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.”

7 thoughts on “Siddhārtha

  1. I think that it has been difficult for Christians in the west to imagine that there were and, in some cases, still are millions of people who have never heard of Jesus and who have lived for many generations without a need for the cross.

    • Hi Frank, That’s something I’ve considered: how, in our country, Jesus is a part of our lives even for those who do not necessarily identify as Christian. Jesus is built into our calendar and our psyche. I think in other parts of the world, Buddha holds a similar space.

  2. I have to disagree with you, Frank. For that very reason there is the Wycliffe Institute, which exists to translate the bible into all languages, even barely known ones, and to send linguists and missionaries out to teach scripture in the mother tongue. They are obeying the imperative in the New Testament to preach the Good News in all tongues.

    In many instances, it is Wycliffe missionaries who help codify and create the first version of a written language an indigenous population has ever had. I cannot comment on the state of anyone’s soul, or need for the cross. But I am personally aware of the fine work Wycliffe has achieved in providing scripture in what the language of the heart – a mother tongue.

    Yours in Christ

    • Patti, I wasn’t implying that Christian groups hadn’t supplied printed information and missionaries around the world. I was saying that in our culture we are born into a Christian tradition whether or not we currently follow it. Millions of others, mostly in eastern lands, have been raised never knowing Christ but from birth grew up only knowing Buddha and Buddhism. In China it may have been Confucious. Like us, they grew up in a faith tradition where Jesus wasn’t mentioned.

  3. Siddhārtha wants to find answers and meaning in life. “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 . . .” He was on a quest. He wants to find a solution to “the ever-present problem of life and death.”

    There are many life experiences that drive a person. Moses had a sense of the call of God to leadership among his people from early on. He was banished when he acted on that call and it turned out poorly. He went to live in the very wilderness through which he would lead the children of Israel some forty years later, after receiving a very specific call by God. The New Testament reveals some interesting details about what he “saw” which propelled him into the call. (See Hebrews 11:24-29–for brevity, I won’t quote it here.) He was following God in each step as God, in awesome power, liberated his people from slavery and bondage and led them to a land of their own. God told Moses, “I am going to send an angelic messenger in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.” So unlike Buddha, who is on his own quest of discovery, Moses is led.

    Jesus’ only “pre-ministry” picture is of him as a twelve-year-old in the temple, astounding the scribes with his understanding and his answers. Somehow he sensed a call to the ministry of teaching the Word when he explained to his parents (who were less than pleased with his having stayed behind when all were heading back to Nazareth), “Do you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (See Luke 2:41-51) Mark tells us, “Later, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (1:14-15) At the time, many rulers had been declared saviors or sons of gods. But Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, was proclaimed God incarnate.

    You are not saying Siddhārtha claimed to be God. He wanted to discover a solution to life’s problems and finding answers himself, guide others in that quest. Moses was a man who specifically followed the call of God, a call he sensed early on, and God acted miraculously through him to free his people. Jesus came to earth as the Son of God, “God with us,” who came to seek out and to save the lost. So you have three quite different people: a man who seeks to solve life’s problems, a man moved by God, a man who is God Incarnate.

  4. I don’t think they were so different but each is unique in the way they express their truth. Through Saddartha’s teaching one finds a quieted mind that learns the meaning of “let go and let God”. Moses found, as Saddartha did that one can have an inner conversation with Spirit and become enlightened as to his purpose in life. Jesus simply said, “I came that you might have life and have it more abundantly.” Each one is a spiritual master teacher answering a call in a unique way to the benefit of mankind. We have multiple paths to the One. We all have a call into the “wilderness”, as Jesus, Moses and Saddartha did to meditate and contemplate and then to act.

  5. Very interesting, this story of Siddhartha! I’ve read it before. I was struck by the homeless vagabond, seeking to win salvation by virtue of surrendering to homelessness. It’s true that Jesus told one who sought to follow him that that would entail having nowhere to lay his head, it is not that fact that makes a heart prepared for God. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

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