From a Lecture by Dr. Stuart Horn
Buddha was a regular human, born as Siddhartha, who had an experience of encountering suffering and asked, “Is it possible to live a meaningful life without fear and anxiety”? We may find ourselves asking similar questions, just like Siddhartha. I think the crucial piece of that story, the story of Siddhartha’s encounter with sickness, old age, and death, is when he realized that these are unavoidable aspects of the human experience. When he really understood that, when he really saw that clearly and deeply, then it was impossible for him to continue to live the way he had been living. He couldn’t keep on with his sheltered and pampered life. At the time, he was the oldest son and set to inherit the throne. He had a wife and a child, he had all the comforts and entertainments available at the time, and yet he was prepared to give all of that up because his experience of the inescapability of old age, sickness, and death put his life in a completely different perspective. This is something we all have to experience and grapple with: how can we live this life when we know we will all get sick, age, and die? If you really meditate on death, your own death, giving up all that you hold dear—possessions and people you love—that is very difficult for most of us. We don’t want to think about that.
Ponlop Rinpoche has often said the fear of dying, whether on the conscious or unconscious level, basically shapes how we behave in the world. It is the ultimate question and experience we have to confront: the reality of our own mortality. And it was this that the Buddha encountered fully.
There were so many views in India at the time that addressed this, just like there are many approaches to this reality today. The Buddha encountered different teachers, teachings, and practices. The main teaching that was prevalent at that time was to renounce or avoid all the things of this life. So the popular approach was to avoid, dissociate, and even cause pain to the body. But as he practiced this he realized it wasn’t working. So he gave that all up. And this is a profound teaching and a good lesson for us. For the Buddha’s path is a practical path. He didn’t think I have to do this or I will be a failure, unpopular, become a sinner, or go to hell. He was very pragmatic. He realized this was not working, and even though everyone told him (including his closest companions) it was the way to go, he walked away. Then he sat down in meditation and thought, “I am just going to look at my mind because that is where fear and anxiety is found.”
And this is a very practical teaching. It isn’t something to believe blindly. That is why the Buddha walked away when things weren’t working. We must have our own experience and our own wisdom, our own skillfulness. What the Buddha is saying is take responsibility for your own mind because nobody else is going to save you or liberate you. If you understand your mind and who you are, if you understand what is going on inside of you then you will begin to understand and free yourself from suffering and be of great benefit to others. You will be able to help people because you won’t be forcing people to accept something or trying to lay your trip on them. You can help them liberate themselves. Take responsibility, question, challenge, be skeptical, doubt. This is one of the central teachings of Rinpoche in these first two chapters of the Introduction to Buddhism text. The Buddha says each one of us must come to certainty about our own mind. If you apply teachings do they make you more compassionate? Do they make you kinder? Because that is what Buddhism is all about. If you walk away from teachings angry, biased, hostile, and cynical then what is the point of those teachings? These teachings, Buddha’s teachings, should make you kinder, more compassionate, and make you better able to be of benefit to others.