When most people think of Buddhism, their first associations are probably of meditation or peacefulness. These associations are not incorrect, but they are not the whole story. Siddhartha Gautama, a clan prince of 5th century B.C. India, was indeed a world-renowned spiritual leader known as the Buddha, but what is less well known is that according to scriptural accounts of his life, he was born into a ruling warrior caste and as a young man lived a privileged existence “wholly given over to pleasure.” He was also a warrior, “surpassing the prowess of the most expert archers of the land.” As his clan engaged in many wars, Siddhartha undoubtedly led soldiers and killed many men in battle. It was only at the age of 29 that he left all of that behind to become a sadhu, a wandering celibate monk. He lived on into his mid-seventies as a leader and teacher of a monastic community, in which the rigid caste system of the larger society was completely rejected, and whose members lived a strict ethical life whose cardinal principle was ahimsa, which means non-injury, or non-killing.
Thus the Buddha’s life story is a compelling tale of radical male transformation, one that has echoes in today’s world, which—like the ancient society in which he lived–is dominated by men of wealth and power. Siddhartha as a prince possessed the three treasures that most men of privilege covet—power, money, and women. But as a monk he taught three different treasures: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha—meaning the teacher, the teachings, and the community. His life story is overlaid with accretions of legend and myth—though there is archeological proof that his clan family did exist—but regardless of its fairy-tale aspects, the story resonates with deep psychological truth. Men of privilege rarely throw their power away in the pursuit of a nobler purpose, but it does happen. St. Francis of Assisi is a Western figure with a similar story. He too was born into a life of privilege. “He was handsome, witty, gallant, and delighted in fine clothes,” says Wikipedia. But after a spiritual epiphany he left all that behind to become a saintly spiritual teacher and lover of animals and nature.
What transforms men such as Siddhartha or St. Francis? What process or alchemy occurs within them that totally changes the kind of man they are? We do know that such a transformation happens all too rarely. It is much more common that men of privilege spend their entire lives finding ways to increase and consolidate their wealth and prestige, most often at the expense of other peoples’ suffering about which such men care little.
Another misconception about the Buddha is that he left home to seek enlightenment. Yes, in a way that is true, but prior to that goal taking shape in his mind, his life story tells of the distress he felt when for the first time, venturing forth from the protection of his palace walls (psychologically, his self-centered ego) he saw the poverty, disease, and desperation that afflicted the populace. Seeing all this, his heart burst open. He felt he had to find out some way to relieve the suffering he now saw was the true state of the world. That was his pre-eminent motivation–to help other people–spurred by a deep compassion and empathy for those less fortunate than himself. We can only imagine the tears that flowed down his face as this profound vision and purpose presented itself to his tender spirit.
I have been a Buddhist student and teacher for most of my adult life, but when I think of this story I never fail to be moved–both by the unlikelihood of it and its inspiring courage. In our present world beset everywhere with greed and ignorance, why are there not more such men? The Buddha showed us that such a transformation is possible. In the present day, can such men still appear?
Note: the scriptural quotes above are from the excellent book The Buddha: His Life Retold by Robert Allen Mitchell. It is out of print, but available used from Amazon.