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Marcus Aurelius

February 20, 2012

By Stephen Damon

My first teacher and dear friend, Jacob Needleman, will be giving an all day seminar on Marcus Aurelius, the second century Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher. Included in the announcement is a quote which I hope you will find as interesting as I did.

 All bodily things are like a flowing river…
and life is all warfare and a stranger’s wanderings, and the
reward is oblivion.
What then could possibly guide us?
Only one thing: philosophy,
and this consists in keeping the divine spirit within each of
us free from disrespect…

Studying comparative religion over the years I have discovered over and over again that different traditions are talking about the same thing, but in different languages and contexts.  So  it is most helpful to “translate” the language and technical theological terms of one religion to another. Of course, this can only be done effectively if one has an understanding of each religion.  You can’t really compare two things unless you know what you are comparing.

To get to the deepest meaning of any teaching it is important to translate it into to the universal language of the self.  But this can only be done after one has learned “to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward.” Then “Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want to realize such, get to work on such right now.  (Eihei Dogen, 1200-1253).

So following these guide lines, the last four lines of Aurelius’ teaching are exceedingly relevant to my life as Soto Zen practitioner.

 What then could possibly guide us?

Only one thing: The truth (or The Way)

And this appears when my delusions fall away

Leaving my original nature to manifest itself.

During my practice I have experienced over and over again that my understanding comes not from reading what others have said.  It comes from something deep and unknown inside me. Aurelius calls this “the divine spirit.”  I find that any name or term I use, even “Buddha nature,” does not capture the “unknowness” and mystery of my experience.

The truth does not come from books of philosophy or religious scriptures; it comes from the self. Sometimes remarks of others are helpful if they turn me to myself.  Over the years I have found that this is the best way of evaluating not only written works but also music.  Does what I am listening to, bring me towards myself? These words of Marcus Aurelius have done just that.



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