At the end of the documentary “The Buddha” that aired recently on PBS, they mention the four places pilgrims visit to follow the life of the Buddha. They are Lumbini where he was born, Bodh Gaya where he sat under the Bodhi tree until his awakening, Sarnath where he gave his first dharma talk, and Kusinara where he died.
I thought it would be interesting to explore what we learn from visiting, either in person or in our thoughts, these places that supported the Buddha’s physical life and his spiritual practice. And how exploring his life inspires us to learn from our own lives as well.
Today, let’s talk about his birthplace. Lumbini is in the foothills of the Himalaya. It is located in southern Nepal very near the border of India. If you are surprised to hear he was born in Nepal, remember that neither of these countries existed in their modern forms in his time, but that’s where the village is located.
Here is a brief video of how it looks today. There are many versions of the story of his birth but most go something like this*:
Siddhartha Gautama was born in the sixth century BCE to a very wealthy, probably noble, some accounts say royal, family of the Sakya clan that lived in the city of Kapilavastu, 25 km east of Lumbini. His mother’s parents lived in Lumbini and it was (and is) common for a woman to return to the home of her parents to give birth. As she and her party neared the village, they paused to rest in a lovely grove. Perhaps she was already in labor and realized she couldn’t make it all the way, or perhaps she went into labor there. Under the shade of trees, she gave birth to a baby boy. Unfortunately, within a week after his birth she died.
His name Siddhartha, means accomplisher of aims. Gautama was his clan name.
It was predicted — either through dream interpretation or astrology — that he would grow up to be a great conquering warrior or a great spiritual leader. Though the culture of his day had clearly defined career paths for every child, based on the caste system, and of course every parent wants a child to do well, this powerful prediction seems like a lot to put on such a small freshly-arrived package of human flesh!
The Buddha advises us to pay attention to any residue of any of the labels we may have been given. Think back to words and other ways in which parents, sibling, other family members, playmates, teachers and others shaped your view of yourself. To what degree do you still accept some of them, unquestioned? This is a worthy exploration. Sometimes we like the labels we are given, or they grow on us. We can still question them. How much of what we like about them is just a sense of pleasure at being ‘known’ by someone we love?
So what was the effect of hearing about this prediction on Siddhartha’s father, a widower with a newborn son? Not surprisingly, given these two potential futures, he, of a warrior class, desired for his son to be a great conqueror rather than a spiritual teacher who would turn his back on the material wealth of his family.
So, the story goes, the father used every means to create the causes and conditions that he hoped would lead his son to appreciate and defend his possessions and position by pursuing the warrior path. He gave him a very sheltered life, never letting him go beyond the palace walls, and made sure that he was given a strong athletic education to be physically ready for battle.
He gave his son every luxury, but he went further than that. He actually made sure that there were no signs of illness, old age or death within the palace walls. The gardeners must have been very busy clipping off blossoms before they faded! And the servants must have gotten early retirements.
It reminds me of the old airline policies toward flight attendants, getting rid of them when they showed any signs of losing that youthful bloom. They might have been on to something! When air travel was in its early days, when so many of the passengers were new to this idea of flight, perhaps keeping them distracted with youth and beauty, keeping their minds off of the truth of aging and death, might have had some psychological basis, probably not calculated but just intuited.
Siddhartha’s father was protective, just as we are often very protective not just of our children but of ourselves, shielding ourselves from the pain of the world. I was reminded of this recently when someone was telling me how her husband couldn’t stand to be in a hospital room, no matter how much he cared for the patient inside. And I remember that my father, powerful and worldly in so many ways, couldn’t bring himself to go to the viewing of his mother’s body after her death. Until I was in my mid-twenties I used to faint at the sight of a needle piercing skin, even a rhinoceros getting a tranquilizer injection on Wild Kingdom!
To varying degrees we all put up protective palace walls for ourselves and those we love. When I was a teenager my beloved cat died in my arms late one night on the way home from the vets after she’d been pronounced incurable. The next morning I woke to plan her burial, only to find that one of my brothers had already buried her in some still-undisclosed part of our garden. He did this to protect his little sister from pain. He fortified the palace walls of an already sheltered life. It was so sweet and loving, but it was misguided, for it left me no way to come to terms with my loss, no ritual to release my emotions. He wanted to give me a bypass for my mourning. But there is no such thing. Trying to create one may set up a delaying mechanism that can go subterranean in our psyches and comes out in some other way.
As parents we all want what is best for our children, and we all know the impulse to protect them from suffering. The other day a friend expressed just such a concern. She was afraid that her teenage son might be hurt by a girl he had a crush on who didn’t seem to feel the same way towards him. I told my friend, yes, he very well might. And it will be difficult, but if that happens, it will also help to create compassion within him, an awareness of the responsibility of love. And, I added, that girl too will most likely some day be hurt, and it would be the very making of her. Getting hurt in love was the making of me when I was a teenager. Until I felt the pain of rejection for myself, I was at times thoughtless in my casual dismissal of the attentions of some very sweet boys who didn’t deserve my rudeness.
So in each of our lives there is this legacy of being labeled and being sheltered, then in turn we label and shelter those we love.
Siddhartha’s father intuitively wanted to protect his son from the unavoidable truths of earthly life: old age, illness and death. He had the same reasons all parents have, but also this prediction to deal with. He knew that it is these very things that awaken in each of us a spiritual yearning to understand the nature of suffering.
So often our pursuit of a spiritual path is ignited by a brush with serious illness, the death of a loved one, or the challenges of dealing with the process of aging. Think back to when you felt drawn to meditation or another spiritual path. Was there any loss, illness or realization about the nature of life that stirred this yearning within you?
Seeing this connection between brushes with the realities of life and the yearning for a spiritual path, Siddhartha’s father’s reasoning made sense. But, as it turned out, even the palace walls and every opulent delight was not enough to contain the curiosity about the world that Siddhartha, by now a young married man in his late twenties, developed. He implored his father to let him go out and see the world. So his father sent ahead men who would clear the streets of the village of any signs of illness, old age and death. But on his first venture outside, Siddhartha came upon someone who was ill, and asked after him and found out about the pain of illness. Then he ventured forth a second time and saw someone who was old and bent over, and once again he questioned and discovered that youth is fleeting. And when he ventured forth once again, he saw a corpse and discovered that the body and this earthly existence is impermanent. The fourth time he ventured out of the palace walls he met a traveling ascetic, someone who had abandoned material things to pursue a spiritual path, and he felt the call to follow that path, in order to find an end to suffering.
This was the piercing of the veil of innocence and the acceptance of a much more complex world than we at first imagined. Do you remember any point in your younger life when you felt the veil of innocence fall away? For me it was when I was around eight years old and some friend told me about the Holocaust. I could not believe it. But questioning revealed that it was true. I couldn’t understand how something like this could have happened just a decade before and I didn’t know about it. What else were they hiding from me?
Once the veil is pierced, then what? For Siddhartha it was clear that he had to give up his opulent life, leave his wife and baby to go off on his own in pursuit of the answer to how to end suffering for himself and all beings. So-called Christian bloggers who, for whatever reason, feel threatened by Buddhism, love to point out this moment, describing the Buddha as a runaway dad, a dropout and a loser.
We don’t need to make excuses for Siddhartha’s behavior. In the first place he was not yet enlightened or teaching. And he was human, a very important thing to remember that helps us have compassion for the human foolishness and foibles we find in ourselves and others, including the so-called Christian bloggers!
But let’s also put this in the context of the times in which he lived. He was not leaving his wife and child destitute. They lived in a palace with extended family, servants and resources. Does this replace a husband and father? Of course not. But remember that men of his day and class were not expected to consider the personal desires of their wives in determining their own paths. Nor were they expected to rear their own children. So it’s important to keep all this in mind, not to make excuses, but just to keep things in context. Had he been a warrior, he would have been off fighting wars for years on end, and this would have been totally acceptable by his (and our) society. But his choice went the other direction.
I find it interesting that Siddhartha ventured forth into the greater world at the age of 29. I’m reminded of Gail Sheehy’s landmark book Passages, that said that around the age of 28 one goes through a big shift. Siddhartha obviously did. Maybe you did too? Think about that period of the late twenties into the early 30’s. Was there anything expanding in your awareness, some realization that cracked open the world as you knew it?
For me it was the women’s movement, when I woke up to my blind complicity in accepting second class status as the way of things.
If you had an unveiling around that time, did it change the direction of your life? In what way? And if not, in what ways did this new awareness get incorporated into your life?
So you will see in this story of the early years of the Buddha’s life we can also discover lessons we’ve learned from our own younger lives. As a spiritual teacher the Buddha used stories from his own life to teach the dharma. Buddhist teachers today readily use their own lives as fodder for the dharma. And we each can look to our own lives for insight as well.
Next week we will talk about Bohd Gaya and the awakening of the Buddha.
*There are a number of variations on this story in the different Buddhist traditions. Some have more iconic aspects. I’ve chosen to tell the one that contains the most points of agreement and trust that the facts are contained in the core conjunction of these stories. However, if you have the interest, do an internet search for some of the variations of “Buddha’s birth.”
**His mother may have dreamed it, or her dream may have been interpreted to mean it, or astrologers may have predicted it.