Taking Measurements for Diogenes’ Barrel

Diogenes was a Greek philosopher.  He lived in a barrel.

Diogenes might have rejected the attribution of “philosopher” (with the rarefied and grandiose connotations we attach to the term).  In fact, he didn’t even live in a barrel in the literal sense. (That would require an impressive feat of contortion.)  He lived in large urn designed to hold wine,  and  compared himself to a dog: sleeping as the mood took him, eating, walking and even urinating as he pleased, in any place at all.

We don’t have to emulate Diogenes in every way to appreciate this metaphor:  to live in Diogenes barrel is to carry nothing through this life, not even the conceit of being unusually wise.  Whatever reputation, power, comfort or personal affection we enjoy are carried lightly, as aids to achieving an authentic life.  In the Buddhist ethical system, the “authentic” life is a life founded on the realization that there is no separate “self” to aggrandize, and that all meaningful activity tends to promote that realization by other, illusory selves.  The philosophical ramifications, the epistemological and metaphysical implications of this orientation  have been elucidated with extraordinary, inaccessible intellectual detail by innumerable thinkers such as Nagarjuna and Tsongkhapa. The practical implication is clear:  psychological “homelessness” is the bedrock of a meaningful life.

Diogenes’ barrel is an inspiration and a goal: an image of detachment from the cravings that consume our daily lives.  These preoccupations hold out an illusory promise of permanent security,  whereas the ultimate, inescapable reality is that “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58).  We must put down the raft that sustains us through this life and swim in the ocean of boundless compassion for all life.

Original image

“Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Luke 9:58


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