Settled Unsettling

Leave taking

I have always wondered why the Buddha left his wife and child and went into the forest. The usual explanations are pretty patriarchal aren’t they, e.g.,
– that he was escaping from the bonds that tie us to this earthly life.
– Attachment brings suffering. etc.

Here’s how that story is told: A sensitive young man is brought up in the lap of luxury. He is the favored child of his father, who doesn’t want him to be exposed to the cruel ways of reality. A new father, he goes for a ride with his charioteer, and is exposed to disease, deprivation and death. What does he do? He goes back home, takes leave of his sleeping wife and child and heads off to the forest, to meditate and to end the cycle of suffering. Six hard years of practice and asceticism later, he becomes the Buddha, the Tathagatha, the Enlightened one.

Something does not compute.

Why would a sensitive man, a royal to boot, flee upon seeing disease and deprivation? Why not stay and work for the welfare of his subjects? I know that his father was not a king but the tribal chief of a republic but still, Siddhartha had the mandate to change the world and not just study it.

Further, why did Siddhartha leave his family? No royal personage has ever had childcare responsibilities. When was the last time you saw the Dalai Lama changing diapers? How many religions have been founded by women leaving their families behind?

Tennis on the Outside

There’s also the possibility he never went into the forest. My mother wanted me to play tennis. I wanted to play cricket. So I used to wear my tennis uniform every evening, walk around the corner and take a long detour to the park where my friends were putting bat to ball. Tennis on the outside, cricket on the inside. Everyone was happy.

Perhaps the Buddha also switched cricket for tennis, and went to study theater at the Pataliputra School of Arts and came back six years later with a dramatically better ability to deliver his lines. Or perhaps he was struggling to write a PhD thesis on Postvedic studies. Six years is about the time it takes to get a doctorate and it’s easy enough to confuse passing one’s defense for Nirvana.

Settled Unsettling

We can’t really imagine what it’s like to escape civilization. Maybe there’s a place or two in the Amazon or the forests of Borneo where you can check out of Hotel California, but most of us can’t leave. Settler civilization is a world spanning enterprise.

In contrast, the Buddha’s world was still learning the ways of settler humanity. The forest started at the outskirts of the city, sometimes right in the middle. Which also means that alternatives to settlements were right there, requiring no more than an hour or two of walking.

We are taught the Buddhist path as a series of insights into the nature of reality: impermanence, dependent origination etc, but in human terms, the greatest achievement might have been the creation of the Sangha, the first major monastic tradition in the world.

What does it mean to create an institution around traveling monks?

It’s a strange combination. Large scale institution building is a settler thing; who else would agree upon the rules for coordinating actions of people who don’t see each other? But the early forest monks, including the Buddha, were unsettlers by definition. In combining the rule making of institutionalized life and the leave-taking of forest life, the Sangha created an interface between the settled world and the unsettled world, an existential Narasimha.

Zen takes that merger to the extreme – rigid discipline combined with koan practices of unsettling every belief. People create the most amazing things.

The sangha is an experiment in settled unsettling. But now that experiment has run its course. Capitalism, i.e., the supreme achievement of settler humanity, has absorbed all traditional forms of unsettling: creativity has become innovation, dhyan has become mindfulness.

The only real alternative to settler humanity in the last two hundred years has been politics and revolution, but even that dream is attached to the hip to the nation state, the second most important achievement of settler humanity.

How can we unsettle the state and the market? Which forest will teach us that trick?


A Good Death


One of my college classmates was an excellent hockey player and a true sportsman. The cricket grounds where I spent my evenings abutted the hockey field. D* and I spent many hours chatting on the sidelines and in the evenings after practice. One evening as we were musing about the purpose of life, D told me the story of his grandmother.

D’s grandmother lived in a mid-size town in Rajasthan. She had lost her husband many years ago. Despite the tragedy, which could spell disaster in a largely patriarchal society, D’s dadi and her family thrived, producing several successful professionals. D was the last son of dadi’s last son. She must have been in her late sixties by the time D was born; she had great grandchildren who were older than D. By the time D went to college dadi was in her late eighties.

D was close to his dadi, as youngest grandchildren often are to their grandparents. He had a hard time being away from his family and the close knit world of small town Rajasthan. Those days we didn’t have phones, so communication was conducted by letter. One day D received a letter from his grandmother – probably written by someone else, since she was illiterate – asking him to come home as soon as possible.

D left immediately, suspecting the worst. When he reached home, D was surprised when dadi greeted him at the door, looking as fit as an eighty seven year old could look. The house was clearly in disarray. A tent was hoisted in the backyard with provisions for cooking and serving guests. Family members, retainers and laborers were going in and out, as if in preparation for a large event.

D asked his dadi if a special event was being planned. Dadi replied nonchalantly “yes, it’s my going away party. I have decided to die.” D, understandably, was a little taken aback. Dadi explained herself while he stood in front of her with his pupils dilated.

She said:

I have lived a long life. I have raised many children and grandchildren. My family is well respected in this town. By God’s grace, I am still healthy and strong. I am not a burden on anyone, but that could change anytime at my age. I want to leave this world while I am still loved by the people around me.

I am throwing this feast as a mark of my going away. The house, the farmland and all my valuables have all been apportioned among my children. I know it’s time for me to go.

D was taken aback by dadi’s declaration but something in him understood her rationale. He threw himself into the preparations for the feast. The day of the feast, dadi wore her best sari and decked herself in her wedding jewelry. She greeted every guest individually as they came into the tent. Everyone had a wonderful time; there was no trace of morbidity or sniggering. After the feast, the family met in the house to discuss the division of property. D went back to college. A week later, dadi passed away in her sleep.

Limits to Wellbeing

What makes a person believe that they have lived long enough? Can we live without burdening others, both as individuals and as a species? How can the good life end with a good death? These are some of the questions raised by dadi’s story.

We know that wellbeing is different from mere accumulation of money, fame and power. Beyond a point, these don’t add to our wellbeing. It’s perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, to decry the accumulation of wealth. The sharing economy would have us believe that true flourishing lies in good health, deep human relations, communion with nature and satisfying work.

However, all these ideas about “soft currency” sidestep the primal fear of death. Human beings are conscious of their mortality. A time comes in every one’s life when they actively think about their own absence. Consider the profession most concerned with wellbeing, the medical profession. It has two main concerns: returning the body to it’s homeostatic condition after an illness or injury and the prevention of death. We have developed an intricate system of acute care so that we don’t die on the street when run over by a car or die of infections. From vaccines to emergency care, much of the miracle of modern medicine is it’s success in preventing morbidity.

Citizens of the developed world have a tacit belief in the “right to immortality,” that human life must be prolonged under all circumstances. That tacit belief is seen in three institutionalized responses to the fear of death:

1. Prevention of morbidity – broadly, reducing the risk of death through accidents, infections and other illnesses.
2. Lifespan expansion: choices, technologies and institutions devoted to making us live an ever longer life.
3. Prolonged death: infrastructure devoted to extending the lives of those who have entered the dying process.

Can that be taken too far? Is the human right to life paramount?