Sid’s Journey from Riches to Rags to Richness


Siddhartha Gautama, let’s call him Sid, was disenchanted with his life.  More precisely, Sid was dismayed with the condition of life in general.  You see, Sid was a prince.  He was tended to by many servants whenever he needed them.  He was protected by his father (the king) from seeing the dreary world outside the palace.  Yet, Sid inherently longed to explore outside the walls.  He knew the world that had been manufactured for him was a lie.  Even with all the protection, and all the effort to make his life worry-free, he began to notice suffering.  He knew that truth started by looking at the world as it is, both good and bad.

Living in this palace might be nice, but would it bring happiness?

Living in this palace might be nice, but would it bring happiness?

When he began exploring outside the palace walls, he really started to see grief, suffering, and sickness.  If he had waited long enough he would have seen even more suffering within the palace walls.  Servants would have been missing. Why?  From death, sickness, unhappiness with their job?  His father would have eventually died or become sick.  Others he loved could have been cross for no apparent reason.  Sid might have taken a false step on a set of stairs, and he could have fallen and broken his back.  The fact that the story of Sid, who would become the Buddha, implies that he had to leave the palace to find real suffering makes me believe there is some amount of fairy tale to it.  The departure from the palace is required as an allegory or parable to symbolize that we have to “see” everything to understand.  Nonetheless, the story makes the point that no amount of veneer on life can cover up the fact that it is “nasty, brutish, and short” (Thanks to Hobbes).

I have gone through Sid’s story before.  You can read it here.  He went out to try and find the truth, to be enlightened.  At first, he came to the conclusion that since he was not happy with all his riches, he should renunciate luxuries to find true happiness.  He became an ascetic, and he lived on virtually nothing.  But I think he realized that living on barely anything is barely living.   Furthermore, because he was starving he lacked energy to see and think.  It wasn’t until he received nourishment of goat’s milk (see page 32 here), nearly dying, that he found the energy to realize the Four Noble Truths.

This young goat needs nourishment.  You do, too.

This young goat needs nourishment. You do, too.

By experiencing both extremes, Sid realized that neither was appropriate for a virtuous life.  For this reason, I think, his enlightenment (his discovery of the truth of virtuous life) necessarily was defined by The Middle Way.  In other words, Buddhist morality is one of moderation while realizing there are luxuries and deprivation in life.  When The Buddha realized this, he found true richness in life

This is not so different from the Stoic view that I previously addressed in my last post.  The Middle Way is the Stoic Way as well.

To me, it makes a lot of sense, and it has worked for many years in my journey.  As always…

““Do Not Seek To Follow In The Footsteps Of The Wise. Seek What They Sought.”–Basho


The Middle Way the Stoic Way


Here is the 4-step Stoic way to live the The Middle Way:

  1. Enjoy the finer things in life
  2. But not too much (Live in Moderation)
  3. Remember that these things are temporary
  4. Do not desire these things
You really want this, don't you?  Well, stop it!

You really want this, don’t you? Well, stop it!

As I have mentioned previously here, those who choose to live a completely deprived life, like the Ascetics can certainly obtain virtue.  However, this life of deprivation is inferior to the Stoic way (IMHO) because:

  1. You will miss out on some of the finer things in life.
  2. It is just a tough sell to the average person (and I am average) to reject all niceties simply to find virtue.
  3. A virtuous life is one that should be lived in harmony with my world…not one in which I reject it.

So that’s great, most of us are cool with that:  No deprivation, hooray!  Having a little luxury now and again is just fine with me.  In fact, I would say that most of us have more of a problem with THIS end of the spectrum; let’s call it the luxury side.  Most of us are just fine not living a life of deprivation; our real problem is that we desire a life of excess and luxury.


Luxury!  (Photo by Cheryl Empey)

Our antidote, I think is to return to the 4-step process of Stoic living I suggested above.   Above all, step 4 is the most critical.  When it comes to obtaining virtue, on a scale of 1 to 10, here is how these steps rate.

  • (1) Enjoy the finer things in life
  • (4) But not too much (Live in Moderation)
  • (7) Remember that these things are temporary
  • (10) Do not desire these things

Step 1 is basically neutral in the pursuit of virtue, and could be a hindrance to living the good life.  Then, as I proceed through the steps, I work my way in the direction of virtue.  So, all of the steps are permissible, but each becomes more and more critical.  There are no easy answers to virtue, you have to use your judgment about what is excessive and your discipline to avoid excess.  Judgment and Discipline.

In this discipline there is freedom.

Living in Moderation Part 3 (Enter Zeno)


To truly experience something, is to know whether it is right or not.  Many a soldier has gone into a war waving their flag for king and country.  Then, they experience the brutality, the insanity of killing, maiming, and butchering others…all for the sake of some far off ideology they only marginally understand.  All warfighters come back different.  They don’t all come back peace-niks (like me), but they all come back different.

And so it goes with living a purposefully deprived life, like a Cynic would.  Theoretically, asceticism (see Part 1) sounds like a good idea.  Isolate yourself completely from worldly temptations and pleasures, and you can focus on living a virtuous life.  However, to experience asceticism is another thing altogether.  Thus, it must have happened to Zeno of Citium, the original Stoic.

Zeno! (Actually it’s only a model)

Right around 300 BC, as the story goes, Zeno ended up in Athens as a result of a shipwreck.  Zeno had previous knowledge of philosophy because of books that he had read, so when he ended up by this precarious accident to be in Athens…Home of Philosophy!…he asked around to find where great philosophers like Socrates could be found.  As luck would have it, Crates (a Cynic, remember from Part 2?), found him instead and took him on as a pupil.  Crates passed on to Zeno that the goal of a good life was to live with virtue and excellence.

But somewhere along the line, Zeno was unconvinced that a life of deprivation was necessary for virtue.  He considered the pleasures of life that the Cynics rejected as “indifferents.”  In other words, while these things were not beneficial in living a good life, they were not necessarily bad either.  Incidentally, this consideration of “indifferents” became a cornerstone of Stoic ethics.

In other words, a person could enjoy the “indifferents” as long as she does so in moderation, and that she is aware, that indeed these things are indifferent…that worldly pleasures of wealth, power, prestige, and indulgence are not helpful to you in attaining virtue and excellence.  This awareness, I think is what gives the Stoics their modern image as being emotionless and indifferent to the world around them, I suppose.

In a sense, this indifferent Stoic image is true, but not in the simple way that is commonly thought of.

(Zeno photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported)

Living in Moderation Part 2 (The Cynics) or Alternately: Doctor No


Speaking of Self-Deprivation, the Cynics were masters at such a practice.  The Cynics were a philosophy school beginning around 450 BC in ancient Greece.  Most famous were Antisthenes, Diogenes of Sinope, and Crates.

The Cynics thought that:

  1. The goal of life is happiness which is to live in agreement with Nature.
  2. Happiness depends on being self-sufficient, and a master of mental attitude.
  3. Self-sufficiency is achieved by living a life of virtue and reaching your highest potential.
  4. The road to living an excellent life is to free oneself from any influence such as wealth, fame, or power, which have no value in Nature.
  5. Suffering is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a vicious character.

What they meant by a life according to nature is to live with the absolute bare necessities.  In other words, they lived an ascetic life (a life of self-deprivation).  By depriving themselves of worldly desires completely, they draw nearer to to a life of virtue and excellence.

As I said in Part 1, I can see their good intentions, but I think that, in short, they throw the baby out with the bath water by trying to eliminate judgment from the equation.   Would you like some food? No.  Would you like some shelter? No.  Would you like air conditioning? No.  Would you like to travel to Hawaii on a vacation? No.

In short, I think that ascetics have the right idea:  that material things and excesses do not bring happiness.  They certainly lay the foundation for finding happiness.  But aren’t they only half-right?


Living in Moderation


I may one day have to live with nothing…or at least almost nothing.  I may want for food someday, I may miss my loved ones someday, because of separation or death.  I often imagine my life without some of the good things that I enjoy now.  I even make an effort to deprive myself of things “on purpose” (most notably food, sweets) to more fully appreciate them.

Is this enough?

However, I see no reason why I should live a deprived life, and I see no reason why it would make me more enlightened.  I strive a to live a simple life, but I do enjoy some things that aren’t simple.  Further, I see no reason to live the life of a monk or an ascetic.  An ascetic deprives himself of things like food, water, clothes, etc., thinking that by not having worldly wants, then he will be closer to enlightenment, God, the oneness of the universe, etc.

Is this aescetic taking the easy way out?

Beyond a certain level, it seems that having more stuff doesn’t seem to make anyone more or less happy.  OK, the studies are conflicting:  click here.

In any case, it is the desire for stuff, I think, that gets us into happiness deficit.   If my life revolves around getting more stuff, then I think that is when I would be disappointed, regardless of how much stuff I have.  The trick is, how much is too much?  I think ascetics try to make it black and white:  All stuff leads to unhappiness!  I think this is a cop out.  Real life requires judgment of what is and is not moderation.