The Best Things in Life

Sermon and moment for all ages copyright (c) 2024 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation. More than the usual number of typos and errors in the text, but I didn’t have time to fix them — sorry!

Moment for All Ages: “Prince Gotama and the Four Sights”

Once upon a time, a prince named Gotama lived in a royal palace in the land of Kapilavastu, which was on the border between the countries we now call India and Nepal. Gotama’s family was very wealthy. As he grew up, the prince had everything money could buy. He had servants to take care of every need. He had the finest food. He had all the toys he could wish for.

The story is told that while Gotama was still young, a sage came to visit his parents, the King and the Queen. This sage was very wise. He looked at the young boy and said, “This child will grow up to be either a great king, or a great spiritual leader.”

Now his father wanted Gotama to become king after the father died. Therefore, the King decided that the young prince must never see anything that might raise spiritual questions in him. The King instructed everyone in the palace that Prince Gotama must never be allowed to go outside the palace grounds by himself, lest he fall into conversation with a wandering spiritual person. The King also ruled that Prince Toama must not see anyone who was ill, or disabled in any way, nor anyone who was old. The King also ruled that if someone died, the prince should hear nothing of it. Thus the King hoped to keep the prince from asking any spiritual questions.

To keep Gotama happy, the King and Queen gave him everything he could want, so that he would want to stay inside the palace grounds. And when he was old enough, they found the kindest and most beautiful young woman in all the kingdom to marry the Prince. Both the prince and his new wife were vary happy, and they became even more happy when they had their first child together. The King and Queen hoped that the prince had forgotten his wish to leave the palace on his own.

One day, when he was twenty nine years old, Gotama went out of the palace to go hunting, accompanied by his servant Channa. As they were riding along on their two horses, they came upon a man lying beside a rock, groaning in pain.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is ill,” said Channa.

“But why is he in such pain?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Chana. “It is just what happens when people are ill.” And they rode on.

When he was back at the palace, he tried to ask the wise men there about illness, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they passed a woman whose hair was white and whose skin was wrinkled, and who used a cane to walk.

“What is wrong with this woman?” asked Gotama.

“She is old,” said Channa.

“But what do you mean by ‘old’?” said Gotama.

“It is the way of life,” said Channa. “It happens to anyone who lives a long time.”

Back at the palace, Gotama tried to ask the wise men there about being old, but they would not answer his questions.

Gotama and Channa went out hunting again. As they rode along, they came across man lying as if asleep. But Gotama could not wake him.

“What is wrong with this man?” asked Gotama.

“He is dead,” said Channa. “This is the way of life, people must one day die.”

Gotama and Channa went out hunting a fourth time and saw a wandering holy person. Gotama asked Channa who he was.

“He is a wandering holy person,” said Channa. “He wanders around the world begging for his food, and seeking spiritual enlightenment.”

This was something Prince Gotama had never heard of before. That night, Gotama could not sleep. He remembered both the suffering he had seen, and the holy man seeking enlightenment. Gotama realized that he himself would one day face illness, old age, and death.

“I must leave the palace where I’m always protected,” he thought to himself. “I must find answers to my questions.”

He got up, and told Channa to saddle his horse. The he looked in at the bedroom where his wife and their child lay sleeping. If he left the palace, he worried that his his wife and son would not be safe. He didn’t want to make them go with him.

He stood looking at them, wondering what to do. Should he stay? Or should he go?

As it happens, we know what Prince Gotama did. He left his wife and child behind, went out into the wide world, and after many hardships he became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, one of the greatest spiritual leaders the world has ever known. Knowing that, what would you do? Would you stay and become a great king, or leave and become a great spiritual leader? Would you give up the chance of being enlightened to stay with your family?


The first reading is from “The Wealth of Nations,” book 4, chapter 1, by Adam Smith.

“A rich country, in the same manner as a rich man, is supposed to be a country abounding in money; and to heap up gold and silver in any country is supposed to be the readiest way to enrich it. For some time after the discovery of America, the first inquiry of the Spaniards, when they arrived upon any unknown coast, used to be, if there was any gold or silver to be found in the neighborhood. By the information which they received, they judged whether it was worth while to make a settlement there, or if the country was worth the conquering.

“Plano Carpino, a monk sent ambassador from the King of France to one of the sons of the famous Genghis Khan, says, that the Tartars used frequently to ask him, if there was plenty of sheep and oxen in the kingdom of France. Their inquiry had the same object with that of the Spaniards. They wanted to know if the country was rich enough to be worth the conquering. Among the Tartars, as among all other nations of shepherds, who are generally ignorant of tho use of money, cattle are the instruments of commerce and the measures of value. Wealth, therefore, according to them, consisted in cattle, as according to the Spaniards it consisted in gold and silver. Of the two, the Tartar notion, perhaps, was the nearest to the truth.”

The second reading was the lyrics from the song “Money (that’s What I Want),” a song written by Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy in 1959.

Sermon: “The Best Things in Life”

What are the best things in life? We like to pretend that the best things in life are free. Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy skewered that pious sentiment way back in 1959 with their song “Money (That’s What I Want).” In the song, Bradford and Gordy said they believed that “Money don’t get everything, it’s true / But what it don’t get I can’t use.”

So what are we to believe? Do we believe that the best things in life are free? Or do we believe that money is what’s really important? I’d like to think out loud about this question by presenting you with some case studies.

The very brief case study is the story of Genghis Khan’s son, as told by Adam Smith, one of the primary theorists of capitalism. Genghis Khan, as you will recall, was the leader of the Mongol Empire. His people lived on the steppes of central Asia, and periodically erupted from the steppes to invade Europe, the Middle East, and China, pillaging as they went and leaving destruction in their wake. According to Adam Smith, Genghis Khan’s son did not ask how much money — how much gold and silver — there was in France, but rather he wanted to know how many sheep or oxen. The point here is that different societies measure wealth in different ways. While the Spaniards wanted to know how much gold and silver they would get before they invaded a foreign land, whereas the Mongol Empire wanted to know how many cattle they would get, they just had different ways of measuring wealth. If Janie Bradford and Berry Gordy wanted their song to be true across cultures, I guess they should have named their song “Wealth (That’s What I Want).”

However, this still doesn’t answer the question of whether the best things is life are free, or whether wealth is all that matters. So let’s turn to the case of Prince Siddhartha Gotama, which we heard in this morning’s Moment for All Ages.

As you recall, Siddartha Gotama was raised by his parents so that he was never exposed to anything that might upset him — he was never exposed to anything that might him start asking big difficult questions about the meaning of life. In particular, his parents did not want Prince Gotama to see anyone ill, anyone old, anyone who had died, nor anyone who followed a religious vocation. This desire to protect their child from everything unpleasant and difficult backfired on them. As soon as Siddhartha Gotama saw the Four Sights — an ill person, and old person, a dead person, and a religious person — he immediately conceived an intense desire to know why there was suffering in the world. This intense spiritual yearning caused Siddhartha Gotama to want to leave the wealthy and comfortable life he had been living, safe inside the palace walls, and go outside to enter into the life of a wandering saddhu [sah-doo], that is, a spiritual seeker who has renounced worldly life in order to focus on higher matters.

I will say parenthetically that I find this to be one of the most difficult stories of any major religious tradition. In order to become a saddhu, Prince Gotama basically abandons his wife and his baby — that is what I find difficult. In most retellings of the story, Prince Gotama stands looking at his sleeping wife and child. He wants to give them one last kiss and caress. But he knows that if he does so, they would awaken, and probably convince him not to leave. So he turns away and leaves them behind without even saying goodbye. I really don’t like that part of the story.

However, this does tell us something about how Siddhartha Gotama might answer the question of whether the best things in life are free, or whether the best thing in life is money. And his is not a simple answer to the question. On the one hand, Siddhartha Gotama clearly believes that for him, the best thing is to leave money behind. The best things in life are not just free, the best things in life require the absence of money. It is only in the absence of money, thinks Siddhartha Gotama, that he will be able to find what he is seeking for. And of course that’s exactly what happens for Siddhartha Gotama — by living a life without wealth, he is able find the enlightenment that he seeks. He in fact becomes the Buddha, the Enlightened One. After his enlightenment, he turns to teaching others how to deal with suffering in this world; and according to some sources, after his enlightenment, he does reconnect with his wife and their son.

On the other hand, Siddhartha Gotama did not take his wife and their baby out into the world to lead the lives of wandering spiritual seekers. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to become a wandering saddhu was to choose to live on the street, to become what we now call an unhoused person, to sleep outdoors and beg for your food, and more than likely to go sleep cold and hungry as often as not. That is not the kind of life that anyone would choose for their baby. Siddhartha Gotama knew that if he left his wife and baby behind, they would be cared for and cherished and loved by his parents.

So here is how Siddhartha Gotama answered the question. For himself, Siddhartha Gotama believed that the best things in life are free, and he wanted to abandon all his wealth so that it could not distract him from the burning spiritual questions he had to answer. But for his child, and incidentally for his wife, Siddhartha Gotama believed that the best things in life are not free, and that what they really needed and wanted was money.

Now I’ll turn to a third and even more complex case study. This is the case study of Juanita and Wally Nelson. My spouse Carol first met Juanita and Wally Nelson in the 1990s, when they used to attend meetings of the Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association (or NOFA). They were hard to miss, for not only were they older than most of the other people at NOFA events, they were also some of the very few non-White organic farmers in those days. But Juanita and Wally Nelson’s story is far more complex than the story of an older Black couple who decided to become organic farmers.

Their story is worth telling in some detail. It will serve as my third and final case study. And I think it will further help us to answer the question of whether the best things in life are free, or not. I’m going to focus on Juanita Nelson to tell the story, because I was able to get more details of her life from her oral history interview, which you can read on the Massachusetts Department of Education website.

Juanita Morrow was born in 1923, and grew up in Cleveland. She was a student at Howard University for two years, and in 1943 while at Howard she was arrested for the first time when she and some classmates tried to get served at a segregated restaurant.She had to drop out of college after two years for financial reasons, and began working as a reporter. In 1944, while she was a reporter, she interviewed a conscientious objector named Wally Nelson. Wally was a pacifist who refused to serve in the military for moral reasons. Juanita realized that she was a pacifist too, and when Wally was released from federal prison after the Second World War was over, they became — in her words — partners. They went on to work with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), helping to end Jim Crow racial discrimination in the United States.

As committed pacifists, they gradually came to the realization that they did not want to support the military industrial complex in any way, if they could help it. And so in 1970, when Juanita was 47 and Wally was 61 years old, they started farming and living off the land. Although they were not religious themselves, as pacifists they got to know many Quakers — pacifism is one of the central religious beliefs of Quakerism — and theQuakers who were running an alternative school at the Woolman Hill Quaker center in Deerfield, Massachusetts, invited them to come live there. Which they did. Wally died there in 2002, and Juanita stayed there until she was no longer able to care for herself. She died at a friend’s home in 2015.

Even though Juanita and Wally Nelson were not religious, they remind me a great deal of Siddhartha Gotama. Like Siddhartha Gotama, they decided to renounce the world of money and wealth. Instead of money and wealth, they pursued higher values — Siddhartha Gotama pursued his quest for the truth about human suffering; Juanita and Wally Nelson pursued their truth about peacemaking and pacifism. Siddhartha Gotama lived as a wandering saddhu, which was not an easy life — there were many times when he did not get enough to eat. Juanita and Wally Nelson refused to buy anything if they could help it, and while they were able to build a comfortable house using salvaged materials, they refused to have electric power or indoor plumbing. Juanita wrote a number of pieces about what it was like to live off the land, both the inconvenience of it, and the power of it. I’d like to read to you from one of these pieces she wrote, a poem called “Outhouse Blues”:

Well, I try to grow my own food, competing with the bugs,
I even make my own soap and my own ceramic mugs.
I figure that the less I buy, the less I compromise
With Standard Oil and ITT and those other gouging guys….

Oh, but it ain’t easy, when it’s rainy and there’s mud
To put on my old bathrobe and walk out in that crud;
I look out through the open door and see a distant star
And sometimes think this simple life is taking things too far.

Juanita and Wally Nelson gave up a comfortable life — gave up wealth and money — in order to pursue the higher purpose of peacemaking. But in this poem, Juanita also acknowledges the attractions of having money. If she had money, she wouldn’t have to go out into the cold and the rain and the mud to use the outhouse. For Juanita and Wally Nelson, money and wealth may have their uses, but they can also distract you from following the highest purposes of life. So we can see that the Nelsons had much in common with Siddhartha Gotama. In a funny kind of a way, the Nelsons had something in common with Adam Smith, who concluded that the desire for wealth could lead to war; Genghis Khan’s son wanted to know how many cattle lived in France, so he could decide if that country were worth invading.

All this is very interesting, but we still don’t have a simple answer to the questions with which I began. Do we believe that the best things in life are free? Or do we believe that money is what’s really important? Siddhartha Gotama abandoned his life of wealth in the palace, because that wealth was keeping him from answering some urgent spiritual questions. But he left his wife and baby in the palace, where there was sufficient wealth to take adequate care of them. Juanita Nelson left behind a comfortable American middle class life, because the comfort that came with her relative wealth was keeping her from pursuing an urgently moral course of action. But she acknowledged the very real downsides that came with living without money.

I’m not convinced that we can ever have final answers to these questions. Yet we can reach some fairly obvious conclusions. First of all, as Siddhartha Gotama knew, poverty and life on the streets is not good for children. Children need adequate food and secure and stable homes. Secondly, money and wealth do seem to get in the way of spiritual progress. I don’t know why this is so, although perhaps it’s because wealth can cause to covetousness, and covetousness can lead to greed, and greed can end up in war and violence.

What these stories seem to be telling us is that there is a balance between having money, and not having money — and that balance is hard to find. Having too much money does seem to bring problems. Thus Siddhartha Gotama felt that the extreme wealth of his family insulated him from reality, and kept him from from making spiritual progress. Where your money comes from can also bring problems. In an extreme case, Juanita and Wally Nelson felt that all money in our society is tied in with the military industrial complex, and thus having any money kept them from making the moral and ethical path they wanted to follow. But even though money might have problems associated with it, money is good when it is used to help us to raise our children; money is good when it is used to take care of those who are weaker and more vulnerable.

More generally, perhaps money can become a good thing if it can help us turn our highest values into reality. If you can use what money you have at your disposal to support your highest moral and ethical values, then perhaps money can become a positive good. Although by doing so, you can run into other people trying to use their money to support moral and ethical values which are in conflict with yours. So for example, I support First Parish financially, in part because we’re willing to fly a rainbow flag in front of the Meetinghouse to show that we support LGBTQ+ rights; while there are those in this town (and I’ve heard from a couple of them) who are angered by the fact that we have a rainbow flag in front of the Meetinghouse. If money can promote our values in the wider world, then we run into the far larger problem of how to mediate between competing values; but that’s a topic for another sermon.

That’s my inconclusive conclusion for this sermon. I will only add that First Parish is beginning our annual fundraising campaign this week. Since I believe First Parish promotes my values in our community, I’ll be giving at least two and a half percent of my annual income to support First Parish and those values; this in addition to my other charitable giving.