There was in India a Sakya king, his name was Suddhodana or Pure-Rice. He loved his son Siddhattha, was anxious to see his son happy.
The palace which the king had given to the prince was resplendent with all the luxuries of India. All sorrowful sights, all misery, and all knowledge of misery were kept away from Siddhattha, for the king desired that no troubles should come nigh him; he should not know that there was evil in the world.
But as the chained elephant longs for the wilds of the jungles, so the prince was eager to see the world, and he asked his father, the king, for permission to do so.
And Suddhodana ordered a jewel-fronted chariot with four stately horses to be held ready, and commanded the roads to be adorned where his son would pass.
The houses of the city were decorated with curtains and banners, and spectators arranged themselves on either side, eagerly gazing at the heir to the throne. Thus Siddhattha rode with Channa, his charioteer, through the streets of the city, and into a country watered by rivulets and covered with pleasant trees.
There by the wayside they met an old man with bent frame, wrinkled face and sorrowful brow, and the prince asked the charioteer: “Who is this? His head is white, his eyes are bleared, and his body is withered. He can barely support himself on his staff.”
The charioteer, much embarrassed, hardly dared speak the truth. He said: “These are the symptoms of old age. This same man was once a suckling child, and as a youth full of sportive life; but now, as years have passed away, his beauty is gone and the strength of his life is wasted.”
Siddhattha was greatly affected by the words of the charioteer, and he sighed because of the pain of old age. “What joy or pleasure can men take,” he thought to himself, “when they know they must soon wither and pine away!”
And lo! while they were passing on, a sick man appeared on the way-side, gasping for breath, his body disfigured, convulsed and groaning with pain.
The prince asked his charioteer: “What kind of man is this?” And the charioteer replied and said: “This man is sick. The four elements of his body are confused and out of order. We are all subject to such conditions: the poor and the rich, the ignorant and the wise, all creatures that have bodies, are liable to the same calamity.”
And Siddhattha was still more moved. All pleasures appeared stale to him, and he loathed the joys of life.
The charioteer sped the horses on to escape the dreary sight, when suddenly they were stopped in their fiery course.
Four persons passed by, carrying a corpse; and the prince, shuddering at the sight of a lifeless body, asked the charioteer: “What is this they carry? There are streamers and flower garlands; but the men that follow are overwhelmed with grief!”
The charioteer replied: “This is a dead man: his body is stark; his life is gone; his thoughts are still; his family and the friends who loved him now carry the corpse to the grave.”
And the prince was full of awe and terror: “Is this the only dead man,” he asked, “or does the world contain other instances?”
With a heavy heart the charioteer replied: “All over the world it is the same. He who begins life must end it. There is no escape from death.”
With bated breath and stammering accents the prince exclaimed: “O worldly men! How fatal is your delusion! Inevitably your body will crumble to dust, yet carelessly, unheedingly, ye live on.”
The charioteer observing the deep impression these sad sights had made on the prince, turned his horses and drove back to the city.
When they passed by the palaces of the nobility, Kisā Gotamī, a young princess and niece of the king, saw Siddhattha in his manliness and beauty, and, observing the thoughtfulness of his countenance, said: “Happy the father that begot thee, happy the mother that nursed thee, happy the wife that calls husband this lord so glorious.”
The prince hearing this greeting, said: “Happy are they that have found deliverance. Longing for peace of mind, I shall seek the bliss of Nirvāna.”
Then asked Kisā Gotamī: “How is Nirvāna attained?” The prince paused, and to him whose mind was estranged from wrong the answer came: “When the fire of lust is gone out, then Nirvāna is gained; when the fires of hatred and delusion are gone out, then Nirvāna is gained; when the troubles of mind, arising from blind credulity, and all other evils have ceased, then Nirvāna is gained!” Siddhattha handed her his precious pearl necklace as a reward for the instruction she had given him, and having returned home looked with disdain upon the treasures of his palace.
His wife welcomed him and entreated him to tell her the cause of his grief. He said: “I see everywhere the impression of change; therefore, my heart is heavy. Men grow old, sicken, and die. That is enough to take away the zest of life.”
The king, his father, hearing that the prince had become estranged from pleasure, was greatly overcome with sorrow and like a sword it pierced his heart.
—- THE GOSPEL OF BUDDHA, BY PAUL CARUS