The Sick Man (VIII/?)

Posted on March 23, 2005 by Jenna

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It is 550 years before the common era. Siddhartha speaks to his father Suddhodana.

I know my destiny
I will become a sage king
And turn the wheel of the world.

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

It dawned to me
It opened to me
Like a flower

They hide it from me,
Me, their Prince,
Because they are ashamed.

Suddhodana answers, uncomfortably, Such a strange thought, Siddhartha.

Siddhartha says:

It is a poor man
Who judges
Between two material things.

It is a simple man
Who is lost in differences
And says, ‘this thing is bad.’

To judge a thing
Is to judge its viewer.
To love a thing
Is to know it well.
Inside each man
Is a shining dharma
And everything’s subservient to that truth.

They do not know this.
They are ashamed.
They hide from me the secret of this world.

You, Suddhodana.
You think that if I saw your heart
It would shake me
It would shatter me
It would break my confidence in the King.

Such secret doubts!
Such bitter harvests!
Yet it is not so.
From the day we met, father,
I have seen you,
And you are good.

He thinks that if I saw his heart
It would shake me
It would shatter me
My knees would crumble
And I would fall
From witnessing that darkness
And that rage
Yet it is not so.
From the day I met him, father,
I have seen him,
And he is good.

She hides from me so well
That I have never seen her heart.
All-honored one!
Woman of miracles!
A thousand blessings
Fall on her from every person’s lips
And yet she hides
And only now, that Yasodhara
Has shared with me
A woman’s inner heart
Do I begin—
Even begin! Father—
To understand.

Queen Maya
Illusion, desire, lady of the world,
Presents herself to me in every sunrise
She is the shimmering silver rain
And the burnished sun
She hides from me
She thinks I do not know
That she is also rot
And defecation
And dust
And mud
And grime
And shadows in the dark
I have seen her,
And she is good.

So let me go among them, father,
Among the people,
Let them see me not as Siddhartha
But as another man
And let them show me their true face,
And let me go among them
And I will learn
The name
Of the thing that lurks beyond them.

Suddhodana hesitates. Then he says:

Such regard as this
Discomfits them, son.
They do not want
Such compassion.
They want, son,
Your love for small things,
Their little things,
The beauty of their hair,
The work they do,
Their accent,
Their deceptive words.

Nor shall you see
Their true faces
Should you walk among them
As just another man.
It is rarer yet
That they should show
Their truths
To one below a Prince.

Siddhartha, you have hurt me,
To love me for what you see
Instead of what I seek to show.
And you will hurt them,
If you know them so.
Don’t go.

Siddhartha looks down. He answers:

If I cannot set aside my crown,
Then I am but its cushion, father.

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 Siddhartha disguises himself as an ordinary householder. He travels out among the people with his servant Channa. He watches them in their lives. He sees the bakers bake. He sees the jewelers ply their trade. He sees the men and women walk along the streets. Something lifts in him, some burden, then, and it seems for a time that all will still be well.

Then he turns, and there is a man on the ground, and that man is sick. The man is whispering:

It rises through me like a wave,
Shuddering, gasping, hurting, shaking;
Something terrible,
Something powerful.

It fills my thoughts like a snake fills a jar,
Shuddering, gasping, hurting, shaking,
Something terrible,
Something powerful.

Lives in my muscles, dwells in my bones,
Twists in my stomach, head on the stones,
Shuddering, gasping, hurting, shaking,
Something terrible
Lives in me.

Eats at my breath,
Mottles my skin,
Something terrible
Lives in me.

Siddhartha falls to his knees. He cradles the man’s head in his lap. He runs his hands along the man’s arms, trying to soothe him, trying to bring an end to the pain.

“Channa,” Siddhartha says, hoarsely. “Why is this man— why is he— what is—”

“He is sick,” says Channa. “He is suffering. It is a thing that happens to men.—you had best stay away from him, o Prince, or the sickness will travel from him to you.”

Siddhartha looks at the man. Unsteadily, he eases the man’s head back onto the ground and rises. He backs away.

Once again a power rises in him, and the words that come from his throat are a hurricane, a tidal wave, a thunder.

Is this the fate of all of us, mother?

Then Maya is there. She meets his eyes and she does not look away.

She says:


There is a time of silence.

Maya continues:

People suffer.
It is a consequence of who we are.

The man is but a man
He wishes frailty.
Yet when it comes
He is not happy it has come.

If he would set aside the world
And leave
Then he would smile
Even now.

He does not
It is too precious
To love the world

Listen, Siddhartha.
This is the Maya-Dharma.
Love your breath.
It is a gift
Each inhalation
Each exhalation
It is joy.
That is the joy that this man bought
With his vulnerability to sickness.

Love the strength
In your limbs
Love how easily you move
It is a gift
It is joy.
This is the joy that this man bought
With his vulnerability to sickness.

Now he lays there,
In agony,
Because this is the price he paid
For loving his health
And taking joy in it.

Had we been born
To never breathe,
To move with pain in every motion,
To cough, and sweat, and fever,
To writhe, and ache, and moan,
Then we should never know the joys of health
Nor mourn the state this man is in.

This is the Maya-Dharma.
Suffering comes
When we lose the things
We have a right to.
When we give them up in folly
Or they are taken away.
Rip the folly from the world,
And break the monsters
And then
Such suffering as this will end.

Siddhartha looks at her.

I can see that you believe that, mother.

Then Maya’s face is pale and wan. “What will you do?” she asks.

Siddhartha looks down.

Seek a joy that does not lead to pain.

“Ah,” says Maya.

She turns. She walks away.

I will have to kill you, Siddhartha, she says, but the words are weak.

So he goes home.

“I am weaving,” says Yasodhara, Siddhartha’s wife, as he returns. “I made a tapestry for you, but—it’s frayed. It’s fallen apart. I can’t give it to you now.”

Siddhartha kisses away her tears.

In a distant place, staring down upon the world, Maya whispers:

And with the joy I take in you
Will I buy
The end to all my world?

If I cannot kill you, Siddhartha.
If you do not die—


This is the Maya-Dharma, Siddhartha.
This is attachment.
This is suffering.