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Lessons from Ajax


There’s a Greek hero named Ajax, whose story is usually overshadowed by the more famous protagonists—Achilles, Odysseus, Hector, Agamemnon, but Ajax was, after Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors.  And his story, in many ways, is very instructive to us today.  Unlike Achilles, Ajax relied solely on his own great strength and prowess as a warrior, in the fight against the Trojans. Achilles was famously protected and ordained by the gods to be a great warrior. But Ajax was simply an enormous man, biggest of the Greeks, the strongest, the greatest fighter. And very proud of it.

And as I say, he relied on his own strength, and in the Iliad you have all these battle scenes where the gods are constantly intervening on one side or the other. But apparently you never get any account in which Ajax’s victories relied in any way on the intervention of the gods.

But he suffered from the pride in his own position.  And after Achilles’ death, there was a dispute among the Greeks about who was entitled to have Achilles armor, which was I think forged by the gods in this very famous protective shield.  And Ajax felt that as clearly the greatest warrior after Achilles among the Greeks he was entitled to Achilles’ armor after his death. But instead it was given to Odysseus by Agamemnon, because Odysseus was a sharp talker, and managed to give a great speech saying why he was more entitled to it.

And this just enraged Ajax, who felt he was not being given his due, as indeed he wasn’t. In a certain way he was being cheated out of something that he could rightfully expect to have.

And that’s the first place in which I think we can begin to identify with him, maybe the second, where we become very preoccupied with our own prowess or achievement…we think it’s all ours and we don’t necessarily believe that we owe it to anyone else or to any gods, but we have what we have by virtue of our own strength, our own talent, our own efforts. This is certainly a danger for Zen students, who do a very rigorous, difficult practice, and can be proud of what they’ve been through and what they’ve achieved, and how different they are than ordinary people, who would never subject themselves to the rigors of this kind of practice.

And the second part of that is it’s very easy to feel that all our effort, or all our talent, or all our insight is not getting the acknowledgment it deserves, that some fast talker has cut in front of us in line.

I’ve said that I think that many people I encounter, both in the zendo, and among the world of therapy and therapists, all seem to suffer from attention deficit disorders. They all feel they’ve never gotten enough attention. Very very common.

So Ajax certainly felt slighted, and rightfully so.  And that’s part of the story, that it’s not just an unrealistic, delusional expectation on his part. But he really has to cope with something that is arbitrary and unfair, in how the spoils of life have been distributed.

It’s an interesting parallel to what happened to Achilles, because Achilles spends much of the Iliad sulking in his tent because Agamemnon has kept for himself a slave girl—Briseis, I believe—that Achilles thought he deserved to have.  And he was so pissed off at Agamemnon that he refused to fight. So the greatest warrior of the Greeks spends most of the Iliad in his tent refusing to fight because he’s been dissed by the king

Meanwhile Hector, the Trojan hero, is making mincemeat out of the Greeks, because Achilles won’t come out and fight.

So what happens in the end, of course, is that Odysseus and Agamemnon, all the Greeks, have to put all this effort into persuading Achilles to come out, to stop sulking, fight, be the hero you’re supposed to be.  And so Achilles finally gets his due, everybody comes to him.  He’s like one of these recalcitrant blue dog Democrats in the Senate, that everybody’s gotta come and try to give them some special pork barrel bribe to sign onto the health care bill.

But Ajax doesn’t get that kind of treatment at all.  Nobody comes to appease him or to give him the attention he thinks he deserves.  And instead he just gets angrier and angrier and angrier.  But his anger is not heroic, like Achilles’.  The first line of the Iliad is sing, Muse, of the anger, of the wrath of Achilles. It’s a poem about anger. And the Greeks were certainly quite capable of honoring extremes, and intensity.  And when the gods came into a hero, it was through anger, through god-inspired wrath. But Ajax has a different fate. The gods fill him with a wrath that turns into madness.  And Ajax is so mad at not getting Achilles’ armor, that he turns on the Greeks, wants to turn on his own people and slaughter them for showing him such disrespect. And he comes out of his tent ready to kill the king, and kill Odysseus, and kill everybody. But the gods won’t let that happen.  Instead they drive him crazy in his anger.  And they send him out among a flock of sheep, and make him hallucinate that the sheep are the Greek army he’s so angry at.

So Ajax is out there in the middle of a field slaughtering sheep left and right, and all the Greeks see this and they laugh at him. Then the gods take the spell off, and Ajax finds himself among this heap of dead sheep, bloody sword in hand, with the whole army sort of pointing their fingers and laughing at him, what a fool he’s made of himself.  It’s the great version of having your pants pulled down in the schoolyard--utter shame and humiliation--he made a fool of himself.

And the Greek culture, in some ways like the Japanese culture that gives rise to Zen practice, is very much based on honor and shame. And Ajax, who is preoccupied with being a hero, cannot bear being shamed. And as a result he kills himself. He will not bear the shame of his public humiliation.

Now what are the lessons in this story?  Why do I make this into a Dharma talk?

Well, first there’s the model of the hero who is preoccupied or proud of his own strength, his own effort, his own accomplishment.  And not only can we fall into that trap of pride, we can think that our practice is about making ourselves stronger, making ourselves more heroic, making ourselves more invincible.  I think that is the basic fantasy of practice that everybody comes with one way or another…that we will become spiritually heroic, spiritually invincible…that whatever insecurity or doubt or anxiety that plagues us, that drives us to practice…we think practice will make us stronger, invincible, invulnerable to all those things.  And it does, up to a point. Does make us stronger, up to a point.

But the real lesson of practice is not to become a spiritual hero, although believe me, lots of people like to stop at that stage, or wish they could. We then have to face much of what Ajax faced. Perhaps not having our experience or our talent recognized.  But more than that we have to face being subject to things that are completely out of our control. Like Ajax’s madness, we will all be visited by the gods one way or another, inflicting upon us things that are outside of our control, whether it is simply aging, or illness, or our eventual death. I think that it’s also the things that are inflicted upon us that are the source of shame that we particularly have to engage in our practice.

We have to face not just the fact of illness, but the illness that gives us disability and makes us lose our strength and our good looks and our ability.  We have to face the possibility of things like dementia, of losing our mind, losing our memory, even in the case I would say of my old teacher losing some aspects of her character that made her who she was.  This is nobody’s fault. This is what is visited on us. We would like our practice to give us a shield, to make us invincible.  But the real lesson of the Ajax story is that practice can only prepare us for what is out of our control and the question will be whether that will shame us so much, will destroy our ideals so much that we can’t bear to go on.  That is so often the difficulty in our practice.  Whether something happens to us that shames us or disappoints us about how we are…we hear so much from people who say I’ve been practicing all these years and still something like this still gets to me, or they look at the teacher and say he’s been practicing for decades and look at him! Shame and de-idealization are not the obstacles that we initially think. They’re not necessarily signs that our practice has failed. Really they are reminders that our practice is about making us more human, not less so.