The Old Man (VII/?)

Posted on March 18, 2005 by Jenna

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Maya is a demon. She is illusion. She is desire. She is the material world. Yet illusion is not evil, and desire is not always wrong, and from her compassion she has brought Siddhartha into the world—a man who could be a wheel-turning sage king, destined to conquer the world and banish evil into the outer darkness, or a Buddha.

If Siddhartha remains innocent, then he will become a king. If he learns the nature of suffering, he shall certainly become a Buddha, scourging from the world everything that Maya loves.

He was innocent for many years. But now his wife Yasodhara has told him something of the ways of pain, and Maya’s plans are doomed to go awry.

It is 554 years before the common era. Siddhartha speaks to his father King Suddhodana.

I am loved by my father,
I am loved by my mother,
And I love these things in turn.

I am loved by the people,
I am loved by the world,
And I love these things in turn.

I know in my heart
That I need nothing save this
That love shall redeem this world.

Yet I cannot shake
The strange suspicion
That there is something wrong.

Something intangible.
I have no words for it.
Some … absence of happiness.

Oh, father, are you happy?
Is Prajapati happy?
Can I trust in your joy?

Oh, father, are the people happy?
Is the world happy?
Can I trust in these things’ joy?//

“Of course,” says Suddhodana, uncomfortably.

Yet Siddhartha does not relax. He speaks:

//I know that you speak truth, father,
I know that you are good, father,
Yet something still is wrong.

I know that all is well, father.
I know that I am good, father.
Yet something still is wrong.

May I go out, among the people,
May I seek out, among the people,
An answer to this question of the world?//

Suddhodana says:

I cannot keep you here, a prisoner,
Though I fear what you might learn.
You may go out among the people, son.

So Suddhodana sends forth messengers and declares a holiday. His soldiers sweep the old men, the sick men, the dying, the dead, and the suffering from the city. Some are vicious. Some are brutal. They seize the unsightly and drag them away or drive them from the city with great blows. Other soldiers are kind, and distribute the bounty of Suddhodana. They press coins and treasures into beggars’ hands. They carry the weak and sick and hungry in their own two arms to places of beauty and leisure. In the cleaning of the city, each of Suddhodana’s soldiers shows their heart—but this is not a thing that Siddhartha will see. He will walk the streets with his servant Channa, and see only a city where there is no suffering.

He walks among the people.

Yet there is one whom Suddhodana missed.

As Siddhartha passes, a door opens, and an old man walks out, mumbling:

//My eyes are weak, now;
My skin is old, now;
My bones, they hurt, now;
My hair is grey, now;
My sons are gone,
They have abandoned me.
My life is done.
It’s had its run with me.

My teeth are gone, now.
My hands, they shake, now.
Please give me food, now
Or I will die.//

Siddhartha, confused, presses a pie made from fowl and vegetables into the old man’s hand. The old man takes it and walks on, sighing,

My pride is old, now;
My fire is cold, now;
My mind is gray, now;
My sons are gone.

Siddhartha turns to Channa. “So strange that a man should be born that way,” he says.

“It is not his birth,” says Channa. “He was once as strong as you or I. But he has grown old.”

There is a tempest in Siddhartha, then.

There is a rising terror and a rising power in him, then.

He hears in his head an endless echo of the whispering of Yasodhara’s voice.

Then the words that come from Siddhartha’s throat are a shout, they are a ringing bell, they are a shaking of the world.

Is this the fate of all of us, mother?

There is a fury behind Maya’s eyes, and a fear greater than his own. But, because she is everywhere, Maya is there. She meets his eyes and she does not look away. And because she is a demon, there is something whispering in his mind that he must accept her words.

She says:

It is natural for things to change.
We age.
That is the record of that change.
To remain the same forever—
Never to lay your burdens down,
Never to cease in your desiring,
Never to change—
That is a torture beyond that given to the gods.

Siddhartha’s voice is soft:

//And yet there is something,
Something in him,
That did not joy in changing, mother.

He is a wall that is crumbling, mother.
He is a forest retreating, mother.
He is the rain at the end of the rain
And soon he will—//

Siddhartha gropes for the concept of death. He stands, still, for a very long time.

Soon he will leave the stage that is my life, mother;
Not in joy, but dressed in sorrow.

Maya answers:

//If it were so, Siddhartha,
Then it would shake the heavens.
You could not live
But by breathing it in:
Every moment;
Every day;
An air replete with suffering and ending.

If it were so, Siddhartha,
Then who could live
With such an agony?
To see our friends,
Our families,
Our foes,
As crumbling walls and passing clouds,
A world replete with suffering and ending?

If it were so!
But it is not.
To leave your stage
Is to enter another.
Those of whom you have no consciousness
Are well.

Do not think of aging, Siddhartha.
Do not think of this passage,
Do not think on things you cannot change.

You are a wheel-turning sage king,
A demon-slaying sage king.
Set this truth above all things.
Claim the kingdoms of the world.
Make each man love the life he has,
And when it falls to age,
Let him release it,
A thing that is done and past its time,
As gently as a flower drifting from one’s hand.

Do not cry that there is change.
Do not cry that walls must crumble.
Turn the wheel.
Make it so
That when an old man thinks on how
So much is past
So much is gone
He’ll bless the things he’s parted with
With fond regard
And gentle love
But say, “So much is better now.”//

“A perfect world,” says Siddhartha.

Maya teaches:

This is the Maya-Dharma.
We know only what we see
We know only what we hear
We know only what we taste
We know only what we touch
We know only what we know
We know only what we are.

Do not cry because
An old man’s better days
Have left the stage
Of the life you know.

Shine, Siddhartha.
From your heart
Bring endless virtue
And benevolence
And let it fall
Like the flowers of the spring
On all around you
To bring light
To what you see.

And if you cannot see
And what you cannot see
And if you cannot see …
Then let it pass.
And let it go.
You do not know.
The things you cannot see,
You do not know.

Do not cling to the impermanence of life.
It is impermanent.
It will betray you.//

“Ah,” says Siddhartha. “I understand the Maya-Dharma.”

He walks away.

Maya whispers,

I should kill him.
I should kill him now
While he is weak
While I can
He will destroy—
He will—
He cannot become a Buddha.
I cannot let him become a Buddha.

She turns her face to Heaven.

Why won’t I kill him?

The devas in heaven are singing, and they do not hear.

“I am weaving,” says Yasodhara, Siddhartha’s wife, as he returns home and to her arms. “I am weaving, but the threads—they break apart. Nothing stays the same.”