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 this world. A new father, he goes for a ride with his charioteer, and is exposed to disease and deprivation. 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 strikes gold and is revealed as the Buddha, the Tathagatha, the Enlightened one.

Is it just me or does something not compute? Why would a sensitive man, a royal to boot, flee when he sees 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 hopefully you get my point. Furthermore, why did Siddhartha leave his family? It’s not as if his wife and son were fetters (as Prince Siddhartha was supposed to have uttered when he saw his newborn son). No royal personage I know of has had any real childcare responsibilities. When was the last time you saw the Dalai Lama changing diapers?

Twenty five hundred years later, when another young man was subjected to overt discrimination, he did what we expect modern human beings to do, which is to start a political movement. Perhaps the difference between the Buddha and Gandhi was that ancient Indians didnt care about objective or intersubjective knowledge, preferring instead to look inside themselves. That would be the classical stereotype of the Hindu as a navel gazer while westerners are all about understanding and changing the external world. One can’t take this idea seriously either, given what we know about the argumentative traditions in Indian thought, and that the forest communities where the Buddha honed his meditative skills were also intellectual centers.

The sceptic might say that the story is just allegorical, that the scenes of deprivation were not so stark and that the man was not so priveleged. He was just an upper middle class type fleeing responsibilities. I seriously doubt this revisionist scenario since it doesn’t do justice to the existential radicalism of the Buddha. Furthermore, in the Buddha-to-be’s era, the forest was a hotbed of radical experimentation, the Parisian cafe of his time. The Buddha was no recluse, he studied with some of the best teachers of his era and then spent most of his post-Buddha decades living close to cities, where he could talk to other sophisticated thinkers. So the idyllic myth of going away into the wilderness to meditate (The Buddha as Thoreau) does not make any sense either.

I guess what I am trying to say here is that the original gesture (of leaving home) has profound existential import, which prefigures a great deal of the Buddha’s message. It says much about the Buddhist conception of the world (Samsara, to be precise) and what it means to drop Samsara as a whole. How is that even possible? What does it mean for a finite being to say that the very condition of finiteness can be dropped? These are profound questions that are hidden behind the romantic facade of leaving home in the pursuit of truth. It’s a pity that Buddhists rarely talk about the meaning of this gesture.