In the process of seeking a meditative outlet for my practice of Epicureanism, I have explored with zazen and gained valuable insights that take me back to the third of the Four Cures that one of our masters, Philodemus, taught. It is said that the good, the pleasant, is easy to attain. What can be easier to attain than the breath? Calm abiding in the breathing experience is the most basic of the natural, katastemic (passive) pleasures which hold a place of priority in Epicurean practice. It’s just being. And one can’t have well-being without first simply being. Add to that gratitude and focus, and you have pleasant abiding.
One of the qualities of zen is that it is said to be a place of no-mind. No-mind is impossible, actually, so the expression no-mind simply means doing away with thoughts to have pure, direct experience without the mediator of the chatter, the narratives that our minds build up, what some Buddhist teachers have called the lull of words that we use to weave reality.
The mind is difficult to control. Many yogis try to control it through control of breath. Zen practitioners simply abide in it, observe it without judgement and let it be, settling into awareness and accepting the contents of the monkey mind. Witnessing.
It’s always been curious that Epicurus didn’t leave too many writings about contemplation and how to deal with the monkey mind. My suspicion is that either those writings were lost or this was part of the oral, direct teaching that we will never be able to fully recover. But this is crucial, and a necessary part of our practice of applied philosophy. Our tradition calls on us to tame or slay the monsters of the mind. There have to be specific techniques, specific lore and teachings surrounding how to do this.
Zen brings me back to the canon, the very spring from which our doctrine emerges, which is founded on how we as natural beings can directly apprehend reality with our natural faculties. In Epicureanism, we speak of enargeia, of immediacy of direct experience. This is no different from zen. Like the canon, zen produces a state of clear thinking which, in our philosophy, translates even into the realm of rhetorics and how we are to speak clearly and concisely, naming things by their names and never generating confusion through the misuse or abuse of words. Epicureans speak in the language of haiku. Nothing is left to guesswork.
This clarity of speech requires, as a pre-condition, a clarity of mind and of perception that is found within the canon. We say that the canon liberates us from traditional authorities like priests, logicians, prophets and such. But the link between the canon and the natural states of bliss and pleasant abiding that paying attention to immediacy can produce is never talked about in Epicureanism. We usually don’t communicate (perhaps because it’s wordless and doesn’t lend itself to transmission) how this simplicity and immediacy of experience creates freedom and release in our beings, how it leads to us becoming liberated natural beings. For the sake of the continuity of our tradition, we have to overcome this ineffability, this inability to express Epicurean spirituality.
The canon is not just about being able to perceive and apprehend reality directly and to be free in this manner. The experience of reality from a place of abiding pleasure is itself what it means to be spiritual as a natural being. Spirituality, let’s not forget, is not about ghosts, specters and the afterlife but shares semantic roots with spirit, with breath. Our naturalist spirituality is a philosophy of life in the truest and most complete sense of the word.
I believe the problem of difficulty of transmission of naturalist spirituality has to do with the fact that Epicureanism was first conceived as a Western secular philosophy, and unlike Eastern spiritualities and philosophies, the Western variety traditionally has never conceived of itself as being able to do without words. The rhetors have defined for so long what it means to be a philosopher that a quiet, wordless monk can only be imagined a mystic, never a non-Platonic philosopher. But mystic implies that there’s a mystery to master. There is no such thing in naturalism, on the contrary. The ordinary has the potential to be an epiphany at every moment. At every moment, we can choose the freedom of a wordless, free mind. And when we articulate words, these words express with clarity the things evident, the things perceived, and usually nothing more. Certainly not the inconceivable, not the supernatural. And while it’s true that words burst the bubble when one is in a contemplative state, the transmission of Epicureanism among peers will require that we find expression for the insights we gain as we work through the teaching.
When we challenged the supermacy of reason in favor of the guidance of nature, we were challenging the supermacy of the mind. It is in the spiritual and contemplative technologies used to control the mind that we have to carry out our work in Epicureanism. We must study the mind to protect the mind.
The mystic in Western philosophy has almost invariably subjected his mind to platonic views and to the imaginary and supernatural realms. We do not know how to be Epicureans and must re-learn beginning with the rudimentary tools of the canon. I submit that that is almost all we need … plus a disciplined, attentive, and blissfully grateful mind.