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Jane Hirshfield: "Leaving the Palace"

16 March 2010

"Leaving the Palace"

Jane Hirshfield

The Buddha, just like any of us, was born into a personal life and a personal story. The story of his leaving the palace is one that I think has in it also many great elements of the archetypal Journey. It is the story of a prince born into the palace, with all richness, all luxury, and a very over-protective family. They wanted to prevent him from ever noticing that anything might be wrong with the world, because they hoped that he would stay in the life they themselves knew and loved and not go off—as was predicted at his birth—to become a spiritual teacher rather than a king.

In this story of the Buddha, he became curious at age twenty-nine—and curiosity is a very human thing. It’s something that we all recognize and it is, again, part of a certain archetypal story in the West. Wisdom is often the result of somebody’s curiosity. Look at Eve, wanting to eat the apple of knowledge. Look at Pandora, opening the box. The archetype of curiosity’s link to wisdom is really a tale of transformation: from a certain naïve, innocent relationship to your own life to wanting to know the full story, wanting to know the full truth. This curiosity is simply a part of the human psyche. It’s what we are like. And archetypally, it is one energy by which we break free of the ego’s love of its own status quo.

And so Buddha, curious, left the palace. What did the larger world look like? What the Buddha saw was an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and finally, someone attempting to follow a spiritual path. And, having been so protected, he was shocked by the suffering he saw. You can feel how he was shocked. And he realized, “This is my fate too. I will also become old. I will also become ill. I will also die. How do I deal with these things?” These are universal questions in any human being’s life. We all need to deal with them. There’s no reason I see to idealize the beginning of Buddhism. It’s just the story of a person, a normal and human person, confronting the normal dilemmas of what it’s like to be in a body inside of time, inside our shared fate, and trying to answer the question: how do we navigate that?

I myself have come to understand the Buddha’s decision to abandon not only the palace but also his own family in several ways. One of them is what seems to be a simple rule of existence: there is no real knowledge won without sacrifice. One of the harder truths of human existence is how often, in order to gain anything, you must first lose everything. Another way I look at it is this: the Buddha didn’t decide to leave the palace for purely selfish and personal reasons. He left to solve a problem that is universal, and is everyone’s problem. I think if you remember that, it takes away a bit of the sting of this act which is, after all, also a pure abandonment, an act which left behind grief, and puzzlement, and dismay, in the hearts of his wife, of an infant son who was innocent and suddenly fatherless, and, yes, of course also, of his father and stepmother. The Buddha did this not out of cruelty. I have to think that he felt that if he had not found an answer for everyone, his wife and son would have also been worse off.

Another element of the Buddha’s life is worth remembering here as well. When you are a king, your definition isn’t only that you live in a palace amidst luxury, protected from the world—it is that you are responsible to and for the people. A king serves the kingdom as well as the family, and I think this is also a way to understand how it is that Buddha saw his first responsibility in life as finding an answer to the question, how can I serve best? So that’s also a part of what required him to leave the palace and the life he had been given. Looked at this way, it was an act of service, in the context of what he had been given by his own life’s fate and his larger situation.

The Buddha, as I see him, was simply a human being who perceived the most fundamental difficulty of human life. Whatever your circumstances, you will end up losing everything you love, you will end up aging, you will end up ill. He then decided to investigate that rather closely. For me, his story is an example that this way of investigation is useful for anyone. The Buddha’s life is not about some special story. It’s not about something “sacred” or “divine” or “different,” it’s simply an example of what one person can do. What the Buddha found was for others as much as for himself. He left the palace out of generosity for us all, I think, and what he found was a solution for all our most basic suffering, something not just for himself but for everyone.

Slightly edited except from the interview conducted by David Grubin in making The Buddha.


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