If you wish to reach the highest, begin with the lowest

Publilius Syrus (85BC- 43 BC) was a Syrian poet and comic dramatist in ancient Rome around the last century BC.   I had never read his writings in Japan but nowadays I enjoy reading his writings through internet.  You may not be familiar with his name but you must be familiar with his sayings such as


“No one knows he can do until he tries.”

“It is not every question that deserves an answer.”

"It is better to learn late than never.”


There are plenty more of his sayings but probably the most famous Publilius’s saying can be “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”  I knew this was originally Latin, but I never knew this was credited to the writer of the first century BC.  This was how I became interested in Publilius Syrus and bought a book called "The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus: A Roman Slave."  


To my surprise, Publilius Syrus was once a Syrian slave and taken to the provincial Rome when he was 12 years old.  However, he was good at wit and mimicking people and gradually won the favour of his master, who eventually freed and educated Publilius.   According to the Wikipedia, Publilius was perhaps even more famous as an improviser, and received from Caesar himself the prize in a contest in which he vanquished all his competitors, including Decimus Laberius.  Now his fame is worldwide beyond times.... more than 2,000 years.   


He left a saying “If you wish to reach the highest, begin with the lowest” and it sounds true because of his real experience from being a slave to the Roman celebrity.   I think this saying indicates importance of positive attitude no matter how miserable you may be experiencing.   Realizing your situation as the lowest means you cannot be lower anymore.  Once you experience being the lowest, anything you do can be higher and positive. 


This understanding is actually very similar to the basic teaching of Buddhism which regards life as suffering.  Connotation of suffering may lead you to misunderstand Buddhism as a negative religion.  But realization of suffering is actually positive attitude to accept current situation.   This is just like common phrase, “Prepare for the worst” when we receive news of approaching hurricane.


As Kaua’i experienced hurricanes in the past, you know hurricanes are very scary.  It could take our lives and houses away.   However it’s inevitable and not only hurricane but other disasters could happen anytime in the future.  No one can stop nature.   Then what can we do?   There are not many things we can do but the best we can do is to prepare for the worst…. Preparing extra food, water and all the necessities…The more you do, the less we worry.  Yet we cannot get rid of all worries.  But that’s all we can do.


On the other hand, if you don’t’ prepare anything for hurricane, smaller damages can be really something and critical.  Life is same thing.  If we are not preparing for suffering, we might feel so much suffering when misfortune comes to us.  But if we can prepare for the worst suffering, we can always feel less suffering and more blessing because of the preparation.  Buddhist understanding of life as suffering is the first step to prepare to work with suffering which is surely coming to us, just like hurricane.

Once again, we cannot stop natural disasters.  We cannot change nature.   And it’s hard to change people’s ideas and even one’s spouse’s thoughts.  But Publilius’s saying tell us…what is important is not to change the situation but to change our understanding to accept the situation.   How?  He says nothing difficult…“begin with the lowest."