One of the more difficult parts of the Buddha’s story to reconcile with modern sensibilities is the fact that he left home, abandoning his wife and newborn son, to wander forth into the wilderness as a spiritual seeker. The interpretation of this action among the general public can be that it was a selfish act, insofar as it was oriented toward his own personal emancipation from the bonds of the human condition.

I would like to offer an alternative perspective on the matter, one suggested by Ashvaghosha’s treatment of the episode in his marvelous later Sanskrit poem, the Buddhacarita. He seems to identify the Buddha’s motivation as growing from a heightened sensitivity to the situation of others, and I think in doing so he lays out a basis upon which modern Engaged Buddhism can be solidly built. Here are two stanzas of the poem (in Olivelle’s translation, published in the Clay Sanskrit Library series, NYU Press, 2008) that set the tone:

But when a man happens to see
someone who is old, sick, or dead
And remains at ease, unperturbed,
he’s the same as a senseless man. [4.60]
For when one tree is stripped
of its flowers or fruits;
Or when it’s cut down or falls,
another tree does not grieve. [4.61]

To be sentient, suggests Ashvaghosha, is to be moved by the misfortune of others. From this point of view it could be seen as selfish of Siddhartha to remain embedded in a life of luxury, and an act of heroism for him to sacrifice that comfort to wander forth seeking a cure to suffering that could then be shared with all. The critical shift from narcissism to altruism comes from regarding the prince as not so much terrified of his own impending doom as responding sympathetically to the suffering he saw others encountering.

In contemporary dialogue the First Noble Truth—the truth of suffering—is usually interpreted to mean that each of us individually must experience the disappointment of not getting what we want or of having to contend with what we don’t want. Suffering also refers to the existential bummer of having to endure old age, illness, and death, but again the emphasis is on how this impinges on our own personal happiness. But I think dukkha has always referred at least equally (and possibly even mostly) to the suffering our actions inflict upon others.

When a resource I consume runs out and I am left wanting more, there is indeed some moment of personal psychological disappointment before I successfully grasp for another helping. But there is also a price being paid somewhere—unseen by me—by someone struggling to provide that resource, and he or she may not be doing so freely, safely, or fairly. And when I turn away from reports of others in pain or need, because paying attention to the details of their situation is a source of unpleasant feelings for me, there is a moment of being uncomfortable before I am able to fasten my mind upon something more pleasant. But the suffering of the other remains, and likely deepens from my inattention.

The cause of suffering is desire, manifesting in its two opposite forms of greed and hatred. Each of these are mental states that flash briefly, though repeatedly, through the mind as one makes decisions and then acts on those decisions. The actions rooted in greed and hatred then reverberate out through a vast network of cause and effect, and I think the Noble Truth of suffering is broad enough to include the harm these deeds can do to others.

The prince Siddhartha awoke to the realization that he was living in a bubble, and possibly also to the fact that the bubble was being carried on the back of other living creatures who were suffering as a result. The spark for this awakening was empathy toward others, for example as he watched a plowman at work:

Clumps of grass dug up by the plow littered the earth,
Covered with tiny dead creatures, insects and worms;
As he beheld the earth with all these strewn about,
He grieved greatly, as if a kinsman had been killed. [5.5]
Seeing the men plowing the fields, their bodies discolored
By the wind, the dust, the scorching rays of the sun,
Oxen wearied by the toil of pulling the plows,
Great compassion overwhelmed that great noble man. [5.6]

What made him unique was his inability to acquiesce to his own personal comfort when surrounded by others who were suffering. As the prince says to a friend trying to talk him into remaining in the palace:

O how steady and strong your mind must be
that you see substance in fleeting pleasures,
That, seeing these creatures on the path of death,
you are attached to sensual pleasures
in the midst of the most frightful dangers. [4.97]
I, however, am timid, much perturbed,
as I think of the dangers
of old age, sickness, and death;
I find no peace or content, much less joy,
seeing the world with fire as if ablaze. [4.98]

Dukkha does not only mean that we feel unhappy some of the time. It also means that many of the things we do cause other people to suffer. When actions (or inactions) are tainted with various shades of greed, hatred, and delusion, they cause real harm. In a thoroughly interdependent world, one’s own happiness can not be built successfully upon the suffering of others. This is the realization that turned the prince away from his own gratification to face in a new direction, and it may well be the insight that launches the new Buddhism in an untraditionally outward trajectory.

From the beginning Buddhists have had concern for the welfare of others, a concern that accelerated with the later impulse of grounding all practice in the vow to benefit all sentient beings. Yet this seemed to have more to do with purifying the front end of action, its motivation or intention, rather than engaging directly with the back end of action, the harm already inflicted upon the world by the three toxins of greed, hatred, and delusion. In our time Buddhists are increasingly interested in alleviating suffering more directly, moving toward a sustained practice of engaged activity in service to others.

It is entirely appropriate to examine in our own moment-to-moment experience how craving and aversion manifest in personal psychological suffering. It is also important to follow that strand out through the interdependent karmic relationships in which each such moment is entangled, to see how our desire is affecting everyone and everything around us. We thereby practice the full range of the Second Noble Truth. And to practice both aspects of the Third Noble Truth, we must work to extinguish not only the internal source of the craving in our own minds, but also the external consequences of that craving in the world we have created.