The legend of the Shakyamuni Buddha tells the story of his “great going forth,” or his renunciation of worldly life. And the steps leading to the renunciation are especially pertinent to contemporary America.
If you have seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Little Buddha, or have heard any Buddhist mythology, you probably know this story: Young Prince Siddhartha leaves his palace confines and travels with his driver to a nearby park. The story unfolds over the course of four days, in which the Buddha-to-be sees first an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and finally a wandering ascetic. Siddhartha’s confusion and pain at seeing the suffering of others, coupled with the visage of the contented sage, prompt him to relinquish all attachments to his blissful worldly life in the palace.
America today—despite our economic turmoil—still behaves as the palace. The world is seen as a vast network to facilitate individual pleasures, a means for fulfilling every desire. Yet the walls of the palace are crumbling: we are seeing the sickness of un-abating consumption and the greed engine of profiteering capitalism. America has long been the aged man in the park, following the same approach to growth, expansion, and war for decades. The country has aged and become brittle, and with the onset of its sickness is soon to be dying. I’m not speaking of some Romanesque collapse…but of a death of old policies and practices.
Many of us at this time are feeling the anxiety and pain of our country’s economic collapse. We often look to see the “why,” the answer to the fog we find stifling us. Why would we try to answer such a question? For economists and policy makers it is of course essential, to avoid another future crisis. However, for the majority of us, the more important questions are, how do we address the reality we find ourselves in, how can we grow our nation in a more wholesome way, and how can we act—individually and communally—to ensure our behavior does not jeopardize the well-being of others?
Hundreds of the Buddha’s teachings could be applied as instructional guides to finding our feet amongst our country’s shaken foundation. So could the teachings of many other spiritual teachers. It is essential to see where we have fallen short individually and as a collective. Re-adjusting our perspective does not depend on one spiritual model, but on a fundamental compassion that moves through the boundaries we have set amongst ourselves: ethnicity, religion, class, education.
While many of us weep as the palace falls about us, we may find cause to celebrate the awakening to a new world—one not founded upon an illusion of prosperity, but grounded in the knowledge of impermanence and the sheer beauty of all life’s interdependency.