During our current physical distancing and Covid-19 Stay Home rules, I recognize that “Leaving the Palace” may seem like an odd topic to be writing about. But bear with me. If we are seeking to invite mindfulness into our daily experience, then a bit of background on the origins of the practice is helpful.
I have been studying Buddhism for decades now, and I am always drawn back to the basic teachings during uncertain times. While many religions are based on a single text (like the Bible, Koran, or Torah), Buddhists learn about Buddhism through the original oral teachings of the Buddha – called “sutras” when written down; commentaries on those sutras by great teachers who came after the Buddha; and stories of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha’s early life is one of those stories. It’s about how he left the palace to seek understanding beyond what he assumed to be true.
Buddha was raised in a royal household, as a Prince (Prince Gautama). His parents were said to love him very dearly and wanted to protect him and give him everything. They provided him with all the material comforts, music, youthful and beautiful friends, parties, the finest food. And yet, he began to ask questions. He began to wonder “is this all there is?” He got curious.
So, Prince Gautama began to venture outside the palace walls with his attendant. On these trips, he encountered common people who were poor and lived simple lives. He experienced the “Three Shocks” on these forays beyond the palace. In succession, he saw an old person, a sick person, and a dead person. His curiosity and need to know more overtook him. He asked his attendant, he asked his parents, and he found out that human life includes suffering and impermanence, knowledge of which he had been totally sheltered from.
On a fourth encounter, he saw a holy person, who seemed content and at peace despite the realities of old age, sickness, and death. And from that point, he vowed to leave the palace, enter the life of a mendicant and holy seeker, and to practice mindfulness. He traveled far and wide to find out why life unfolds as it does. The Buddha wished to find his true identity. He sought truth and was willing to undergo many hardships to find the answers, which he felt he could only accomplish by leaving behind the life of the palace.
While we are in this societal pause, normal life is slowed down and brought to ground. We might feel difficult emotions and uprootedness. When we can process what’s happening clearly, we also have an opportunity to “leave the palace” of our assumptions and seek new truths. We can all see that the systems we have – healthcare, education, financial, labor, government, and so on – are much more fragile than we thought. Much more interdependent than we thought. But also as unjust as many have been saying all along.
We are seeing through this present journey, with the aid of mindfulness and attention, that we need robust, compassionate, and planful support systems if we want a healthy society. We have this chance to now “leave the palace” and resist returning to our individualistic, winner-takes-all approach. To take care of our local communities, to support the health and well being of all, to redistribute wealth through fair and just tax codes, business and labor laws, and low cost/free and bias-free educational opportunity.
Like the Buddha, we could now leave the palace of a false and illusionary life, the life of ignoring the larger reality – like a TV life, devoid of mindfulness. We can seek answers to why we bring unnecessary suffering on ourselves and others. We could vow to explore and seek a better way to live. Dr. Joanna Macy and The Work that Reconnects describes this process as “Seeing with New Eyes,” which enables the Great Turning — moving from harmful systems toward life-enhancing systems that protect all of us and the earth.
Like the Buddha, we could leave the palace beginning now and begin to move toward a truly compassionate society.