Even Shakyamuni Had ‘First World Problems’
We use the phrase ‘first world problems’ to denote inconvenient things that happen to relatively affluent and comfortable people. There’s even a meme for that. We use it as a joke when something trivial makes us sad. On the one hand, it’s telling us to get over ourselves.
On the other, it’s reinforcing that our sense of relative security. After all, not everyone is lucky enough to have ‘first world problems.’ Just think of those Tibetan monks and nuns who, though being tortured for years, never lost compassion for their jailers. Now those are real problems. Think of how strong that made their practice. How in the world are we supposed to cultivate a practice like that?
But even Shakyamuni had ‘first world problems.’ He was a prince, remember. His life was as affluent and comfortable as it was possible to be for his time. Yet he was not immune to suffering.
In fact, it was precisely because of his affluence that the problem of suffering bothered him so deeply. He had been given everything a person of his society might want, yet he was not free from the dukkha of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
Many of us now living in relatively wealthy, safe countries have almost anything a person of our society might want. We live like royalty of previous ages, yet we want more. And we are not free from the dukkha of becoming and unbecoming.
I often wondered if my comfortable life was a hindrance to my practice. The suttas say the gods do not seek liberation because they do not have enough suffering to motivate them. Even with all my small struggles, I wondered, am I living in a small heave-realm on earth? Are we all?
No. Affluence is not the problem. Ego is. Wondering if we’re ‘too comfortable’ keeps our mind fixated on our ‘selves’ and reinforces ego. Attachment, aversion, and, most insidious of all, delusion is the problem. Although we have so much, we are still beset by tanha, craving. This is the problem.
Shakyamuni had a radical solution. He walked away from it all. He cut off his hair, gave up his fine robes, left his palace, and became a wandering aesthetic. He almost starved himself to death before he saw that was not the eay either.
We should not envy those who have cultivated their practices through the adversities of torture, poverty, or illness. We should respect them and pay homage to them, but recognize that the Buddha would never have prescribed that as a method of practice.
Nor should we regret that we were born into more fortunate circumstances. That is just craving of another kind. We should use those circumstances to support our practice and to help others as much as we can (those are the same thing, to my mind). Even though we have much, we can still crave for little.
Finally, we can recognize that even we silly people with our ‘first world problems’ are capable of enlightenment. Perhaps even more able than people in starving, war-torn countries who have never heard the Dharma. We can be grateful for our good fortune. We, of all people, can help others the most, if stop worrying about ourselves and practice!