Home » Features » A Buddhist Retells The Myth Of Orpheus & Eurydice

爱不重,
不生娑婆。
念不一,
不生极乐。

– 杨次公 (宋)

(If greedy) attachment is not heavy,
there will not be birth in this Saha World.
If mindfulness (of Amituofo) is not wholehearted,
there will not be birth in (his Pure Land Of) Ultimate Bliss.

– Yang Cigong (Song Dynasty)

In a Greek myth, the musician Orpheus fell in love with, and married the beautiful Eurydice. However, it was predicted that their union would not last. Soon after, while running away from a shepherd who was making advances towards her, she was bit by a snake, leading to instant death. With his lyre, Orpheus sang with so much grief that everything physically moved. Even the gods were deeply touched. As such, his father Apollo advised him to, with protection of the gods, descend into Hades to find Eurydice. There, he passed the ghosts of many unknown ones, before meeting Hades himself, god of the Underworld.

When Orpheus’ playing of his lyre melted even Hades’ heart, Hades said he could leave with Eurydice. However, while she follows behind to walk out of the caves into the light, he must not look at her, or he would lose her forever. Assuming this was a simple task of patience, Orpheus agreed. Yet, as he did not hear any footsteps while walking, he feared that he was tricked. Eurydice was there though, as a shadow, meant to take full form in the light. But a few feet away from the exit, Orpheus lost confidence and turned around, only to see her whisked back below. As he could not re-enter alive, he mourned endlessly with song, pleading for death and reunion.

Although fictitious, there are at least 15 Dharma truths we can interpret from this tale. [1] Even union with the wonderful yet worldly cannot last forever due to impending death. [2] As karma is unpredictable, death can occur swiftly at any time. [3] It is not love itself that brings eventual suffering, but ongoing attachment to the beloved lost that does. [4] Even with grief and attachment so powerful that it moves the heavens and earth, death cannot be reversed. [5] Even unseen beings can conspire to help one if one is sincere. [6] There are many forgotten relatives from many past lives in the hells, while we are naturally more concerned about the ones we know are there.

[7] There is neither eternal heaven nor hell for any being thereafter, due to limited positive and negative karma created, even if strong. ‘Untimely’ death that leads to great suffering in the last thought before rebirth can lead to a hellish rebirth though. [8] Though there is King Yama presiding over the hells in the Buddhist teachings, his judgements are natural expressions of the law of karma. Thus, unlike Hades, he is not cold but just, seen to function like a moral-reminding Bodhisattva. [9] Facing a spiritual test more than a mere task, what Orpheus needed more than patience was the light of faith, to overcome the creeping darkness of his doubt.

[10] Eurydice almost exiting was near-rebirth that released her from hell. It was hampered more by her own negative karma as the cause, than Orpheus’ action as a condition. [11] Every opportunity missed can never return with the exact same conditions again. As such, we must live each moment as mindfully and wholeheartedly as we can, lest there be regrets. [12] The true tragedy is in endless mourning, which is unfruitful. [13] The way to have true and lasting reunion is to create the same karma to be born in the same place, the most blissful of which is Amitabha Buddha’ (Amituofo) Pure Land. Even hell-beings can be sincerely mindful of Amituofo to be born there.

[14] Interestingly, there are many similar cautionary tales worldwide, that warn against looking back instead of going forth. There is the Buddhist phrase ‘without after-thought’ (无后心), which is to not give rise to another thought, be it deluded attachment or aversion linked to the worldly life being left behind, especially when dying. To spiritually ‘look back’ binds one back to Samsara, the rounds of rebirth, that include the realm of hells. [15] The easiest way to not look back is to keep looking forward, with firm faith and sincere aspiration towards a clear goal – such as by utmost wholehearted mindfulness, to connect to Amituofo, to be born in his Pure Land!

And so, Sally can wait
She knows it’s too late as we’re walking on by
Her soul slides away
But don’t look back in anger
I heard you say

– Don’t Look Back In Anger (Oasis)

Related Article:
A Buddhist Retells The Myth Of Sisyphus
https://thedailyenlightenment.com/2018/03/a-buddhist-retells-the-myth-of-sisyphus

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