A Family Allegory

As Jack Kerouac tells it in *Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha, Gautama Shakyamuni went forth from a life of luxury to discover the cause and cessation of suffering, attaining enlightenment and becoming the Buddha, one of the most respected and influential figures in human history, and subsequently returned to his father’s palace:*

Followed by his Men of Saintship, yet advancing with the grave mysterious loneliness of the elephant, he came within several miles of Kapilavastu where the sumptuous palace of his youth still stood, as unreal now, in his enlightened mirror-like reflection, as an indicated castle in a child’s tale told solely to make children believe in its existence. The King heard of his arrival and came at once, eagerly concerned.

On seeing him he uttered these mournful words: “Thus, now I see my son, his well known features as of old; but how estranged his heart! There are no grateful outflowings of soul; cold and vacant there he sits.”

There was a dull crack. The plane bounced as though it had gone over a speed bump a little too quickly, and then it started to descend. The oxygen masks dropped down from their overhead compartments, and one of the flight attendants instructed the passengers to place the nearest mask over their mouth and nose, reminding those with children or others needing assistance to put their own mask on first and then to help others. His mother, seated between him and his brother, had been through this as a child. Then her father had efficiently put a mask over his own face and, with the same lack of ceremony and without any attempt to soothe or comfort, put another over her face. She was frightened, and the mask was uncomfortable. It dug into the bridge of her nose and the sides of her chin. She resented it, but her father wouldn’t let her move it. She survived to repeat the experience as a parent. Perhaps she was rebelling because of that resentment, but whatever the reason, she now put the mask on her head like a child’s party hat and told him and his brother to do the same, allowing them to do it for themselves. When she became short of breath, she would put the mask over her mouth and nose for a moment and then replace it on the top of her head. Watching her do that, he figured out that he should do the same, but his brother didn’t.

Eventually, he realized that he was more comfortable if he just left the mask over his mouth and nose. His mother noticed and commented that he was “just like Them.” He was seated on the aisle, and looked around to see that, yes, everyone else was wearing the mask over their mouths and noses, and though anxious and frightened, They looked much better off than his brother. His brother, fading in his corner against the window from the lack of oxygen, couldn’t see what anyone else was doing. His mother was doing better than his brother, but she seemed to be moving more slowly and taking longer between breaths from the mask that she occasionally remembered to pull down from the top of her head. He looked around the cabin again, saw how much better off everyone else was, and thought, “This is absurd.”

He pointed to his brother and asked his mother to help him to put on his mask correctly. She sleepily waved him away and asked who he thought he was to tell anyone what the correct way to wear the mask was. He tried to reach across her to help his brother with his mask, but she pushed him away. Animated by the effort, she pulled her mask over her mouth and nose, took a deep breath, and scolded him.

“Stop trying to control your brother. Respect his decision to wear his mask that way.”

“But look at everyone else. Look at us. The masks worn correctly are giving us the oxygen we all need. There isn’t enough oxygen in here without the mask.”

“Why are you so sure that you know the correct way to wear the mask? There is more to life than cold facts and logic. There is deeper wisdom; warm outflowings of soul. I once read of a man in a similar situation who wore the mask over his forehead and saw God.”

“Look at him. He’s turning blue. He’s going to die.”

“Are you sure that isn’t your own fear of death speaking? Your ideas about what your brother should and shouldn’t do are just projections of your own emotions.”

Denied both logical argument and emotional appeals, he had no idea how to proceed. But just then, the plane leveled off and began to climb, and the cabin pressure returned. It took his mother some minutes to return to full lucidity, but his brother never did. He suffered permanent brain damage from his partial asphyxia, though his mother refuted both the diagnosis and its cause until the day she died.

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