‘I think, therefore I am,’ declared Descartes, famously.
But Buddha, 2500 years before him, would have drawn the opposite conclusion.
For him, the human race was in fact lost in thought, comparing us to a monkey swinging his way aimlessly if effortlessly through a forest, grabbing at one branch, then another – one thought, then another.
Thought, in Buddha’s view, was neither enlightenment… nor even existence.
Such things were the privilege only of those who successfully dismantled their ego and lived a life of active compassion.
Rohan de Saram is a world famous cello player. I lived round the corner from him in London for number of years.
And one day we sat with a cup of tea and talked.
He’s a man who straddles east and west, having spent the first ten years of his life in his native Sri Lanka, before his musical genius brought him to the west, where he has lived ever since.
It seems he is with the east on the nature of awakening, however.
‘Very few reach their highest potential and become truly awakened. There are so many things in life which attract, or perhaps distract, one’s attention.’
As he says this, I remember that Buddha believed no householder, with a family and business responsibilities could become enlightened.
You have to leave such things, he said, for they provoke unhelpful and damaging desires. Rohan, however, is less sure.
‘There is the same tension in Christianity, with so many leaving the cities for the desert in the 4th century, escaping the world and its pressures, in order to find themselves in harsher but purer climes. And perhaps some achieved that. But the Bhagavad gita (Hindu scriptures) tries to harmonise the worldly and the spiritual.’
I ask him if he can think of someone who has harmonised the two – worldly responsibility and spiritual creation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he suggests a musician, whose work he has often played.
‘I think of Bach. You could not find a more wide-ranging or spiritual artist, yet at the same time, he was a man playing a most practical part in day to day existence, earning his living in various churches and courts, with often unimpressive employers.
So one begins to wonder whether it is not in fact the mind and spirit which does one’s work – that is significant.
The Bhagavad gita says it is not what you do, but how you do it that matters – whether a lavatory cleaner, hermit or king.’
He sits back before adding, ‘It is important not to be attached to the results of one’s work.’
It’s possible therefore that we don’t have to leave our job to find enlightenment. We might just stay where we are and ‘do a Bach’, as they say.