31 Oct The Pleasant and the Good – November 1 2018
Posted at 19:35h in Daily Thoughts
Arise! Awake! Approach the great [illumined teachers] and learn. Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, so the wise say–hard to read and difficult to cross.
My favorite story in the Upanishads is that of Nachiketa, the boy who visits Yama, the God of Death; and because Yama, away on business, leaves the boy waiting for three days before greeting him properly, Nachiketa is granted three “boons,” or gifts, from the god.
After first making sure his father will get to heaven, and then learning the proper sacrifice for himself to perform so that he, Nachiketa, will have immortality as well, he then asks Yama the following:
There is this doubt about a man when he is dead: Some say that he exists; others, that he does not. This I should like to know, taught by you. This is the third of my boons.
Yama tests the boy for quite some time, offering him all sorts of worldly treasures rather than this knowledge, much like the story of the Tempter in the desert offering Jesus all the world.
Though tempted with these alluring objects, Nachiketa remains unperturbed, ‘like the serene depths of the ocean’:
Nachiketa said: But, O Death, these endure only till tomorrow. Furthermore, they exhaust the vigor of all the sense-organs. Even the longest life is short indeed. Keep your horses, dances and songs for yourself.
Wealth can never make a man happy. Therefore no boon will be accepted by me but the one that I have asked. Tell me, O Death, of that Great Hereafter about which a man has his doubts.
Like all the Upanishads, the message here is to pay attention to something beyond the temporal. The Vedic texts stress this over and over again. Our human tendency to identify with the body and the emotions is so strong that the ancient rishis knew they would have to remind future generations in every way possible that there is something more to us than these sometimes overwhelming sensations of physical existence.
Yama finally is satisfied as to Nachiketa’s deserving power:
Yama said: The good is one thing; the pleasant, another. Both of these, serving different needs, bind a man. It goes well with him who, of the two, takes the good; but he who chooses the pleasant misses the end.
Here, good means The Highest Good; the pleasant means sense pleasures of the material world; and the end, which it is said is missed by he who chooses the pleasant, means Self-Knowledge, which is the supreme end of human effort.
We are offered in each moment the opportunity to choose our highest good, or merely our pleasure, our comfort. It’s really a simple system. Here it is, 5 o’clock, and I can either surf the web to find the best price for this pair of shoes I need for working out, or I can put that off for 20 minutes and do my meditation. I can pretend not to see the person who’s trying to get my attention to merge into traffic, or I can stop and allow him space to merge in front of me. I can dismiss someone in a social situation for presenting a ridiculously imbalanced opinion (aloud, or just in my mind, there really is no difference), or I can remind myself that my opinion is no more valid than anyone else’s, and I can find one thing admirable in this other person–perhaps they dressed well tonight, or maybe they look people in the eye when speaking with them. Maybe I can just admire their passion and commitment.
It’s so simple, and yet often-times so difficult. The call of comfort is strong, the fear of discomfort equally as powerful. It’s so much easier at times just to follow our normal response, or even our knee jerk reaction, to things.
But with each choice we make, we are building our tomorrow. Do we wish to build a tomorrow where we are more identified with the comfort of this body, which is guaranteed to fail us; or with our Highest Self, which goes on forever, which is at one with all things, which is our connectedness to the Divine?
Through Self-Knowledge a man goes beyond grief.
Today I willingly will choose away from comfort at least once in favor of serving a higher good, in favor of finding Self.
All quotes from
The Upanishads, A New Translation,
by Swami Nikhilananda