Last week I went to the Apple Store in George St with the friend I mentioned in my last post (the one who thinks that Buddhism makes you want to kill yourself). She gave me the low-down on the cheapest way to get yourself an iPhone, and showed me some of the cool features of the iPad. We discussed the ethics of remaining loyal to Apple, or going over to a competitor who has “reverse-engineered” (ie ripped-off) the iPhone, but made its operating system open-source, so there can be free exchange of new applications.
In amongst all this, I mentioned my last blog-post about suicide and rebirth. My friend immediately reiterated her view that the teachings of the Buddha encourage a wholesale rejection of the life of the world. I mentioned the story of Prince Siddhartha abandoning his life in the palace and she leapt on the example, insisting that as a young prince, Siddhartha had everything the world could offer, and he rejected it. I questioned whether a prince’s life is really so ideal; has Prince Charles’ life been that easy? What about all the expectations laid upon someone in this position? My friend dismissed these doubts: Prince Siddhartha wasn’t Prince Charles; he was a prince in ancient India, endowed with every luxury, every pleasure that life can offer a young man. But he saw all this as suffering, and the religion he started encourages us to see it the same way. No i-phone for a true disciple of the Buddha.
I had to admit that I had become suspicious of my own desire to believe that Siddhartha might have left the palace, not out of a sense that all worldly pleasure is suffering, but simply out of an expansive desire to live more fully. When he rode away on his white horse, his wife had just given birth to a son. Surely the decision to abandon them, without even letting himself see his new-born child, must have been made in a state of anguish. The idea that he was just calmly choosing an open-source life over a more protected one based on family loyalty doesn’t seem plausible. So why did he leave his wife and son? This is an aspect of the Buddha’s life that has troubled many people.
In the middle of the Apple Store, I put forward a half-serious hypothesis: maybe Prince Siddhartha was gay. He felt that his life was a sham, that he was playing a role he couldn’t sustain, and the birth of a son made this painfully apparent. How could he be a father, a model for his child, when he was living a lie? He couldn’t enjoy the luxuries laid daily at his feet, or the even greater pleasures of fatherhood, because he felt he didn’t deserve them. Tormented by his own lack of integrity, he turned away from the people he most loved and went into voluntary exile. This was only the first step in his punishing treatment of himself. He then took up the most extreme possible ascetic practices, expressing his self-hatred in visceral form.
He went on like this until he had almost killed himself. His life would have ended in suicide if not for a simple act of kindness from a woman called Sujata. Finding him on the verge of starvation, she offered him some milk-rice, and he ate it. This was the second major turning-point in Siddhartha’s life-story, one that is too often overlooked, especially in Theravadan Buddhist circles: the turn back toward life, and self-acceptance. At last he began to take care of himself, and appreciate the good things that were offered to him. He saw that life is not just suffering and causes of suffering: there is also the ending of suffering, and the way to the ending of suffering. The noble truth is not two-fold, but four-fold. This is the insight that prevented Siddhartha from killing himself, allowed him to find the middle way that leads to enlightenment, and enabled him to found a spiritual community that would come to include his wife and son.
Of course, it’s possible to tell the story this way without supposing that Prince Siddhartha was gay – there could have been some other trigger for the crisis that led him to abandon his young family and walk away from the life of plenty he was born to. But to my mind, there is a certain restrained gay sensibility in the teachings of the Buddha. Maybe it’s just that his perspective comes from outside mainstream, heterosexual society, and that a lot of the teachings are concerned with men who spend most of their lives in the company of other men, and develop their deepest friendships in this context. There’s also a certain archly humourous take on the foibles of human nature, and the occasional outburst when the Buddha excoriates some poor monk who’s asked the wrong question by telling him and everyone listening what an idiot he is. When reading the suttas, there are times when I feel I could almost be reading Patrick White - which is a compliment to the great Australian novelist as well as a testament to how entertaining, as well as enlightening, the suttas can be.
|Patrick White - looking startled at being compared to the Buddha|