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“My True Friend Gautama”

I am blessed to have a true friend.  You, too, can have the same one.

In western thought the classic account of friendship is Aristotle’s in his NICOMACHEAN ETHICS.  His account of “complete friendship” is the standard to which other kinds of friendship are compared.

In Aristotle as in ordinary thought, reciprocity is an essential component of friendships; they cannot be one-sided.  However, I am deliberately stretching the usual understanding to include one-sided ones.  After all, since my true friend Gotama has been dead for some 2400 years, it’s impossible for me to befriend him.

Such stretching is not without precedent.  I recall that the poet Mark Van Doren once said of the authors of the books lining his shelves that “My greatest friends do not know me.”  That’s the way that I feel about my true friend Gotama.

Aristotle’s other marks of complete friendship are there.  For example, he says that “nothing is as proper to friends as living together” [1175b20, Irwin translation].  Following the way my true friend Gautama pointed out is my living with him.

He is, without question, a good person.  I really do feel blessed to have his presence grace my life.

You see, like him, we are both philosophers, lovers of wisdom.  Unlike him, though, I am as yet unsuccessful in becoming wise.  He provides me with constant encouragement and inspiration.  Returning the favor requires that I do my best to emulate him.

Someone who is wise lives well.  Gautama actually succeeded in living well, whereas I’m still trying.  Nevertheless, he is with me as I journey on the way–and he can be with you, too.

Wisdom is our birthright.  Still, it never happens by luck, happenstance, inheritance, accident or anything like that.  Since we are each unique, if we are to be wise, we each have to find our own way to wisdom.

People who pursue wisdom seriously are known as “philosophers.”  To be a philosopher is to be a lover of wisdom; it’s what the word ‘philosopher’ means.

Nothing is more practical than living well.  Therefore, since wisdom is required for living well, nothing is more practical than pursuing wisdom.

Personally, I’ve never understood why everyone who has the idea of living well isn’t a philosopher.  How could you know about what is best in life and not pursue it?  I became a philosopher when I was a teenager, and I’ve been one for over 45 years.  I’ve lived a philosopher’s examined life, and I’ll die being a philosopher.

I was a philosopher for about three decades before I ever seriously encountered Gautama.  He enabled me to improve my life immensely, for which I am very grateful.

Until I met him, I had simply failed to find a way to wisdom that worked.  He pointed to the way that does work.

As far as I can tell, Siddhartha Gautama (or “Gotama” in Pali) was the greatest philosopher in human history.  He was the greatest sage of all time.

Because of that, many people have attached themselves to him.  They are now known as “Buddhists” and he is often referred to as “The Buddha.”

In the Winter 2009 issue of “Buddhadharma” magazine, author and translator Glenn Wallis makes what seems to me to be an obvious point, but it’s one that Buddhists typically fail to make.  I’ve noticed a deplorable tendency among Buddhists to denigrate philosophers as mere conceptualizers caught in endless webs of theorizing.  I recommend they pay attention to what Wallis wrote:

“Like the Stoics, Epicureans, and Platonists in ancient Greece and Rome, Gautama instructed in the manner of a philosopher, a lover of wisdom.  He taught and modeled a viable way to human flourishing, and did so rooted firmly in everyday life.”

Exactly.  He taught in the manner of a classical philosopher because he was a philosopher!

Wallis argues that we should stop thinking of him as “the Buddha” and think of him as the human being known as “Gautama” who spent his life “developing and prescribing a realistic treatment for human unhappiness.”  He is not some religious figure to be worshipped.  He’s a great philosopher with recommendations for living well that work.

Wallis notes that Gautama stressed that he found his way to living well “within this six-foot body, with its mind and its concepts.”  Gautama denied that he was a deity.  He insisted that all he was was a human being who had awakened to his true nature and that everyone else can do the same thing.

Don’t worship the Buddha; instead, emulate Gautama. How?  Use meditation, as he did, to unbind yourself from your fetters.

A true friend challenges and encourages us to live better.  Gautama is my true friend.

If he is not already yours, I encourage you to get to know him.

Posted in intellectual well-being

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