Religion & Philosophy

Sundays with Uncle-God Momma: life is suffering

foursightThere are many renditions of Siddhartha Gautama’s life story and his becoming “The Buddha”. None of them are contemporary to his life, and all contain the motivations of their various authors as much as they detail Gautama’s path to enlightenment. Joseph Campbell chose the version penned by Ashvaghosha (c. 100 A.D.) for inclusion in The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology. I favor this version for the same reasons as Campbell, because it “…also devotes more precise attention than the Pali text to the crises of the intellectual search that preceded the finding of the Middle Way.” It is crisis of the intellect, or psychology, that provokes the mystic to search for answers to life’s great questions. The search, as it happened with Gautama, leads away from society and to the internal where the eternal resides.

We will pick up the story at the moment when Gautama’s father knew the danger to be greatest. His son had mastered the arts of his society, married and given birth to a son. In short, his duties had been fulfilled. The danger was that he would turn away from the plenty and pleasure of the princely life. Gautama’s father had kept his son from the practice of religion, afraid that it would propel him to the forest.

The Four Signs

And so, on a certain day when the lotus ponds were adorned and the forests carpeted with tender grass, having heard of the beauty of the city groves beloved of women, the Bodhisattva resolved to go forth, like an elephant long shut up in its barn. And the king, having learned of the wish of his son, ordered a pleasure party prepared, with extreme precautions taken that no afflicted person should appear along the way to unsettle his son’s protected mind.

In a golden chariot, with a worthy retinue, and on a road heaped with strewn flowers, the prince set forth, drawn by four gentle horses; and when the word went out ahead of him, “The prince is coming forth,” the women, having obtained the permission of their husbands, hastened to the roofs, frightening the flocks of birds among the rooftops with the jingling of their girdles and anklets resounding up the stairs. . . .

The gods, however, in their pure abodes, having recognized the moment sent forth an old man to walk along the road.

The prince beheld him.

The prince addressed his charioteer.

“Who is that man there with the white hair, feeble hand gripping a staff, eyes lost beneath his brows, limbs bent and hanging loose? Has something happened to alter him, or is that his natural state?”

“That is old age,” said the charioteer, “the ravisher of beauty, the ruin of vigor, the cause of sorrow, destroyer of delights, the bane of memories and the enemy of the senses. In his childhood, that one too drank milk and learned to creep along the floor, came step by step to vigorous youth, and he has now, step by step, in the same way, gone on to old age.”

The charioteer thus revealed in his simplicity what was to have been hidden from the king’s son, who exclaimed, “What! And will this evil come to me too?”

“Without doubt, by the force of time,” said the charioteer.

And the great-souled one whose mind, through many lives, had become possessed of a store of merits, was agitated when he heard of old age–like a bull who has heard close by the crash of a thunderbolt. He asked to be driven home.

A second day, another outing; and the gods sent a man afflicted by disease.

The prince said, “Yonder man, pale and thin, with swollen belly, heavily breathing, arms and shoulders hanging loose and his whole frame shaking, uttering plaintively the word ‘mother’ when he embraces there a stranger: who is that?”

“My gentle lord,” said the chrioteer, “that is disease.”

“And is this evil peculiar to him, or are all beings alike threatened by disease?”

“It is an evil common to all,” said the charioteer.

And a second time the prince, trembling, desired to be driven home.

There came a third time, another outing, and the deities sent forth a dead man.

Said the prince, “But what is that, borne along there by four men, adorned but no longer breathing, and with a following of mourners?”

The charioteer, having his pure mind overpowered by the gods, told the truth. “This, my gentle lord,” he said, “is the final end of all living beings.”

Said the youth, “How can a rational being, knowing these things, remaing heedless here in the hour of calamity? Turn back our chariot, charioteer. This is no time or place for pleasure.”

The driver, this time, however, in obedience to the youth’s father, continued to the festival of women in the groves. And the young prince, arriving, was met as a bridegroom. Some thought of him as the god of love himself incarnate; others thought of him as the moon. Many were so smitten they simply gaped as if to swallow him. And the son of the family priest urging all to make use of their charms, their souls were carried away by love. . . . But that best of youths, there wandering like an elephant of the forest accompanied by his female herd, only pondered in his agitated mind: “Do these women not know that old age one day will take away their beauty? Not observing disease, they are joyous here in a world of pain. And, to judge from the way they are laughing at their play, they know nothing at all of death.”

The party returned to the palace with broken hopes.

He was riding his white steed, Kanthaka, across a field that was being plowed, when he saw its young grass not only torn and scattered, but also covered with the eggs and young of insects, killed. Then filled with a deep sorrow, as for his own kindred slaughtered, he alighted from his horse, going over the ground slowly, pondering birth and destruction, musing, “Pitiable, indeed!” And, desiring to be alone, he went apart, to sit at the foot of a rose apple tree in a solitary spot, on the leaf-covered ground. Pondering the origin of the world and destruction of the world, he laid hold there of the path to firmness of mind. And released therewith from all such sorrows as attach to desire for the objects of the world, he attained the first stage of contemplation. He was calm, and full of thought.

Whereupon he saw standing before him an ascetic mendicant. “What art thou?” he asked. To which the other answered, “Terrified by birth and death, desiring liberation, I became an ascetic. As a beggar, wandering without family and without hope, accepting any fare, I live now for nothing but the highest good.” Whereupon he rose into the sky and disappeared; for he had been a god.

The Graveyard Vision

The prince, returning home, went to his father in the full assembly of the court, and, prostrating himself, hands joined above his head, said to him, “O Lord of Men, I want to become an ascetic mendicant.” But the king, shaken like a tree struck by an elephant, gripped the joined hands of his son and said to him, choked with tears, “O my son, keep back this thought. It is not time for you to be turning to religion. During the first period of life the mind is fickle and the practice of religion full of danger.” The prince looked up and answered sharply, “Father, it is not right to lay hold of a person about to escape from a house that is on fire.” And he rose and returned to his palace, where he was greeted by his wives. But the king said, “He shall not go!”

The prince, in his palace, sat on a seat of gold, surrounded by those charming women, who desired nothing but to please him with their music. And the gods threw on them a spell, so that as they played they dropped off to sleep with their instruments falling from their hands. One lay with her drum as with a lover. Another, hair disheveled, skirts and ornaments in disarray, was like a woman crushed by an elephant and then dropped. Many were noisily breathing; others, bright eyes wide and motionless, lay as dead. One with her person exposed, with fully developed limbs, drooled saliva as though intoxicated. And all, with their garments variously astray, were lost to shame and helpless, who had before been possessed of all grace. They were like a lake of lotuses broken by a wind.

The prince considered. “Such is the nature of women: impure and monstrous in the world of living beings! Deceived by dress, a man becomes infatuated by their charms. But let him regard their natural state, this change produced in them by sleep!”

And he rose, with a will only to escape into the night.*

The first noble truth of Buddhism is, “Life is suffering.” Suffering here does not mean “unfair treatment”. It is the simple fact that disease, old age, death and birth (and in this story, the women represent birth) are the inescapable facts of life. For a common man such as Gautama’s charioteer, they are self-evident. That they struck Gautama with such ferocity has as much to do with his father’s attempt to shield the young prince from what life really is as it does with Gautama’s innate buddhahood.

And so the young prince began the attempt to remove himself from the suffering of the world.

*The Masks of God: Oriental Mythology; Joseph Campbell; 1962; pps 259-264

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