The Palace of Ignorance

Buddhism: Day 8 and 9

The story of the Buddha is quite fascinating. The Buddha was actually born as Prince Siddhartha around the 5th century BCE, the heir of a ruling family. This guy had it made. He was good looking, had his own palace, a beautiful wife, and he was intelligent to boot.

His overprotective father wanted to groom Siddhartha to become the next king, but he noticed Siddhartha had a particularly gentle nature. This worried him.

He then developed a plan to insulate Siddhartha from the harsh realities of life; if he was exposed to say, a sick or dying person, Siddhartha might become so distraught that he would abandon the throne.

The king kept Siddhartha locked up for many years. When he would go outside of the palace, he would have servants scout the area and ensure nothing decrepit was in their path.

Unfortunately for the King, the plan didn’t work.

Siddhartha took three excursions into his kingdom.

On his first trip, he encountered someone who was bent over in pain and suffering from sickness.

On his second trip, he encountered an old person who looked like he was in pain.

On his third trip, he encountered a corpse.

Siddhartha, predictably, was quite disturbed by what he saw and wondered how anyone could be happy when there was death and suffering in the world.

On his final excursion, Siddhartha came across a homeless wanderer who seemed calm and determined. This man was an ascetic. After asking the wanderer who he was, Siddhartha understood that this was the path he must take, to give everything up to find a way out of suffering.

Siddhartha, after years of asceticism and a near death experience, plops down in front of the Bodhi tree and reaches enlightenment, at which point he becomes known as the Buddha.

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The story, possibly apocryphal, seems a bit absurd. How could the Buddha not know anything about sickness and death for 30 years or so, even if his father locked him up in the palace? Isn’t it intuitive that there is suffering in the world?

But let’s examine our own lives for a minute. How often do we take a moment to truly observe suffering in the world?

Intellectually, we know that there are poor and sick people, people who have suffered terrible tragedies.

But most of the time, we go about our day-to-day acting as if nothing was wrong.

And when we do encounter pain or suffering, we do our best to either pretend it doesn’t exist or do our best to make it go away through artificial means.

Let’s take a relatively small thing like physical discomfort, say, an excruciatingly hot summer day.

If we’re outside, we may realize it’s hot and suffer through it for a few minutes, but we eventually retreat to the comfortable confines of our air conditioned apartment or office.

We no longer have to think about discomfort, as we just made it go away with technology.

Now, let’s take something a little more severe. Let’s say you encounter a homeless man. You may give him a few bucks, or you may not, and you may feel a twinge of sympathy, but you will eventually go about your day and forget about him.

Are we not, in fact, creating our own “palace of ignorance” when we forget about suffering? It’s as if we are our own overprotective father, afraid to let ourselves see the true nature of the world.

But is this really a problem? I like air conditioning. I’d rather be cool than hot, and if I have access to it, why shouldn’t take advantage? I also realize it’s unlikely that I will be the one to cure homelessness, so why bother thinking about it more than I have to?

Unfortunately, ignorance can only work temporarily.

By refusing to indulge in thoughts about suffering, we are training ourselves to view suffering as an aberration, an anomaly or disturbance of our regular lives.

Then, when we encounter suffering that we can’t alleviate with modern technology or a retreat into ignorance, we don’t know what to do and end up miserable.

The Four Noble Truths state the following:

  1. There is suffering
  2. There is a cause of suffering (attachment)
  3. There is a way to end suffering
  4. There is a path that will help us avoid things that lead to suffering (Eightfold Path)

In a prosperous modern society, it’s almost as if we deliberately try to ignore the First Noble Truth, which says there is suffering.

Intellectually, we are aware, but we don’t dwell on it. Go to any middle-class suburban neighborhood and you’ll see the extent to which we try to hide the fact that there is suffering in the world.

Because we ignore the First Noble Truth, we can’t really understand the cause of suffering or the correct path to ending suffering.

Modernity doesn’t try to solve suffering by trying to fix the mind, it tries to solve it with technology. Modern medicine is a great advancement, but it encourages the illusion that we can avoid sickness (and even death) indefinitely. Economic achievement has brought millions out of poverty, but has encouraged a culture of a materialism that also leads to unhappiness.

We eventually encounter a situation for which there is no modern solution, no metaphorical “air conditioning” that can end the pain we feel.

What do we do then?

  • elizabeth
  • Diyana Zuraimi

    How would you balance between being acutely aware of the suffering in the world with Stoic teaching of letting go what you can’t control? In this case, isn’t ignorance better for mental tranquility?

    • I think the problem with ignorance is that it’s never total. There will always be some exposure to real suffering that you cannot ignore. It doesn’t mean you should try to control it though, just accept it for what it is.