The Myth of Sisyphus: A Cycle

by Sāmanera Bodhesako

The gods known to the Greeks have visited various furtunes and misfortunes upon humans both individually and collectively, and for as long as Asians have retold the stories of the Suttas and the Jātakas, so too Europeans have retold the fates of those mortals who have been singled out by the gods of the Greeks for special treatment.

Albert Camus, too, has gone for his inspiration to the Greeks, and in The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Knopf, 1955; translated by Justin O’Brien) he has developed the thesis that Sisyphus characterizes the dilemma of modern man. Sisyphus, we will recall, was a roguish king of Corinth who, because of his cruel ways, was condemned by the gods — the judges of the dead, according to one version of the tale — to push a boulder up a mountainside, only to watch it plunge to the bottom again each time he neared the lip, whereupon Sisyphus was forced to flee downhill, the plummeting boulder nearly on his heels: like all myths, the take is adapted to the purposes of the teller). Then Sisyphus would have to begin all over again. We are perhaps luckier, Camus suggests, in that we can vary our tasks. If this boulder begins to bore us, why then, there’s always that one over there: notice what interesting colourations it has, new and exciting…. And for Camus, who rejected with abhorrence all notions of an afterlife or of rebirth, there was also the hope of annihilation in the grave.

In the Pali Canon too we find the idea of the endlessness of our tasks: the most developed expression of this theme is probably that of Cúlavagga VII,I,1-2 (of the Vinaya Pitaka), the story of the going forth of Anuruddha.

At the time of the Buddha many families of the Buddha’s clan, the Sakyans, were sending forth one son into the monastic life, in imitation of the Buddha. But in the family of two brothers, Mahānāma and Anuruddha, as yet no one had gone forth. Therefore, Mahānāma thought, either I should go forth or Anuruddha should do so. So he went to his younger brother and he told him of his thoughts. But the idea of going forth was not pleasing to Anuruddha. He had been raised very luxuriously, he told Mahānāma, and described his upbringing — a life of pleasure devoid of hardships and responsibilities. And the monastic life of the homeless ones was difficult; Anuruddha was not used to bearing up to such burdens. “Therefore,” he told his brother, “I am not able to go forth from home into homelessness. You go forth.”

“Very well,” Mahānāma agreed. “Then come along, dear Anuruddha, and I will instruct you in the duties of the household life.” And Mahānāma (who had apparently been managing the family estate while Anuruddha amused himself) explained. “First the fields must be ploughed. Being ploughed, they must be sown. Being sown, they must be irrigated and drained. Being irrigated and drained, they must be weeded. Being weeded, the crop must be reaped. When it is reaped it must be harvested. When it is harvested it must be sheaved. Being sheaved it must be treshed. Being treshed the straw must be winnowed. The straw being winnowed, the chaff must be winnowed. The chaff being winnowed it must be sifted and then brought in. Having brought in the grain it is to be done just the same the next year, and the year after that.”

“The work is endless!” exclaimed Anuruddha. “No end to the work is apparent. When does the work conclude? When is an end to the work apparent? When will we be able to indulge ourselves carelessly in the pleasures of the five senses?”

“But, dear Anuruddha, the work is indeed endless. No end to the work is apparent. Even when our fathers and grandfathers died the work did not cease.”

“Well then,” decided Anuruddha, “you know about the duties of the household life. I will go forth from home into homelessness.”[1]

Thus it was by perceiving the endlessness of the tasks we have in this world that Anuruddha was persuaded to follow the teaching which leads to “laying down the burden” (e.g. M. 112: iii,30) — pity Sisyphus he had not the opportunity!

If we are condemned, one and all, to a life of tasks without cease, Camus asks (for like Sisyphus he too, it seems, knew nothing of “laying down the burden”), can life be regarded as worth living? And indeed he does not fear to raise the question boldly, beginning his essay with what is virtually a challenge: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” And if in the end he shrinks from his own challenge, finding in the very impossibility of man’s absurd situation the conditions he believes justify that existence, still we can forgive him, for along the way he has offered us an elucidation of that situation which allows us to see through the false hope he himself eventually seizes upon.[2] But it should be remembered that Camus wrote in the hopeful years just after World War Two, when a false (and possibly nuclear) dawn seduced many thinkers. It was not until the late 1950′s that most thinkers gave up waiting for the sunrise. Also we should not forget that for Camus despair (inlike Sisyphus’ boulder) reached its summit not when suffering was perceived as eternal but when even suffering was perceived as impermanent and therefore purposeless.

We want love to last and we know that it does not last; even if, by some miracle, it were to last a whole lifetime, it would still be incomplete. Perhaps, in this insatiable need for perpetuation, we should better understand human suffering, if we knew that it was eternal. It appears that great minds are, sometimes, less horrified by suffering than by the fact that it does not endure. In default of inexhaustible happiness, eternal suffering would at least give us a destiny. But we do not even have that consolation, and our worst agonies come to an end one day. One morning, after many dark nights of despair, an irrepressible longing to live will announce to us the fact that all is finished and that suffering has no more meaning than happiness.[3]

For this it is easy to forgive him his lapse in The Myth of Sisyphus into the hopefulness of life-long despair; and at the same time we need not accept that hope as valid. Rather, we need to explore our own being to discover the source from which spring both the despair and the hope, for it is only by seeing the sopurce that both the despair and the need to hope can be vanquished.

In this task it must be remembered that we are not like miners of gold or gems, searching for what is truly hidden, but like beings with eyes firmly shut, refusing to see what is at all times there to be seen. No digging is necessary. Here too the story of Sisyphus is relevant, for his task was always before him. He had only to look at what he was doing. But he needed to go beyond what he was doing, to an understanding of his own motivations; and here too his story is relevant, for to the Greeks even the gods were visible to he who would look at them. And whether it was Sisyphus’ gods or his demons or his judges who condemned him, they were his gods, his demons, his judges, rather than an impersonal (or, worse, abstract) force beyond his immediate knowledge (let alone his control). Could Sisyphus have but given up his commitment to a close observation of his boulder, who knows what he might have seen?

But here we go too far, for Sisyphus, unlike us, is but a myth, and for the myth to remain valid it must never overstep the boundaries that define it.

It may be that the myth of Sisyphus can be comprehended more fully by means of illustration than discussion, and perhaps, for Buddhists, even more so when the illustration sets Sisyphus within a context which would be familiar working material to the earnest Buddhist who strives to comprehend his own situation. A cycle of illustrations is offered for consideration.

I

For countless millennia Sisyphus has been assigned the task of seizing an enormous boulder, hoisting it onto his shoulders, and then, staggering under its weight, climbing up a precipitous and menacing mountain. The gods show him some kindness. From time to time they permit him to set the boulder down and to push it uphill rather than to carry it. It is this more merciful form of labour that the gods have made known to be Sisyphus’ task, for even the gods wish to be well thought of. But their mercy is limited, and Sisyphus never knows when the order will be given that he must not only again shoulder his burden but must also depart from the slight path that his passings have worn in the rock surface and to proceed instead along a more difficult and perilous way. Other times the gods seem to ignore him altogether, and he proceeds uphill with no indication that he is being watched. What would happen if at such a time he were to set down his burden and rest? What if he were to refuse to carry on? Ah, he does not dare take the risk, for the gods can be vengeful. As terrible as is his fate, it is not so terrible as having vultures snatch and peck at one’s guts and liver for all eternity, as Sisyphus knows to be the fate of Prometheus. But that’s another myth.

So Sisyphus climbs, drenched in sweat by which he is not cooled, until the mountain peak is almost attained. And as he nears it the boulder seems to take on a life of its own, to become as slippery as if it had exuded some sort of oil, to twist about beneath his fingers so that no matter how great his efforts the boulder invariably slips from Sisyphus’ grasp and rolls, crashing and bounding, down the great mountain until it is lost from his sight, such is the height from which it plunges.

Sisyphus allows himself one deep breath, no more, before he turns and starts down the hillside to begin all over again. This descent is difficult, but not so labourious as the climb, when he is burdened by his enormous boulder, and so it is for Sisyphus a kind of rest — provided, of course, that in his weariness he doesn’t slip and fall (or do the gods trip him up? he doesn’t know), and plunge head over heels, cut and bleeding, to the bottom. This has happened. Somehow he survives these falls. But whether he clambers down or falls, as soon as he reaches the bottom he at once picks up his rock — invariably it is the first thing he lays eyes on — and at once begins his upward journey.

This time, however, as the rock slips from his grasp and with gathering momentum falls from sight, as Sisyphus takes his one deep breath and begins to trudge down the slopes, grateful for his brief though partial respite, he notices an ancient man seated beside the path. Never before, in all his labours, has Sisyphus set eyes on another human being.

“Sisyphus,” the old man cries. “I am worn with years and you are young and strong. I can barely walk, let alone manage this steep hillside. Come, pick me up, put me on your back as you do your boulder, and carry me down to the bottom.” But Sisyphus replies, “Old man, for many days I have laboured up this mountain with not a single moment’s respite, bearing my burden. Now as I return to the bottom I get a brief rest. Few men would look upon my descent as a pleasure, yet it’s the greatest and only happiness in my miserable life. How can you ask me to give it up for you, when I don’t even know who you are?” “Ah, Sisyphus,” pleads the old man, “you know what it means to bear a burden. Who but you could understand me? When you’re as aged as I am, then carrying this body is no different from carrying a boulder, except that there is no respite, no rest. Even when I sit or lie down still I am plagued by the body’s weaknesses, by its ills and pains. But when I try to climb down this steep mountain it becomes unbearable.” “I understand you, old man,” replies Sisyphus, “and I sympathise with you. But why should I bear your burden? Haven’t I burden enough of my own?” “Ah, Sisyphus,” begs the old man, “think: if only you are kind to me, then the thought of kindness will be carried to the gods and they, in their turn, will become kind to you. In my native land we call this ‘good karma’.” “I don’t know what this ‘good karma’ means, old man, but I must admit that your idea is not half bad. The gods punish me because I’ve been ruthless towards others, particularly strangers seeking hospitality. Perhaps if I am compassionate towards others the gods will reward me. If I ignore you then surely I’ll spend the rest of eternity condemned to this same terrible fate. But if I heed your plea, then, who knows? Perhaps the gods will grant me release. I’ll show mercy to you: perhaps they’ll show mercy to me. There’s little enough to lose by trying. Come. Onto my shoulders.”

And so Sisyphus carries the old man down the hill. The journey is difficult but Sisyphus succeeds. At the bottom he sets the old man on his feet. The old man blesses him, murmurs something further about ‘good karma’, and departs, soon lost to sight. Sisyphus expected to be exhausted from his burden but strangely he is not. Instead he feels a slight but fresh stirring of vigour in his body, and when he has picked up his familiar boulder — it is always the same one: he’d recognize it anywhere — he proceeds uphill with new strength in his arms, and a sure-footedness that he has never experienced before. And it happens thus that after many days of arduous climbing, when the mountain peak is near and the boulder seems to struggle to slip his grasp Sisyphus is able to resist it, though it requires all his strength; and at last, after these countless millenia, he arrives at the top.

He sets down the rock in a slight depression so that it cannot roll away, then he sits down to take the first rest he has ever enjoyed. In a nearby pond is some water with which he cools his body and quenches his enormous thirst. Beside the pond is a tree which provides him with shade. He sleeps long, and when he wakes he feels wonderful. He looks about him and marvels at how pleasant is the broad mountain peak: grass grows and deer graze. Birds sing. A delightful breeze perfectly balances the warm sun. He sits enjoying the pleasures of this sylvan paradise for some minutes before he begins to grow bored.

As boredom takes hold his mind becomes restless and casts about for things to think about. He looks at his rock — his rock — and thinks how fine a rock it is. And how perfectly it blends in with its new surroundings! He would like this moment to last forever. But, he recognizes, times change. There will be stormy days, and winter will surely come; it cannot always be like this. But — and as the idea appears in his mind like an inspiration he thinks he hears from somewhere a burst of harsh laughter, but then decides it must be an unfamiliar bird — but what if, he thinks, I were to build a shelter and to live here forever in ease and comfort, unimpeded by rain or harsh winters? But how could I build anything? I have no axe to cut down this tree, no tools for brick-making. But of course, I could make a dwelling from stone: that would be an ideal material, a material I know about. How strong a house it would be! I know just how it will look when it’s finished. And that boulder I’ve carried up here will be a perfect cornerstone. All I’d need, really, would be a few more boulders just like it. I could line them up, fill in the cracks, roof it over, and it would be perfect. And I know exactly where I can get such boulders. Indeed, I’ll do it!

And with great enthusiasm he bounds to his feet and starts down the mountain.

II

For countless millennia Sisyphus has been assigned the task of rolling a boulder up a mountain. For countless millennia he has carried out his task, muttering under his breath of the cruelty of the gods, but never so loudly that they might hear, for the gods can be vengeful. For countless millennia the boulder has grown heavier as Sisyphus has climbed higher, until finally his strength would give out. Then the slightest impediment, a mere pebble on the path, would be enough to start the boulder sliding downhill and, unable to restrain it, Sisyphus would leap out of the way, flatten himself against the surrounding rocks, and listen in dread to the roar of the boulder as it crashed and bounded downhill to the bottom. Always the crashes would grow louder and louder until Sisyphus’ head becomes filled with pain and he would swoon. And when he has recovered his senses, when he has opened his eyes to see the terrible brilliant whiteness of the ground on which he lies, he tries to understand what he has done wrong, that this time too he should have failed in his task. It could not be his strength: of that he is sure. His strength is as great as always. No, it is the boulder itself. It does not merely seem to grow heavier in contrast to waning strength; it does grow heavier in contrast to steady and inexhaustible strength. It is the law of this mountain: as boulders are pushed uphill they become heavier.

As always in these moments before he rises and trudges downhill Sisyphus tries to understand. He himself does not seem heavier at the apogee of his ascent, and lighter in the valley: the principle applies, apparently, only to stone. A plague! Is there no relief from his torments? Sisyphus sits, stands up, faces downhill. Then he realizes that as he has fallen this last time he has clutched at the ground, grasped hold of some pebbles, and all during his swoon, and even now, he holds them still in his hand. He flings them from him in disgust. Grievous enough that he has to roll boulders uphill; he certainly won’t start carrying stones downhill as well. He watches as the stones clatter away and finally come to rest against larger rocks or, a few of them, fall so far that their tattoo is no longer audible.

Sisyphus tries to understand, but the memory of the tiny resounding accent of those pebbles plucks at his mind, obscuring thought. Slowly there grows from the seeds of their patter the germ of an idea, and the idea takes shape, blossoms into possibilities until, like some huge and ancient fig tree (what he wouldn’t give for a bowlful of sweet fresh figs!) it casts its shadow upon him, a protection from the impossible sun in its azure sky. As he descends Sisyphus mulls over his idea and considers its risks and promises. Of course, it might not work. But on the other hand, it might. It is the first useful idea he has had since he began his labours — he can no longer remember back to that day when he began these toils, he only assumes that there must have been such a day.

As he continues his descent he kicks at a stone and watches with a surprising amount of satisfaction as it rolls downhill a long distance before coming to rest. And when he again comes to the stone he gives it another kick, carefully concealing from the gods the inward smile of satisfaction, not allowing it to flicker across his countenance as the stone clatters downhill.

Each time now that he pushes his boulder uphill Sisyphus does so in silence, uttering no private grumbles or curses. He performs his work impeccably, pushing the boulder as high as he possibly can, never pretending that his strength is overmatched, but pushing steadfastly until it is in fact inadequate to the growing weight of the boulder. Then as always he falls to one side in a swoon at the roar of the boulder. But now, when each time he arises from that swoon he has in his hand some pebbles, which he throws away — always downhill. And as he descends he carelessly kicks at a stone or two, and is secretly pleased. It is a formidable mountain, but Sisyphus has time, all the time in the world. It is not necessary to demolish it entirely, stone by stone: it is enough to lower it sufficiently so that the peak becomes attainable. Again, Sisyphus believes, his cunning will overmatch the gods. And over the centuries he comes to believe that his efforts are not useless: the mountain is in fact becoming smaller. There is no outward evidence for this, of course, not in a mere century or two: he realizes that his plan will take a long time to be fulfilled; but this, far from deterring him, only convinces him all the more that he must persevere. After all, his strength is as great as it ever was, is it not?, and against such strength as that even this mighty mountain, he is certain, must eventually yield.

He uses his native cunning as well as his strength. He has noticed that his usual route was becoming swept clear of loose stones and the path was becoming smoother-worn than elsewhere. In order not to attract the suspicions of the gods he has been varying his routes uphill. This last time he attempted yet another fresh route, over terrain he has never before walked. Now he has gone as high as he can, and as the din of the crashing and tumbling boulder has faded, as he wakes from his swoon, as he stealthily picks up his handful of pebbles and rises to carelessly toss them away, he notices that not far from him a strange man-like shape lies on the ground, a darkness against the bone-white stones of this mountain. He walks over to investigate. It is indeed a man. Never before in all his labours has Sisyphus set eyes on another human being.

“Sisyphus!” the man cries. “Water, I beg of you, a drop of water for a sick and thirsty man.” “Water?” marvels Sisyphus. “I wish I had some. Believe me, it’s thirsty work pushing that boulder uphill in the hot sun. But where would I get water in this wasteland? Eh? And if I’d a drop I’d have drunk it, you can believe that!” “Oh, evil day,” laments the man. “How I suffer!” “No more evil than any other day that I can see,” scoffs Sisyphus. “But why do you suffer? And why do you lie like that on the ground, befouled?” “I told you, Sisyphus, I’m ill. I’m too weak to stand. I can do nothing more than lie here even, I’m ashamed to say, in my own excrement.” And the sick man begins whimpering feebly. “Weak? Loss of health?” Sisyphus asks, for he knows nothing of these things: he knows only of strength, and strength overmatched, not of weakness, not of disease. So, haltingly, the man explains. And when he is done, “But what did you do, that you have fallen ill?” wonders Sisyphus.

“You don’t know that either?” marvels the man. “I became mortal. That is all that is needed to fall ill. Ah, but I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. The gods don’t want my tale to be told, perhaps that is why mankind doesn’t know of me. Or perhaps it’s that mankind doesn’t want to know of me, I’m not sure. I’m not even sure that those two things are different.” And finding some last reserve of strength the sick man half sits up, leaning on his elbows, as he tells Sisyphus his tale.

“At any rate, my name is Purissa, and like you I offended the gods of my country, who condemned me to a cruel and eternal fate. As a mortal I was a drunkard, and so much given was I to drunkenness that one day, besotted I admit, I drank the sacrificial wine that had been sat aside for the gods. I don’t even remember doing it, I’m sure at the time I didn’t know what I was doing, but no matter: as a punishment the gods set me the task of tending their own vineyards, of harvesting their grapes, of producing their wines, and of never having a drop for myself. It was no good trying to steal: as soon as a drop of wine touched my lips it turned to harsh acid and burned my mouth, and my throat and guts as well, if I dared to swallow any. In my cups I’d used to claim that a life without wine would be no life of mine, and now there I was — me, the greatest drunkard of my age — condemned to an eternity of sobriety. How I despaired! Ah, but in my sobriety I grew clever, and devised a plan — as if one can fool the gods. I fermented a brew that was much stronger than usual, and then I declared it a vintage harvest. Oh, the gods celebrated, and how drunk they became! And while they lay in a stupour I managed to flee from their watch, and escaped after many adventures from that land, crossing into regions where there were different gods, eventually wandering into this accursed country.

“Sobriety has improved my memory, Sisyphus, as drunkenness had confused it, and yet in my sobriety I had forgotten just one thing, and it was this: when I had been taken by the gods for special punishment I was made an immortal. As terrible as was the tasks they set me, still I became accustomed to the state of immortality: I could not age, I could not sicken, I could not die. But when I escaped the gods I also escaped that state. Upon leaving that land I became mortal again, and now again I suffer hunger, I suffer thirst, when I am with other mortals I suffer their cruelty and abuses — for in their own pain they don’t realize how they can hurt others — and when I am alone, why, then I suffer terrible loneliness. Whatever ills may befall immortals, loneliness is one they are spared. Now my body has become weak and frail, my strength ebbs, my health wanes, one foot is already in the grave, and as I linger I suffer the many agonies of the flesh. And you, don’t you ever remember the days before you were made legendary, when you too suffered in such wise? No, of course not: I forgot. You cannot even remember that state, just as mortals can never understand the godlike state. (However, I have heard it said that even the gods are not truly immortal, only very long-lived, so that to humans they only seem immortal. Perhaps gods merely fancy themselves immortal: in this they would hardly be different from most humans, who live their lives as if they were never going to die. But I’m no sage, only an old ex-drunk, and cannot say what is the truth in this matter.) Anyway, Sisyphus, such is my fate. I shall die soon, and who can say what will then become of me? I fear it, I admit, and wish now I had never been so clever as to deceive the gods of my country. In my native land we call this ‘bad karma’. Now my life is without harmony, and this destroys the harmony of my body. I wish I could find my way back to my country, I would beg the gods to forgive me and let me tend their vineyards again, and would never dream of a drop for myself, but I fear it’s too late for that. Wine? Oh, for a drink merely of water. Beware, Sisyphus, that you do not by your own cunning lose your immortality, as I have. Beware of too much cleverness. Only when it is too late will you know what it is you have lost. I can say no more!”

And Purissa fell back to the ground and lay there moaning, his face contorted with pain. Sisyphus could do nothing for him, so he left him there. It didn’t pay to mix in the affairs of mortals, for they were a strange and unpredictable lot with incomprehensible problems and hopes.

He walked down the mountainside thinking deeply on what Purissa had told him. If this, his mountain, were to become diminished, would it follow that his own strength would be correspondingly diminished? If so, then his efforts were in vain; they only succeeded in sapping his own strength amd perhaps even his immortality. And these last few years has he not indeed felt a slight malaise, a nearly-imperceptible slackening of vigour? Perhaps: he cannot be sure. And if his efforts are not in vain, then was he not trying to outwit the gods in the same manner as Purissa? And could his fate, then, be different? To tamper with his immortality was a risky business, there were many ways in which it could be destroyed. But what sort of immortality was it, he wondered, that was so tenuous as to depend on, say, a mere mountain? And what risk he had been putting himself to by his foolish conduct! He gazed up at the mountain, and gauged both its height and its vulnerability, and by the time he reached the bottom he understood what needed to be done. There was his boulder, waiting for him. But before setting his boulder to it Sisyphus bent down, picked up a handful of pebbles, and tucked them into his fist. After he had reached the highest point of his climb he would fling the pebbles uphill as far as he could. It would take him a long time, he knew, but inch by inch over the ages he would make the mountain higher. A long time, yes, but time was what he had the most of.

Footnotes:

1. The translation is adapted from I.B. Horner’s The Book of the Discipline (London: Pali Text Society). [Back to text]

2. Lest there be misunderstanding, it should be said most emphatically here and now that this does not imply that suicide is either commended or recommended. Life is absurd; life is an impossible series of projects which serve no genuine purpose other than to perpetuate themselves; but even so this is not reason for suicide. One does not have to be in love with life in order to shrink from death. What the human condition is reason for is to understand that very condition, and thereby to end not life but absurdity. [Back to text]

3. Albert Camus: The Rebel, translated by Anthony Bower (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953), p. 227. [Back to text]


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