Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.
–Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor
The story goes that the Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama, a prince, about whom there was a prophecy: he might become the greatest king of his age, or he might become a penniless holy man. What decided his fate was whether he became aware of the ills of the world. His father wanted to avoid his son becoming a holy man, so he hid his child behind stout palace walls and decreed that he should never go outside. He would be sheltered from all the evil in the world. He would never see anyone sick, or old, or dying; he would never see crime or punishment or disease or death. He would never know loss or want. He was the only child at the center of a whirlwind of perfection, a non-stop party that lasted from the moment he woke in the morning until he fell asleep at night. He grew up; he married; he had a son. But even his wife’s birthing cries were hidden from him. He knew only that the birth of a child meant an even bigger party.
The story also goes that, in the depths of night, he saw all his father’s courtiers strewn about him in drunken sleep on the floor, and was disturbed by their state. So he bribed a charioteer to take him outside and show him the real world.
What he saw changed him permanently.
He received what are today called the “devadutas”: messages (almost, in a sense, messengers) from the universe, conveying higher teachings about what it is to be human. He had to have the messages explained to him by his charioteer, because his experience of life had been so limited. It took him many more years to become the Buddha–years of study, privation, and near-death experiences–and he even had to renounce his life as a prince. But the Buddha’s enlightenment began the very first morning he spent outside his father’s palace, because the devadutas had been so potent.
Three specific sights taught him inimitable truths about human existence: a sick person, an old person, and a corpse. (There are two others, but we’ll get to those in a bit. For the moment, we’ll stick with the three lessons that confronted the Buddha that morning.)
Some gritty reminders are in order. In the Buddha’s day, “a sick person,” “an old person,” and “a corpse” meant something inconceivably raw. Sicknesses were often brutally visible: parasitic worms dangled out of people’s skin, lesions and boils erupted from their faces. Nowadays, if people become sick with something like that, they cover it until they’re treated because they can. Back then, they couldn’t, and didn’t. Those around them were merely lucky not to contract whatever it was themselves. And everyone was sick at some point or another, usually unto death. Only the very lucky lived to be old…and by old, I mean “scarred beyond belief by the trials that failed to kill them.” Crippled or missing limbs, missing teeth or eyes, unable to speak or hear or see–that’s what “old” meant then. And corpses? Yikes. Corpses were merely something to be stepped over, like dog poop. They lay where they’d fallen because ew–no one picked that stuff up unless it was theirs. And if that was the case, the dead were taken home, cleaned up, and brought to the charnel ground…to be pulled apart by dogs and other wild animals. Every trip to the charnel ground with a loved one’s body entailed stepping over literal chunks of everyone else’s loved ones still lying half-gnawed and stinking in the dirt.
So when Siddhartha Gautama, a sheltered prince, saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse all in one morning, you can imagine his shock. Those were three lessons he wouldn’t be getting over anytime soon.
We here in the West in the 21st century aren’t princes in the traditional sense, but compared to the way people lived in the Buddha’s time, we live like royalty.
In my childhood, I’d never known anyone sick who didn’t (pretty swiftly) get better. If you were virally sick, you were quarantined until you were in the clear. If you were bacterially sick, you got antibiotics to clear the infection even more swiftly. Several children I went to school with had chronic illnesses, but they were all in various kinds of treatment, and none of them were disfigured, so everyone seemed (on the surface, anyway) healthy. We hustled by those rare houses that contained children who weren’t getting better; our parents discussed them in whispers. And with the self-centeredness of a child I promptly forgot them.
In my childhood, there were people with white hair and wrinkles who complained about their knees, but there really wasn’t anyone I could call “old.” One of my grandfathers shot golf and played pickleball until a year or so before he died at 95. One of my grandmothers gossiped with the ladies at the beauty parlor and watched soap operas and snowbirded from Virginia to Florida until just a few months before her 89th birthday. My other grandmother walked miles a day for exercise and did yoga well into her 70s, and was still a trim 110 pounds well into her 80s. When death came for her, it was a lightning bolt of a stroke; she was gone in a week. Her husband, my other grandfather, was the aberration among my grandparents, dying a slow and painful death of cancer that took everything from him piece by piece. To be fair, three of my grandparents died after bouts with cancer; but, like the sick children of my childhood, their illnesses were almost never in my sphere. My mother’s father was the only exception to that rule, and even then I was protected from most of his distress because I was only ten at the time. My mother served as caregiver and spared us kids the vast majority of that horror.
But even when my mother’s father finally died, the only way I knew it was because my dad got a phone call…and then, a week later, everyone was crying over a patch of grass in a cemetery. I have never once handled a corpse, and I’m in my 40s. I’m not alone in that. For most of my generation and virtually all younger Americans, corpses are only handled by funeral homes. In college I was stunned to learn that the old traditions behind washing and wrapping a corpse served practical purposes. I was equally shocked to find out that Americans had done those duties for their dead in their own houses less than a century previous. I didn’t know; in my childhood, it was a given that any house that had had a person die in it must therefore be haunted, because no one died anywhere but a hospital.
Even though I grew up sheltered, unlike the Buddha I didn’t get the shock of my life when I saw sickness, and the elderly, and death for the first time. After all, I was just a middle-class kid in the ‘burbs, not a prince’s son. So I knew it when my grandfather died brutally of cancer when I was ten. And I found out when my best friend was killed in a traffic accident that year, too, even though we’d moved away before it happened. I met countless World War II veterans who were all too happy to tell me about their war experiences; I met countless Vietnam veterans who were all too visibly undone by theirs. As a child I was still of the world, even though I wasn’t necessarily in it yet.
But as I’ve gotten older, I find that I’m far from the most sheltered among my generation, especially about the stages of life that happen before corpses get involved. There remains a troubling distance between ourselves and the realities of human existence. When I first read about Buddhism after college I was so disheartened and, frankly, disbelieving. What was this “life is suffering” bullshit? The only suffering I saw on a daily basis involved people whining that they chipped a nail, or got stuck working late and missed watching the big game. I had to invoke “children in Africa” as an example of suffering, because I didn’t personally know anyone here in the USA who suffered on that level–or if I did, it was the homeless people on the street corner, and I had the convenient fiction that they were crazy and refusing treatment to excuse their existence back out of my attention span.
[Deep breath here. Yikes. It hurts just typing that paragraph.]
Thank God I grew up some before I got sick, and realized that there were entire worlds right there at my feet. They were hidden from me not by my parents (though there was a little bit of that), or by the media (though there’s a certain amount of that), or even by politicians (though there’s definitely a lot of that)…but by my own spiritual blindness.
So, the classic devadutas:
1) “A sick person.” Even if we live in the blissfully oblivious West, we spend a lot of quality time in this state. Add up every day lost to colds, the flu, surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, broken limbs, and major illness in just your own life. If we’re lucky, we’ll spend merely a few years of our lives sick. If we’re unlucky, we live here, unable to do what other people take utterly for granted every day. Regardless of how long we’re in what Susan Sontag called “the Kingdom of the Sick,” we’re often powerless and under someone else’s care while we’re there. But do politicians or insurance companies want to assume people will get ill, and therefore make sure there’s more than enough money to care for them when they do? No. In fact, it’s the reverse. The assumption is “if,” not “when.” And the coffers are raided accordingly. Do we think first about the accommodations our sick and infirm need when designing buildings they may need to access? God, no. It’s a big thing in architecture to talk about “universal design” now, and that’s happening only because the second-biggest generation of Americans ever born is now getting sick and old in vast numbers. Before them? Screw the sick. They must have done something to deserve it. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It didn’t require a stigmatized illness, like AIDS, for a sick person to receive stigma. Illness of any kind used to be so stigmatized in the West that the diagnosis of cancer or MS was withheld from family members, or even from the sufferer herself. In Italy, to this day, up to 40% of people with MS don’t know they have it because their doctors haven’t told them.)
2) “An old person.” Think being sick is bad? What we call “old age” is actually a progressive, degenerative state of sickness that we dismiss merely because we think we know what causes it. We might spend decades of our lives here, too…if we’re lucky. And we’ll often be powerless and under someone else’s care here, too. It’s a big deal to build places in which senescent folks can amble around without supervision safely. Think about that for a second. Our culture is so fast and scary that it’s literally dangerous to be old. But are there programs that help working families deal with their elderly who may not be able to care for themselves? Very few that are good, and they’re astonishingly expensive, and have waiting lists. The places available to poor folk…well, they’re the modern day examples of how life is suffering.
3) “A corpse.” We’ll spend the rest of forever here. All that comes before it is short in comparison, no matter how long we live. But does anybody live like it? Can we turn on a TV and see anything other than people who are young, beautiful, and “successful”? Sometimes, yes, but if the folks on TV aren’t young, beautiful, and successful, the storyline is that they’re rightfully restless and dissatisfied until they are young, beautiful, and successful. And then they should live like they can take it all with them. How many times have I seen this mantra on a t-shirt: He who dies with the most toys wins. Wins? How? We’re still dead. And the way the West spends the world’s resources, we poisoned the world for the living who remain behind us.
The other two devadutas get a little less press, just because the Buddha didn’t happen to see them on his first foray out of his father’s palace. That doesn’t make them any less potent a message. In fact, they’re the states that take the greatest number of years, on average, out of our useful life spans. And yet we pay them little heed:
4) “An infant.” Of our lives on this Earth, the first twenty years (if we’re lucky) are spent coming into our power…but most of these years are spent completely powerless and under someone else’s care. I once read an interview with a cop who said, “It’s depressingly easy to hide a child’s body.” And I grew up hearing my grandparents talk about what it was like to grow up under the dictum, “Children should be seen and not heard.” Children are so small and defenseless that we like to forget we were ever one. We like to remember the fun parts of being a kid (oh, the sensations! The tastes! The smells! The bodily comfort! The endless days!). We insist on taking stubborn pride in the parts that sucked (“My dad used the belt on me and I turned out fine!”). What we deliberately forget is the danger and disregard that accompanied us every day like our shadows. We adults don’t like to be honest with ourselves (and even less so with our children), but the fact is, as kids, we were often right to be terrified and angry. Thankfully, children aren’t dummies. They are, in fact, often the keenest observers among the human race. They have no “nuance” to filter out truth. I’ve learned the hard way to listen intently to my daughter’s observations. I ignore them at my…and her…peril, both physical and spiritual. When my daughter reminds me of how hard it sometimes sucks to be a kid, I can’t just blow her off. I know she’s right. And for me to disregard her is to train her to disregard herself. She’d grow into an adult who disregards her own feelings until they’re all that drive her, blindly. And what kind of hell is that? How many years do we adults waste being mindlessly driven by the feelings we don’t want to acknowledge? How many years do we adults waste thrashing against what we need to do? Or, in a far more sinister way, how many children (and children who’ve grown into “adults”) go disregarded until they shoot up a school or a concert?
5) “A prisoner, tortured for an evil deed.” We may not all be literal prisoners and literally tortured for evil deeds, but how many of us have wasted literal years on beating ourselves up for mistakes we’ve made…instead of dropping our regrets and simply doing better next time? How many of us choose to live enslaved to our emotional addictions, because attempting change is too scary? How many of us deliberately live powerless, ceding control of our lives to someone else? And for those literal prisoners, how many of them receive sustained compassion from the rest of us? Sustained compassion and soul work are the only things that will help those prisoners survive the experience of being incarcerated for profit in the US, yet the vast majority of them simply don’t receive it…and the rest of us excuse our culpability by saying they brought it on themselves. [Doesn’t that sound kinda perilously like that statement of mine up there about homeless people? Yikes.]
If we add up all those years spent in the devaduta states (the Kingdoms of the Sick, the Old, the Dead, the Children, and the Prisoners), and subtract those years from our total lifespans, what’s left? Being a whole and healthy and powerful adult, free to do as we please, unfettered by regret and uncontrolled by our demons, is practically a blip on the radar of our lives. Many of us never live anywhere else, yet we’re too benighted to see it.
Too many people like to assume, through their political policies and through their daily biases against inhabitants of the devaduta states, that the people in these kingdoms don’t outnumber them. People like to assume that those kingdoms matter less. People like to forget that they’ve ever been in those kingdoms, and want to believe that they will never be in them again.
Being a healthy adult with the weight of the world on my shoulders may have felt like forever, but I’ve been smacked in the face with the following truth: It was a lot shorter time than I thought.