The Three Woes

The Three Woes

In The Three Woes we experience the very essence, the root of Buddhism, supposedly the catalyst for the Buddha’s quest for Nirvana as the story suggests. Previously insulated from the suffering of real life, after this day, Siddartha is said to have sat down under the Bhodi Tree for a very long time until he had gained enlightenment. This is the source of all Buddhist Meditation and the first of many Buddhism by Numbers stories. If you go on to seek more information about Buddhism, then you’ll find a lot of numbered lists like this: the 3 woes, the 8 fold path, the 4 noble truths etc etc.

At first it might seem futile to sit under a tree, meditating in order to overcome these 3 woes. To our minds looking through the lens of western modernity, it seems daft to think you could sit under a tree and somehow overcome what is after all, inevitable. Many of us will get sick, most of us get old and all of us die.

So what’s the point of this, it’s insurmountable surely?

From my own experience I can tell you this:

For many years, I wanted to kill myself from time to time. First when I was 21 and felt lonely, I couldn’t see a way forward in life and I had a big depressive episode that troubled me greatly, scared me even. I actually sat down and thought seriously about ending it all. That term, it all, is at the very heart of this, so bear that in mind.

I got over that spell, and, still alive I set about the rest of my life, sometimes happy enough, but a lot of times completely out of it with doubt, worry, loneliness etc.

Further suicidal episodes occurred, and with each one I got closer and closer to actually doing it. In my late 40’s by this time, I happened upon a very small ad in my local newspaper  that said something like Learn Meditation at Local Buddhist Group.

Well out of my comfort zone I went along and continued to go long for 5 years to a meditation session one night each week. I met a lot of people who either wanted to kill themselves or had actually tried to and failed, along with many others who all had issues. I soon realised that everyone has issues.

Our group is now disbanded, I don’t want to kill myself anymore and I’m content with my life. If you feel like killing yourself, please seek help and learn to meditate.

Of course I learned to meditate. We mostly used a simple mindfulness of breathing technique. Simply put this means that you focus your attention on the mechanism of breathing. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to the breathing.

There are some deep lessons you subconsciously learn from doing this:

  • First you learn to focus your attention on just one thing, the breath.
  • Then, as time passes, if you’re listening, you learn that you can do this all of the time, not just with the breath, and not just when you’re on a meditation cushion. Bring your attention to just one thing at a time and give it your all.
  • After that, you realise that the times you’ve been most content in the past, are the times when you’ve happened upon this trick without realising it.
  • Further on I realised that many of my doubts were unfounded and rooted in trying to conform to accepted societal norms. Be yourself, but not your “self”
  • Finally, you learn that there is no self, it’s an illusion you create. When you learn to drop your ego, there’s nothing to live or die for and nothing to live or die…just be.

I know this sounds airy fairy, but language is our worst enemy in much of this. The terms we use reinforce the myth of the self. It’s a human trait, linked to language and it is exploited by the capitalist, consumerist society we live in. If you feel bad, you’ll buy more stuff. And you’ll feel bad if you believe that you can improve your “self”. Accepting that you are already as perfect as you’ll ever need to be is the key to letting go of ego.

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace”; Imagine, John Lennon

Additionally, language and religion gives us ideas like coming into and leaving the world. To use a coarse, Scottish term, this is pish. Every atom and sub atomic particle of your body has been here, in the world, forever as we think of it. You were born from the world, not into it and when you die, you ain’t going anywhere, just staying here and your component atoms will become parts of millions of different organisms. I reckon that this is where the idea of reincarnation comes from.

When you see and accept this, there is no it all to end anymore, so stick with it!

I could write a million words about my experience with this, but then I’d just be writing about me me, me…it’s all about ME!!!  🙂 Enjoy the tale of The Three Woes.


So here we are at The Three Woes, purportedly from ancient texts known as the Gospel of Buddha:

The Three Woes

“THE palace which the king had given to the prince was resplendent with all the luxuries of India; for the king was anxious to see his son happy. All sorrowful sights, all misery, and all knowledge of misery were kept away from Siddhattha, for the king desired that no troubles should come nigh him; he should not know that there was evil in the world.

But as the chained elephant longs for the wilds of the jungles, so the prince was eager to see the world, and he asked his father, the king, for permission to do so. And Suddhodana ordered a jewel-fronted chariot with four stately horses to be held ready, and commanded the roads to be adorned where his son would pass.

The houses of the city were decorated with curtains and banners, and spectators arranged themselves on either side, eagerly gazing at the heir to the throne. Thus Siddhattha rode with Channa, his charioteer, through the streets of the city, and into a country watered by rivulets and covered with pleasant trees.

There by the wayside they met an old man with bent frame, wrinkled face and sorrowful brow, and the prince asked the charioteer: “Who is this? His head is white, his eyes are bleared, and his body is withered. He can barely support himself on his staff.”

The charioteer, much embarrassed, hardly dared speak the truth. He said: “These are the symptoms of old age. This same man was once a suckling child, and as a youth full of sportive life; but now, as years have passed away, his beauty is gone and the strength of his life is wasted.”

Siddhattha was greatly affected by the words of the charioteer, and he sighed because of the pain of old age. “What joy or pleasure can men take,” he thought to himself, when they know they must soon wither and pine away!”

And lo! while they were passing on, a sick man appeared on the way-side, gasping for breath, his body disfigured, convulsed and groaning with pain. The prince asked his charioteer: “What kind of man is this?” And the charioteer replied and said: “This man is sick. The four elements of his body are confused and out of order. We are all subject to such conditions: the poor and the rich, the ignorant and the wise, all creatures that have bodies are liable to the same calamity.”

And Siddhattha was still more moved. All pleasures appeared stale to him, and he loathed the joys of life.

The charioteer sped the horses on to escape the dreary sight, when suddenly they were stopped in their fiery course. Four persons passed by, carrying a corpse; and the prince, shuddering at the sight of a lifeless body, asked the charioteer: “What is this they carry? There are streamers and flower garlands; but the men that follow are overwhelmed with grief!”

The charioteer replied: “This is a dead man: his body is stark; his life is gone; his thoughts are still; his family and the friends who loved him now carry the corpse to the grave.” And the prince was full of awe and terror: “Is this the only dead man, he asked, or does the world contain other instances?”

With a heavy heart the charioteer replied: “All over the world it is the same. He who begins life must end it. There is no escape from death.”

With bated breath and stammering accents the prince exclaimed: “O worldly men! How fatal is your delusion! Inevitably your body will crumble to dust, yet carelessly, unheedingly, ye live on.” The charioteer observing the deep impression these sad sights had made on the prince, turned his horses and drove back to the city.

When they passed by the palace of the nobility, Kisa Gotami, a young princess and niece of the king, saw Siddhattha in his manliness and beauty, and, observing the thoughtfulness of his countenance, said: “Happy the father that begot thee, happy the mother that nursed thee, happy the wife that calls husband this lord so glorious.”

The prince hearing this greeting, said: “Happy are they that have found deliverance. Longing for peace of mind, I shall seek the bliss of Nirvana.”

Then asked Kisa Gotami: “How is Nirvana attained?” The prince paused, and to him whose mind was estranged from wrong the answer came: “When the fire of lust is gone out, then Nirvana is gained; when the fires of hatred and delusion are gone out, then Nirvana is gained; when the troubles of mind, arising from blind credulity, and all other evils have ceased, then Nirvana is gained!”

Siddhattha handed her his precious pearl necklace as a reward for the wisdom she had inspired in him, and having returned home looked with disdain upon the treasures of his palace.

His wife welcomed him and entreated him to tell her the cause of his grief. He said: “I see everywhere the impression of change; therefore, my heart is heavy. Men grow old, sicken, and die. That is enough to take away the zest of life.”

The king, his father, hearing that the prince had become estranged from pleasure, was greatly overcome with sorrow and like a sword it pierced his heart.”


Books that might help:

Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill

The Miracle of Mindfulness

Practicing the Power of Now

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