Buddhism is a child of India. It was born in the form of Prince Siddhartha. It was also born out of desperation, because the Vedic system had become a prison, encapsulating every living being in a fixed and unchangeable form. You are born a beggar, so you will be a beggar until you die and then are reborn as a gnat.
So the great achievement of Buddhism was this: humans can change.
The prince himself was changed numerous times and every time this change brought him great pain. He went out of the palace of his parents, a pampered youth, somebody who believes the world is at his feet or in the palm of his hand. Up until this day he had known nothing but riches, three lavish meals a day, soft clothes and the beauty or anger of his own thoughts. This image is most of us, who have not seen suffering or have never been forced to change…we live in a prison of our own thoughts, beautiful and frightening mirages that we take to be our lives.
The first time the prince went out he saw a beggar. What did he do? Probably ignored him or did not know what to do with the man clutching his hand with such a hard grip until some attendant shooed him away, kicked him maybe, berated him or gave him a coin to get rid of him. But he couldn’t understand. Weren’t all people rich and well-fed? The gaunt and hungry face and the burning eyes of the man followed the prince deep into his own dreams. He felt unwell until he understood that he had begun to accept the beggar’s suffering. He had taken it into himself. This could be us, if we begin to accept what we don’t want to accept. We will suffer, yes, but this is simply change.
The second time the prince went out he brought coins with him and distributed them to the beggars. Then he saw a woman with sores, gruesome wet and slimy-looking wounds over her legs. She refused his coins, just looked at him with eyes full of pride and pain. So again the prince returned and again his dreams were troubling and painful. He looked at the bodies of those around him and saw on them those wounds, blooming like the most frightening of flowers. They came out of nowhere and caused such great pain. He went to the palace doctors, obsessively so, and had himself checked over and over again and took pills and tinctures with him. This could also be us, if we accept suffering but become afraid of it.
The third time the prince went out he had with him coins and medicine and was awfully nervous and fussy, making his caravan stop anytime he saw someone malnourished or pale so he could give and give in order to feel better. On this trip he came across something that would frighten him very badly: a woman holding a bundle. He went up to her, inquiring whether he could help her and her child and he saw the empty face of the woman and realized that the child she clung to was no longer living. He hurried away, full of fear, but this was one fear that he simply could not conquer by fussing about it or by changing himself to accommodate it. Gradually he lost all interest in the beautiful pastimes of the court, stopped smiling at the young women who visited him to talk to him or hear him recite poetry and lost himself in gloomy, pensive moods. This is us, if we get lost in what we call today a depression.
The prince realized that would have to change something else. Not the clothes he wore, not the words he said, not the things he ate. No fasting and no gluttony would help him, no drugs and no medicine. He would have to change himself, be a prince no longer. So one morning he left his name behind the way other people leave a finished book on the bedside table.
He left the woman who was his wife behind, too, and that is something many women rightfully complain about. Couldn’t he have explained himself to her? Maybe she would have understood. Maybe she would have come with him. At least she would have deserved a choice.
Her name, by the way, was Yashodhara. But this is as it is. He did not give her that choice. He also left his son behind and that, perhaps, is damning, but it is what he did. Could Siddhartha have become Buddha if he had gone with his family or would he have had to give up his quest in order to take up a plow or learn a trade to feed the two?
I wonder what a woman would actually say to this…Yashodhara, in her material situation, probably wouldn’t have been too bad off. The son, especially if he was fond of his father, might have been a problem, but she could have lived a comfortable life even without Siddhartha. I wonder as well if women consider all that talk about giving up your desires about as silly as they consider men’s talk about going to war and about honour.
Perhaps his mother and wife got together after he left and talked about how silly he was just to comfort each other…of course this wouldn’t bring him back, so eventually they would have to reconcile themselves somehow.
Anyway, what was his quest? This quest that drove him from all comforts his world offered to him? What made him give up food and sex and warmth?
To understand life and death. To understand change. To understand now and forever.
Is that a worthwhile trade? Perhaps…perhaps not. After all the ultimate fates of a man who chooses a life at home with his family and the man who remains alone in order to gain understanding don’t differ too much.
Whatever you or I may think, Siddhartha – although he was no longer Siddhartha, but just some guy named either Nobody or That One, depending on whom you believe – chose that lonely path and went into the woods to meditate.
Meditation back then meant a lot of physical self abuse. Punch nails through your tongue, eat dirt, hang on one limb from a tree. The same stuff that an old one-eyed wanderer did in Europe’s North when he hung himself from the ash tree. Denial of the body – asceticism.
So That One lost a lot of weight until not even his wife and mother could have told the difference between him and a skeleton. He also gained a lot of scars. But he was none the wiser for it.
After a few years of that he decided to start eating rice again and he found that he genuinely liked it. He could have eaten a hundred bowls, but he moderated himself. He realized that if he stopped doing something he liked at a certain point the enjoyment didn’t overtake him completely, nor did it disappear entirely. That was something to remember.
He made himself a robe of old linen that was given to him by a petitioner and wore it comfortably. He clumsily carved himself a bowl and ate from it. After all this self-torture and constant pain such small things seemed an inestimable comfort to him.
Some people say he was fasting and meditating for fifty days, but really it came quite suddenly to him. He had found a tree that he liked and sat underneath it and rested for a bit.
Actually he had given up meditation by this point or – as more romantic souls say – everything had become meditation to him.
Very dimly he remembered a wife and a son, a young man who would by now have become a prince and he felt at peace.
The animals speaking to him? Now that’s a tricky bit. Just like St. Francis…are they meant to represent something, perhaps the lower urges of men that he had learned to curb? Or are they actually animals because he has become so silent that he now understands the speech of all things?
So under that tree a curious thing happened to him. He hadn’t fallen asleep yet – and he really liked to sleep because he was becoming older – but all of a sudden he woke up. How strange that was. He knew so many things he didn’t know and contrariwise there were so many things he had thought he knew that he actually had no clue about.
He had finally changed and That One became Buddha – the Awakened One.
In his heart perhaps he preferred to be That One or No One, but now there were so many things to do and the world was so full of people that he got up from underneath the tree and started walking again, trusting his feet to know the way, his tongue to know the words and his eyes to see what was truly there.