Wisdom in Unusual places
Ever since I could read I’ve always had interest in reading famous books. Mainly because I like trying to wrap my head around the source material in most cases. Dante's Inferno (gave us our stereotypical depiction of Hell), Crime and Punishment (showed poverty and how it leads to crimes of desperation), The Art of War (outlines strategy and mindset necessary to win in battle efficiently, with usable parallels to life), and now The Prince by Niccoló Machiavelli.
The Prince, at least to point that I’ve reached so far, is about how to maintain a principality, conduct war, and position oneself strategically to gain more power and influence. The memory I have of it from school was a brief mention and a quote from the book. “The end justifies the means". That phrase literally means do what you have to to keep power, the win is in keeping, and growing, your kingdom. Machiavelli says that a Prince must act “other than good to maintain his post". So I suppose the idea of being ethically flexible is a pretty common theme throughout.
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There’s one part specifically I keep coming back to because it has a deeper meaning and can translate to our practice and even our day to day lives. In one section Machiavelli goes into detail about types of troops and their strengths and weaknesses. Specifically he discusses the pitfalls of using soldiers from an ally country. He said using the arms of another is always limiting and will lead to ruin. He then made an analogy about David and Goliath. Before David challenged Goliath the king offered David his sword and shield. These were simply too big and cumbersome for David. So he opted for his sling and knife and, as most of us heard/read, that worked out well for David.
How does this apply to us in our practice?
Simply stated, the methods others have used in the past may not serve us in our time and in our conditions. Siddhartha Gautama wondered the wilds seeking wisdom from those he thought to be spiritually more advanced then him. He found teacher after teacher all were supposed to have great wisdom. Siddhartha would quickly master the methods and surpass his teacher.
Siddhartha continued on looking for answers to the questions he began with. Namely, the cause of suffering and it’s nature. As Siddhartha's story goes he went on to become an ascetic (someone who seeks spiritual purity by afflicting their physical body) and drove himself to the brink of death. All this hard work and self inflicted pain with full dedication yet still no truths came, only more questions.
Finally, Siddhartha, the Buddha to be, gave up the teachings and methods of his former teachers and just sat with his own experience and intuition. He applied that which was uniquely his own. The Buddha, become Enlightened in his own time using his own sword and shield, as it were, and not those of his former masters.
Think about that. The masters of his time spent much of their lives striving for something when they already had all the ingredients. Countless students toiled under these methods and also didn't reach the goal. It was only after setting down the tools of those who came before that Siddhartha Gautama, the fully realized Buddha, was left unencumbered enough to reach the goal of total Enlightenment.
It is my sincere opinion that our practice is not for another to dictate. We ourselves have to take into account those who came before us and realize the tools they used may not be adequate for us in our time and circumstances. No matter the faith, sect, or subdivision within, the time will come when we have to set down the sword and shield of our predecessors. Even though they may have attained something we find admirable they did so by using their own sword and shield, their own tools.
We have so much to learn from the masters who came before us all the while knowing we will need to surpass them and achieve the goal ourselves. The teacher can only show the way. The task, however, is ours to complete.
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