The memorial plaque on the monument at Thermopylae bears a simple epitaph: “Come and get them!” That was the Spartan response when Persians asked them to put down their weapons. As the great historian Herodotus recorded later, “Three hundred foemen did contend against thousand four!”
All the 300 Greek defenders were killed in the mountain pass, but they delayed the Persians for long enough to allow the Greek army to reform at the Isthmus of Corianth and win at Plateau.
The Athenian navy also used the delay to inflict a stinging defeat on the Persians at the Battle of Salamis, effectively ending the invasion led by the emperor Xerxes.
The last words of Leonidas, King of Sparta who led the doomed force (‘Go tell the Spartans that here we lie, obedient to their commands.’) are particularly poignant, says Terry Breverton in his magisterial history, Immortal Last Words: “They are a ‘keepsake’ for future generations, but also our last chance to express how we see ourselves, our lives, the world around us and what really matters when the inevitable happens.”
By that token, the Buddha’s last words, cited at the beginning of the book, are exemplary in their enlightened objectivity and universal compassion. “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence,” the Buddha said to his attendants at Kusinara as he reclined on his death-bed.
According to the Mahayana Vimalakirti Sutra, the Buddha ‘pretended to be ill’ to demonstrate the impermanence and pain of the defiled world, thereby encouraging his followers to strive for Nirvana.
Former Beetle George Harrison’s 1970 song echoes the sentiment in his ‘All things must pass’ lyric. It drew inspiration from Buddhist insights and teachings.
Despite its seemingly pessimistic title, Harrison’s song strikes a positive chord. “Now the darkness stays the night-time,” he assures his listeners in his last verse. “In the morning it (night) will fade away. /Daylight is good at arriving at the right time. / It’s not always going to be that grey.” But very often one is afraid to trust that sentiment.
The alternative, wallowing in feckless self-pity, is equally unacceptable. For as the activistpoet Marianne Williamson says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us.”
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