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When Siddhartha Gautama saw the old and the sick for the first time, why did he run off to contemplate instead of using his enormous wealth and privilege to do some actual good — like, by actually lessening human suffering instead of just talking about it as a personal metaphysical problem? Doesn’t Buddhism on some level reduce to the message “Poor people are gross. Get me out of here!”
Thanks for your question. If you look at the Buddha’s life from an ordinary, material worldview, using one’s wealth and fame to help the marginalized does alleviate some of the suffering they experience in the short-term.
However, the Buddha recognized a deeper truth—that all the material aid in the world cannot prevent aging, sickness, and death. He saw that no amount of wealth and status can stop the cycle of suffering that presents itself in those three “messengers” he famously encountered on his excursions outside the palace gates—the sick person, the old person, and the corpse. Seeing these compelled him to leave the palace life to find out why suffering happens and how this cycle can be stopped.
It is important to understand the Buddhist worldview that believes in rebirth, karma, and the possibility of liberation from birth, aging sickness, death, and all the relentless dissatisfaction of our existence. At the time Siddhartha saw the sick, old, and deceased, he was still an ordinary being; he was not yet fully enlightened. As a prince, his parent had sheltered him so this was his first contact with such human misery and he didn’t understand what it was on either a practical level or on a spiritual level. Clearly it affected him deeply, and he sought the deeper causes for human suffering—causes that no wealth or medical expertise could remedy.
A Simple Life
After leaving the princely life, Siddhartha became a wandering mendicant, as was common at that time. He lived a simple life, without a home, a pantry full of food, and so on. Contented with little, he showed that it is possible to be happy without being a materialistic consumer. In this way, he used far less than his share of the earth’s resources and gave away whatever he received that was not necessary to sustain his life.
Through his deep meditation practice, he realized the true nature of all things. He clearly saw the role that craving, clinging, anger, jealousy, ignorance, arrogance, and confusion play in causing our own misery as well as the suffering of others and of society as a whole. By practicing the path, he freed himself from all these mental faults, as well as the self-centered attitude that cares more about self than other living beings. He also cultivated love, compassion, joy, and equanimity toward all beings, no matter their age, health, social status, wealth, and so forth.
With great compassion, the Buddha walked the earth for 45 years after his enlightenment, sharing his wisdom, beginning with his first teaching on the Four Noble Truths. People have continued to use the Buddha’s teachings and practices to free themselves from the cycle of existence in the two and a half millennia since he lived. And just like the Buddha, part of our practice is to help those in need with the time, resources, and talents we all uniquely have.
Examine Our Own Minds
Do you really think that a great spiritual leader such as the Buddha, whose teachings are based on wisdom and compassion, came to be revered by the world because his teachings boiled down to “Poor people are gross. Get me out of here”? Or is it more useful to us as individuals and to the world to examine our own minds, see where our self-centered attitude limits our ability to reach out and help others, and then apply the antidotes the Buddha taught to overcome our ignorance, self-centeredness, and apathy regarding others’ suffering? In this way, we will be able to be of practical as well as spiritual benefit to others.
Ven. Thubten Semkye was Sravasti Abbey’s first lay resident.
A founder of Friends of Sravasti Abbey, she accepted the position of chairperson to provide the four requisites for the monastic community. Realizing that was a difficult task to do from 350 miles away, she moved to the Abbey in spring 2004.
Although she didn’t originally see ordination in her future, after the 2006 Chenrezig retreat when she spent half of her meditation time reflecting on death and impermanence, Ven. Semkye realized that ordaining would be the wisest, most compassionate use of her life. She became the Abbey’s third nun in 2007. See her ordination photos. In 2010 she received bhikshuni ordination at Miao Fa Chan Temple in Taiwan.
Ven. Semkye draws on her extensive experience in landscaping and horticulture to manage the Abbey’s forests and gardens.