Tuesday, October 13, 2009


"We have the fortune given to us by Shakyamuni; we also have the food and clothing offered by the deities. Moreover, we have the natural share of life we were allotted when we were born. Without chasing after it or worrying over it, we are sure to receive as much as we need. Even if we chase after and secure a great fortune, what will happen to it when impermanence suddenly comes?" (Dogen Zenji, from Shobogenzo Zuimonki, Book 2, Chapter 6)
"A few weeks ago, I found this book I showed you in a second-hand store in Chamblee." He held the book up so the old man could see it.

"The Stoics," Mr. Croker said once more. "And what was the man's name again, Eppitetus?"


"Oh yeah. Well. . . okay. . . what does Epictetus have to say about bankruptcy? - or is that something too mundane for a philosopher to think about?"

"Not too mundane for Epictetus, Mr. Croker. One place he says, 'You are all nervous and you can't sleep at night for fear you're going to run out of money. You say "How will I even get enough to eat?" But what you are really afraid of is not starvation but the prospect of not having a cook or somebody to wait on you at the dinner table or somebody to take care of your clothes and your shoes and the laundry and make up the beds and clean up the house. In other words, you're afraid you may no longer be able to lead the life of an invalid.' "

"He really said that?" asked Charlie. "About insomnia and leading the life of an invalid and all that?"

"Yes sir."

"Okay . . . What else does he say?"

"Well - I'm not the final word on this, Mr. Croker, but what he's saying, it seems to me, he's saying that the only real possession you'll ever have is your character and your 'scheme of life,' he calls it. Zeus has given every person a spark from his own divinity, and no one can take that away from you, not even Zeus, and from that spark comes your character. Everything else is temporary and worthless in the long run, your body included. You know what he calls your possessions? 'Trifles.' You know what he calls the human body? 'A vessel of clay containing a quart of blood.' If you understand that, you won't moan and groan, you won't complain, you won't blame others for your troubles, and you won't go around flattering people. I think that's what he's saying, Mr. Croker."

"This is all very noble," said Charlie, "in the abstract, all this your man is saying, but what does it have to do with real life? Let's think about real life for a second. Let's think about a situation in which you lose everything . . you lose everything! You see what I'm saying? You lose everything, the house where you live, your income, your cars - everything. You're out on the street. You don't know where your next meal's coming from. What good do a lot of high-sounding ideals mean then?"

The boy said, "Many of Epictetus' disciples asked him that exact same thing, and you know what he told them?"

"No, what?"

"Have you ever seen an old beggar?" The kid's eyes were boring right into him.

"You're asking me?"


"Sure I have," said Charlie, "plenty of them."

"See? They've gotten by," said the boy. "They've managed to get food, 365 days a year, probably. They're not starving. What makes you think they can all find food, and you wouldn't be able to?"

"What kinda consolation is that supposed to be? I'd rather die than go around with a cup in my hand."

The boy smiled, and his eyes brightened. "Epictetus talks about exactly that, Mr. Croker. He says, 'You're not afraid of starving, you're afraid of losing face.' "

(excerpted from A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe, 1998)

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