If Orpheus were a Buddhist

By Nicholas Bruce


If Orpheus were a Buddhist, he might have sat contently among himself, and whoever was interested enough to sit before him, as he strummed his lyre. Or perhaps he would have strummed his lyre by himself, and still been content.

If Orpheus were a Buddhist, his meditation may have been simple appreciation of the present moment, and the instrument he found he enjoyed – and was innately talented at – playing.

If Orpheus were a Buddhist, he may have found his enlightenment in the stripping away of anything outside of Self-love, the “atman” that transcends any permanent ego self, or the realisation of his true nature: a paradoxically singular entity connected with the All, or his Buddha-nature.

He may have met, among the many, a Eurydice, and contentedly acknowledged the existence of a beautiful being, and let go of her after his serenade of her, as his flow-state beyond any ego guided him to do so.

He may have been content with an existence blissfully unaware of anything outside the shade of grey spectrum his philosophy entrusted in him, and all might applaud his detachment from worldly affairs.

He might have spared himself the aching loss of his destiny .

Orpheus was, in his core essence, a human, with a heart-wrenchingly divine talent for music, one that the gods themselves in their immortality might pause, moved beyond ineffability, to experience even a moment of what his music struck within them.

Orpheus was, in his core essence, deeply human, such that meeting Eurydice rang out shockwaves of recognition in himself, beyond any oneness of enlightenment, of a love that might inspire envy in Aphrodite herself.

Orpheus was, in his core essence, divinely human. The inception of Orpheus as a tragic hero within Greek mythology was possible because his archetype resonated with a soulful essence that exists still today in all that re-member his legend. The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is only as famous and alive millennia later, because those of us who resonate with a love transcending death, can only be stunned in the face of recognition, of the feeling that can inspire a form of insanity… and also of courage that can elevate us beyond a shade of grey existence.

Here is where Buddhism and mythological archetype meet.

“Make no mistake about it – enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It is seeing through the facade of pretence. It is the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.” – Adyashanti

How can such opposing ideals meet in harmony? Mythology, that champions beings above and beyond humans, and Buddhism, promising enlightenment through the rejection of all that is not?

Suppose we create an equation (and even I am rolling my eyes that I feel compelled to try and bridge romance and reason) that posits: the fantastical imaginings of simply physical beings, and the discrepancy between the mind and body as a dualistic illusion, are equal? On a personal level, one can, and does, fan the flames of potential in the other… And if we can accept that idea as a reality… Perhaps man is not so different from the gods, allegories and narratives we live out every day.

Suppose Orpheus, in all his humanness, was a Buddhist, and fell deeply in love with a mortal woman named Eurydice, such that he would brave a life of love with her and risk the shade of grey balance that was his purpose… his solace. After the tragedy that befell shortly after their wedding, in her untimely death at the fangs of a snake… he realised the yawning void of a lifetime without her, and felt he must enter the underworld to bring her back to him.

Even the enfolding legend of Siddhartha Gautama is fallible, as a narrative passed down through the generations by devoted followers… There is more than a slight chance his being was romanticised. Enlightenment is the stripping away of anything outside of authentic, raw existence of being. Just because the Buddha had attained a measure of bliss in his enlightenment does not mean that he was perpetually blissful, but maybe just profoundly honest with himself about his experience. That honesty, affording insight, is exactly how he was able to liberate himself from any stagnation in any one thought or emotion, and simultaneously remain in flow. It was probably this honesty that resulted in the utter theta wave aura Buddha trailed through the air that inspired such a following at all.

Stay with me. Orpheus might have been profoundly honest with himself too, enough that his heart guided him to and through the underworld in spite of the insanity of such an undertaking. Near-paralysing fear now as his passage is blocked by an enormous, three-headed dog. Acknowledging his shaking knees that threaten to buckle when the snarling intensifies, he musters the strength of will to play his lyre despite his quivering hands. Miraculously, the demonic dog is entranced, and Orpheus feels sheer relief wash over him as Cerberus allows him to pass.

Then experiencing the deepest chills traversing the Fields of Asphodel, then bargaining with the Lord of the Underworld himself to return his love to him, then the inevitable looking back at Eurydice… losing her forever.

One analysis of the myth that sticks with me, is that the version of Eurydice that might have been restored to life, had Orpheus successfully led her out of the underworld, was only a shade of the real spirit. It was fated that Orpheus would look back, that Eurydice could not be returned to life, that his mistake would cost him his love… Ultimately, his life. He was not meant to be successful in the undertaking, because Hades can not be cheated.

There is an immensity of courage in holding on, whether to love, a dream, an ideal, or all three. It can drive us to perform incredible acts of self-sacrifice. However, maybe one lesson that can be drawn from “Orpheus and Eurydice” is that the act of holding on can do more harm than good in its capacity for tragedy.

Enlightenment is the stripping away of anything inauthentic beyond presence. “If Orpheus were a Buddhist” thus becomes a contemplation of life. His pain of loss would have existed in moments beyond her death, surely, but like the impermanence of ripples that eventually disappear in a pool, he would have learned that life after death exists. If Orpheus and Buddha had had a conversation, and Buddha could have told and made Orpheus believe one thing: “Suffering is not holding you, you are holding suffering”… Maybe Orpheus would have transcended his depression, and embraced the capacity for life beyond death. And how different the narrative would be.

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