The Three-Petalled Rose: The Synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism

The Three-Petalled Rose, by Ronald W. Pies examines the common threads that unite three, great spiritual traditions–Judaism, Buddhism, and Stoicism, and in doing so aims to provide a framework for achieving a fulfilled and ethically responsible life. The book aims to help the reader take the spiritual “nutrients” from these three ancient traditions and transform them into a life of beauty, order, and purpose. No scholarly expertise or special knowledge of religion is required to understand this book, nor need the reader believe in a “supreme being” or owe allegiance to a particular religion. All that’s needed is an open mind and a sincere desire to create an awakened and flourishing life.

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Izzy’s Ingratitude

 Excerpted from The Three-Petalled Rose, by Ronald W. Pies

To his friends and acquaintances, Izzy was a man who “had it all.” Raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, Izzy, age 52, had long ago abandoned Judaism and become, as he put it, “A full-fledged hedonist.” Married, with two college-age children, and in good health, Izzy was a very successful hospital administrator. He had managed not only to run several area hospitals very efficiently, but also to accumulate a sizeable “nest egg.” He and his family lived in a beautiful, 8-room, lakeside house, in a comfortable suburb of New York City. Izzy’s wife, Rebecca, was a well-respected college professor, and both children were enrolled in prestigious, Ivy-league schools. Izzy managed to radiate a confident optimism that led nearly everyone to assume he was a very happy man—but the truth was entirely different.

As Izzy confided to his old college roommate, Hal, “I feel like I’ve gotten the short end of the stick, for all the work I’ve done. I mean, sure, I have a nice house, a good wife, great kids. But so what? Where is it getting me? I had the brains to go to medical school, but I wound up doing this damn administration crap! People at work are nice enough, but do they ever invite Rebecca and me to dinner, or out to a movie? No—it’s all just business to them! And as for vacation, Hal, forget about it! The last one we took was two years ago, for exactly one week in Bermuda. I have people working under me who spend their whole summer in the Hamptons, or on the Cape! And Rebecca, she’s a good wife, but she’s not exactly what you’d call passionate, you know? I mean, I’m lucky to talk her into sex maybe once a week, at most.” Although Izzy and Rebecca got along reasonably well, their marriage was marked by frequent arguments. Rebecca was not strictly observant in the Jewish faith, but she did like to keep active in her local synagogue, which offered a variety of social and educational activities. Izzy, however, refused to accompany her, arguing that, “Those people just want your time and money. All they care about is showing off.”

Izzy and Rebecca had inherited several hundred thousand dollars from Izzy’s parents, both of whom had died within the past five years, but Izzy had nothing good to say about his mother or father. “Sure!” he commented to Rebecca, “They left us a lot of money, but while they were alive, what did they do for us? All I ever got from my parents was criticism!”

As Rebecca confided to a close female friend, “Nothing is ever good enough with Izzy.   We go out to a nice restaurant for a good time, and what does he do? He complains to the waiter! The roast beef is too stringy, the potatoes aren’t hot enough, the service is too slow! We go to a movie, and he’s ready to leave half-way through, because he thinks the movie is “stupid.” He says he’s proud of my accomplishments as a professor, but then he complains I’m spending too much time with my research. And does he ever have a good word to say about the kids? Here they are, both at Ivy League colleges, and Izzy says they’re “wasting his hard earned money.” Why? Because Joel is majoring in English Literature, and Laura is studying music theory. No matter how good things are, with Izzy, it’s like there’s always something wrong with it. Thank God, the doctor says Izzy is in good health, but he’s always kvetching about how he can’t play racquetball the way he used to when he was 30!”

The Buddhist Perspective

In the discourse known as the Mangala Sutta, the Buddha declares gratitude (in Pali, katannuta) to be one of the highest blessings—one that plays a key role in Buddhist ethics. Thus, in Verse 8, we read, “Reverence, humility, contentment, bearing gratitude and opportune hearing of the Dhamma; this is Blessing Supreme.” [Nalanda Institute; http://nalanda.org.my/e-library/mangalasutta/verse8.php]

Phillip Moffit—a former publishing executive who became an ordained vipassana (insight) meditation teacher—has many wise things to say about gratitude, and he merits a lengthy quotation:

            “The Buddha taught that every human birth is precious and worthy of gratitude. In one of his well-known analogies, he said that receiving a human birth is [rarer] than the chance that a blind turtle floating in the ocean would stick its head through a small hoop. He would often instruct a monk to take his ground cloth into the forest, sit at the base of a tree, and begin “gladdening the heart” by reflecting on the series of fortunate circumstances that had given the monk the motivation and ability to seek freedom through understanding the dharma.

            Practicing mindfulness of gratitude consistently leads to a direct experience of being connected to life and the realization that there is a larger context in which your personal story is unfolding. Being relieved of the endless wants and worries of your life’s drama, even temporarily, is liberating. Cultivating thankfulness for being part of life blossoms into a feeling of being blessed, not in the sense of winning the lottery, but in a more refined appreciation for the interdependent nature of life. It also elicits feelings of generosity, which create further joyHaving access to the joy and wonderment of life is the antidote to feelings of scarcity and loss. It allows you to meet life’s difficulties with an open heart. The understanding you gain from practicing gratitude frees you from being lost or identified with either the negative or the positive aspects of life, letting you simply meet life in each moment as it rises. (Phillip Moffitt http://www.lifebalanceinstitute.com/dharmawisdom/articles/selfless-gratitude-0)

            Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the abbot of San Diego County’s Metta Forest Monastery, makes an important distinction in discussing gratitude. There is, on the one hand, “appreciation of a general sort”—for example, the way we might appreciate our warm, cozy house in the winter. On the other hand, there is “gratitude in particular”, which the Buddha always linked with our response to kindness. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it,

            “You feel indebted to the people who helped you because you sense how easily they might have denied that help, and how difficult your life might have been if that’s what they had chosen to do. Your parents, for instance, didn’t have to raise you, or arrange for someone else to raise you; they could have aborted you or left you to die. So the fact that you’re alive to read this means that somebody chose, again and again, to help you when you were helpless. Sensing that element of choice is what creates your sense of debt.” http://shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=19864

            In Pali, the word for “grateful”—kataññu—literally means “to have a sense of what was done”—as in, acts of kindness that were done in our behalf (Davids & Steeds, 1993). Thanissaro Bhikkhu teaches that those who have shown us kindness are owed not merely appreciation, but a debt of gratitude. For example, “…the way to repay a teacher’s compassion and sympathy in teaching you is to apply yourself to learning your lessons well.” Similarly, it is not enough merely to “appreciate” that your parents taught you to be a kind person—you must repay the debt of gratitude to your parents by being kind to others. (http://shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=19856).

            Now, in contrast to katannuta (gratitude), we have akatannuta or ingratitude. The Buddhist monk, the Venerable Nyanadassana, defines akatannuta as “…not knowing or recognizing what has been done…for one’s benefit.” So why do some develop this negative attitude? Nyanadassana opines that,

            “There are many reasons but the four most important ones why ingratitude arises are: 1. failure to recognize a benefit as a benefit; 2.taking benefits for granted; 3. egotism; [and] 4. forgetfulness. There are some people who do not regard life itself as a benefit. Hence, they don’t feel grateful to their parents for bringing them into the world…similarly, there are people who don’t regard knowledge or education or culture as benefits. So they do not feel grateful towards their teachers…They may even feel resentful…This attitude is, of course, very widespread in society today. People tend to think that everything is due to them.” http://www.buddhistelibrary.org/library/view.php?adpath=360)

            We see these forms of ingratitude in nearly everything Izzy complains about, including his total lack of appreciation for his parents (and the largesse they left him); his resentment toward those he sees as “better off” than he; and his strong sense of entitlement. In many ways, Izzy fits the description of the proverbial person “…who was born on third base and believes he must have hit a triple!” And because Izzy seems incapable of appreciating all that he has, and all that has been given to him, he has also denied himself “access to the joy and wonderment of life.”

The Stoic Perspective  

One of our opening epigrams is from Epicurus: “Any man who does not think that what he has is more than ample is an unhappy man, even if he is master of the whole world.” This teaching has obvious application to our unfortunate friend, Izzy, whose nearly total lack of gratitude has indeed left him a very “unhappy man” indeed.

            Epicurus was actually not a Stoic in the strict sense; rather, he was the founder of a competing school of philosophy, contemporaneous with the Stoics. Epicureanism and Stoicism had many beliefs in common, but held different attitudes toward our participation in the larger community. Whitney J. Oates, in contrasting Stoicism with Epicureanism, tells us that, “The two systems are alike in that they attempt to give men peace and inner calm.” But whereas Epicureanism recommended “…a retirement into the garden, in order to gain that peace,” the Stoics maintained “…that the peace must be found in the midst of the world’s confusions for, after all, all men are brothers.” (The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers, Modern Library edition, p. xxiv.) In this sense, the Stoics have something in common with Judaism’s Hasidim, who believe that one can worship God in everyday life, even amidst the hurly-burly of the market place.

            Notwithstanding these differences, the quote from Epicurus–“Any man who does not think that what he has is more than ample is an unhappy man…”—is quintessentially Stoic in spirit. Indeed, gratitude is one of the most important values in Stoic philosophy, though it is often given short shrift in discussions of Stoicism.

            We see the importance of gratitude when Marcus Aurelius begins his Meditations with a litany of “thank you” notes. Marcus thanks everybody from his paternal grandfather to the gods! For example:

Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt to know from my grandfather Verus…Manliness without ostentation I learnt from what I have heard and remember of my father…My mother set me an example of piety and generosity…”

            As Farquharson puts it, these notes of thanks comprise “…a personal acknowledgment of lessons learned and good gifts received from the men and women who seemed…to have had the most influence on his life…” (op cit. p. 95).

            In this respect, Marcus Aurelius is a kind of “anti-Izzy!”

            Similarly, Seneca tells us, “It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.” He writes these words in a letter (CXXIII) to his younger friend, Lucilius, having returned home after a long and tiring journey. Seneca notes that, “…I’m in bed, recovering from my fatigue, and making the best of [the] slowness on the part of the cook…” adding, “…whatever kind of meal is on the way is going to beat an inaugural banquet for enjoyment.” Seneca here demonstrates that our sense of fulfillment and satisfaction is largely a matter of our perspective; and that we can indeed be grateful even when life is not providing us with banquets. (Of course, few of us are fortunate enough to have our own cook!). In another letter, Seneca quotes a fragment attributed to the moralist, Publilius Syrus (1st century BCE): “The poor lack much, the greedy everything.” This maxim may serve as a synopsis of the Stoic view of gratitude, as well as a sad commentary on people like Izzy.

            We have already discussed some of Cicero’s writings on “old age”, and our epigram (“No deprivation is any trouble if you do not miss what you have lost”) is drawn from Cicero’s essay titled, “The Pleasures of Old Age.” There, Cicero sets out to discredit the notion that the elderly are less capable of enjoyment than the young. (Here we think of Izzy’s petulant complaint that he can no longer play racquetball the way he did when he was 20 years younger!). Cicero concedes that when it comes to sexual pleasure, old age is at a disadvantage; e.g., “…let us admit that youth exceeds age in its enjoyment of this particular kind of pleasure.” But then Cicero quickly shifts perspective to see a deeper kind of pleasure in old age. He writes,

            “When its campaigns of sex, ambition, rivalry, quarrelling, and all the other passions are ended, the human spirit returns to live within itself—and is well off. There is supreme satisfaction to be derived from an old age which has knowledge and learning to feed upon….surely the satisfactions of the mind are greater than all the rest!” (“On Old Age” in Selected Works)

            Indeed, for the Stoics, we might summarize the “flourishing life” in this way: We live best when we strive to gather knowledge; live in harmony with Nature; act in an ethical manner; and experience gratitude for whatever blessings life has given us.

Synthesis and Commentary

Mark Twain once quipped that, “A self-made man is about as likely as a self-laid egg.” Indeed, as Rabbi Byron L. Sherwin and Rabbi Seymour J. Cohen have noted, “Gratitude to God is an acknowledgment that no one is self-made.” (p. 15, italics added).

The French philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville, in his excellent book, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues, has this to say about gratitude:

“What gratitude teaches us…is that there is also such a thing as joyful humility, or humble joy, humble because it knows it is not its own cause…and, knowing this, rejoices all the more…” (op cit, p. 135).

Gratitude, indeed, may be the deepest wisdom. As Epicurus puts it, “The fool’s life is empty of gratitude and full of fears…” While we won’t condemn Izzy as a “fool”—after all, as Albert Ellis would remind us, labeling someone in that way does injustice to the person’s humanity and potential for change— many of Izzy’s ideas and attitudes are certainly foolish. For example, Izzy’s grumbling that he hasn’t had a vacation in two years would strike many hard-working, or unemployed, Americans as laughable self-pity! The Buddhist sages would call Izzy’s gripe a form of upadana—a “grasping onto things” (Ajahn Chah, Living Dhamma, p. 36). The Stoics would regard it as weak-kneed, self-indulgence. The Rabbis of the Talmud would simply be mystified (as in, “What is this vacation thing?”), while our modern rabbis would call it “kvetching”, plain and simple!

Perhaps, as Epicurus’ saying suggests, there is an underlying fear in Izzy’s litany of complaints. In our previous chapter, we discussed the fear of death, and how it may be repressed, denied, or acted out through various defensive maneuvers—as we saw with Daniel’s mid-life affair (Chapter 7). Constant complaining about what one lacks may also serve a defensive function—it fends off anxiety about one’s own mortality, and focuses one’s ire and energy on “those other people”, who have “everything.” In Izzy’s case, complaining also fends off the question, “Why is it that I can’t seem to find real happiness?” by laying the blame on “those other people” such as Izzy’s parents. Ironically, the cause of Izzy’s inability to find happiness is…Izzy! The medieval philosopher, Solomon ibn Gabirol, sums up Izzy’s predicament very succinctly: “[He] who seeks more than he needs, hinders himself from enjoying what he has.” And there are few more effective ways of avoiding constructive action than complaining about our many woes…

About the authorRonald W. Pies MD is Professor of Psychiatry and Lecturer on Bioethics & Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY. He also teaches psychiatry at Tufts University in Boston. Dr. Pies is the author, most recently, of The Three-Petalled Rose (iUniverse); Psychiatry on the Edge (Nova Publishing), and the novel, The Director of Minor Tragedies (iUniverse). Dr. Pies lives outside Boston with his wife, Nancy.

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7 thoughts on “The Three-Petalled Rose: The Synthesis of Judaism, Buddhism and Stoicism”

  1. Thanks, Mr. Silverman–you raise a vital question. Perhaps a partial answer is provided by Seneca, in his letter to Lucilius (CXXIII):

    “It is in no man’s power to have whatever he wants; but he has it in his power not to wish for what he hasn’t got, and cheerfully make the most of the things that do come his way.”

    Best regards,
    Ron Pies

  2. The Jewish sages ask “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion.” Does this not sum it up? And, ask the most invidious question: what is our portion? Asking ourselves what we might be entitled to and what we really have makes for a very different and difficult self-examination.

  3. Thank you, I really found this piece valuable. I gained huge knowledge from “Everything Has Two Handles” and I look forward to this new book. Heading very rapidly towards the mid-century stage of my life (I’m always ill at ease with the term “mid-life” because every day is a bonus) I particularly value Cicero;s advice.

  4. Thank you for confirming my beliefs. The piece provides much food for thought, action and further research. As the year draws to a close it is a perfect time to reflect and resolve.

  5. Greetings, Patrick, and many thanks for your kind posting of my work! I do hope that the book is of interest to all those who seek a path toward “eudaimonia” and the flourishing life.

    Best regards,
    Ron Pies