Wednesday January 30, 2008
So, once again, this is how it went…
The sage came to King Shuddhodana to tell him that his newly-born son Siddhartha would either become a great king or a great sage. The king, knowing that sages are impoverished, awkward and unwashed, whilst kings are rich, elegant and bathe in asses milk sprinkled with rose petals, decided to ensure his legacy and the happiness of his child by sequestering the infant in a palace. There Siddhartha was provided with the kind of unstoppable torrent of delight that would tip most of us over into depravity. In such a fashion, the king judged, his son would never wish to leave the palace, and would therefore become his heir.
But one day, in the prime of his youth, leave he did. The young Siddhartha took a chariot into town and, although the king did his best to tidy up the place in advance, Siddhartha clapped eyes on an old man, a sick man and a corpse. Blimey, he said! What’s wrong with these people? His faithful charioteer explained all. They are old, they are sick, they are dead. That’s the deal. There’s no getting out of if.
Siddhartha was distressed. Suddenly the entire world appeared to him as a danse macabre, and the pleasures that he had formerly enjoyed now seemed hollow and empty. But then our hero spotted a humble looking fellow with a happy smile on his face, walking peaceably through the crowd. This fellow seemed to be both in the world, but also untouched by the miseries around him. “And what’s up with him?” Siddhartha asked. “He looks curiously happy, given the circumstances.”
“Ah,” said his charioteer, “he’s a sage…”
You know the rest. Young Siddhartha turned away from the pleasures of the palace, sneaked out in the middle of the night, cut off his locks (those who suffered their way through The Little Buddha will now be picturing the bronzed torso of the young Keanu Reeves as he slices his topknot with a sword) and went off to become a sage. The rest is history.
If the rest is history, then none of the above is. The story as it has come down to us, whatever its virtues as a story, is a complete fabrication. Nevertheless, it is a good story, and it is fun to read the Buddhist texts written by pious practitioners such as Ashvaghosha who attempt to both have their cake and eat it by, on the one hand, salaciously describing the delights of the palace in great and erotic detail, only to say on the other hand, “Of course, we know things like this are not for good, pious Buddhists, and of course the young Siddhartha was not at all affected by such goings on…”
Anyway, I last came across a retelling of this old story in Richard Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt has an interesting take on the story. He writes that when he started to write on happiness, he had the Buddha (at least the Buddha as he appears in this kind of story) down as a strong contender for the Best Psychologist of the Last Three Thousand Years, but that as his research progressed, he began to “think that Buddhism might be based on an overreaction, perhaps even an error” (103).
What, then, is this error? It is, I think, an interesting one, and it concerns the difference between our imagined response to misfortune and our actual response. The question that Haidt asks is this: “What would have happened if the young prince had actually descended from his gilded chariot and talked to the people he assumed were so miserable?” Haidt goes on to talk about the work of the psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener who did precisely this: he travelled around the world talking to those who might be assumed to be wretched, asking them about their own satisfaction with their lives. And people in situations that we might consider to be unthinkably dire – those who had lost the use of their limbs, sex workers in Calcutta – reported in the main that they were more satisfied than dissatisfied with their lives.
This theme is also taken up by Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness. When we think about changes in our situation, we tend to over-estimate either our happiness if the change is something we desire, and we tend to over-estimate our unhappiness if this is something we do not desire. We are, in short, drama queens. We think that winning the heart of person x will bring us immense and enduring happiness, but already by breakfast time person x is appearing to be far too awkward and unwieldy a thing to bring us the kind of happiness that we had imagined for ourselves.
This is not to say that there are no sufferings in the world, any more than it is to say that there are no pleasures. It is to say that we need to be clear sighted in our response to both sufferings and pleasures. The Buddha of the legends may be a shoddy psychologist; but I suspect that the Buddha who taught practices of meditation was a somewhat better psychologist. Through attention to the body and to the mind and to the circumstances and relationships in which we are enmeshed, it is possible perhaps to leave these dramas to one side, so that we may be able to see the pleasures and the pains of existence more clearly.
The view from the chariot is a theoretical perspective upon how things are. And it is perhaps mistaken, an over-reaction. But having said this, sufferings and pleasures continue to matter. It is only that we can’t respond to them fully whilst still riding on this particular chariot.
There are two ways that I know of coming down from the chariot. The first is to deepen one’s relationship with others and with the world. As Daniel Gilbert sagely says, the experience of others has much to teach us. The second way is to refuse as far as possible the seductions of the dramas that we play out in our minds, on the one hand by seeing the complexities and perplexities that underlie them (and here meditation has a role); and on the other hand by testing them against what we know of the world and of the experience of others.
Image: Shiva Shenoy
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