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If the clouds clear tonight we’ll see the May full moon, traditionally called the Full Flower Moon to match the Spring blossoming. It will also bring to a close the Buddha Day Festival, when Buddhists around the world celebrate the birth and enlightenment of the Buddha. But the episode that resonates most strongly for me in the face of Covid-19 is the experience that starts the young Gautama on his spiritual journey.
He has a privileged, aristocratic upbringing. Details are scant in the earliest sources, but the legendary versions – which developed in poems and artworks in the centuries after the Buddha’s death – show him growing up in a royal palace, surrounded by luxury and given everything he wants. In some versions his father, the King, deliberately cocoons his son from anything that might cause him pain, for fear of the anguished reflections this might prompt.
Clearly, we are in the realm of myth, and the point of the story is not whether any of this happened to a real person but the image it creates of a certain way of living.
One day, Gautama goes outside the palace and encounters what are traditionally known as The Four Sights. First he sees a sick person; then an old person; and then a corpse. The effect is devastating. Perhaps he has seen old, sick or dead people before, but now he realises with shattering clarity that their fate is an inescapable fact of life, and that he is vulnerable to that same fate, like everyone else.
The fourth sight is a holy man: a shramana who has left behind the illusory security of conventional society; and Gautama decides to follow his model. He becomes a shramana himself, leaving home to find a deeper source of meaning. Henceforth, he will live without security and explore what it means to fully acknowledge suffering and impermanence. The culmination of his quest in Awakening or Enlightenment is traditionally likened to the emergence of the full moon from behind a cloud.
Most of us are still reeling from the speed with which Covid 19, our collective encounter with the Four Sights, has disrupted our lives. Our efforts are rightly directed to managing the impact and looking beyond this period. But it’s worth reflecting that in Buddhism old age, disease and death are called The Divine Messengers: whispered reminders that call us to greater humility and challenge us to live our short lives authentically with full awareness of their fragility, their transience and their potential splendour.
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