There are ten methods for meditating on the world, begins one scroll in the 1,300-year-old collection of Tang-dynasty sutras from Xian, China, that can lead us to happiness and fulfillment.
I realize that sounds like the opening of a New Age piffle book, but the sutras were actually discovered in a cave near a Buddhist monastery, in the far western region of China, in 1900. The scrolls were looted and sold to collectors and academia, and until 1998 were pretty much lost. Now the public can read a few selections from them in the book, The Lost Sutras of Jesus, by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore.
The majority of the scrolls were Buddhist texts from the seventh century CE. Only eight of them were Christian – the efforts of early Christian (Persian) monks who arrived in Xian along the Silk Road, bringing their faith into contact with both Buddhism and Taoism. Those sutras, their legacy, are an intriguing blend of Christian and Buddhist views.
It’s also reminiscent of the Epicurean views I’ve been reading about in classical works.
The story of the scroll is a fascinating history and I would dearly love to read much more of these works, but there are few printed sources I have been able to find.
The cross-pollination of ideas between Buddhism and Christianity has not been very well explored, and I would like to learn more. I have read there were Buddhists in Alexandria in the first century CE, whose ideas and writings may have influenced the Gnostics. Did their faith also influence early “orthodox” Christians?
And how much did Christian beliefs influence Buddhism in this era? I simply don’t know, but there is a glimmer of light in these scrolls that suggests both faiths were malleable enough at that time to absorb something from the other. Too bad there was a “hardening of the faith arteries” that prevented more sharing.
The sutra continues:
The first method is to realize that as soon as people are born, they begin to grow old and that they eventually die. The world is like an inn where you stay temporarily. None of the beds or furniture are really yours. We will all be gone soon, for no one can stay long at an inn.
For those of us who ponder the question of our own mortality (and I do, frequently, but not morbidly), this is a very straightforward notion. Our trip towards death begins from the moment of our birth. None of us can avoid that destination. We can chatter about it, complain, speculate, plan and wish; we can pray and cajole the gods – just as we do about the weather – but all of our talk, all of our possessions, all of our power and wealth does nothing to change the inevitable.
Life is a finite resource.
So why should meditating on death bring us happiness and fullfilment? Because once we accept that life is short, that we face an end, we will stop grasping for material things and empty values like power, authority and gain, and focus ourselves on the here and now. Once we free ourselves of the fear of death, we can manage our day-to-day existence.
And that puts a huge personal responsibility on us – removed from any notion of divine responsibility, we carry on until the final breath. What we do, how we act, what we say is our own burden. We can carry it poorly and do bad; be angry, be greedy, steal, lie and cheat. Or we can carry it well and do good, while we have the time.
Dum tempus habemus, operemur bonum – While we have the time, let us do good. It’s one of my favourite Latin mottoes.
I prefer to pursue the latter path: look for what does the best for the greatest number of people, what is the greater good. If we are to be remembered for our lives after we die, let us be remembered for the good we do. Not for the bad, not for the evil, not for the petty and the shallow pursuits.
As Marc Anthony told the crowd, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” So let us do good so that there is no evil for people to remember us by.