"True happiness is regarded as the goal and final aim in the philosophy of the Cynics, as well as in every other philosophy. But this happiness consists in our living according to nature, and not according to the opinions of the crowd."—(Julian "The Apostate," the last Pagan emperor of Rome)
A few months ago a fellow paid me a strange compliment—he said he had always liked Diogenes and the Greek Cynic philosophers, and that I was the closest thing on the Internet, that he knew of, to "Diogenes incarnate." This was kind of flattering considering that when I was a teenager, before discovering Ram Dass and Eastern philosophy, Diogenes the Cynic was one of my heroes and role models. I didn't know that much about him, and hadn't studied classical Cynicism much, and still haven't, but there's not much to study anyway. Not a single treatise written by an ancient Cynic philosopher survived the book burnings of the Christianized late Roman Empire and the collapse of Western civilization that followed it. But upon reflection, it does seem to me that since returning to America in 2011 I have been drifting more and more toward resembling an ancient Cynic, and less and less toward resembling a classical Theravada Buddhist bhikkhu. This has not been deliberate, or complete, but it has happened.
This is not entirely a bad thing. The Cynics were about as close to wandering Buddhist samanas as Western classical antiquity ever saw; and besides, Diogenes was an interesting guy. According to the historian Will Durant, he was the second most famous man in Greece in his day—only Alexander the Great was more of a celebrity. But that was in a very different culture than ours.
For those of you who received an education which omitted premodern thought, Diogenes, according to the tales of him, began his career as a banker in the Greek colony city of Sinope (now Sinop, on the Black Sea coast of Turkey), and was run out of town because he allegedly was criminally minting coins of inferior quality. When upbraided for this in later years he would calmly reply that it was this that resulted in his embracing philosophy in the first place. He moved to Athens and allegedly became a follower of Antisthenes, considered by tradition to be the first Cynic philosopher, who was in turn a disciple of Socrates. According to legend Antisthenes drove Diogenes away with blows, but he kept coming back for more till the beatings finally ceased. Diogenes lived in a derelict tub on the outskirts of a temple compound, owned almost nothing, went barefoot even in winter, and begged for his food in the streets. He also taught there, and did pretty much everything else there. One of the most famous stories about him is that he walked through the streets of Athens with a lit lamp in broad daylight, looking, he said, for a true man—a genuine human being. At one point he was captured by pirates at sea and sold as a slave. While he was at the auction block he pointed out a rich Corinthian man walking by and said to his vendor, "Sell me to that man; he looks like he needs a master." The rich man bought him and put him in charge of educating his children. While he was thus living in Corinth, Alexander the Great, who enjoyed hanging out with philosophers, came to visit him. Diogenes was lying on the ground sunning himself at the time. After some conversation Alexander was impressed by the philosopher and offered him anything he wanted: Diogenes simply replied, "Stand out of my light," as Alexander was blocking his sun. As Alexander walked away he is said to have said, "If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."
It is said that the Cynics got their name because people considered them to resemble dogs (κύων, kyon, is the old Greek word for "dog"); although their behavior was rather different from the canine ascetics described in the ancient Buddhist texts. The fundamental premise of Cynic philosophy was that the greatest happiness results from living in harmony with nature—but for the Western "canine" philosophers this did not mean going around naked on all fours, eating and drinking without the aid of their hands, and refraining from human speech, as was reportedly the situation in India. Nature for them meant human nature, which included walking upright, wearing clothes, speaking, and also exercising reason. It also included sexuality, since this is obviously a very basic aspect of human nature. Despite their austerity in most respects, the Cynics considered sexuality to be a fundamental natural urge, much like the urge for food or sleep. It is said that Laïs, one of the most beautiful and renowned hetairas in Greece (a hetaira being a high-class courtesan) rented her charms to Diogenes for a very much-reduced fee, largely because she liked the idea of such a famous sage bowing down at her altar to the Goddess of Love, so to speak.
A concise synopsis of the Cynical situation, one aspect of it at least, may be found in this extract from an essay by Jules Evans:
"Diogenes claimed that civilised values make us sick. They make us excessively anxious about what other people think of us. As a result, we put all our energy into tending our public masks or personae, while hiding away any parts of us that might be deemed shameful or ugly, even if they’re perfectly natural. Civilisation demands we scrub and prune out any wilder bits of our nature. But we end up becoming false, inauthentic beings, china dolls rather than whole persons.
"Diogenes attacked and defaced this false morality of appearances. He broke down the wall between the public and private selves, and insisted that anything we are happy to do in private we should be happy to do in public as well. Diogenes lived in public, in his barrel. He slept in public, ate in public, defecated in public, even masturbated in public. This was an aggressive assertion of his freedom from civilised conventions and his preference for a life ‘in accordance with nature’ rather than with false civilised values. These animal antics earned him the name Diogenes Kynikos, or Diogenes the Dog-like."
As the spiritual teacher Paul Lowe (who may be somewhat of a Cynic himself) has said, once we submit to living according to other people's conditions, we enslave ourselves to their neuroses. This is true in a relationship of two people or in a neurotic society at large.
Although the Cynics could hardly be said to have a school, as each of them was a nonconformist individual, a basic outline of their position could include the "three alphas": autarkeia (αὐτάρκεια, or independence); askēsis (ἄσκησις, or ascetic discipline); and anaideia (ἀναίδεια, or shamelessness). This absence of shame, especially when combined with the acceptance of natural sexuality aforementioned, was occasionally taken to some strange extremes. The Cynic philosopher Crates is said to have had sex with his wife Hipparchia (a Cynic philosopher in her own right) in public; and on one occasion when Diogenes was rebuked for unconcealed masturbating, he calmly observed that it was a pity that he couldn't relieve his feelings of hunger similarly, by rubbing his belly.
Another fundamental of classical Cynicism was parrhēsia (παῤῥησία), free and frank speech. According to the anecdotes, once when someone asked Diogenes "What is the most excellent thing among men?" his answer was "Parrhēsia."
This free and frank speech, naturally, was a vehicle for biting social commentary, as well as some plain old smart-assery. One time Diogenes was orating in a public place, but nobody was attending, so he began whistling. When a crowd started gathering around him to gawk, he reproached them for ignoring philosophy but being attracted to silliness. Once, upon being rebuked for drinking in a tavern, he replied that he also got his hair cut in a barbershop. Encountering a very unskillful archer doing target practice, he sat down right next to the target, saying that he wanted to be out of harm's way. He occasionally begged from statues, and when asked why, he said it was in order to grow used to being refused. One day when he was eating in the marketplace (which was socially unacceptable in ancient Athens) some bystanders repeatedly called him Dog, whereupon he said, "It is you who are the dogs, who stand around me while I am at dinner." And once when someone asked him why people give alms to ordinary beggars but not to mendicant philosophers, he answered, "Because they think they might one day become lame or blind, but never expect that they will turn to philosophy."
William Blake once wrote, "Always be willing to speak your mind, and a base man will avoid you." Actually, pretty much everybody will avoid you. Free and frank speech is frowned upon in civilized society; but the usual alternatives are phoniness and damn lies. Returning to the wisdom of Paul Lowe, he once observed that if everyone suddenly began saying what they really felt, the whole world would explode into chaos…but after a couple of weeks, when the fallout had settled a bit, society would find itself at a higher level of consciousness. But most people fear this higher level, this most excellent thing, and don't want it. That includes most Buddhists.
Anyway, as has already been mentioned, I have been leaning in a Cynical direction. Who knows, maybe in a previous life I leaned more officially that way. However, I am still a Buddhist, and do not live entirely in harmony with nature; for example I still eat only once a day, between dawn and noon. Actually, it seems to me that nature hasn't intended for us to be happy. Pain and suffering are tools Mother Nature uses to compel us to do her bidding, i.e. to remain alive long enough to reproduce our DNA sequences. But even the ancient Cynics realized this to some degree: they considered the natural life, with few possessions and comforts, to be more happy than an unnatural one, but they didn't even hope for a complete end to suffering, unless maybe it occurred at death. As Arthur Schopenhauer said of them:
"Thus they started from the insight that the motions into which the will is put by the objects that stimulate and stir it, and the laborious and often frustrated efforts to attain them, or the fear of losing them when they are attained, and finally also the loss itself, produce far greater pains and sorrows than the want of all these objects ever can."
When I was young and Diogenes was my hero, I rebelled against society. I no longer rebel against it; now I'm content just to renounce it, more or less. It seems madness and futility to rebel against 99.99% of the human race. I'm willing to let society be. I don't really rebel against the Bhikkhu Sangha either, although I renounced that institution also, more or less, when I was still a young monk, still not at my peak of strictness, after realizing that more than 95% of bhikkhus don't seriously practice Dhamma or Vinaya (and that is not an exaggeration). For years I avoided the company of other monks whenever it was convenient to do so. But now, in my less fanatical maturity perhaps, I'm willing to let the Bhikkhu Sangha be also, and am more willing to associate with my colleagues in that organization, whether or not they are willing to associate with me.
But there is one institution that I still consider worth my while to rebel against: and that is what many (but certainly not all) people in America are pleased to call "Theravada Buddhism"—a movement in which laypeople who may not take three refuges or keep five precepts call themselves "Sangha," and if they do take refuge in the Sangha, take refuge in themselves; in which the members believe more deeply in scientific materialism and politically correct humanism than in Dhamma; in which even many teachers do not believe in fundamental principles of Buddhism, even Nibbana, because scientific materialism cannot explain it; in which the members sew new patches onto old cloth, and are essentially worldly materialists with a little Buddhist flavoring added; in which the possibility of miracles is rejected out of hand; in which monks are required to be politically correct, smiling politicians, or saints, in order to be considered the equals of the lay community; in which a monk must prove himself worthy of even receiving a bowl of food every day; in which many of the teachers are more ignorant of the Buddhist texts than a typical Burmese villager with a grade school education; in which most of Theravada Buddhism is rejected or ignored, with the system reduced to little more than a few elementary meditation techniques, being a pale shadow of a mutilated fragment of Dhamma; in which complacent lukewarmness is standard, with anything more than that being considered extreme, unnecessary, or "cultish"; in which truth is covered up with phony politeness for the sake of not ruffling feathers, or threatening people's fragile self-esteem; in which true renunciation is scorned; in which austerity is pretty much a nonstarter, with luxury and wimpiness being virtually mandatory (with the Goenka folks not culpable of this one); in which "sacred" is regarded as a superstitious word; in which Liberation in this very life has been replaced by enhancing the quality of their mental prisons, because the members are unwilling to go beyond a very casual and elementary level of commitment; in which a radical way of life designed for enlightenment has been rejected in favor of watered-down, soft, easy, convenient, comfortable, non-threatening, politically correct fluff designed to help them stay more comfortably asleep—THAT I rebel against. I lift my lower robes and fart in its general direction. And if that implies that I rebel against many or even most Western people who consider themselves to be Theravada Buddhists, then so be it. I'm not in this for popularity. A handy rule of thumb, which is especially applicable in spiritual matters, is The Majority Is Always Wrong. I'm wrong too of course, but at least it's my own wrongness, and not the wrongness of other people that I'm slavishly parroting through moral weakness and herd instinct.
Long live parrhēsia. And may the gods and goddesses have mercy on all of us.