Reflections on Ecclesiastes, part 5: Memento mori
The final post of the series
This is the last of my series of reflections on the book of Ecclesiastes. These posts have been reflections only, and only on a few select passages. Those wanting a more expansive, scholarly treatment of the text will need to seek out a commentary or – better yet – more than one reputable commentary. My intention here has been merely to suggest how Qohelet (whoever he was) speaks perennially, generation after generation; how one of the seemingly least “mystical” of biblical texts may well contain the sort of hard message every pragmatic mystic needs to take onboard before setting sail. In Mahāyāna Buddhist iconography one will sometimes spot the intimidating figure of the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī (meaning “Gentle Glory”; in Japanese, called “Monju”), who – in Chinese and Japanese imagery – is frequently depicted riding a lion and wielding his “vajra” sword. “Vajra” is a Sanskrit word meaning both “thunderbolt” and “diamond,” and Mañjuśrī’s sword is sometimes shown enveloped in flames. Mañjuśrī stands as a symbol of sudden awakening to reality; his sword represents the cutting away of delusions. Without a sharp, severing detachment from delusion, one cannot gain true insight. Mañjuśrī’s sword is the symbol of that necessary experience of detachment, which every earnest disciple must undergo. In Christian terms, one cannot “know God” without the “changing of one’s thoughts/mind.” The overly familiar – and therefore frequently misunderstood – English word for this is “repentance.” But the original Greek New Testament word for it is metanoia – literally, “changing” (meta) one’s “thoughts” (noia). It is something essential and, in fact, ongoing for the disciple. Every delusion, every false or unreal way, every sin (which literally means to veer off-course), requires that we recognize the misdirection for what it is and, in response, change our direction. In terms of the sword image, it is the severing of one’s attachment to delusion. My point is simply this: in some respects, Qohelet’s book wields a metaphorical sword not entirely unlike Mañjuśrī’s; we don’t go away from Ecclesiastes, in other words, without its having sliced through our tangled passions, the world’s flash and phoniness, and our own fabricated “selves” or personas (“the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” – 1 John 2:16).
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