Part 5 The Three Encounters

Prince Siddhartha lived happily with his wife, the princess. And the king, whose love for his son now verged on adoration, took infinite care to spare him the sight of anything that might distress him. He built three magnificent palaces for him: one for the winter, one for the summer, and the third for the rainy season; and these he was forbidden ever to leave, to wander over the broad face of the earth.
Then beautiful Gopa bore the prince a son, and he was given the name of Rahula. King Suddhodana was happy to see his family prosper, and he was as proud of the birth of his grandson as he had been of the birth of his son. He continued in the path of virtue, he lived almost like a hermit, and his actions were saintly; yet he kept urging on his beloved son to new pleasures, so great was his fear to see him leave the palace and the city and seek the austere refuge of the holy forests.

One day, some one spoke in the presence of the prince and told how the grass in the woods had become a tender green and the birds in the trees were singing of the spring, and how, in the ponds, the great lotuses were unfolding. Nature had broken the chains that winter had forged, and, around the city, those gardens so dear to young maidens were now gaily carpeted with flowers. Then, like an elephant too long confined in his stable, the prince had an irresistible desire to leave the palace. The king learned of his son’s desire, and he knew no way to oppose it. “But,” he thought, “Siddhartha must see nothing that will trouble the serenity of his soul; he must never suspect the evil there is in the world. I shall order the road cleared of beggars, of those who are sick and infirm and of all who suffer.” The city was decorated with garlands and streamers; a magnificent chariot was prepared, and the cripples, the aged and the beggars were ordered off the streets where the prince would pass.

The prince’s chariot was made of gold. It was drawn by four horses caparisoned in gold, and the charioteer held gold reins in his hands. Only the rich, the young and the beautiful were allowed on the streets he drove through, and they stopped to watch him as he went by. Some praised him for the kindness of his glance; others extolled his dignified bearing; still others exalted the beauty of his features; while many glorified his exuberant strength. And they all bowed before him, like banners dipped before the statue of some God. But the Gods were jealous of the celestial felicity enjoyed by this city of the earth. They made an old man, and, in order to trouble Siddhartha’s mind,they set him down on the road the prince was travelling. The man was leaning on a staff; he was worn out and decrepit. His veins stood out on his body, his teeth chattered, and his skin was a maze of black wrinkles. A few dirty grey hairs hung from his scalp; his eyelids had no lashes and were red-rimmed; his head and limbs were palsied.

The prince saw this being, so different from the men around him. He gazed at him with sorrowful eyes, and he asked the charioteer: “What is this man with grey hair and body so bent? He clings to his staff with scrawny hands, his eyes are dull and his limbs falter. Is he a monster? Has nature made him thus, or is it chance?” The charioteer should not have answered, but the Gods confused his mind, and without understanding his mistake he said: “That which mars beauty, which ruins vigor, which causes sorrow and kills pleasure, that which weakens the memory and destroys the senses is old age. It has seized this man and broken him. He, too, was once a child, nursing at his mother’s breast; he, too, once crawled upon the floor; he grew, he was young, he had strength and beauty; then he reached the twilight of his years, and now you see him, the ruin that is old age.” The prince was deeply moved. He asked:”Will that be my fate, also?”

The charioteer replied: “My lord, youth will also leave you some day; to you, too, will come troublesome old age. Time saps our strength and steals our beauty.” The prince shuddered like a bull at the sound of thunder. He uttered a deep sigh and shook his head. His eyes wandered from the wretched man to the happy crowds, and he spoke these solemn words: “So old age destroys memory and beauty and strength in man, and yet the world is not frantic with terror! Turn your horses around, O charioteer; let us return to our homes. How can I delight in gardens and flowers when my eyes can only see old age, when my mind can only think of old age?” The prince returned to his palace, but nowhere could he find peace. He wandered through the halls, murmuring, “Old age, oh, old age!” and in his heart there was no longer any joy.

He decided, nevertheless, to ride once more through the city. But the Gods made a man afflicted with a loathsome disease, and they set him down on the road Siddhartha had taken. Siddhartha saw the sick man; he stared at him, and he asked the charioteer: “What is this man with a swollen paunch? His emaciated arms hang limp, he is deathly pale and pitiful cries escape from his lips. He gasps for breath; see, he staggers and jostles the bystanders; he is falling. . . . Charioteer, charioteer, what is this man?” The charioteer answered: “My lord, this man knows the torment of sickness, for he has the king’s evil. He is weakness itself; yet he, too, was once healthy and strong!” The prince looked at the man with pity, and he asked again: “Is this affliction peculiar to this man, or are all creatures threatened with sickness?” The charioteer answered: “We, too, may be visited with a similar affliction, O prince. Sickness weighs heavily upon the world.”

When he heard this painful truth, the prince began to tremble like a moonbeam reflected in the waves of the sea, and he uttered these words of bitterness and pity: “Men see suffering and sickness, yet they never lose their self-confidence! Oh, how great must be their knowledge! They are constantly threatened with sickness, and they can still laugh and be merry! Turn your horses around, charioteer; our pleasure trip is ended; let us return to the palace. I have learned to fear sickness. My soul shuns pleasure and seems to close up like a flower deprived of light.” King Suddhodana noticed his son’s sombre mood. He asked why the prince no longer went out driving, and the charioteer told him what had happened. The king grieved; he already saw himself forsaken by the child he adored. He lost his usual composure and flew into a rage at the man whose duty it was to see that the streets were clear; he punished him, but so strong was his habit of being indulgent that the punishment was light. And the man was astonished at being thus upbraided, for he had seen neither the old man nor the sick man.

The king was more anxious now than ever before to keep his son from leaving the palace. He provided him with rare pleasures, but nothing, it seemed, could arouse Siddhartha. And the king thought, “I shall let him go out once more! Perhaps he will recover the joy he has lost.” He gave strict orders to have all cripples and all who were ill or aged driven out of the city. He even changed the prince’s charioteer, and he felt certain that this time there would be nothing to trouble Siddhartha’s soul. But the jealous Gods made a corpse. Four men carried it, and others followed behind, weeping. And the corpse, as well as the men who carried it and the men who were weeping, was visible only to the prince and to the charioteer. And the king’s son asked: “What is he that is being carried by four men, followed by those others, wearing dark clothes and weeping?”

The charioteer should have held his peace, but it was the will of the Gods that he reply: “My lord, he has neither intelligence nor feeling nor breath; he sleeps, without consciousness, like grass or a piece of wood; pleasure and suffering are meaningless to him now, and friend and enemy alike have deserted him.” The prince was troubled. He said, “Is this a condition peculiar to this man, or does this same end await all creatures?” And the charioteer answered: “This same end awaits all creatures. Whether of humble or of noble birth, to every being who lives in this world, death comes inevitably.” Then Prince Siddhartha knew what death was. In spite of his fortitude, he shuddered. He had to lean against the chariot, and his words were full of distress: “So to this does destiny lead all creatures! And yet, without fear in his heart, man amuses himself in a thousand different ways! Death is about, and he takes to the world’s highroads with a song on his lips! Oh, I begin to think that man’s soul has become hardened! Turn your horses around, charioteer; this is no time to wander through the flower-gardens. How can a sensible man, a man who knows what death is, seek pleasure in the hour of anguish?”

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, is the reproduction of an early 15th century Japanese scroll depicting Prince Siddhartha’s encounter with the Four Sufferings, associated with Birth, Old Age, Sickness, and Death. The hanging scroll was used as a wall panel and dates back to the Muromachi Period (1392–1573). It has been preserved by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA and shows the prince’s excursions from his palace. According to most Buddhist scriptures, Siddhartha met an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and finally an ascetic. However, the meeting with the ascetic was replaced by a birth scene. This might be based on the Lotus Sutra. Andre Ferdinand Herold’s version, based on the Lalitavistara Sutra speaks of Three Encounters (old man, sick man and corpse).