Let's go all the way back to the origin of this teaching and tradition--that is, to the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. How is it that we are still studying and practicing what he experienced
and taught more than 2,500 years later and on the other side of the planet?
He was born by the name Siddhartha Gautama, but for the purposes of sacrilege and brevity I will refer to him as "Sid" until the point in the story when he wakes up--that is, the
point at which he reaches enlightenment and becomes the Buddha.
Sid's father was the ruler of a small kingdom in northern
India (now southern Nepal). Sid's mother, that ruler's fi rst
wife, died shortly after Sid's birth. His father then married his
dead wife's sister, and Sid was raised by his father and his
There was a sage, probably a fortune-teller or astrologist,
who came to the birth and said he'd had a vision: he had seen
the coming of a future enlightened being. The sage foretold
that this baby would grow into that being, and prophesied
that he would become either a great enlightened spiritual
master or a powerful warrior-king.
Sid's parents did not want their son to leave them and
become a spiritual master, because spiritual masters do not
hang out with their families much and rarely go into the family
business. He was their only son and they wanted to keep him.
They wanted him to inherit the family dynasty and become
ruler. Fearing the truth of the sage's prediction, they kept him
secluded. The family had three palaces, and he rarely had
cause to leave them. Growing up in these palaces, he was surrounded
by young, beautiful people all of the time. He never
saw anyone who was old, sick, or dying. His parents were
really trying to set it up so that he would have no reason to ask
the big questions of life and seek answers through spiritual
practice. If he thought life was perfect, there would be no
reason for him to try to transcend it, right?
Their strategy seemed to work for quite a while. There was
an exception, though: it is said that one time in his childhood
when he was feeling a little uneasy he decided to chill out
under a tree and watch his father, who was plowing a fi eld or
perhaps overseeing a groundbreaking ritual. Relaxing as he
watched his father, he had a spontaneous experience of serenity.
As a kid of only eight or nine, he had an overwhelming
experience of peace. Though he went on with his adolescent
years as before, he later recalled that experience of mindful
relaxation, which I think is best described as an experience of
total satisfaction--not needing or wanting anything to be different.
It is said that as a youth he was excellent at everything.
Since his father was the king in a warrior caste and Sid was a
prince, he was most likely a spoiled kid. There were periods in
his young adult years when he was surrounded only by beautiful
women; he was the only guy in his part of the palace. It is
said that his life was one of access to constant pleasure. He
refl ected on this later, saying that during that time he sensed
something was missing.
Though Sid's parents tried to keep their guard over him
subtle, Sid eventually fi gured out that he was not allowed to
leave the palaces on his own. He had everything he wanted in
terms of physical needs, but he never got to explore the city
without a retinue of guards and royal courtiers. What's more,
while he was traveling from palace to palace or on the occasional
procession through town, his father had guards clear the
streets of anyone or anything that might be unpleasing to the
eye. This included all of the elderly and sick.
By the time he was in his twenties, Sid had started to feel
like a prisoner in his own home. One day he talked his attendant
into sneaking him out of the palace. The two men slipped
out and went into the nearby town. Walking for the fi rst time
in his life without a royal escort, Sid experienced what Buddhists
call "the Four Messengers."
The fi rst messenger was sickness and disease. For the fi rst
time in Sid's life, he saw people who were suffering from disease;
because of his isolation, he had never seen illness before.
Most of us grow up knowing about or experiencing some level
of sickness and disease. It is a normal part of our lives. You can
imagine how shocking it would be to see a sick person for the
fi rst time in your life as an adult. Sid asked his attendant if the
debilitation he saw was going to happen to him as well, and
the attendant replied that this is what happens to all humans.
We all eventually get sick or experience disease; it is the nature of
The second messenger was a very old and frail person, the
body deteriorating, skin sagging, and hair falling out. Sid asked
his attendant what had happened, and his attendant replied
that it was nothing more than what happens to all people.
This was a shocking and powerful revelation to the overprotected
We all get old; this is the natural process of life.
The third messenger that they encountered was a corpse.
Sid had never seen or heard of or even thought about death.
He had been so sheltered that when he saw the dead body, he
was horrifi ed. (Keep in mind that this was before embalming
or fancy caskets; this was a decomposing corpse by the side of
the road.) Sid asked if that was going to happen to him and his
family and demanded to know if there was any way to avoid
it. He was told that death is inevitable. Not only that, he was
informed, it happens over and over and over. Reincarnation,
which was the popular perspective at that time, affi rms that
when one's body dies, the essence of the person is eventually
reborn into another body. That is the cycle of birth and death.
Every body dies, but existence continues.
Sid was disconcerted to say the least, and perhaps more
than a little pissed that all of this had been hidden from him
for so long.
Then they saw the fourth messenger, a wandering spiritual
seeker. Sid had never seen one of those before either, and he
asked his attendant what the guy in the robes was doing. His
attendant said that it was a sadhu--that is, someone who has
dedicated his or her life to understanding the nature of life and
death. A person in search of understanding reality. It was at
that moment that Sid decided he knew what he had to do. As
soon as Sid saw the spiritual seeker, he had a new sense of
hope and faith that he would be able to come to a solution for
this endless cycle of birth and death.
He vowed to overcome suffering and to awaken to the Truth.
If you are reading this blog, I am guessing that you are
searching for answers too. What was the fi rst experience that
made you think that the spiritual path was possible? For Sid it
was seeing sickness, old age, and death, and then seeing a
spiritual practitioner, but for each of us it will be a different
experience that brought us to the path.
Anyway, Sid was recently married at the time of this revelation,
and his wife had just given birth to a child. Theirs was an
arranged marriage, and there may or may not have been any
true love in it. Because his new spiritual resolve was stronger
than his commitment to his family, he chose to leave his
family and seek answers. He thought that since he and his
family were only going to get sick and old and die, he had
better go out and see if he could fi nd a truth that would lead
beyond sickness, old age, and death. He was motivated to fi nd
freedom not only for himself but for the benefi t of his family
and all beings in existence. His search was not a selfi sh one, as
it might appear to some; it was an altruistic sacrifi ce for the
good of all humanity.
Most people are initially confused and even troubled that
he would leave his wife and child. I don't fully understand it
myself. Imagine leaving your newborn child to go meditate,
with no intention of returning until liberation was found! It
turns out to be the right choice, however--and he does later
return to his family, and his son also becomes a monk and
gets enlightened. The search for truth may demand this kind
of willingness and commitment, if not literally at least fi guratively.
So Sid hit the streets. His attendant took him to the edge of
town, but then Sid sent him away. Sid shaved his head, took
off all his gold and fi ne clothing, put some rags around his
body, and took off on foot with nothing but his desire to fi nd
Noah currently teaches at his meditation center in Los Angeles. Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society is located in a historic building in East Hollywood, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the city.
4300 Melrose Avenue
Los Angeles CA 90029