the ultimate image of the Greek people, used the forms of innocent animals to manipulate and get what they wanted.
In many instances, Zeus used the guise of animals when he wanted to capture a woman and gain her trust. “[T]hat very instant [Zeus] fell madly in love with Europa [… H]e thought it well to be cautious, and before appearing to Europa he changed himself into a bull” (Hamilton 101). However, rather than setting an example to revere animals, this teaches people to use animals in any way possible to reach the desired end. Even more opposed to Buddhism was the fact that a Greek hero was someone who had extreme strength or other physical features that he could use against animals.
Hercules is one of the best examples of this notion. He is considered the greatest Greek hero ever to live. Through a tragic sequence of events, he killed his sons and wife, but was doomed to live on in order to undergo a series of trials to redeem himself. His first predicament was to “kill the lion of Nemea. Hercules solved [that] by choking the life out of [the lion]” (Hamilton 231). Hercules also had to drive out the “Stymphalian birds, which were a plague to the people of Stymphalus because of their enormous numbers” (Hamilton 232).
This shows that, unlike Buddhists, Greeks could not live in peace with nature, but instead hated nature. Ancient Greeks did not want anything to do with nature, let alone be a part of it. Hercules also had to capture many animals in these trials such as the “stag with horns of gold”, “a great boar which had its lair on Mount Erymanthus”, “the savage bull that Poseidon had given Minos”, “the man-eating mares of King Diomedes of Thrace”, the cattle of Geryon”, and “Cerberus the three-headed dog” (Hamilton 232-233).
Hercules inspired the Greeks not by staying in peace with nature but instead by forcing it to conform to his will in a harsh, cruel way. Hercules made sure he was above nature, a predicament the Buddhists avoided and even condemned. In summary, Greeks wanted to overcome nature whereas Buddhists wanted to be one with nature. “So by the beaked ships the Argives formed for battle, arming round you, Achilles –Achilles starved for war-and faced the Trojan ranks along the plain’s high ground[…T]he Achaeans kept on gaining glory- great Achilles who held back from the brutal fighting so long had just come blazing forth.
Chilling tremors shook the Trojans’ knees, down to the last man, terrified at the sight: the headlong runner coming, gleaming in all his gear, afire like man-destroying Ares” (Homer 503, 505). As previously stated, Buddhists lived by the doctrine to fight hate with love. If Ancient Greeks had a concise doctrine about war, it would have been to fight hate with more hate. Ancient Greek civilization centralized around their love of carnage. The majority of Ancient Greek myths revolved around war or other forms of fighting.
The Iliad is a 537-page myth about one war and it glorifies all aspects of war. The heroes of The Iliad are not monks or The Buddha like in Buddhism. Instead, the heroes of The Iliad are Achilles and Hector, two soldiers magnificent in warfare and bloodthirsty through and through. In addition, Achilles is most illustrious in The Iliad when he is the most sanguinary. “[Diomedes] went whirling into the slaughter now, hacking left and right and hideous groans broke from the drying Thracians slashed by the sword-the ground ran red with blood.
[…]Tydeus’ son went tearing into that Thracian camp until he’d butchered twelve. […]But now the son of Tydeus came upon the king, the thirteenth man, and ripped away his life. […]Patroclus tore [Pronous’s] chest left bare by the shield-rim, loosed his knees and the man went crashing down. [… Then Patroclus] stabbed [Thestor’s] right jawbone, ramming the spearhead square between his teeth so hard he hooked him by that spearhead over the chariot-rail, hoisted, dragged the Trojan out. […Patroclus then] gaffed him off his car […] and flipped him down face first, dead as he fell.
Next […] he flung a rock and it struck between [Erylaus’s] eyes and the man’s whole skull split in his heavy helmet. [Patroclus] crowded corpse on corpse on the earth. ” (Homer, 292, 426-427) Even more horrific to the eyes of Buddhists would be the battle scenes in The Iliad that truly show the awe and glory the ancient Greeks saw in war. The Iliad was a myth that served more as entertainment than anything else. This shows that Ancient Greeks were amused by this kind of literature. Buddhists believe in not seeking to explain nature. By contrast, Ancient Greeks did precisely this with their myths.
“[A myth] is an explanation of something in nature; how, for instance, any and everything in the universe came into existence: men, animals, this of that tree or flower, the sun, the moon, the stars, storms, eruptions, earthquakes, all that is and all that happens” (Hamilton 12). Ancient Greeks wanted to know how everything happened around them so they could manipulate their environment more easily. This is a central division between Ancient Greeks and Buddhism. Whereas Buddhists believe that time does not exist, Ancient Greeks were engrossed by time.
All throughout The Iliad, Homer stresses how long the war has been going on and how it worries and distresses everyone involved. Unlike Buddhists, the Greeks do not disown the belief of time. They stay true to the traditional man-made vision of time instead of throwing out their problems by abandoning the idea of time. “[The natural philosopher] Heraclitus (c. 540-480 B. C. )[…] was from Ephesus in Asia Minor. He thought that constant change, or glow, was in fact the most basic characteristic of nature. [… ]‘Everything flows,’ said Heraclitus.
Everything is in constant flux and movement, nothing is abiding. Therefore we ‘cannot step twice into the same river. When I step into the river for the second time, neither I nor the river are the same’” (Gaarder 34). Slowly, Greek culture started to move away from religion and more towards philosophy. It evolved from a “mythological mode of thought to one based on experience and reason” (Gaarder 27). People could make ideas for themselves and create new beliefs instead of going back to the myths. The world started a shift from relying on religion to analyzing the world with science and philosophy.
Surprisingly, this is where similarities between Greek and Buddhist culture were born. At first, the two religions of the ancient Greeks and the Buddhists clashed greatly. However, through the move away from mythical religion the Greek beliefs were brought closer towards the religion of Buddhism. Heraclitus here used the same metaphor for his philosophy as Siddhartha used for his. Although the passages were said in different situations and with different words, both quotes have the same general philosophy that time does not truly exist. A river is usually a sign of separation; a river acts as a divider in most cases.
However, this river brings two very different cultures together in a very powerful way that is clear to all. Nature is everything outside and inside a man or a woman or a child. Nature is every breath taken, every step forward, every glance made, every wind blown, and every flower planted. The two cultures of Greece and Buddhism showed great contrasts in the beginning but one resounding similarity was found in something as simple as a river. India shows a cyclic weather that inspired the thought of rebirth while Greece shows a harsh terrain that inspired animosity between man and nature.
As a consequence, Buddhists thought that nature and man are one while Greeks were taught to be above nature and manipulate it in any way possible. Buddhists lived in ultimate peace while the ancient Greeks lived in love of carnage. The Buddhist outlook on nature is derived from the belief that man is one with nature whereas the original Greek outlook is derived from the thought that man is above nature. Nature is the essence of the world, the aura of everything around people. These two cultures, although vastly different, impacted human belief and intellect forever.