I have read and listened to the story of Buddha’s life many times but I heard it today in a new way. The part that caught my attention was at the very beginning when his father, the King, shields him from seeing any of the sadness or tragedy of life. When Siddhartha, as he was then called, escapes the palace and encounters for the first time illness, old age and death he is profoundly moved and troubled. Ultimately it is this experience that sets him on his journey.
When I listened to this story before I was always rather skeptical. How could anyone not know about illness, old age and death? How could anyone be so sheltered as to be unaware of these most basic processes of life? But today the story sounded more plausible to me.
How many of us actually admit the reality of aging, illness and death? Do we not put our trust in the powers of medical science to postpone the appearance, if not eliminate the existence of, these predators? Do we not believe that in a few years there will be a cure for cancer, for heart disease, for all of the many debilitating and fatal diseases from which we now suffer? Isn’t it just a matter of time before there is a pill, a vaccine, a transplant, a stem cell that will extend our lives far into the future – if not indefinitely. Do we not believe that good diet, exercise and skilled surgery can capture and maintain the beauty of youth? Are we not gods in the making?
How many of us can look on our aging bodies without dismay, perhaps sorrow, perhaps fear? How many of us can embrace the softness of age and see within its frailty something to be honored rather than spurned? How many of us can bear illness with dignity and acceptance rather than rail against the present and fear the future? How many of us visit the sick and dying? How many have sat vigil at the deathbed of another and closed the eyes of the departed? Do we put our cemeteries in our towns or banish them to the unseen perimeters?
We have a culture that fears illness, old age and death. In reality, we are in the same situation of Siddhartha. If we saw the truth of life, its brevity, its poignancy, its tragic beauty, we certainly would live differently. How could we not? Wouldn’t this realization help us to be gentler with each other? Wouldn’t we spend more time with our children and loved ones? Take more walks, watch more sunsets, hold more hands, pet more animals? Wouldn’t we spend our time experiencing life rather than playing in virtual realities? Wouldn’t we be kinder to ourselves and others?
So the story of Buddha is not as foreign and exotic as I have always thought. We are all asleep as he was; all sheltered by our parental culture from acknowledging our precarious and precious existence. Can we wake up to our own mortality? Can we explore the possibility that this life is limited but there may be more? Can we live with the deep questions rather than subsist on shallow answers?