Shakyamuni Buddha

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Awakening to Suffering

The second archetypal element of Gautama's bodhisattva career is his upbringing. Siddhartha was trained for the role of political leader as a prince in the warrior class, mastering all the martial arts of his period. His father sought to protect him from any spiritual inclination and lavishly provided all the material and sensual comforts Siddhartha might conceivably desire. We may recognize the protective impulse common to many well-meaning parents.

The traditional story indicates a great deal of innocence, or naivete, on the prince's part. Siddhartha is said to have been totally oblivious of all possibility of sickness, old age, and death, until he witnessed them as a young adult. On a sequence of unsanctioned excursions outside the palace, he observed a sick person, then an old person, and finally a dead body. These experiences awakened in Siddhartha a deep, unquenchable concern for the problem of human suffering.

This awakening to the reality of suffering and to the desire for awakening, known as bodhicitta in Sanskrit, is fundamental to all bodhisattva practice. This initial caring impulse is said to contain all the qualities of awakening, although long years or lifetimes of cultivation may be required for their fulfillment. On his fourth visit to the world beyond the palace walls, Siddhartha noticed a wandering mendicant, a typical figure in Indian religion, and was informed by his charioteer-attendant of the possibility of spiritual seeking as a life calling. Once informed of this alternative, Siddhartha's awakening heart and mind seemed driven to the conquest of suffering for the sake of all beings. The abundant pleasures and comforts of the palace were meaningless in light of the essential question of how beings could be liberated from life's suffering.

Can you recall occasions when this insight occurred to you?

Sooner or later, no matter how comfortable we may feel and no matter how much we have been protected from material want, life provides us with the opportunity to experience loss, suffering, anguish, and the pain of anxiety over our destiny and that of our loved ones. Such opportunities force the basic choice upon us, often again and again. We cannot avoid old age, sickness, and death.