We must make the best
of those things
that are in our power,
and take the rest
as nature gives it.
– Epictetus (Discourses, I.I)
Cicero, who was sympathetic to Stoicism, once gave the analogy of a most conscientious archer. For shooting well when needed later, he had already done his due with the most diligent training, even having chosen the ideal bow and arrow for a distant target. As Cicero said on clear goal-setting, ‘the actual hitting of the mark [is] to be chosen…’ He thus aims as accurately as he can, and lets fly the arrow at the most opportune moment. However, Cicero continues, ‘… but not to be desired.’ What did he mean?
Well, having done his possibly best in preparation and execution of the task at hand was all that was needed, that mattered. Cicero proposed that whether the target is hit or not is not in the archer’s control. There could be unexpected wind, deflection or movement of the target. Thus, if there was any craving to hit the target, when it does not, there would be the unnecessary suffering of disappointment. Why not brace oneself with equanimity instead, to be free from attachment to success and aversion to failure?
Stoicism teaches that we should clearly know what we can control, versus what we cannot control. Knowing the difference helps us to stay focused, on what is crucial, that we can control, while dropping all distracting and energy-sapping fears and worries, on what we cannot control. This is key for a happier life. Imagine every failure being kind of ‘anticipated’, while every success being seen as a bonus of sorts! All we need to be concerned about is to do our best mindfully and ‘heart-fully’ in the here and now.
Such an attitude, combined with Buddhist philosophy, makes even more sense. It is reminiscent of the following teaching by Shantideva Bodhisattva in his ‘Guide To Bodhisattvas’ Way Of Life’ – ‘If there is a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection? And if there’s no help for it, what use is there in being glum?’ In place of ‘dejection’, worry, fear or fret applies too. Instead of being coolly unfeeling, as some mistakenly think Stoics are, Shantideva suggests that we always be with good cheer!
Back to the arrow example, the prior training is the ’cause’ (因) – the planting of the right seed for a ‘fruit’-ful (果) harvest. The careful choosing of the right instruments are likened to adding of supportive ‘conditions’ (助缘). However, there can be other intervening factors too, that are disruptive ‘conditions’, like a sudden wind, arising from the fruition of negative karma, created in this and/or past lives. It is from this combo, of the cause with supportive and disruptive conditions, that results in the end effect.
Though many Stoic principles are agreeable with Buddhism, not all are. Here, we part from Cicero’s thought… Since our past karma was self-created, we were in control then; though seemingly not fully now, as we are unaware of what exact fruits to come and how to disempower them. Though more in control than imagined, this still seems like none? Well, back to the gardening analogy, we can be diligent gardeners by weeding well, with strict observation of moral precepts and sincere practice of repentance.
The literal ‘de-cultivation’ of our spiritual garden above respectively prevents sowing of new seeds of negative karma, while de-conditioning those bearing fruits. Not to be neglected too, is the adding of rich fertilisers, by actively doing good – via cultivation of kind and wise thoughts, words and deeds to create positive karma, which also helps to drown out the effects of negative karma. This is how we can minimise ill effects from all worthy causes undertaken, and maximise the bearing of the sweetest fruits of success.
Bodhisattvas [in training]
dread [planting of negative] causes.
[Ordinary] sentient beings
dread [reaping of negative] fruits.
– Buddhist Saying
Your Suffering Is Always Your Fault