When I worked for an organization serving older adults in Marin County, I sometimes had speaking engagements. I was then, as now, a student of Buddhism. I often opened the topic of attitudes toward aging by telling a story from the life of Buddha: Buddha was born, as we know, a prince, in Northern India. While Buddha’s mother was pregnant, there was a prophesy going around that the baby would be either a great king or a great spiritual teacher. Naturally his father wanted him to be king. In order to assure this, the king did everything possible to make the young prince feel content in his station. Siddhartha was showered with the best of everything: food, entertainment, companions. He was never allowed outside the palace walls. Everything was brought to him.
As the prince grew older, he became restless, as young men often do. He wanted to see more of the world. He had a close relationship with his charioteer, who agreed to take him beyond the palace gates. Wearing a disguise, Buddha rode out into the city that essentially belonged to him, and saw it for the first time.
If you have been to India, you know that the city streets are very different from a beautiful, tranquil garden. Some people were well dressed, others were ragged. People pushed and shoved, offered things for sale, washed themselves and their clothing at a public well, and so on. Prince Siddhartha was a bit taken aback and a little excited. He urged his charioteer to drive on. After awhile, they passed a man walking slowly with a cane. The man’s hair and beard were snow white. “Why is the man so slow?” Buddha asked his driver.
“That man is old,” answered the charioteer. “If you live a long life, that is what happens.” Soon they passed a man being carried on a stretcher. A woman walked along side, wiping his brow. The man was very thin and pale.
“What is wrong with that man?” Buddha asked his servant.
“That man is sick,” the charioteer replied. Buddha had never seen sickness. He was upset to see such suffering. Less excited and a bit troubled, he told the driver to go on. Soon another man was carried by on a stretcher, but this time the man’s face was covered as well. Instead of walking along side, the wife followed the stretcher, weeping.
“What’s wrong with that man, is he also sick?” asked Buddha.
“Sire, that man is dead,” replied the charioteer sadly. “Sooner or later, we all must die; kings or beggars, rich or poor, foreigner and citizen alike. Everyone who is born eventually dies.”
The Buddha was quite troubled by now. All this had been kept from him. “My parents – will they also die?”
“Yes, and when your father dies you will be king.”
“And, I, myself… I will die?”
Siddhartha told his driver to return to the palace. His mind and heart were troubled. So this was life. Poverty and struggle, old age, sickness and death. Life was far different from the perfumed garden in which he had been kept ignorant of the inevitable truth. Just outside the palace gate, they passed another man. Thin and white haired, he looked neither sick nor troubled. He sat on a mat, cross-legged, with downcast eyes. “What is that man?” Asked the prince.
“He is a saddhu, a meditator and spiritual seeker,” replied the charioteer. Prince Siddhartha could see that the meditator was not troubled by the conditions of life, while he, a powerful prince, had no inner peace. He resolved to leave the palace and become a spiritual seeker.
Today, we in the West live in a situation similar to Buddha’s life as a prince. We are distracted by food and entertainment. We normally keep ourselves quite sheltered from old age, death, and serious illness to the extent that these are relegated to specific institutions. Sick people are in hospitals. We might visit, but then we go home and leave it to the nurses to bathe, feed, and care for them. Older people live in seperate communities, and death is swept under the rug. Just as Buddha’s father tried to do, we live in the illusion that old age and death will never come. The cost of this denial is that we are unprepared when old age does come. We face a difficult adjustment.
Also, like the young Buddha, being unaware of the suffering in life and this life’s inevitable end, we fail to find meaning. It was the awareness of suffering that led Buddha to his search, and its conclusion. The answer he later found was that the suffering of life can and does have an end. This end is achievable by all. The shift that ends suffering is within ourselves, not in the external world. There was no way he could have realized enlightenment by staying inside the palace gates. Pure awareness can not arise from self deception.