The View from the Chariot

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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#1 · maria baker

1 February 2008

I agree with your second way of coming down from the chariot. I have been a nurse for the best part of 30 years and have seen a great deal of suffering ( more than I wish I had been exposed to) ; my observation is that suffering in itself does nt cause unhappiness :it is one’s reaction to it that causes pain. I have seen many happy people living with terribly disability and my observation is that thse people have given up craving ( for health , perfection , freedom from pain etc. )

#2 · Sam

8 February 2008

This post is great Will!

But how do we know that the story is a “complete fabrication”? I’m curious about your sources.

The Buddha’s supreme realisation was that life IS suffering, Dukkha. I don’t think he said that it is suffering SOME of the time. The “pleasures and pains” and “sufferings and pleasures” that you mention are all part of Samsara, are they not?

What was the supreme truth that Siddhartha arrived at? What IS Nirvana, the unborn, the unconditioned that is discussed so much in the texts? I tend to think that the Buddha had a somewhat different viewpoint to you and I. Are the Four Noble Truths really an overreaction?! An error? I’m surprised that this post has only had two responses.


#3 · Will

8 February 2008

Hi, Sam,

In terms of sources, Karl Potter’s book “Abhidharma Buddhism to 150 A.D.” makes clear that there is very little reliable information on the Buddha’s early life. Certainly not enough to sustain this story in the form it has come down to us.

It seems that the Shakyan state at the time of the Buddha was not a kingdom but a republic run by aristocrats, and the Buddha-to-be’s father was not king but certainly a leading figure in the republic. So the very barest bones – life of relative privilege followed by departure from home – of the story may be correct, but probably no more. Michael Carrithers’ book on the Buddha is an excellent overview of this political and social framework.

The idea that life IS suffering may not be the most useful of ideas, depending on how it is understood. And certainly, if this is the realisation of the Buddha, then I’d have to be very sure about what this actually meant in its details before I put my name to such a claim. After all, if all life is suffering, then those things that the Buddha talks about in the most glowingly positive terms – like loving kindness for others, sympathetic joy, compassion, the delight of meditation – are also suffering.

“What was the supreme truth that Siddhartha arrived at?” I have in response another two questions. What exactly is a supreme truth? And how do we know that Siddhartha arrived at such a thing?

All the best,


#4 · maria

8 February 2008

Will, loving kindness ,compassion etc are to do with the 3rd and 4th noble truth are they not? These qualities surely lead to freedom from suffering

#5 · Will

8 February 2008

Indeed, Maria. But they are also a part of life. And this is why I am uneasy with the idea that life is suffering. My own sense, broadly speaking, is that “samsarising” is suffering (and conducive to further suffering) and “nirvanising” is non-suffering (and conducive to the cessation of suffering); but these are both currents within life.

Having said this, there is a distinction also between freedom from suffering and absence of suffering. It does indeed seem to be the case that suffering is, in a sense, inherent in life. We simply can’t bring about its absence. But we can free ourselves from it.

All the best,

#6 · maria

9 February 2008

Sorry to bang on about suffering.. but isn’t suffering to do with selfish craving /attatchment eg to person X (and even to achieving nirvana)? Don’t we suffer because of impermanence? This realisation surely leads to a sense of freedom/happiness( not getting selfishly attatched to person x)? In response to the question how do we know he achieved supreme truth:I am not sure Buddha claimed this supremity. Surely we know that he reached “a” truth ( not necessarily supreme)because others over many hundreds of years have achieved enlightenment by following his example/ psycholgy.Best wishes Maria

#7 · Will

14 February 2008

Bang away, Maria! Yes, if we see suffering as associated with craving, then it would be possible for there to be pain without suffering: physical sensations without the thought “this shouldn’t be happening”.
All the best,

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