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Excerpted from Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be by Lama Surya Das. Copyright 2004 by Lama Surya Das. Excerpted by permission of Random House, Inc.  All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. HTML and web pages copyright by SpiritSite.com.
 

"He didn't think just about himself, but felt instinctively compelled to seek universal deliverance."

  Lama Surya Das
Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be
, Part 4

Because Suddhodana wanted his son to live the life of a prince, not an ascetic, he decided that he would protect his son from the sight of any suffering. Then, as now, the world was filled with poverty, pain, injustice, sickness, and death. To make sure that his beloved child never came in contact with the miserable aspects of life, the king determined to keep his son in the palace surrounded by high walls and provided with all the luxuries of life. And whenever the young prince appeared reflective or questioned the meaning of life, the king ordered more lavish sporting competitions and entertainments, reminding everyone that the prince was never to go out beyond the palace walls.

Suddhodana was a loving parent; he wanted desperately to shield his son from unhappiness. And, of course, he couldn't, because eventually the young prince Siddhartha convinced his faithful charioteer to take him out into the city. That's when Siddhartha saw those things that he had been sheltered from his entire life. Siddhartha saw a sick man, an elderly crippled man, and a corpse at the cremation ground; for the first time, he saw poverty and pain.

When he ventured beyond his father's palace walls, Siddhartha suddenly became aware of the range of human suffering. Think about how deeply the young prince's innate compassionate heart must have been touched by what he saw. Siddhartha lost his precious innocence. He lost the ability to avoid or deny reality and the fact of the misery that was on display among the people around him. With these losses, everything in Siddhartha's world changed; he became thoughtful and restless. He was disturbed by what he had viewed. 

Siddhartha's encounter with loss readied and prepared him for what he saw on his next trip outside the palace walls. That's when Siddhartha met a wandering ascetic Hindu holy man, a peaceful and radiant sadhu, who seemed to have made peace with life. Siddhartha realized that he needed to understand more about the cyclic nature of life and death; he wanted to find answers that would remedy universal pain and suffering. He made the decision to seek truth on the spiritual path and give up the life he had in favor of the new life that awaited him. He slipped out of his father's palace in the middle of night, under the cover of darkness, while the devas and angels, using their soft wings, muffled the sound of his horse's footsteps.

These four sights, representing sickness, aging, death, and peace, are said by history to be the turning point of youthful Prince Siddhartha's iconic life. Siddhartha's response to the loss of innocence points out something that most of us know. Whenever we lose something--anything--we come to one of life's little crossroads. With every loss or separation comes the possibility of change, growth, and transformation. Each loss provides a genuine opportunity for learning. We can gain through loss if we open ourselves to this counterintuitive jewel. This is the positive kernel that is potentially contained in each loss that any one of us suffers, like the inner irritant that can produce a lustrous pearl.

I love the story of how the young man who was to become the enlightened Buddha stepped onto the spiritual path. He did so because he wanted to help alleviate suffering. He wanted to find a way to transform pain into peace and wisdom. He didn't think just about himself, but felt instinctively compelled to seek universal deliverance.

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