Home » Features » Craving To Have King Midas’ Golden Touch?

All that glisters is not gold—
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

– The Merchant of Venice
(William Shakespeare)

In the Greek myth of King Midas’ golden touch, Dionysus, the god of wine and ‘ritual madness’ (among other ‘specialties’) offered him the choice of whatever he wished for. Midas asked that whatever he touches be transformed into gold. Ecstatic with his new power, he quickly put it to test, touching an ordinary twig and even a stone, which did turn into gold. Joyous, he even touched every already beautiful rose in his garden. Perhaps to celebrate having become surely the richest person in the world, he ordered his servants to prepare a feast. However, he instantly regretted his power when he reached for the food and drink, which too turned into indigestible solid gold. All the gold suddenly became loathsome, his fulfilled wish a great self-inflicted curse. When his daughter came to him, upset about how the roses had lost their colour, tenderness and fragrance, he reached out to console her. Alas! She too turned to gold, becoming a frozen statue. Desperate, he prayed to Dionysus to relieve him from his starvation and misery. Consenting, he was told to wash his hands in the river Pactolus. With its waters touched, his power flowed into it, turning its sands into gold, undoing his ‘gilding’. This is the aetiological (i.e. origin) myth of why that river was rich in gold.

As many as 10 Buddhist morals can be interpreted from this tale, even if the story is not true. [1] Be careful what you keep wishing for, as you might get it. When unskilful preoccupations dominate all aspects of life, they can eventually consume one, first in thought, then word and deed. Even if what wished for seems impossible to achieve at first, obsession with it can lead to potentially dangerous jumping at any opportunity that presents itself. [2] In Buddhist culture is mention of the Cintamani or wish-fulfilling gem (如意宝珠: precious jewel that fulfils as wished) – often portrayed by some Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who hold it as a luminous pearl in their hands. The Cintamani is able to manifest what is desired, be it treasures, food, clothing… and even remove what is unwanted, such as pain and sickness. Just when you think it is merely a physical treasure, the king of all treasures to covet, there is a catch. It represents the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, which when practised well, thus accumulating much meritorious virtues and wisdom, is able to grant any wishes. Such aspirations are of course aligned to the pure Dharma; never functioning with the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion, which would lead to more suffering instead of True Happiness.

[3] Midas’ initial thrill and over-confidence with his golden touch was much like so-called ‘beginner’s luck’ when it comes to gambling, which leads to being carried away… till ill consequences arise, when it might be too late. Any thought, word and deed based on the three poisons can never lead to a happy ending, even if there is some short-lived fleeting ‘happiness’ along the way. Thus do Buddhists train to give rise to only pure spiritual vows based on compassion for all and wisdom about all. [4] Midas’ gold represented solidification of his deluded greed, to the extent that he gave rise to healthy aversion, to want to renounce it. [5] In the interconnected web of interdependence and interaction, the true natural functions of a twig, stone and flower are as they are, not as otherwise. [6] The final ‘loss’ of Midas’ daughter due to his intoxication with gold, while losing food and drink made him realise that love itself, like basic necessities, are worth more than gold. Love of gold itself does not make sense as it only stands for what something else that can be bought, while what truly precious, that is non-physical like love, cannot be purchased.

[7] Despite the myth of Midas being well known, it still seems to be the immediate wish of many of the rich and powerful, to simply keep craving more wealth than they can ever spend in this life. ‘The golden touch’ as an expression in everyday use is even regarded as a ‘virtue’, to be able to transform whatever otherwise poor investment handled into ‘gold’. Such is misplaced refuge in money, seeing it as the be-all and end-all, while not even half a cent can be brought to the next life. [8] When one has enough wealth, one has enough. Even if able to make much money ethically, excesses should be compassionately and generously contributed to the disadvantaged. Perhaps this is the hidden message of Midas’ returning of his selfishly accumulated gold back to nature, for sharing with all. How can we be truly happy with much anyway, if others around us are unwell with little. Wealth is but a means for more well-being, to have more ease in learning, practising and sharing the Dharma, never an ultimate end. May we remember that Prince Siddhartha renounced kingship because he knew that even great wealth and power cannot lead to Buddhahood! 

[9] In Amitabha Buddha’s (Amituofo) Pure Land, according to the Amitabha Sutra, there is golden sands in its pond beds, gold as ground and golden light of his blessings. Along with other precious treasures, such as silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, tridacna, red pearls and carnelian, gold is one of the elements of its architecture too. However, such gold is not ordinary at all. It is embodiment and expression of his immeasurable virtues and blessings. Everything in his Pure Land radiate the light, fragrance and sound of the Dharma. All magnificent forms there have purifying effects, never in the least gaudy or defiling. Beyond worldly gold, its gold is physically and spiritually pure, the most refined possible. In abundance, there is never need to keep or spend it. Delight in it is rejoice in the Dharma itself. Yet, this is but one of countless splendid aspects of this Pure Land, which together skilfully expedite our swiftest progress towards Buddhahood. [10] As entry into Amituofo’s Pure Land enables access to all other Pure Lands, and even defiled lands if wished, it can thus be said that the whole of it is a physical and ultimate wish-fulfilling gem!

The world is not enough.
The world is not enough.
No, nowhere near enough.
The world is not enough.

– The World Is Not Enough
(Garbage)

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