England’s Prince William spent a cold winter’s night on the streets of central London last week. Along with others from the homelessness charity Centrepoint (which William is a patron and spokesperson of), the dashing young heir-to-the-throne slept in an old sleeping bag laid out on the city street, and used cardboard boxes asshelter. Temperatures fell to below-freezing lows, and the Prince (and the others in his group) faced dangers ranging from drug dealers and pimps to zooming cars and street cleaners.
Here’s a short news report from CBS.com’s coverage:
Prince William commented that the experience was eye-opening for him: “I cannot, after one night, even begin to imagine what it must be liketo sleep rough on London’s streets night after night.”
While the more cynical among us might be tempted to label this move a publicity stunt, I commend Prince William for it. In fact, his gesture of leaving the comforts of Buckingham Palace to understand the sufferings of the homeless in his city brings to mind another Prince: Gautama Siddhartha, who later came to be known as the Buddha.
In addition to the sacred position he holds in Buddhist traditions, Buddha is celebrated within Hinduism and revered by many Hindus as an avatar, or incarnation of the Divine.
According to one popular narrative, Siddhartha was born to royal parentage, and at his birth an astrologer was summoned. The soothsayer predicted that the boy would either grow up to be a great king or renounce the material world altogether. Fearing the loss of their beloved son and heir, the King and Queen conceived of a plan to keep the young prince from coming into contact with the cold hard realities of the material world. They had tall walls constructed all around the palace’s perimeters, and resolved to keep their son within the walls throughout his life.
Siddhartha was raised with all the comforts and pleasures one could imagine. Under his parents’ watchful eyes and by their orchestration, he experienced no discomfort and did not so much as hear of problems or anxiety. He grew into a young man knowing nothing but the plush interiors of the palace.
One day, however, he became restless. He could sense a world outside of his walled utopia and wanted to experience it. Confiding in his most trusted assistant, he begged to be taken out for the afternoon. Reluctantly, the assistant sneaked the Prince out the palace walls.
Everything in the town outside the palace walls seemed to pulsate with a strange, new energy. Soon, Siddhartha found himself face-to-face with a most unusual sight. He saw a man, his skin slack and wrinkled, a few wisps of white hair sprouting from his head, his frame bent and gnarled.
“What is this?” the Prince asked.
“This is old age,” the old man said slowly, his voice barely a whisper, “and all must face it.”
The Prince, shaken and disturbed, walked on. Within a few minutes, he found a group huddled around the doorway to a small hut. Peeking inside, he saw a boy wrapped in tattered sheets lying on a bed. Pale and limp, the boy coughed weakly. Those surrounding the boy looked on with helpless, pained looks on their faces. An older couple standing closest to him quietly cried.
“And what is this?” the Prince exclaimed.
One of the onlookers put an arm on Siddhartha’s shoulder. “This is disease, young man, and all must face it.”
Siddhartha couldn’t believe what he was hearing. But before he could ask anything more, the boy coughed violently, let out a sigh, and went still. The boy’s family members began to weep, and several began to beat their chests in mourning.
“But what is this, then?” the Prince asked his assistant.
“Your highness, this is death,” the assistant, his voice choked with emotion, replied, “and all must face it.”
Siddhartha could hardly walk. His limbs were burning and his mouth was dry. What he had just heard exploded in his mind. He had wandered only a few yards away, when he heard a most peculiar sound. He followed the sound to a nearby hut, and found another crowd huddled within. Again he saw a bed, but now a young lady lay in it, exhausted but cradling a tiny infant in her arms. The sound had been the piercing cries of the baby. Siddhartha could see that among those present in the hut was a sadhu, a holy man. He walked up to him.
“Oh sage,” the Prince said respectfully, “what is this?”
The holy man smiled gently. “This is birth, my child. All have gone through it, and all must face it. For what is born is certain is die. And what dies is certain to take birth again. Such is the cycle of samsara, life in the material world.”
Departing, Siddhartha deeply considered this. Suddenly, a deep inspiration arose in his heart. With his assistant, he quickly returned to the home of the boy who had just died. He placed his costly shawl over the boy’s body, and gave the family members his jewels. In exchange, he asked them only for the sheet that had been covering the boy.
With tears in his eyes, Siddhartha wrapped the tattered cloth around his body and spoke to his assistant:
“Thank you for giving me the gift of this day. I had been living a life of illusion, sheltered from the reality of this world. I had foolishly believed that I knew what wealth was, but now I understand that whether one is a prince or a pauper, one must face birth, old age, disease, and death. If they cannot save one from these, then what value do the jewels and gold coins and silks of the palace have? Real wealth must lie beyond birth, old age, disease, and death. That treasure can only be found by transcending this material world. Please tell my parents that I thank them for the love and care they have given me, but I can no longer stay in the palace. I must seek out that treasure which my heart yearns for.”
And with that, the Prince walked off.
The story may strike us as a bit extreme, but it does serve as a reminder. How often do we isolate ourselves in our own palaces, however ornate or modest they may be? We erect our own walls to keep the cold realities of material life out.
The irony is that in playing the role of princes, we often become the realpaupers — the impoverished of spirit, of empathy, of substance.
And perhaps the story of Siddhartha (and of William) teaches us something else: when we do make the effort to step outside of ourselves and experience the suffering of others — as Prince William did last week — we break down our palace walls just a little bit. We are humbled. We are a tiny step closer to the real treasure that awaits us beyond this material world.