From Chapter One - Fabrication and Impermanence
Buddha was not a celestial being. He was a simple human. But not too simple, for he was a prince. He went by the name Siddhartha Cautama, and he enjoyed a privileged life- a beautiful palace in Kapilavastu, a loving wife and son, adoring parents, loyal subjects, lush gardens with peacocks, and a host of well-endowed courtesans. His father, Suddhodana, made sure that his every need was taken care of and his every wish fulfilled within the palace walls. For when Siddhartha was a baby, an astrologer had predicted that the prince might choose to become a hermit in his later life, and Suddhodana was determined that Siddhartha would succeed him as king. Palace life was luxurious, sheltered, and also quite peaceful. Siddhartha never quarreled with his family; in fact, he cared for them and loved them very much. He had easy relations with everyone, apart from occasional tension with one of his cousins.
As Siddhartha grew older, he became curious about his country and the world beyond. Bending to his son's pleas, the king agreed to let the prince venture beyond the palace walls on an excursion, but he gave strict instructions to the chariot driver, Channa, that the prince should be exposed only to things beautiful and wholesome. Indeed, Siddhartha very much enjoyed the mountains and the rivers and all the natural wealth of this earth. But on the way home, the two came upon a peasant who was groaning by the roadside, wracked with pain from some excruciating illness. All his life Siddhartha had been surrounded by strapping body guards and healthy ladies of the court; the sound of groans and the sight of a disease-wracked body were shocking to him. Witnessing the vulnerability of the human body impressed him deeply, and he returned to the palace with a heavy heart.
As time passed, the prince seemingly returned to normal, but he longed to make another journey. Again Suddhodana reluctantly agreed. This time Siddhartha saw a toothless old crone hobbling along, and he immediately ordered Channa to stop.
He asked his driver, "Why is this person walking so?"
"She's old, my lord," said Channa.
"What is 'old'?" asked Siddhartha.
"The elements of her body have been used and worn out over a long time," said Channa. Shaken by this spectacle, Siddhartha let Channa drive him home.
Now Siddhartha's curiosity could not be abated-what else was out there? So off he and Channa went on a third journey. Again he enjoyed the beauty of the region, the mountains and the streams. But as they were returning home, they came upon four pallbearers carrying a flat, lifeless body on a palanquin. Siddhartha had never in his life seen such a thing. Channa explained that the frail body was actually dead.
Siddhartha asked, "Will death come to others?"
Channa answered, "Yes, my lord, it will come to all."
"To my father? Even to my son?"
"Yes, to everyone. Whether you are rich or poor, high caste or low, you cannot escape death. It is the fate of all who are born on this earth."
Upon first hearing the story of the dawn of Siddhartha's realization, we might think that he was remarkably unsophisticated.
It seems strange to hear of a prince, raised to lead an entire kingdom, asking such simplistic questions. But we are the ones who are naive. In this information age we are surrounded by images of decay and death-beheadings, bulifights, bloody murder. Far from reminding us of our own fate, these images are used for entertainment and profit. Death has become a consumer product.
Most of us do not contemplate the nature of death on a deep level. We don't acknowledge that our bodies and environment are made up of unstable elements that can fall apart with even the slightest provocation. Of course we know that one day we will die. But most of us, unless we have been diagnosed with a terminal illness, think that we are in the clear for the time being. On the rare occasion that we think about death, we wonder, How much will I inherit? or Where will they scatter my ashes? In that sense we are unsophisticated.
After his third journey, Siddhartha became genuinely despondent over his powerlessness to protect his subjects, his parents, and most of all his beloved wife, Yashodhara, and son, Rahula, from unavoidable death. He had the means to prevent such miseries as poverty hunger, and homelessness, but he could not shield them from old age and death. As he became consumed with these thoughts, Siddhartha attempted to discuss mortality with his father. The king was understandably puzzled that the prince was so caught up with what he regarded as a theoretical dilemma. Suddhodana was also increasingly worried that his son would fulfill the prophecy and choose the path of asceticism instead of taking his place as the rightful heir to the kingdom. In those days it was not unheard of for privileged and wealthy Hindus to become ascetics. Suddhodana outwardly tried to dismiss Siddhartha's fixation, but he had not forgotten the prophecy.
This was not a passing melancholic reflection. Siddhartha was obsessed. To prevent the prince from sinking deeper into his depression, Suddhodana told him not to leave the palace again, and secretly instructed the royal attendants to keep close watch on his son. In the meantime, like any concerned father, he did everything he could to make things right by concealing further evidence of death and decay from the prince's view
BABY RATTLES AND OTHER DISTRACTIONS
In many ways we are all like Suddhodana. In our everyday lives we have this impulse to shield ourselves and others from the truth. We've become impervious to obvious signs of decay. We encourage ourselves by "not dwelling on it" and by employing positive affirmations. We celebrate our birthdays by blowing out candles, ignoring the fact that the extinguished candles could equally be seen as a reminder that we are a year closer to death. We celebrate the New Year with firecrackers and champagne, distracting ourselves from the fact that the old year will never come back and the new year is filled with uncertainty-anything can happen.
When that "anything" is displeasing, we deliberately divert our attention, like a mother distracting a child with rattles and toys. If we feel down, we go shopping, we treat ourselves, we go to the cinema. We build fantasies and aim for lifetime achievements-beach houses, plaques and trophies, early retirement, nice cars, good friends and family, fame, making it into The GuM-ness Book of WorLd Records. Later in life we want a devoted cornpanion with whom we can take a cruise or raise purebred poodles. Magazines and television introduce and reinforce such models of happiness and success, ever inventing new illusions to trap us. These notions of success are our grown-up baby rattles. Hardly anything we do in the course of a day-neither in our thoughts nor in our actions-indicates that we are aware of how fragile life is. We spend our time doing things like waiting at the multiplex for a bad movie to start. Or rushing home to watch reality TV. As we sit watching commercials, waiting. . . our time in this life ebbs away.
A rare glimpse of old age and death was enough to instill in Siddhartha a longing to be exposed to the truth in its entirety After his third journey, he tried several times to leave the palace on his own, but always in vain. Then one remarkable night, after the usual evening of feasting and revelry, a mysterious spell swept through the court, overpowering all but Siddhartha. He wandered the halls and found that everyone, from King Suddhodana to the lowliest servants, had fallen into a deep sleep. Buddhists believe that this collective somnolence was due to the collective merit of all humans, because it was the inciting event that led to the creation of a great being.
Without the need to please the royals, the slack-jawed courtesans snored, their limbs akimbo, their jeweled fingers dropped in their curries. Like crushed flowers, they had lost their beauty Siddhartha did not rush to make order as we might have done; this sight only strengthened his determination. The loss of their beauty was just more evidence of impermanence. As they slumbered, the prince was finally able to take his leave unobserved. With one last look at Yashodhara and Rahula, he crept out into the night.
In many ways we are like Siddhartha. We may not be princes with peacocks, but we do have careers and house cats and countless responsibilities. We have our own palaces-one-room apartments in the slums, split-levels in the suburbs, or penthouses in Paris-and our own Yashodharas and Rahulas. And things go awry all the time. Appliances break, the neighbors argue, the roof leaks. Our loved ones die; or maybe they just look like death in the morning before they wake up, their jaws as slack as those of Siddhartha's courtesans. Maybe they smell like stale cigarettes or last night's garlic sauce. They nag us, and they chew with their mouths open. Yet we are stuck there willingly, we don't try to escape. Or if we do get fed up and think, Enough is enough, we may leave a relationship, only to start all over again with another person. We never grow weary of this cycle because we have hope and belief that the perfect soul mate or a flawless Shangri-la is out there waiting for us. When faced with daily irritations, our reflex is to think that we can make it right: this is all fixable, teeth are brushable, we can feel whole.
Maybe we also think that some day we will have gained perfect maturity from the lessons of our lives. We expect to be wise old sages like Yoda, not realizing that maturity is just another aspect of decay. Subconsciously we are lured by the expectation that we will reach a stage where we don't have to fix anything ever again. One day we will reach "happily ever after." We are convinced of the notion of "resolution." It's as if everything that we've experienced up until now, our whole lives to this moment, was a dress rehearsal. We believe our grand performance is yet to come, so we do not live for today.
For most people this endless managing, rearranging, upgrading is the definition of "living." In reality, we are waiting for life to start. When prodded, most of us admit that we are working toward some future moment of perfection-retirement in a log cabin in Kennebunkport or in a hut in Costa Rica. Or maybe we dream of living out our later years in the idealized forest landscape of a Chinese painting, serenely meditating in a teahouse overlooking a waterfall and koi pond.
We also have a tendency to think that after we die, the world will go on. The same sun will shine and the same planets will rotate just as we think they have done since time began. Our children will inherit the earth. This shows how ignorant we are of the persistent shifting of this world and all phenomena. Children don't always outlive parents, and while they are alive they don't necessarily conform to our ideal. Your sweet little well-behaved kids can grow up into cocaine-snorting thugs who bring home all kinds of lovers. The straightest parents in the world produce some of the most flamboyant homosexuals, just as some of the most laid-back hippies end up with neoconservative children. Yet we still cling to the archetype of the family and the dream of having our bloodlines, jaw lines, surnames, and traditions carried on through our progeny.