Growing up in the mid 1900’s, my friends and I were imbued with the unshakable notion that despite childhood poverty, limited opportunity, and little education anyone could improve their financial and social position through determination, hard work and absence of self-pity. This almost universal belief, prevalent from the late 19th century, was influenced by Horatio Alger whose novels were primarily responsible for establishing America’s most enduring myth. His “rags to riches” stories shaped the common belief in the U.S. that anyone can become a self-made man. The vision continues to be a dominant part of our culture, no longer limited to white males.
The two thousand-year-old legend of the Buddha points in an entirely different direction – discarding the material pursuits of the Horatio Alger hero by intentionally giving up wealth and privilege in exchange for a life of poverty, celibacy, reflection and immersion in the intangible and spiritual.
For the past 100 years, Buddhism has been gradually migrating west. Adherents are intent on gaining a greater understanding of life – a wider viewpoint – other than that provided by the modern world. Doubts have arisen about the enduring value of materialism, competition, success, and social status.
Interest in Buddhism is growing in the U.S., thanks to its unique vision of Reality and the meaning of spirituality. It is being taught at the highest academic levels while an ever-widening range of books, essays, magazines, blogs, and websites are now available.
For serious seekers – Zen students in particular – the most important aspect of Buddhism is conveyed in the story of the Buddha’s early life. Legend tells us that he was blessed with intelligence, physical skills, charisma, love, admiration, freedom, wealth and the assurance that he would someday be king of his father’s domain. His was a life of unbound privileges. Yet he turned away from its material benefits, so passionately sought after, often fought over, in the everyday world.
How did that happen? What gave birth to the radical notion that material and social advantages were to be discarded in favor of a life dedicated to reflection and community?
To celebrate the birth of the Buddha’s son, his proud father, King Shuddhodana, created a feast for the royal court, engaging the most attractive women to sing beautiful songs and perform sensuous dances. He assumed Siddharta, like any other young man, would be delighted at the prospect. But he misunderstood his son’s sensibilities; the future Buddha was uninterested in such a show. He was unlike other young men. Even though he wanted to be courteous and polite to his father, the dancing did not command his attention and he soon dozed off. The girls noticed, and when they got bored of performing for the sleeping guest of honor, they decided to take a break from dancing until the prince awoke. Tired from their exertions, they also fell asleep.
When the prince awoke, the young women were still sleeping, sprawled in unflattering positions across the room, bodies exposed, their fine clothes disheveled. Dismayed by the display, he slipped quietly from the room. The experience reinforced his growing feelings that the pleasures and royal life of the palace were artificial, fundamentally unsatisfying, a misleading appearance of the truth.
Later that night, he ventured outside the palace with his chariot and servant, intent on understanding life in the outside world. He came across an old man, weak and frail, suffering from the infirmities of advanced age. On subsequent trips he encountered sickness and later a decaying corpse. His servant explained that all people grow old, all will become ill, and all must die. Siddhartha also saw a monk in plain robes with few possessions, peaceful and at ease. He was touched by all that he had seen, vowing not to squander his life on trivialities but to work for the relief of suffering of people everywhere. He left the palace and his family, giving up privilege, comforts, safety, and wealth – all the things that people normally pursue – for a life of poverty and celibacy.
The future Buddha became a forest dweller, joining other mendicants of his day. Yet his journey – his world-changing career – cannot be characterized simply as “home leaving.” He carried with him a profoundly visionary attitude – an orientation of selflessness and caring for the well-being of others. For the future Buddha, letting go of concern for privileges was the necessary requisite for authentic spiritual practice, the singular path to wisdom and peace.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks is universally respected for his insightful columns – print and digital – as well as for his books and commentaries on PBS. They reflect a thoughtfulness devoid of partisan bias. One’s world view is expanded after reading or listening to his take on cultural and political currents.
Yet his January 13 article in the Times, titled “America is Falling Apart at the Seams,” was not so much enlightening as it was gloomy. He wrote, “as Americans’ hostility toward one another seems to be growing, their care for one another seems to be falling.” He continued by pointing out increasingly disturbing aspects of our behavior over the past few years, including: reckless driving, confrontations on air flights, increases in crime, drug overdose and alcohol use, abuse of health care workers and school teachers, fights and gun possession in classrooms, and increased gun purchases. In addition, he noted rising “polarization, hatred, anger and fear.” He expressed his sense that, “something darker and deeper seems to be happening as well — a long-term loss of solidarity, a long-term rise in estrangement and hostility… What the hell is going on? The short answer: I don’t know… There must also be some spiritual or moral problem at the core of this. As a columnist, I’m supposed to have some answers. But I just don’t right now.”
His despair was breathtaking, unlike the confident David Brooks I had learned to admire. I felt it was a reflection of a majority of the American people and that his intuition about a deterioration in spirituality and morality was accurate.
Our lives come pre-loaded with complexity, a seemingly infinite stream of problems, constant change, and threats to our well-being – a recipe for feeling overwhelmed, for not having answers, for feeling “I just don’t know.” We are trained to respond to the challenge with our most powerful asset, the analytical mind, enabling us to think through everyday problems and create resolutions. Yet, the engine of analysis does not always provide solutions to our most pressing concerns, as the Brooks’ article illustrates. So as Buddhists and Zen students we turn to our spiritual practice, trusting its admonition to quiet the thinking mind, to expand our awareness, to discover a different way of seeing.
At times, we will have to admit “I don’t know.” Yet, there is always a reason why events materialize. The story of the Buddha and our own zazen experience illustrate how human emphasis on personal privilege can have a corrosive effect on lives and relationships. Every one of the destructive activities pointed out in Brooks’ article can be traced back to fears that a personal privilege is being denied or revoked.
Sometimes we are born into privilege, sometimes we earn it. Almost everyone has some privilege compared to someone else. It is not inherently bad, only we should use it lightly, to help each other, not exclusively for our own advantage. It is a vital element of our practice.
Abbot of Kannon Do