AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW
– The Book of Ecclesiastes-
Scholars agree that the Book of Ecclesiastes was compiled in the Third Century B.C. by the Jews who were influenced by Greek culture. It begins by introducing the author as Solomon, son of King David. But Solomon did not write it. It is a collection of quotations from many sages. During those days, it was quite common to credit a well-known person to honour him/her by naming such a person as an author of a work written by someone else. Anyhow, the Ecclesiastes argues in short that it is useless to look for happiness and fulfilment without a recognition of the reality that only comes from the Creator God. It is interesting that this way of thinking resembles the idea of a Greek philosopher Epicurus, who also lived during the same period in history.
The Constitution of the United States of America guarantees every citizen the liberty and the right to pursuit happiness. However, we seldom realize that such an idea was revolutionary and had been condemned universally by the church for many centuries. It was termed as an unchristian “hedonism” or “Epicurean.” Some people who advocated such an idea, that seeking happiness was good, in the Medieval Europe were burned at stake for being heretics. The Church believed, “Pleasure was against God’s will.” Monks and nuns starved themselves near death or beat themselves until they bled in order to share Christ’s suffering. Denying one pleasure was the highest calling. Protestants agreed. It is said that the nightmare of Calvinists (Presbyterians and Reformed Church Christians) was, “Somewhere someone is happy.” Obviously those church leaders did not understand the Ecclesiastes.
But today, it is widely accepted that the purpose of our life is to find happiness, and going after comfort and pleasure is a part of that process . How times change! However, though we live in a pursuit of happiness culture, curiously we still feel guilty in the back of our consciousness when we are having a good time. Seeking pleasure seems somewhat closer to committing a “sin.” We still retain the latent traditional Christian notion of virtuous denial of comfort. Why do we still feel guilty for being happy? Let us see how this question is dealt with in the Ecclesiastes.
Even though King Solomon did not write the Book of Ecclesiastes, to have him as a narrator creates a fitting framework to discuss pleasure and its futility. It is easy to imagined Solomon speaking those words. Solomon had everything he wanted. He was the most powerful and successful Hebrew king, none like him before and after in the history of Jewish people. He conquered and ruled the Mediterranean world; he married about three hundred wives, some of them queens and princesses; he sought pleasures and got them; he was the richest man in the known world; he was also said to be the wisest man on earth and was admired for that. Nothing he wanted was denied to him. He was adored and praised by everyone. (Chapter 1: 16-18) And yet, he found life empty. In fact, he felt everything he acquired was useless; he was not satisfied; he felt hollow. (Chapter 2)
How true this is also in the world today. Have you ever heard of or met anyone, no matter how powerful, rich, and successful he/she is, completely happy and satisfied with their lives? The more you get, the more you want, ending up less fulfilled than before. We don’t know when and how to stop accumulating stuff or climbing a ladder, because there is always more to be had. We are therefore always frustrated. Unhappy amidst plenty. How often we hear people reminiscing the good old times, “We were poor, but happy.” Power is the same: so many powerful people ended so very badly: Julius Cesar, Henry VIII, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon, Hitler, Muamur Ghadafi, Sadam Hussein, etc.
Idealists find life totally unsatisfactory too. Seeking fairness and justice often end up disappointing , because often clever but less than honourable people flourish and innocent and good people suffer. How useless it is trying to be good or trying to create just society! This is a voice of despair coming from a person who had everything and were successful in everything, like King Solomon. Idealists want to build a world where goodness and justice prevail. Yet how come so many good people suffer and/or become martyrs? How come so many prophets and saints had to go through suffering? Nelson Mandela, Oscar Romero, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the like.
In the end, one had to conclude that everything is pre-determined, therefore no matter how hard you try to control your life or change the world, the result is just the same: it runs its own course. What will be will be. You can not do anything to change it. Whatever you do does not count all that much. Chapter 3 is a voice of a person who just gave up: “Everything that happens in the world happens at the time God chooses.” “Time to die, a time to be born.” Time you choose or want it to happen is not the time. It happens when it happens, not because of you.
So the Ecclesiastes advises to young people to enjoy their youth, the “pleasant light of day”, because no matter how long you live you die anyway. In the meanwhile, it is better you know the Creator God as early as you can. (Chapter12) Otherwise, your pursuit of happiness will be in vain. It is useless to start with search of happiness from greed, because there is no end to such a pursuit. It must start with the awareness of blessing that the creator God has already provided.
Here Epicurus is helpful. He says, when you begin your search for happiness and pleasure with the knowledge of what you don’t have, you will never be satisfied, and in the end frustrated. Starting with the acknowledgement of what you don’t have, and with greed for more of what you already have, you are starting an endless and frustrating journey. There is no end of lust. The more you get the more you need: fame, food, money, pleasure, power, sex, etc. Instead, you must begin with the appreciation of what you already have, “blessing of creation” that God has already given us. This is why it is important to recognize what is useless, so that you can begin the journey toward true happiness from what really exists, the blessing of God. That is, I believe, the chapter 12 of the Ecclesiastes means.
“Lord, grant us serenity to accept things we can not change; and courage to change things we can change.” (AA prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr)
Some people think that the Ecclesiastes is very much like Buddhism. I appended my understanding of Buddhism for comparison.
It seems to me that the following two passages of text summarize the basic teaching of Buddhism.
Alphabet by Koukai
“Like flagrant colour of flowers, they last only so long,
Who can ever be permanent.
Let us go beyond this floating world,
Never get snared in nor get drunk by fleeting dreams.”
Japanese alphabet has 48 characters. Each character is a phonetic sign. A monk in the 7th Century, by the name of Koukai, arranged the characters in such a way to summarize the basic Buddhist teaching.
A Haiku by Basho
“An old pond
A sound of
A frog leap in.”
Life is like the sound of a frog jumping into muddy water of an old pond; it broke the silence for only a split second. But silence came back as though nothing ever happened.
Basho was a wandering monk, better known for his haiku. He walked all over Japan with no money nor change of clothes depending only on charity of food and shelter. He summarized Buddhism in three lines 5-7-5 syllables haiku.