If it is meaningless to be trapped in birth and death, what meaningful would be to seek liberation from birth and death…
In the Greek myth of Sisyphus, he was supposedly the ‘wisest’ of humans, though murderous for power and a self-aggrandising trickster, who offended the gods by trying to outsmart them. He managed to put ‘Death’ (Thanatos) in chains once, which led to no one dying for a while. Being a mortal, attached as he was to life, he still had to die, and was condemned to roll a rock up a mountain, from which it falls down, only to be rolled up again. This was deemed the most terrible punishment, as it was laborious and frustratingly pointless, with no end in sight. It was his personal so-called ‘eternal hell’. Thus did the word ‘Sisyphean’ come to describe tasks that are both tedious and futile.
Albert Camus, existentialist author of the essay ‘The Myth Of Sisyphus’ imagined that when the rock tumbles back yet again, Sisyphus could be walking down to it with joy instead of sorrow, as he is stronger than the rock that represents his suffering. His accepting of the inevitable task with hope was his scorn of the torture. Camus wrote, ‘The struggle itself toward the heights [again and again] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ Thus was Sisyphus seen as one who had passion to live life to the fullest, who hates death, and continues to rebel in the afterlife. Even if in vain and in the face of the downright absurd, he was deemed ‘heroic’.
Buddhists would see the above as absurd too. With the reality of rebirth, being trapped in the rounds of birth and death is our burden, our absurd rock to bear. However, it can be freed of, when we realise the illusory nature of the ‘solid’ self we cling to, which is just changing mind and matter. Sisyphus’ mistake was to be egoistic, such that the equally, if not more prideful (and still unenlightened) gods felt challenged. Buddhist hells are described to be cyclical in the experience of suffering too, though with no respite that Sisyphus has in Avici Hell – for the most evil of evil-doers. Yet, it is never eternal, as even the greatly evil have limited negative karma to ‘burn’.
We all work harder when work is more meaningful, as motivated by higher purposes, versus those who only repeat tasks. This would apply to the other ‘obliged’ cycles of everyday life too. It can be argued that Sisyphus, if truly trapped, would have no purpose in being joyful in the least, as it would be self-deceit, which is truly absurd. Being supposedly wise, he ought to banish prideful scorn, that got him into trouble in the first place. He should realise freedom from self, to be liberated from even the slightest suffering in his struggles. It is this that derives true joy – the practice of striving towards non-self, that is increasingly joyous despite literal ups and downs.
The other problem Sisyphus had was his strong attachment to worldly life that must expire, and aversion to death, that he saw as lasting – to the extent of seeing death as his enemy, and life as his prize to cling on to. He was not wise enough to recognise life and death as two sides of the same continually spinning coin. No one really lives forever in the worldly sense, just as no ordinary being really dies forever without being reborn. Being stuck in rebirth is itself Sisyphean suffering though, with truly heroic rebellion being liberation from it, while guiding others to the same liberation. To not do so life after life is truly absurd! Why accept endless suffering instead?
Rebirth is not merely suffering from the dual events of birth and death, as it entails all other cycles of suffering in between too. There are the Eight Sufferings, with the cycle of physical suffering of being born, ageing, becoming sick and dying, along with mental suffering of departure from loved ones, being with the disliked, not getting the desired, and ‘burning’ of the Five Aggregates (of form, feeling, perception, mental formation and consciousness, with the fires of greed, hatred and delusion). The easiest way to break free is not by refuge in any human or god, which Sisyphus too refused, but by learning from the Buddhas, who are ‘Teachers Of Humans And Gods.’
Being completely liberated, the Buddhas are capable of teaching even the gods, who are still trapped in rebirth despite having much but still limited positive karma. The Buddhas (and the great Bodhisattvas) have the herculean task of guiding immeasurable wilfully deluded beings still trapped in rebirth towards liberation. However, as they are already spiritually liberated, they are selfless, with perfect (and great) compassion and wisdom. Being the polar opposite of Sisyphus in character, their mission is never Sisyphean in nature. Not only is it not absurd in any way, it is truly heroic in every way. The most skilful means they use to guide us to break free from Sisyphean rebirth is by urging us to reach Amituofo’s (Amitabha Buddha) Pure Land, where we can most efficiently train to be as liberated as them, to guide more to be liberated too.
… If it is meaningful to seek liberation from birth and death, it is even more meaningful to guide others to also seek liberation from birth and death.
A Buddhist Retells The Myth Of Orpheus & Eurydice