Ecclesiastes: Buddhism, With a Purpose.

There are some pretty stark similarities between the teachings of Buddhism and the teachings of Ecclesiastes.

For starters, they’re both focused on wisdom [1]. They’re both written by kings/princes who began their quest for wisdom in their twenties or thirties [2]. They’ve both drawn similar conclusions about the sufferings of the world. And they’ve both gave similar suggestions to how one should live their lives.

But here’s the catch. King Solomon knew where he was headed but Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) didn’t.

Basics of Buddhism: Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Paths.

Buddhism teaches about the Four Noble Truths of life. Spoiler alert: It all centers around suffering.

1st Noble Truth: Life is Suffering (Dukkha).
2nd Noble Truth: Origin of Suffering (Samudāya).
3rd Noble Truth: Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha).
4th Noble Truth: The Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga, aka: the Eightfold Path).

1st Noble Truth: Life is Suffering (Dukkha).

Buddhism teaches that life is suffering. This suffering comes in many forms. The origins of it will be discussed later. But here, we are looking at the manifestations of suffering. Life is suffering, ie: we all age, we all fall sick, we all die. Life will never live up to our expectations (no puns intended). We will never be satisfied in life. We will never be fulfilled in life.

So, what did the author of Ecclesiastes say?

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”…. “I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men!”
— Ecclesiastes 1:2 & 13, NIV.

Not bad for a God-fearing, Jewish writer who sought wisdom from God.

But, as pessimistic as it sounds, it surely isn’t…! Both Buddhism and Christianity stated that there are ways around suffering. Buddhism offers “the Middle Path” [3] while Ecclesiastes points us to God (ref: Ecclesiastes 12:7, 13-14, NIV).

2nd Noble Truth: Origin of Suffering (Samudāya).

Buddhism teaches that the origins of suffering are in our desires. Such desires come in three forms, 1) greed and desire, 2) ignorance and delusion, 3) hatred and destructive urges.

To put things into perspective, here’s Buddha’s popular fire sermon:

“Everything, monks, is burning. What, monks, is everything that is burning? The eye, monks, is burning, form is burning, eye-consciousness is burning, eye-contact is burning. The feeling that arises dependent on eye-contact, whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, that also is burning. 

With what is it burning? It is burning with the fire of passion, the fire of hatred, the fire of delusion. I declare that it is burning with the fire of birth, decay, death, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair.

….

The ear, monks, is burning, sound is burning, … and despair.
The nose, monks, is burning, odour is burning, … and despair.
The tongue, monks, is burning, taste is burning, … and despair.
The body, monks, is burning, touch is burning, … and despair.
The mind, monks, is burning, thought is burning … and despair.

He is disgusted with the ear … with the nose … with the tongue … with the body … with the mind, with thoughts, with mind-contact, with the feeling that arises dependent on mind-contact, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral.” (excerpt taken from: “Samyuttanikāya (S.iv.19), Saāyatanasamyuttam, Sabbavaggo, Ādittasuttam”, as quoted in https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/the-fire-sermon-the-third-sermon-of-the-buddha).

So, what did the author of Ecclesiastes say?

“All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ears its fill of hearing.” — Ecclesiastes 1:8, NIV.

“And I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour… There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked. “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”” — Ecclesiastes 4:4, 8, NIV.

“Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income… I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner.” — Ecclesiastes 5:10, 13, NIV.

“All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied.” — Ecclesiastes 7:7, NIV.

I think the consensus we can draw here is that both Buddhism and the author of Ecclesiastes agree that life is about suffering and thus, is meaningless. We will never be satisfied with whatever we have or with whatever we have done. But that’s when the similarities end. Buddhism preaches that there is no way out of the struggles of life than to be nonchalant to it and to extinguish its desire. That’s when we come to the third noble Truth.

3rd Noble Truth: Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha).

In Buddhism, to escape the sufferings of the world, we need to first be disgusted. When we are disgusted, we will want not to have anything to do with it. We will be dispassionate and nonchalant to all the desires of the world. In Buddhism, the state of being nonchalant is where we will be liberated. As mentioned in the fire sermon, Buddha said:

“Being disgusted, he is dispassionate, being dispassionate he is freed. Being freed, he knows he is free, and he knows, “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been fulfilled, what should be done has been done, there is no more of this.” (excerpt taken from: “Samyuttanikāya (S.iv.19), Saāyatanasamyuttam, Sabbavaggo, Ādittasuttam”, as quoted in https://www.buddhistdoor.net/features/the-fire-sermon-the-third-sermon-of-the-buddha).

The author of Ecclesiastes, however, did not ask us to be nonchalant to the sufferings of the world. Instead, he asked us to face it head-on. He wrote, “However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. But let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything to come is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 11:8, NIV). The author of Ecclesiastes recognizes that being nonchalant will lead to idleness. This is why he continually emphasized that no one knows the future (ref: Ecclesiastes 10:14, 11:6) and that laziness will cause the rafters to sag and idleness will cause the house to leak (ref: Ecclesiastes 10:18, NIV).

Because the author of Ecclesiastes know that God is the writer of history and that no one can tell what is to come (ref: Ecclesiastes 8:7), he teaches us to enjoy our work (ref: Ecclesiastes 3:22) and to “follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see” (Ecclesiastes 11:9, NIV).

4th Noble Truth: The Path to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga, aka: the Eightfold Path).

Remember how Buddha teaches that nonchalance liberates one from suffering-causing desires? Buddha teaches that one should follow the eightfold paths as a means to find enlightenment.

People who follow the eightfold paths should have 1) the right understanding of Buddhist teachings, 2) the right intentions to cultivate the right attitudes, 3) have the right speech (speaking truthfully, etc), 4) having right actions (behaving peacefully), 5) having the right livelihood (avoid living in ways that causes harm), 6) having the right effort (cultivating positive states of mind), 7) having the right mindfulness (develop awareness of one’s senses), and 8) having the right concentration (developing the right mental focus necessary for this awareness).

In other words, the eightfold path is the “middle way” of moderation between sensual indulgences and self-mortification [3].

The author of Ecclesiastes did mention something about moderation, too. He wrote, “Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise — why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool — why die before your time? it is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. The man who fears God will avoid all extremes” (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18, NIV). On top of this, he added other teachings about how one should speak (ref: Ecclesiastes 5:2), how one should think (Ecclesiastes 10:20), how one should work (Ecclesiastes 5:18), how one should live (Ecclesiastes 12:13), etc. You get the picture.

The author of Ecclesiastes recognizes something that Buddhism failed to recognize. The author of Ecclesiastes knew God and His sovereignty over all things. The author of Ecclesiastes recognizes that God placed us on earth and has given us a purpose. He recognizes that we can do whatever we want with it but he reminds us of the judgment that is to come (Ecclesiastes 11:9, 12:13-14).

It is for this reason we are not called to liberate ourselves from suffering. Rather, we are called to embrace suffering head-on, knowing that “God has made the one as well as the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14, NIV) and that we are to be answerable to God for the lives we have led at the day of judgment.

Fun fact:

No one has ever achieved enlightenment. Even Buddha’s own “enlightenment” was debated. Search it up. People debated whether if Buddha really achieved “enlightenment” or did he merely hallucinated. On another hand, God-fearing Christians led meaningful lives knowing full-well that one day, they’d need to give an account to God for every action they did on earth.

Footnotes:

[1] – Ecclesiastes is a book of wisdom written by a “Teacher”, a “king” who was a “son of David”. Many believed that the author of “Ecclesiastes” was “King Solomon”. Buddha (real name: Siddhartha Gautama) taught wisdom through its four noble truths and eightfold paths.

[2] – Both King Solomon and Siddhartha Gautama sought wisdom in their twenties. King Solomon sought it from God so that he may better rule the nation. Siddhartha Gautama left the palace in a quest to understand the lives of the people so as to be a better king.

[3] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Way

Read more about Buddhism here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/beliefs/fournobletruths_1.shtml

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