There’s a cosmological similarity between the spiritual world in which the Lotus Sutra takes place and the naturalist cosmology imagined by the early atomists, which includes a doctrine of innumerable worlds, with the Epicurean Gods dwelling in the regions between the kosmoi. The recent Dialogues on the Epicurean Gods, which took place among the contemporary Friends of Epicurus, are a modern exploration of the ramifications of this doctrine.
While the Epicurean Gods do not concern themselves with mortals, the trillions of Buddhas –more numerous than the sands of the Ganges river, according to the Lotus Sutra–preside over equally numerous Buddha-lands in all directions and are actively working to emancipate all sentient beings from suffering in all the galaxies (had to use that word to indulge the Jedi in me).
A secular interpretation of this, which is prevalent in modern Buddhism, is that every awakening being creates a Buddha-land around him with his or her own mind, and that when people make a vow to awaken and become happy in order to benefit other sentient beings–a process which is known as the bodhisatva vow–they are literally committing themselves to the momentum of their own Buddha-land here and now, not in a future life. This is a compelling view when we consider the research that shows how happiness is contagious, and that happy people actually carry concentric social circles around them, benefiting beings progressively more the closer they are to them; and how this is magnified when many people are good at happiness and come together.
We Epicureans (and others of like mind) must turn people, time and again, to the study of this research because it is truly of grave importance to a philosophy of happiness, and there are many ways that it can be interpreted and used. Some Buddhist practices involve a concept of “sharing the merit”, so that less developed initiates can benefit from the achievements of their senior peers. Although this frequently degenerates into superstitious conceptions about merit and karma, what research on happiness contagion demonstrates is that in some way the benefits of people’s achievements are naturally and effortlessly shared through association.
In other words, the above cited research shows that bodhisatvas are not miraculous and they do not have, or need, any supernatural protection or power. They are merely activating, and acting according to, a certain part of their own nature which naturally has a tendency to awaken and be happy, and to produce collective benefit for those around them. By virtue of their vow and efforts, they naturally and effortlessly assist and protect others, merely with their presence and progress.
Mahayana Buddhist traditions therefore represent momentums and waves of collective evolution for various communities, with some individuals adding more to the momentum than others, and a few blessed individuals acting as true pinnacles of achievement.
The Lotus Sutra is a truly universal scripture in that it posits salvation for all the sentient beings of all the species. It’s the only scripture that I know of which embraces all species and rejects humanity’s exceptionalism, although it does seem to propose that two-legged beings have a potential for Buddhahood that other species don’t. In the sutra, we see the Buddhas referred to as the “most honored of two-legged beings”.
Perhaps this is a good time to consider, just for the sake of speculation, whether Epicurus (and Metrodorus, and other great Masters of our tradition) can be understood as bodhisatvas, or as Buddhas? In the cosmos of the Lotus Sutra, these beings teach innumerable doctrines according to the natures of their followers, and they also exist in every planet where there are sentient beings in the process of awakening, ergo the existence of Buddhas and Bodhisatvas is presented a natural feature within the universe and not merely a doctrinally Buddhist conception. In the sutra, we see that each Buddha is at the head of a certain allotment or number of Bodhisatvas, with some of them leading millions of beings while others lead only a few, and varying numbers in between. Also, we see many instances in human culture where people who find useful techniques to become happy are eager to share them with others.
Can sages from ancient Greece have been Buddhas (understood as beings who have awakened to the true nature of things and are able to experience ongoing ataraxia, and are therefore qualified to guide others) or Bodhisatvas (beings in the process of awakening)? Perhaps a more relevant question is, can contemporary followers of the scientific Epicurean methods, without necessarily using the upayas employed by followers of Buddha, be considered Bodhisatvas.
While the theorized Epicurean Gods (described in our tradition as super-evolved extraterrestrials) are unconcerned with the suffering of sentient beings, the Buddhas and Bodhisatvas, as they awaken their higher faculties, develop a profound concern and compassion for the suffering that they know they can help cure in others. This quality of desiring the happiness of others, known as metta (loving-kindness) is one of the defining features of a bodhisatva, or a being in the process of awakening.
I believe that this quality is, in fact, essential to an Epicurean: a person who is envious or unhappy when others are happy can not possibly live the most pleasant life; whereas a person who is always happy to see others in a good state, safe, prosperous, at ease, and in joy, will very easily enjoy a life full of pleasure. In other words, we see that people who are truly happy and healthy naturally take delight in the good of others, and that people who are unhappy, do not delight in the happiness of others. We see this human value beautifully and subtly dramatized, for the benefit of our character, in the novel A Few Days in Athens, which is a true epitome and educational masterpiece of Epicurean philosophy.
The teaching mission of the Epicurean Gardens represents a genuine desire to emancipate others from unnecessary fear, anxiety and suffering, and a strong impulse to join forces in the cultivation of ataraxia. As we see in the writings of Norman DeWitt, Epicureans are supposed to “each one teach one” in order to help expand the teaching for the benefit and pleasure of others. There is no question that Epicurus wanted his disciples to progress together, helping each other toward ataraxia, and not in isolation. In this sense, the constant pleasures that we are called to are meant to be shared, and Epicurus exhibits the attributes of a Buddha, or at least a very advanced Bodhisatva–embodying ataraxia, and then leading awakening beings to it. In this way, Epicurus calls on his followers to embody a kind of Bodhisatva ideal.