In the accounts we have of many religious figures, the events that occur after the person has embarked on their primary mission are what matter most. The story of Jesus really takes off when he leaves his life as a carpenter and begins a nomadic existence teaching and helping others. The Moses narrative gains momentum once he gathers up the Jews and leads them out of Egypt. For both men, we have some biographical information about who they were before they became who they were meant to become. But details about their emotional states in the months or years leading up their choice to act, to change their lives completely, are left largely for us to speculate. I can only imagine that neither made their decision lightly, that whatever tug they felt in their hearts was the result of careful consideration, sleepless nights, and probably tears. Perhaps they even put off the final verdict until the prospect of not acting was more terrifying than facing the unknown that lay ahead.
In the story that’s passed down of Siddhārtha Gautama’s life, the part before he becomes “Buddha” is emphasized. Like what we know of Protestant reformer Martin Luther, his private suffering takes center stage.
Siddhārtha’s father, the king of the region where they lived in India, wanted so badly for his son to be enamored with his life. He didn’t want his son to face any of the unpleasant realities of the human experience. The king built a high wall around the palace to block out the muck of the surrounding city; only vibrant people were permitted entry. If someone was injured while on the royal grounds, they were whisked away and not permitted back until fully recoverd. On the few occasions that the prince was allowed beyond the wall, attendants were instructed to prepare the route to prevent any chance encounters with disagreeable conditions like old age, illness, or death. The streets were swept clean, the facades coated in fresh paint, and the elderly asked to stay indoors. But small cracks in the shiny veneer do not escape Siddhārtha’s keen eye. He spots a wizened, hunched man. Later, in another outing, he happens upon a desperately sick person and, eventually, sees a dead body being cremated in a funeral pyre. When he presses for answers, his attendant admits that no one is exempt from these fates.
The greater the effort to shield the prince, the more pronounced his suffering grew. What had been a twinge of dissatisfaction deteriorated into full-blown misery. He was terrified at the thought of his life one day being over and, at the same time, tormented by the very existence he was afraid to see end; he was bored by the pursuit of superficial pleasures, all the lounging and gazing upon dancing ladies. On an outing, Siddhārtha encounters one of the many religious vagabonds who wandered the kingdom. “Who are you?” he asks the man. The vagabond replies, “I am a recluse who, terrified by birth and death, has adopted a homeless life to win salvation…” Something in this response rings true; Siddhārtha leaves the palace to spend time like the wanderer searching for a solution to what he calls “the ever-present problem of life and death.”