About twenty-five hundred years ago, in the Himalayan foothills of present-day Nepal, there lived in a great palace a king who was going to have a son. For this son the king had a particularly grand idea: he would make the child’s life perfect. The child would never know a moment of suffering—every need, every desire, would be accounted for at all times.
The king built high walls around the palace that prevented the prince from knowing the outside world. He spoiled the child, lavishing him with food and gifts, surrounding him with servants who catered to his every whim. And just as planned, the child grew up ignorant of the routine cruelties of human existence.
All of the prince’s childhood went on like this. But despite the endless luxury and opulence, the prince became kind of a pissed-off young man. Soon, every experience felt empty and valueless. The problem was that no matter what his father gave him, it never seemed enough, never meant anything.
So late one night, the prince snuck out of the palace to see what was beyond its walls. He had a servant drive him through the local village, and what he saw horrified him.
For the first time in his life, the prince saw human suffering. He saw sick people, old people, homeless people, people in pain, even people dying.
The prince returned to the palace and found himself in a sort of existential crisis. Not knowing how to process what he’d seen, he got all emo about everything and complained a lot. And, as is so typical of young men, the prince ended up blaming his father for the very things his father had tried to do for him. It was the riches, the prince thought, that had made him so miserable, that had made life seem so meaningless. He decided to run away.
But the prince was more like his father than he knew. He had grand ideas too. He wouldn’t just run away; he would give up his royalty, his family, and all of his possessions and live in the streets, sleeping in dirt like an animal. There he would starve himself, torture himself, and beg for scraps of food from strangers for the rest of his life.
The next night, the prince snuck out of the palace again, this time never to return. For years he lived as a bum, a discarded and forgotten remnant of society, the dog shit caked to the bottom of the social totem pole. And as planned, the prince suffered greatly. He suffered through disease, hunger, pain, loneliness, and decay. He confronted the brink of death itself, often limited to eating a single nut each day.
A few years went by. Then a few more. And then . . . nothing happened. The prince began to notice that this life of suffering wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. It wasn’t bringing him the insight he had desired. It wasn’t revealing any deeper mystery of the world or its ultimate purpose.
In fact, the prince came to know what the rest of us have always kind of known: that suffering totally sucks. And it’s not necessarily that meaningful either. As with being rich, there is no value in suffering when it’s done without purpose. And soon the prince came to the conclusion that his grand idea, like his father’s, was in fact a fucking terrible idea and he should probably go do something else instead.
Totally confused, the prince cleaned himself up and went and found a big tree near a river. He decided that he would sit under that tree and not get up until he came up with another grand idea.
As the legend goes, the confused prince sat under that tree for forty-nine days. We won’t delve into the biological viability of sitting in the same spot for forty-nine days, but let’s just say that in that time the prince came to a number of profound realizations.
One of those realizations was this: that life itself is a form of suffering. The rich suffer because of their riches. The poor suffer because of their poverty. People without a family suffer because they have no family. People with a family suffer because of their family. People who pursue worldly pleasures suffer because of their worldly pleasures. People who abstain from worldly pleasures suffer because of their abstention.
This isn’t to say that all suffering is equal. Some suffering is certainly more painful than other suffering. But we all must suffer nonetheless.
Years later, the prince would build his own philosophy and share it with the world, and this would be its first and central tenet: that pain and loss are inevitable and we should let go of trying to resist them. The prince would later become known as the Buddha. And in case you haven’t heard of him, he was kind of a big deal.
There is a premise that underlies a lot of our assumptions and beliefs. The premise is that happiness is algorithmic, that it can be worked for and earned and achieved as if it were getting accepted to law school or building a really complicated Lego set. If I achieve X, then I can be happy. If I look like Y, then I can be happy. If I can be with a person like Z, then I can be happy.
This premise, though, is the problem. Happiness is not a solvable equation. Dissatisfaction and unease are inherent parts of human nature and, as we’ll see, necessary components to creating consistent happiness. The Buddha argued this from a theological and philosophical perspective. I will make the same argument in this chapter, but I will make it from a biological perspective, and with pandas.