What happened next viscerally shocked me. Hundreds of black and silver carp instantaneously emerged out of the water in a proverbial feeding frenzy, climbing over each other in competition for the pellets. The pond surged and roiled and bubbled.
Call me overly sensitive, but I was physically and emotionally stunned by the spectacle. My immediate thought (I have no idea where it came from) was: This is us.
I sometimes wonder whether this fish-feeding exercise was planned by the monks to teach us spiritual amateurs the Buddhist concept of trishna (literally, "thirst," but also desire, craving, grasping, clinging), which is thought to be the primary cause of dukkha, the suffering which is our lot as human beings. In any event, the exercise was successful in my case: it is the closest I have ever come to an experience of "enlightenment."
Roger Fry, "Market in a Disused Church in France" (1928)
Let me be clear: I make no claim to possessing any extraordinary powers of awareness or perception. Until that day at the carp pond I was a sleepwalker. It was a well-deserved (and much-needed) slap in the face. (Of course, I am still mostly a sleepwalker.)
As I noted in a recent post, I believe that, in our heart of hearts, each of us knows these Eternal Verities. Poets throughout the world and throughout the ages have known them. We ought to listen.
A Gentle Wind
A gentle wind fans the calm night;
A bright moon shines on the high tower.
A voice whispers, but no one answers when I call;
A shadow stirs, but no one comes when I beckon.
The kitchen-man brings in a dish of bean-leaves;
Wine is there, but I do not fill my cup.
Contentment with poverty is Fortune's best gift;
Riches and Honour are the handmaids of Disaster.
Though gold and gems by the world are sought and prized,
To me they seem no more than weeds or chaff.
Fu Hsuan (217-278) (translated by Arthur Waley), in Arthur Waley, One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (Constable 1918).
At this point, a pause is required. In fact, I have considered abandoning this post altogether. I am an American, and this blog has an international readership (for which I am profoundly grateful). Coming from the country that I do (by accident of birth), I fear that it is perhaps extremely insensitive and obtuse of me to venture into the subject of the role that material wealth plays in our lives. Isn't this what the younger generation mockingly calls "a First World problem"? I have never known want (a circumstance of fate which I try to be mindful of, and thankful for, on a daily basis), so who am I to engage in mental contortions about the role of wealth in our life, or to post a poem which contains the line "contentment with poverty is Fortune's best gift"? It's a problem.
I shall leave it at this: I am aware of my position, and it troubles me. That being said, I do believe that this is an issue that is a fundamental human issue, not solely a matter of economics or of politics. To wit (at the risk of sounding glib): trishna and dukkha. The fact that poets wrote about the subject in China in the 3rd century, in the remnants of the Roman Empire in the 6th century (see below), and in England in the 17th century (see below) tells us that this is a matter of how the soul makes its way through life.
Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)
The following three poems appear in sequence in Robert Herrick's Hesperides.
Poverty and Riches
Give Want her welcome if she comes; we find
Riches to be but burthens to the mind.
Who with a little cannot be content,
Endures an everlasting punishment.
The Covetous Still Captives
Let's live with that small pittance that we have;
Who covets more, is evermore a slave.
Robert Herrick, Poems 605, 606, and 607, Hesperides (1648).
Herrick italicizes the second line of "The Covetous Still Captives" in order to signal that it has a classical source (this is his usual practice in Hesperides). The source is Book I, Epistle 10, lines 39-41, of Horace's Epistles: "the base man who forgoes his freedom . . . through fear of poverty, bears a master and is a slave forever, because he does not know how to make much of little." Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume II (Oxford University Press 2013), pages 685-686.
Roger Fry, "Lilies" (1917)
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 480-524) wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned for alleged treason against Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king who ruled over what was left of the Roman Empire. As a practical matter, he was then living under a sentence of death (which would eventually be carried out). The work consists of a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy. The following poem appears in Book II, in which Philosophy counsels Boethius on the fickleness of Fortune, and on the ingratitude of humans for the blessings, however transitory, that are bestowed upon them by Fortune's ever-turning wheel.
Should Plenty ever pour out riches
abundant as sands on a beach
that the waves pile up, or the stars in the clear
night sky, without stinting,
men would not cease their endless complaining
and pleading always for more.
If God were prodigal, showering gold
in answer to every prayer,
and heaping honors on every head,
they would not be content,
never mind grateful. They'd take it for granted.
Greed opens new maws.
There are no limits, no satiation,
even in those who choke
on their wealth and good fortune. Their thirsts yet
burn with poverty's need.
Boethius (translated by David Slavitt), The Consolation of Philosophy (Harvard University Press 2008), pages 33-34.
In addition to being lovable and always good for a laugh, Arthur Schopenhauer is an astute judge of human nature. In the following aphorism he provides us with a clue as to why "poverty's need" is never quenched in some of us, and why "greed opens new maws," no matter how much some of us acquire:
"Money is human happiness in abstracto; and so the man who is no longer capable of enjoying such happiness in concreto, sets his whole heart on money."
Arthur Schopenhauer (translated by E. F. J. Payne), "Psychological Remarks," Parerga and Paralipomena, Volume II (1851).
Roger Fry, "La Salle des Caryatides in the Louvre"