Reading “Buddhism Plain and Simple” the other day, I was struck anew by the story of the Buddha’s life. You might recall that the Buddha was the son of the king of a small kingdom in northeast India, but gave up a life of royal privilege when he became aware that his wealth and pleasure could not protect him from old age, illness, and death. Reading the story this time, I realized that the Buddha’s insight into the human condition must have been a deep one to motivate him to give up his very pleasant life.
Contemplating this story, I became aware for the first time, that the story of the Buddha’s home leaving actually applies to my life as well. While I am not the son of a ruler, compared to many—maybe most—people in the world and, perhaps, even compared to the life the Buddha led, I do lead a life of luxury. I don’t have human servants, but I do have technological ones: lighting, heating, computers, radio, TV, movies, automobiles, easy access to food and so on.
Do I see as deeply as the Buddha did that all these luxuries are never going to fully satisfy, that I need to face the realities of illness, old age, and death? Do I have the depth of insight necessary to give up my attachment to the way I am able to live?
While I have been practicing according to the buddha-dharma for a long time, I can see now, how I attached I am to the fleeting pleasures of my life—and, ultimately, to my idea of my self. So often I ignore the realities of my life and mindlessly allow my mental habits take over. If I’m feeling uneasy, maybe I should do a crossword or watch a basketball game or check my email or maybe indulge in some good old-fashioned self-pity or criticism.
Now, let me back up a minute. I don’t mean to say that enjoying oneself with friends, family, a good movie or book, going to a party, having a good meal—even watching the next episode of Downton Abbey—are bad and to be discarded. The Buddha himself discovered that denying all sense pleasures—whether—asceticism—is extreme, harsh and futile. It’s just the other side of the coin of the equally futile indulging in sense pleasures.
The key here is attachment and our mental habits. If we hold to these pleasures believing that they will ultimately bring satisfaction, then that is dukkha, suffering, dissatisfaction.
To develop the insight of impermanence, we need to mindfully examine our lives. In doing so, and understanding the truth of impermanence, we will see for ourselves that pleasures—and pains— continually arise and cease and we will naturally stop attaching to them. We can enjoy them as they pass. As William Blake wrote:
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sun rise.
It’s often said that we should practice as if our hair were on fire. The Buddha recognized the urgency of the problem of suffering, that his “hair was on fire.” I know now that I need to take a deeper look at life, to mindfully examine what arises for me and begin to see more clearly for myself the truth of impermanence. Only by making this insight my own, will I be able to “leave home” as the Buddha did and discover the source of true happiness within.
Though the Buddha physically left home to discover Truth, we don’t have to physically leave our homes and way of life to discover Truth. We do, however, need to leave the false “home” of our all too comfortable mental habits of avoidance, denial, and attachment. By doing so, we actually find our True Home, our True Selves which we have never been apart from and which is our only solid source of ease, freedom, and happiness.