Why leave the palace?

As the story goes, Shakyamuni Buddha was a prince in northern India. Before his birth, it was prophesied that he was destined to become one of two things: a great political and military leader, or a great religious leader. His parents, the king and queen, hoped for their kindgon’s sake that it would be the former, and from the very earliest part of his life he was exposed to only the opulence of palace life, without any religious preaching admitted or suffering in sight. I suppose they reasoned that he would never turn to a religious life if he never encountered suffering — which is not so bad a bet.

Well, he grew up in luxury and married and had a child and never left the palace walls, until one night his curiosity got the best of him and he snuck outside with his charioteer. I guess he snuck out in a chariot, which seems a bit indiscreet if you’re creeping. Maybe this is a nod to the Bhagavad Gita? It helps your sales pitch if it seems that Lord Krishna has a subtle hand in your spiritual path.

Anyway. He gets out while being driven in a chariot, which is going at just the right speed such that he can encounter a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. He had never seen any of these before, so his charioteer explains what they are.

Shakyamuni is horrified and dismayed, until they encounter a mendicant, a traveling monk. The charioteer explains to him that this is one who has dedicated his life to finding the truth about life. Upon hearing this, Shakyamuni resolves to follow the path of the mendicant and seek the truth. He shaves his head, throws away his fancy clothes, gathers cloth from the garbage for his robes, and off he goes.

So the question is, why did he leave?

It’s hard to answer this about Shakyamuni, because this story is so overlaid with mythical elements that it’s hard to make sense of his context, let alone his decision (I mean, seriously, he never got a cold?). Still Buddhists take it as a model for entering the path: “home-leaving” is an important first step in practice. When we tell this story, we tell it about ourselves.

It’s about the Buddha — sure — it’s about the practice — fine — but it’s really about ourselves, only each of our individual selves. It’s about our lives.

So why leave home? Why leave security and comfort, even pleasure, in favor of a difficult journey, with no promise of success, and a decent risk of failure (which in Shakyamuni’s case almost surely meant death — and like, death by tiger. Or dysentery. Not pleasant.)? Why take up the pain, rather than keep it at an arm’s length?

I am quick to answer, “Because the truth is there, and what’s here only obscures the truth!”

To which my teacher responds, “How do you know?”

Which is a good question.

Why risk comfort in service of truth, when you don’t even know if the truth is out there? I’ve been trying to avoid it as I’ve been writing, but when I type, “the truth is out there,” it makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist. How could you possibly know? Shakyamuni, you paranoid maniac, what were you thinking? What could you possibly achieve out there, with your impulsive searching?

As I reflect on what led me to enter my own spiritual path, I think it had less to do with what was promised at some point beyond where I was — the truth of liberation, somewhere in a different time and place — and more to do with the truth that had been let in just by my life being my life. We see suffering because suffering is here, and our familiar paths, while comfortable and predictable, seem to promise only a deeper surrender to it.

If there’s suffering out there, it only drives home the point further — there’s no escaping it! It’s inside the palace as well as outside of it. When Shakyamuni saw sickness, old age, and death, did he not have to revisit his understanding of his only healthy body, and that of his consorts and wife and friends and parents? of his child? It’s not that the truth was out there — it was that the truth of this world already lived in him and in everyone and everything he knew. There was no hiding from it. There was no self-deception that could find purchase against such a clear truth, so deep was the penetration of what’s-going-on.

If you can’t hide from it, and if you can’t push it away, what’s left to do than to face it directly and energetically? To hold all things, especially security and comfort, in a permanent state of suspicion? And to trust that it’s possible to be, somehow, free?

Whether its the pull of truth or the push of suffering, I don’t think Shakyamuni would have given a good reason one way or another. He came to a place in his life where it was just time to take another step. Maybe for Shakyamuni, home-leaving came like fruit falling from the tree.

For us, what would obscure the next step? What could possibly obscure the truth, of suffering right here and a path to be free of suffering? And if it’s clear, can we just face it?

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