The tortoise

Out in the countryside beyond the palace, Siddhārtha studies with various wise men, and practices different techniques. He stays with a group of ascetics who attempt to achieve understanding by eating as little as possible. In diminishing the physical, they hope to strengthen their grasp of the metaphysical. Siddhārtha starves himself to the brink of death, but this strategy only perpetuates his pain. He comes to see it as another expression of his discomfort with the “ever-present problem of life and death.”

For six years, Siddhārtha continues in this pattern of discontent, unhappy with his life and miserable at the thought of death. He learns to make some concessions to his physical needs—sufficient food and a few creature comforts—but he still struggles with accepting things as they are, with feeling at peace in light of his human condition. He finds a pleasant spot under a tree, close enough to the trunk that he can lean against it if he needs to, and makes a nice place to sit with a bed of straw. He commits to staying put until he finds a way to put an end to his suffering. For a time, he falls into old habits: he gets caught up in the past; he worries about the future. Finally, he manages to subdue those thoughts, to plant his feet firmly in the “now.” At last, at the age of 35, he arrives at nirvana or “the extinction of all concepts.” He sees things just as they are, not filtered through memories or projections or ideas. His search for a more suitable place to be comes to an end. He settles into the simple peace that only the present moment can provide.

This newfound perspective transforms Siddhārtha into Buddha and eliminates his trepidation about life and death by providing him with a deeper understanding of the human condition. To communicate this insight to others, he used a number of analogies. One in particular involves a single blind tortoise swimming in a vast ocean on the surface of which floats a gold ring. The tortoise comes up for air only once every 100 years. It is rarer, said the Buddha, to be born human than for the turtle to come up for a breath with its neck through the ring.

The tortoise helps lift a burden I hadn’t realized I was carrying. From the Bible, I knew others had characterized the gate to life as narrow, but to have it acknowledged as so infinitesimally slender further illustrates the unimaginable odds. To sense this, and not put words to it, is to feel overwhelmed, even to perceive its enormity as a burden. But to acknowledge it is to bring it into the open, to begin to embrace those slim chances, to start on a path from fear to gratitude. At the same time, the analogy hints at the countless eons before and after the turtle emerges to breathe the air; the time it may spend with its head through the ring is a brief flicker in a larger story.


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.”