I just finished reading Adam Miller’s latest modernization of ancient scripture: Nothing New Under the Sun. This is a very quick read, a modern version of Ecclesiastes:
Because the modern language made the parallels to modern wisdom literature so clear, I was curious about the links to Buddhism. According to Wikipedia, Ecclesiastes was written between 450 and 350 BCE.
The presence of Persian loan-words and Aramaisms points to a date no earlier than about 450 BCE, while the latest possible date for its composition is 180 BCE, when another Jewish writer, Ben Sira, quotes from it. The dispute as to whether Ecclesiastes belongs to the Persian or the Hellenistic periods (i.e., the earlier or later part of this period) revolves around the degree of Hellenization (influence of Greek culture and thought) present in the book. Scholars arguing for a Persian date (c. 450–330 BCE) hold that there is a complete lack of Greek influence; those who argue for a Hellenistic date (c. 330–180 BCE) argue that it shows internal evidence of Greek thought and social setting.
Is Ecclesiastes Buddhism in the Bible? Or is it simply the case that all wisdom is roughly the same and there is nothing new under the sun. Buddha dates to 600 BC. Adam Miller’s book doesn’t dwell on these parallels, but merely hints at them. Wisdom is wisdom, no matter the source. It’s an interesting question, though. His modernized take on Ecclesiastes also demonstrates that there really is nothing new under the sun, including Christian wisdom.
Ecclesiastes is written by an author referred to as “the Preacher.” Traditionally, most sects attribute it to King Solomon, but that attribution seems forced given the earliest date of the manuscript. It seems more likely that it’s a poetic and philosophical piece merely attributed to a Jewish King to make it more accessible to a Jewish audience. The parallels to Siddartha Gautama (who achieved enlightenment and became Buddha) are striking. In particular “the Preacher” has lived a privileged life but then learned that all of life is vain and idle. The Preacher seems to have tried all the excesses of life and then renounces them. Likewise, Siddhartha Gautama begins as a pampered wealthy boy and then is troubled when he sees an elderly man. He then becomes an ascetic. Later he indulges in sexual excess. Ultimately, he determines that all of life is a distraction, and that even seeking for wisdom takes our eye off living and relieving suffering.
Adam’s paraphrase of The Preacher’s similar background is even more succinct:
“I scratched every itch.”
Of course, this take on Ecclesiastes is both an update and also Christianity-compatible. As Adam says in the intro:
“Before we can find hope in Christ, we must first give up hope in everything else.”
Even though Ecclesiastes is rightly accused of being a stone cold bummer, we need a wake up call to be able to let go of the illusions that constitute our lives. I couldn’t help but think of The Four Agreements in which author Don Miguel Ruiz points out that all of humanity is mentally trapped in a dream, but that our perceptions and priorities are all a deception. Only when we let go of them can we truly learn to love ourselves and others.
“Wherever you go you will find people lying to you, and as your awareness grows, you will notice that you also lie to yourself. Do not expect people to tell you the truth because they also lie to themselves.” Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
Likewise, Ecclesiastes points out all the ways in which the life we are living gets us all wrapped up in its dramas but that it’s just an illusory cycle that is ultimately meaningless. Adam makes these far more accessible than the KJV translation, lifting the obscuring language and revealing with clarity the simple yet game-changing messages below the text.
In another chapter, Adam’s paraphrase seems to be channeling Battlestar Galactica (“All this has happened before, and it will happen again”) on the futility of the illusions we have about the world in which we live:
“Everything is an iteration of what went before.”
This parallels something from the Four Agreements:
“Maybe we cannot escape from the destiny of the human, but we have a choice: to suffer our destiny or to enjoy our destiny.” Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
Ecclesiastes, in Adam’s capable hands, takes us through all the illusions life offers us, some of which are a reaction to other illusions we abandon. We believe the system is reality, but it’s really just self-sustaining illusion. We believe we have to follow the rules, play the game, but these are often a distraction, a way to believe we control and earn a reward. Another parallel to the Four Agreements:
“We are so well trained that we are our own domesticator. We are an autodomesticated animal. We can now domesticate ourselves according to the same belief system we were given, and using the same system of punishment and reward. We punish ourselves when we don’t follow the rules according to our belief system; we reward ourselves when we are the “good boy” or “good girl”.” Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements
A big part of Ecclesiastes is about identifying and getting past these illusions, also similar to Buddha’s journey to enlightenment:
“Now, he thought, that all transitory things have slipped away from me again, I stand once more beneath the sun, as I once stood as a small child. Nothing is mine, I know nothing, I possess nothing, I have learned nothing…when I am no longer young, when my hair is fast growing gray…now I am beginning again like a child.” Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
Adam even takes down the pursuit of wisdom in this breathtaking paraphrase:
“What wisdom there is, I’ve gathered it. So I tried to determine what advantage wisdom had given me over madmen and fools–but again, it was futile. There’s no lasting difference I can tell. All of my learning has only made me feel more alone.”
I’ll leave it at that. Hopefully, I’ve piqued your interest in reading it for yourself. It really only took about an hour to read, but will take a lifetime to comprehend. All wisdom literature seems to be like that. All this has happened before, and it will all happen again.