We all learn from our successes and mistakes, at least sometimes. But with humanity and history having been around for quite some time now, we also learn from those who came before us. Going back in time, we can find plenty of possible paths of living described on old texts and possible idols to imitate in the stories of old. The pressing question to answer, when confronted with this kind of material is, whether these paths are still relevant today and these idols are still fitting for a modern world.
Two of these resources are the hero tales of antiquity on one hand and the teachings of Buddha on the other.
The classic greeks thought that to be civilized, one had to know the tales of the great god and heroes as told by Homer and Hesiod. So they were not only “entertainment”, but also a form of education, even as Jean Pierre Vernant (for example in his book: The Origins of Greek Thought) argues the differences between the society depicted in the homeric tales (the Mycenaean society) and the democratic society of classical Athens.
So even as the world changed and new kinds of living, earning respect and trying to live a successful life arose, the heroes of this old and very brutal culture stood firm as the first ideals, still read or heard (or in the last century seen, for example in the movie Troy) by many young people and left their impression on them. If they are still of any help in finding a way of life or an answer to the question of happiness may be questionable, but they will at least provide an idea of the foundations of the western culture that owes so much to the greeks of old.
I have for some years now studied the philosophy and some of the literature of this time and still I was glad to find the course “The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours” from Harvard University on edX.org. This course provides a great starting point for reading and learning about the ancient greek heroes and also for deepening the knowledge and understanding.
Another way of life started around a century after the lifetime of Homer: the historical Buddha Gautama explored they ways the indian culture provided at that time to search for liberation from suffering, did not find what he looked for in any of them and at last found the path to enlightenment on his own. Because he felt compassion with all the still suffering beings, he taught this way to many spiritual seekers during his lifetime and by doing so founded what is now known as Buddhism.
This path is nearly as ancient as the way of the greek hero, but it is much more seen as a path that is still viable by people today. One of the main parts of this path is the practice of meditation, that is increasingly the subject of scientific investigation (among other similar practices like Yoga¹). This is what the course “Tibetan Buddhist Meditation and the Modern World” is about. It will explore the teachings of Tibetean Buddhism and meditation practice in the light of modern knowledge. The part of this course that has started this week focuses on the “Lesser Vehicle” or “Hinayana”, but others will follow and complete the full range of ways, that have survived in the tibetean tradition.
The content of both courses is not entirely new to me, but as I seem to find my life to be in a phase of reorientation, I hope, that a new and deeper look at these and some other ways of the past, might give some insight into possible ways for my own life in the present and the future. Maybe for others too?
Two other courses that fit into this problem space are:
1: What the contemporary west knows as Yoga has its roots mostly in Hinduism, but there is also a Yoga in Buddhism, Atheist Yoga and Christian Yoga..