Tuesday, September 25, 2018

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Posted on 6/29/2015 by Trish O' Sullivan in luxury consumerism distraction craving

The story of the Buddha leaving the palace 2500 years ago is surprisingly relevant to us today.

I was up next to give a dharma talk at my zen center and was searching for a topic.   Many dharma talkers use a story usually about a famous Chinese or Japanese zen master and build a talk around it.   I was looking for a story and kept thinking about Prince Siddhartha leaving the palace and beginning his life as a forest ascetic.   Living in the “new” New York City where, instead of young talented outsiders coming here to live among other like-minded individualists, most coming here now are insiders having already attained success or have family wealth to afford the sky high rents and condo prices, I was acutely aware of the ongoing changes to the neighborhood and the city.     We long-term residents often wonder to each other, “where does all of this money come from?”   So with luxury on my mind I thought of the future buddha turning his back on a life that so many strive for and decided to explore that further.

This story goes back to the very beginning of Buddhism.  Prince Siddhartha Gautauma was born in the fifth or sixth century BCE in what is now Nepal but was then Northern India.   His father,  King Suddodana, was overjoyed when he was born and had big plans for him taking over the throne one day. 

As the story goes, it was predicted by a brahman seer at the time of the prince’s birth that he would grow up to become either a great king with a vast empire or, if he left the palace, a holy man and great teacher.

The king, determined to control the prince’s future, forbade him any exposure to spiritual instruction or ideals. As the young prince grew up, the king grew restless about the prediction and called in additional seers.  They told the king that if the prince saw four signs--an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a forest monk-- he would leave the palace.

The king sprung into action, removing all signs of age, sickness and death from the palace.  It is said that even wilting flowers and withered leaves were quickly removed from the garden.  

The prince was showered with gifts, provided constant entertainment—games, dancers,jugglers, musicians, and singers.  Only the best food and drink and the best of everything.  Thus the king hoped to keep him ensnared in the lap of luxury.   He had his pick of beautiful young women, married and had a child. 

Here the story varies:   One version goes, at age twenty-nine he became curious about the world outside the walls of the palace, snuck out with his attendant and came upon an old person, a sick person, a corpse and a traveling holy man. The "Four Signs". He then and there in his shock decided he must find an answer to this suffering and soon escaped from the palace and joined some forest monks, trying different ascetic practices until he decided that “the middle way” was best and sat in meditation under a tree until he become enlightened.  He then spent the rest of his life teaching.  His wife and son later joining him and becoming disciples.

Another version, states that it wasn’t just curiosity that moved him to sneak out of the palace and then leave but it was that, in spite of all of the luxury, he felt there was something missing—he had an ”is that all there is” moment.  Was his life only about luxury, feasts and merry-making? Where was the meaning?  This version then continues as the first until he becomes enlightened and embarks on his teaching journey. 

This story has all of the trappings of a fairy tale—a king, a prince, and lessons about life.   As with many fairy tales, there are some gaping holes in it.  First, his mother, Queen Maya died 7 days after he was born so he already knows suffering and death.   Where were his grandparents?  Surely they were either dead or old.  Twenty-nine is also a little late to become curious about the world.   So I wasn’t so happy about this version of the story—I like the one about “money can’t make you happy” better.  I realized in working on my talk, that the embellishment of the Buddha’s life story is designed to highight certain points about his own teachings. 

Great fairy tales are layered and timeless and if we look at this fairy tale-like biography we can see how it applies to our lives today over 2500 years later.  When I first heard this story I thought that not many of us can relate as we are not born into royalty and don’t have to make a choice like he did—to chose truth over riches and vast power.    However, when we look closely we see the king and his court all around us.  Our culture worships money, status and power. It raises up consumerism and competition and snares us with ubiquitous distractions and entertainment.    

What we face on a daily basis is like the king’s court on steroids. Never before have so many sources of entertainment and distraction been constantly available.   Way more than the prince had to handle.

Yet we find that even with all of this there is still something missing. Jonathan Franken, in a New Yorker article speaks to this:

“and boredom is what I was suffering from.  The more you pursue distractions, the less effective any particular distraction is, and so I’d had to up various dosages, until, before I knew it, I was checking my email every ten minutes, and my plugs of tobacco were getting ever larger, and my two drinks a night had worsened to four, and I’d achieved such deep mastery of computer solitaire that my goal was no longer to win a game but to win two or more games in a row—a kind of meta-solitaire whose fascination consisted not in laying the cards but in surfing the streaks of wins and losses.”  Farther Away in The New Yorker, April 18, 2011.

Our deepest desires are never met by possessions, entertainment or distractions.  The marketers know that the latest hot thing quickly cools once we have it, so they drive us to constantly seek more and more.   

The Buddha saw through all of this and said, there must be something more to life. 

There is another big teaching in this story.  He left his family behind, at least initially.  With many fairy tales, you find the prince or princess and live happily every after but this story is different.  Many think I will find a relationship, have children and then I will have a family and I will be happy.   There is a lot to be said for family and it is very important. What the Buddha sought though is not found in family life alone and this is a very important point. It doesn't mean that we need to leave our family but we need to understand that we are not going to find ultimate satisfaction there alone.    

What the Buddha realized while meditating under the tree is that suffering is caused by craving for things outside of ourselves—wanting what we don’t have and rejecting what we don’t want—such as old age, suffering and death.     

We also carry the king and the palace within us.  Our craving mind is always trying to stay in power.   Our inner king’s "opposites thinking" style is all over this story:

•Emperor vs homeless wanderer

•Striving vs letting go

•I like; I don’t like

•Meaning; meaninglessness

•Life; death

•Young; old

•Pleasure; pain

•Inside; outside

•Stay; leave

•Sickness; health

We see that the way to leave the palace is to not engage with our inner king and his opposites thinking style.  The part of our mind that wants to trap us in entertainment and distraction, diligently trying to control our happiness by striving for the pleasant and avoiding the unpleasant.

So this story relates to all of us here and now.  We can ask ourselves, what part of me hasn’t given up on the palace completely and where in my life does that manifest? (Excuse me while I check my lottery ticket numbers—be right back). 

We find ourselves in the same position that Buddha found himself in.  How do we handle it?  We don’t need to rediscover the path that leads to meaning and self-realization—the Buddha found that for us.  We just need to follow it. we leave the palace everytime we sit to meditate, see our craving mind clearly or engage completely with the moment in our daily life. 

We can ask ourselves: Where am I on this path?  Am I sitting by the sidelines, am I standing at the beginning, am I walking slowly or moving right along?   I invite you to look closer at the Four Noble Truths expounded by Buddha over 2500 years ago:

–That life is full of suffering

–That the cause of this suffering is craving for things outside of ourselves

–That we can relieve ourselves of this suffering by putting an end to craving

–We can do this by following the Noble Eightfold Path—right view; right intention; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness and right meditation. 

So the Buddhist path isn’t so esoteric—it is quite simple.  We need to disengage from our craving mind and opposites thinking.  We come together in a sangha to help each other watch our minds and keep our inner king in check.  We find that it is not always so easy and that it takes strong meditation practice.  A practice tool in my sangha is “put it all down.” When we “put it all down” and are fully present the palace disappears; the king disappears; coming and going disappear; life and death disappear; the path disappears and even Buddha disappears. Insiders and outsiders and “old and new” New York disappears and the “I like “and “I don’t like” that go with that disappears too and you find your true home.   There is just “the Bronx is up and the Battery is down.”  

Copyright 2012 by Trish O' Sullivan