The story of how the Buddha got started on his path to enlightenment goes something like this: He was born around 500 BC, a wealthy prince in India with all the associated trappings. His parents wanted to protect him from seeing the pain of living, mostly because they wanted him to focus on his role as a prince, and not get distracted by those larger questions about life. He lived in relative happiness as a prince until he was nearly 30. In the meantime, he got married and fathered one son.
The story goes that one day the future Buddha, then known as Prince Siddartha, left the palace by chariot on some sort of errand. They passed by a man who was quite old and frail, and the prince asked his Charioteer Channa what was wrong with the man. Channa replied that the man was simply old and that everyone will get old. This surprised the prince. They then passed a man who was quite ill and in agony. Again the prince asked what this was, and Channa replied that this man was sick, and that everyone will get sick during their lives. Finally, they passed a corpse, and the prince asked what this was, and Channa told him that the corpse was a dead person, and that everyone eventually dies.
Seeing all of this, the prince began to wonder about old age, sickness, and death, and he was inspired to find out how he could help people overcome the suffering that these states create. Not long after this, he left his family and set out to try to answer those questions for himself. His journey to enlightenment was driven by his intention to answer his questions. And this unique journey is what lead to his final enlightenment, or waking up to what really is.
When I was young, I sometimes lay awake nights asking myself questions about the universe. What are the billions of other people in the world doing right now – are they really there when I don’t see them? How can we not repress our emotions and also not spew them out in ways that alienate others? Can my dog really understand what I am saying? Are the people I see in my dreams really with me then or is it just in my mind? Not all of my questions were profound, but they were my questions and they were guideposts for my own journey into adulthood.
Recently I have begun to wonder whether I am still focused on my own questions, or whether I am instead trying to answer the questions of others. Martin Luther King, Jr. followed his own questions, which he articulated in many of his speeches, including: Can this country really operate as if all men were created equal? And can former slaves, and the sons of former slave owners sit down together in brotherhood? American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron asked whether her depression could really be a doorway into understanding. Her question led her into a surprising and authentic life of living and teaching mindfulness. I think if we look at the people we see living authentic lives, we will find that they are following their own questions.
We each have a particular way of shaping ourselves in the world. To take on someone else’s conversational style and to keep repeating other people’s questions as if they were our own is to exhaust ourselves. It doesn’t matter if it is the thoughts of Socrates or Susan Sontag. Read and admire, but then go back to first principles and ask the question yourself in your own way. Dare to disagree. — David Whyte
We are not Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha, Martin Luther King, or Pema Chodron. And we may look to these or other guides to help us formulate our questions. But if we really want to wake up, we need to find our own questions. What is it that we want to know in this short lifetime? And we need more than the mere minutes between events to find our deepest questions, we need to take the time to sit still and see what is calling us today. What are the questions that call to us to be answered? Can we let our lives be guided by those questions? As the poet Mary Oliver asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”